Senator Eric Abetz – Estimates question about ABC Middle East correspondent

November 30, 2015

Questioned the appointment of Sophie McNeill as the ABC’s Middle East correspondent.

Two years earlier she declared Mr Fisk her hero and someone she admires very much, who also has an unfortunate history of pejorative and anti-Israel writings. I am just wondering what research was done into Ms McNeill’s attitudes to matters Middle East before her appointment and whether it is appropriate to allow somebody in that position to allow their emotions to get into their reporting?

Whole interaction with Mr Mark Scott (ABC Managing Director) during Senate Estimates (Environment and Communications Legislation Committee, Communications and the Arts Portfolio).

Senator ABETZ: Moving onto the next topic, I understand Ms McNeill was appointed as the ABC’s Middle East correspondent in February of this year?


Mr Scott : Yes.


Senator ABETZ: Ms McNeill has said publically that John Pilger’s Hidden Agendas was the most significant formative experience in her decision to become a political journalist. Mr Pilger has, amongst other gems, told us that:

In the meantime, the Palestinians must put up with cliches about Islamic terrorism when almost nothing is said about the dehumanising terror of Jewish and Western fundamentalism.

Two years earlier she declared Mr Fisk her hero and someone she admires very much, who also has an unfortunate history of pejorative and anti-Israel writings. I am just wondering what research was done into Ms McNeill’s attitudes to matters Middle East before her appointment and whether it is appropriate to allow somebody in that position to allow their emotions to get into their reporting?


Mr Scott : There are some other important facts that you did not accrue there from her history: that she was twice awarded Australian Young TV Journalist of the Year, prior to her appointment, that she won a Walkley Award in 2010 or her reporting from Afghanistan, that she—


Senator ABETZ: Thank you for that, but the question was whether you were aware of the matters that I have just raised. I am sure that there were other things that you were interested in, but I want to know if you were aware of these matters.


Mr Scott : When you ask about me personally, I was not involved in Ms McNeill’s appoint directly, but she was subject to a rigorous, competitive selection panel and interviewed by an experienced panel of journalists, two of whom where former correspondents, and they did discuss at length her experience as a reporter in the Middle East—she had lived in Jerusalem and Beirut, filed from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Gaza, Pakistan, and Kurdistan for SBS.


Senator ABETZ: From where people report from does not indicate, as of necessity, what bias they might have within their toolkit.


Mr Scott : We were confident she would be able to do it.


Senator ABETZ: Because on the 7:30 Report on 22 October 2015—


CHAIR: Mr Scott if you could just let the Senator finish his question.


Senator ABETZ: In the opening Leigh Sales told us—and this was before interviewing, and the ABC loves interviewing each other, Sophie McNeill—’Just hours ago, Israeli security forces shot two more Palestinians after they tried to board a school bus south of Jerusalem.’ Sounds very innocuous and what on earth would Israeli forces be doing shooting people trying to get onto a school bus? The fact that they were wearing Hamas t-shirts and had just previously tried to stab somebody was, regrettably, just not included in the story. Then, in the story we are told my Sophie McNeill about a young lady who was shot dead because she had tried to stab a security officer. We were told she was a ‘friendly, gifted student’, but she was an alleged Palestinian attacker. So she was friendly, gifted, affectionate, smart, talented and all those things are just givens, not allegedly, but that she was an attacker was dressed up an as allegation. Are you concerned at all by this style of reporting by a journalist who says she has been motivated by the writings of Mr Pilger on matters to do with Israel?


Mr Scott : There have been a barrage of complaints from some sectors about Ms McNeill, including some that were in advance of her taking up her appointment, that I thought were quite unfair. I think she is a very talented young journalist. She is a journalist who has matured significantly in her career. We thought she was ready for this posting, and I think she deserves to be judged on her work.


Senator ABETZ: Yes, and that is what I am asking you about.


Mr Scott : If you are going to judge her on her work, you need to judge her on all her work. If in fact you had been following her work, you would have seen that she has done previous stories and interviews where she has absolutely reported from Jerusalem on the terror and fear that exists because of the attacks by Palestinians. She has attempted to show the full breadth and range of this story. That children are doing these kinds of attacks, as that story demonstrates, is extraordinary, bewildering and inexplicable. I think that saying that the child who committed a particular attack was popular at school is just explaining how extraordinary this story and these circumstances are. Just as she had previously reported—


Senator ABETZ: Why was she an ‘alleged’ attacker? Why don’t we take that at face value when the Israeli defence forces tell Ms McNeill that that is exactly what she had done?


Mr Scott : As I recall, in that very episode there was a strong defence of the actions undertaken by the Israeli military made by an official spokesman. You can pick a word out of a story if you like, but fundamentally I think Ms McNeill is doing a good job in a difficult story under extraordinary scrutiny. This reporter is, based on my experience at the ABC, under more scrutiny than any other foreign correspondent reporting from any part of the world has ever been. I think she deserves a fair go and I think she deserves to be judged on the quality of her reporting. Some of her reporting on the refugee crisis I think has been absolutely outstanding. She has brought to bear insights into the horror and the complexity of what is happening in parts of the Middle East at the moment. I know that there are some observers who provide daily or weekly commentary, and possibly reports, to you, Senator, on her reporting, but I do believe that she is entitled to a fair go.


CHAIR: Can I just clarify, Mr Scott: through your response there, are you implying that Senator Abetz does not have the right to ask you these questions?


Mr Scott : Not at all. I have never said that Senator Abetz is not entitled to ask these questions. All I am saying is that, before this reporter set foot in the Middle East, there was a campaign against her personally taking up that role. I am saying that she is highly recognised and acclaimed for her reporting, she has significant experience in the Middle East and she deserved that appointment—and she should be judged on her work. Senator Abetz is asking legitimate questions about her work, and I am saying that that program needs to be looked at fairly in its own right and also fairly in the context of the other reporting that she is doing.


Senator ABETZ: Can you tell us by whom this personal campaign is being run against her and why. Take that on notice for us.


Mr Scott : Sure.


Senator ABETZ: That is an extraordinary allegation to make.


CHAIR: Senator Abetz, I think your first lot of time has expired.


Senator ABETZ: In the case I will ask one last question—I will put the others on notice. Can the ABC explain or advise whether or not they reported in any way, shape or form on the US House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs talking about how the escalation of violence against Israelis is praised, encouraged and even fuelled by Palestinian Authority officials. This was a fairly significant unanimous motion carried by the US House of Representatives foreign affairs committee. I would just be interested in hearing whether or not that has been broadcast anywhere by the ABC.

Mr Scott : I will take those on notice.

Link to full Hansard transcript.