Senator Eric Abetz – Estimates question about ABC interviews with Stephen Sizer and Scott Burchill

April 11, 2018

Questioned the rationale for ABC broadcast of interviews with Dr Stephen Sizer and Dr Scott Burchill.

Did Mr Rutledge, for example, challenge Dr Sizer when he said that Israel is not a democracy for Palestinians living in Israel? I note that, as a result of this, an unnamed ABC spokesman has said that Mr Rutledge ‘closely questioned’ Dr Sizer’s view. I would invite the ABC to provide a transcript of the interview to the committee so that we can ascertain these so-called challenges or close questioning, as there was nothing of the sort from what I can gather. Is it true that Dr Sizer, completely uninterrupted, advocated for a single state for Israelis and Palestinians, contrary to the two-state policy held by the coalition, Labor and the Greens?

Whole interaction with Mr Alan Sunderland (Editorial Director, ABC) during Senate Estimates (Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, Communications and the Arts Portfolio).

Senator ABETZ: Can somebody explain what was the editorial rationale behind giving Dr Sizer a platform on the ABC as his—I’ll be polite—controversial views are well known? Most would see him as not necessarily being a balanced person in this space, so why was he given airtime on Good Friday, which is such an important date in both the Jewish and the Christian calendars?

 

Mr Sunderland : I can provide you with some information on that, Senator. Let me stress that I’m not an expert on Dr Sizer. I’ll be perfectly honest: I wasn’t familiar with him or his views prior to this matter coming up. What I can tell you is that the Radio National Breakfast program on Good Friday, rather than being presented by its normal host, Fran Kelly, was given over to someone from our religion and ethics area—that is, David Rutledge, who is a very experienced academic with a background in religion. He produced a program that interviewed a range of people on religious and associated topics. Dr Sizer was not the only person interviewed, but he was one of them. I’m advised that he was interviewed as a prominent scholar in the field of Christian Zionism. I have also been advised and, having looked at the interview, I can confirm that certain aspects of the controversies that Dr Sizer’s been involved in were raised and put to him in the course of the interview, but the primary purpose of the interview was to talk about issues relating to religion.

 

Senator ABETZ: Did Mr Rutledge, for example, challenge Dr Sizer when he said that Israel is not a democracy for Palestinians living in Israel? I note that, as a result of this, an unnamed ABC spokesman has said that Mr Rutledge ‘closely questioned’ Dr Sizer’s view. I would invite the ABC to provide a transcript of the interview to the committee so that we can ascertain these so-called challenges or close questioning, as there was nothing of the sort from what I can gather. Is it true that Dr Sizer, completely uninterrupted, advocated for a single state for Israelis and Palestinians, contrary to the two-state policy held by the coalition, Labor and the Greens? And given that this is a pretty extreme view, not shared by any of Australia’s political mainstream parties, could we have expected the ABC interviewer, this great academic to whom you refer, to have actually questioned such an assertion?

 

Mr Sunderland : Let’s start at the beginning there, Senator. I think the entire interview is available online, but I don’t think as a transcript. We can certainly provide the committee with a transcript. I’m happy to do that.

 

Senator ABETZ: Thank you.

 

Mr Sunderland : You can go through the entire interview. The point I would make about that is that it was an interview about Christian Zionism; it was not an interview about the politics of the Middle East. Those issues may have come up. I know he was questioned; I know he was challenged on aspects of his views. It was specifically put to him that some people had found his views anti-Semitic, and he responded to that as part of the interview. But, as I said, it wasn’t the main thrust of the interview. It was part of our religious coverage on Good Friday on a range of religious issues, and that’s where, as I understand it, the primary focus of the interview was.

 

Senator ABETZ: Can you confirm for us that the Church of England prohibited him from speaking or writing on the Middle East and banned him from social media for at least six months? In doing so, the church referred to a post that he had put up as ‘a matter of deep sorrow and shame’. He has talked about Mossad’s role in the 9/11 coup d’etat, and 9/11 and the Holocaust as pro-Zionist public myths—he also addressed a conference that dealt with things of that matter—and yet this good Dr Rutledge said, ‘I accept that you’re not an anti-Semite.’ Look I will leave that with you. Time is moving on, regrettably. I will have a number of other questions on that matter on notice.

I now want to turn to Dr Scott Burchill. In relation to the tensions that had escalated on the border of Israel and Gaza, Dr Burchill was invited to comment, uninterrupted by either Ms Moore or the other ABC News Breakfast hosts, on this very delicate international matter. Do you consider it reasonable that a partisan voice like Dr Burchill should have been accompanied by other perspectives or even challenged by the presenters?

 

Mr Sunderland : I will take that one on notice, because I’m not aware of the precise incident to which you refer. But I would make the general point, which is relevant in this case: issues like the Middle East and the politics of the Middle East will come up on a very, very regular basis on the ABC, as they will on all broadcasters and all media outlets, and we expect balance over time. We don’t expect that on every occasion that every individual ever speaks on the issue there is complete and perfect balance. That has never been part of our editorial standards—or any reputable editorial standards. But we do expect an appropriate diversity of views and balance over time. On that basis, I will happily follow up on this one.

Link to full Hansard transcript.

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