Senator Mehreen Faruqi – Estimates questions regarding ABC reporting on Israel and Gaza and the termination of journalist Antoinette Lattouf

photo of Senator Mehreen Faruqi
February 13, 2024

On Monday, 18 December, the ABC published an article on the Human Rights Watch report which said that starvation is being used as a method of warfare by the Israeli government. I understand this article and at least one other article on this Human Rights Watch report are still up on the ABC website. Mr Anderson, do you stand by this reporting by the ABC?

Senator FARUQI: Good afternoon, everyone. On Monday, 18 December, the ABC published an article on the Human Rights Watch report which said that starvation is being used as a method of warfare by the Israeli government. I understand this article and at least one other article on this Human Rights Watch report are still up on the ABC website. Mr Anderson, do you stand by this reporting by the ABC?

Mr Anderson : Yes, Senator. The reporting that we have that is on our platforms, yes.

Senator FARUQI: Mr Anderson, why was journalist Antoinette Lattouf sacked by the ABC for communicating this very same fact which the ABC reported on and which is still on the ABC’s website?

Mr Anderson : I appreciate the question. Senator, I have been given legal advice that I cannot discuss the matter at the moment between the ABC and Ms Lattouf. That matter is subject to legal proceedings. It is being heard in Fair Work on 8 March. In fact, there was a proceeding about that today. I have been told that I cannot advise or speak to that matter until it goes through the process of those legal proceedings.

Senator FARUQI: Mr Anderson, you might be aware of this. You are under parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for any information in these proceedings to be used in a court or a tribunal. Are you aware of that?

Mr Anderson : Senator, I am. I have also received specific legal advice that anything I say with regard to that matter might prejudice the proceedings that otherwise happen at Fair Work, which are considered to be legal proceedings. I have been reminded of my obligations with regard to being managing director and my obligations as per the PGPA with regard to my obligations to the ABC.

Senator FARUQI: Mr Anderson, with regard to this prejudice matter, as you know, there is no precedent for this as a legitimate reason to not disclose information at estimates. You would obviously be aware of that. As the Fair Work Commission is a tribunal, not a court, this is the advice that I got from the clerks yesterday. I request the chair to ask Mr Anderson to please answer the questions.

CHAIR: Mr Anderson, obviously you have some choices here whether you wish to consider a public interest immunity claim. I think you are well aware that you will need to state both the circumstances, the grounds for your claim, and the harm that you believe. You may wish to take some time to work that through. Otherwise you are obliged to answer the questions.

Mr Anderson : Senator, this is with absolute respect. My advice is that at Fair Work they are legal proceedings and that they are a precursor to the Federal Court. I did ask that question specifically with regard to it being Fair Work. I am happy to take that on notice and submit a public interest immunity claim as per the normal practice with regard to it. I can’t talk to the claim itself with regard to Ms Lattouf. I’m sure you have other questions that relate to a great many things when it comes to publication, particularly with regard to the Israel-Gaza war. I cannot speak to that specifically. I will take it on notice and submit a public interest immunity claim.

Senator FARUQI: I think you have been requested to do that now. The chair has requested you to answer the questions. Frankly, I don’t care what legal advice you have. I have—

CHAIR: Just to be clear, Senator Faruqi, I have given Mr Anderson his options.

Senator FARUQI: Yes. That’s right. Sorry, Chair, I am just clarifying.

CHAIR: His options are to answer the questions or to provide a public interest immunity claim where he has stepped out both the grounds of that claim and the harm that it may cause. We would need both of them in some level of detail. We have been down this path before, Mr Anderson, as you know. We would need both of them in some level of detail to be able to assess that claim appropriately and for the committee to make a decision.

Senator FARUQI: I’m going to ask the questions. Unless a public interest immunity claim is provided, is that what you are saying—that Mr Anderson has to answer those questions?

CHAIR: Well, if he is taking it on notice to consider a claim, that is what he is doing, Senator Faruqi.

Senator FARUQI: Mr Anderson, have you ever heard of any journalist being terminated for sharing a fact, because I haven’t?

Mr Anderson : Senator, I think that relates specifically to the matter at hand that is before Fair Work. Again, I will take that on notice and put in a PII claim.

Senator FARUQI: So you are going to hide away completely from questioning on why you unfairly sacked, according to the claims that Ms Lattouf is making, and for sharing a fact? You are not going to answer any questions on that? You’re going to hide away?

Mr Anderson : Senator, I’m not hiding. I’m abiding certainly by my other obligations with regard to the ABC and the legal advice that I’ve got. What I will say is this will be heard at Fair Work in an open hearing that will be public with lawyers debating the law with regard to the dispute that has been raised. This will be heard in a public way. For me to do so now, to provide information, would otherwise, I believe, and the way I am advised, prejudice the process the way it should actually happen in Fair Work, as I just described, on 8 March. I’m not hiding behind it. I will take it on notice and provide it.

Senator FARUQI: You actually are, because my advice is the exact opposite of yours, that this is not a good enough reason to claim that you won’t answer my questions. We can argue about that advice until the cows come home, I guess. You are not just going to answer my questions.

CHAIR: Senator Faruqi, I could maybe be of assistance here. Mr Anderson will go away and prepare his PII. At that point, following a determination, it’s perfectly within the scope of the committee to seek from Mr Anderson to come and speak with us further post that situation.

Mr Anderson : Understood.

Senator FARUQI: I will continue with a line of questioning that Mr Anderson might be able to answer. We will see where that takes us. Mr Anderson, did you personally order the termination of Ms Lattouf’s contract?

Mr Anderson : That has already been stated publicly so I can categorically say no, I did not.

Senator FARUQI: You did not?

Mr Anderson : That has already been made public that I said that is not correct.

Senator FARUQI: When was the decision to terminate Ms Lattouf made?

Mr Anderson : I cannot answer that by grounds that I mentioned earlier with regard to prejudicing the proceedings, which are otherwise scheduled for 8 March. I will be submitting a claim.

Senator FARUQI: Did ABC chair Ita Buttrose contact you in relation to Ms Lattouf’s termination?

Mr Anderson : Again, that is specifically to the case at hand. I will be taking that on notice and submitting a claim.

Senator FARUQI: When did the ABC board and chair Ita Buttrose receive representations from the pro-Israel lobby about ABC’s coverage of Gaza?

Mr Anderson : A different question. So we’ve had many representations from different groups with regard to the Israel-Gaza war. They pretty much commenced soon after 7 October. I have had representations previously while I’ve done this job for the last 5½ years. There was a matter of concern to both lobby groups that was some time ago when Hamish Macdonald hosted Q&A. I met with both the ECAJ as well as APAN at that time to hear from both lobby groups. I’ve had previous correspondence. The most recent correspondence you would have to say started from 7 October.

Senator FARUQI: Was there any correspondence between 19 and 23 December about ABC coverage to Gaza to the board and to the chair Ita Buttrose?

Mr Anderson : Again, Senator, I can’t speak specifically to the Lattouf matter that is—

Senator FARUQI: I am talking about these dates. I’m asking you that.

Mr Anderson : I am qualifying my answer. I am not speaking about that matter specifically. I have consistently received correspondence from outside the ABC with regard to our Gaza coverage throughout that entire period. I can check on notice. I would have to say that it’s highly likely that someone has emailed me about something.

Senator FARUQI: During that time period?

Mr Anderson : Probably.

Senator FARUQI: And you have received emails or direct messages from individuals or organisations between that period of 19 and 23 December?

Mr Anderson : Again, outside the case, to be specific that it is not to do with Antoinette Lattouf, I would have to take that on notice and get back to you. I am saying that I have consistently received emails about our coverage since that started on 7 October.

Senator FARUQI: Ms Buttrose has said in a response to the pro-Israel lobby group that contacted her between 19 and 23 December that she has passed on their concerns to chief content officer Mr Chris Oliver-Taylor. Was this proper process?

Mr Anderson : Senator, specifically that is a matter that is being heard as part of the Lattouf case for the ABC. More generally, I can talk about complaints and complaints handling, should you wish.

Senator FARUQI: Yes. I will ask a specific question about that, then. Isn’t it normal practice for boards and chairs to stay away from day-to-day operational matters?

Mr Anderson : Senator, quite often if somebody emails the chair—I know this for a fact because I would be on the end of an email—the chair would respond and say it is an operational matter and pass it on to me and/or the ombudsman. I would do something similar if I am contacted by people from outside the ABC by email. Sometimes I don’t respond. It depends on the complaint. Sometimes I will respond with, ‘Yes, and if it’s a content specific complaint, I’m passing your complaint on to the ABC Ombudsman as well as the program department.’

Senator FARUQI: So they come to you, not necessarily the chief content officer?

Mr Anderson : I think officers of the ABC do receive complaints directly to them. I do get complaints as well that come to me. There would be hundreds of complaints that I get. For instance, since the coverage started, there would be hundreds I would have got that come from a pro-Israeli perspective and hundreds I would have got from a pro-Palestinian perspective about similar stories and similar matters. There has been quite a lot of complaints made through that period. Mr Fang is here with me as editorial director. He might be able to give you some more detail on the number of complaints, should you wish.

Senator FARUQI: I don’t need that. Mr Anderson, did any of the ABC staff who signed the public letter on Australian media’s reporting on Israel and Palestine in November face any limitations on their reporting or news production work?

Mr Anderson : I don’t believe so, Senator. We certainly counselled our staff with regard to signing any petition regardless of what the petition is about. Impartiality and objectivity is foundational to the ABC. It’s important that we maintain our ability to be able to do that job and perform that with due impartiality at all times. To put your name to a petition would potentially undermine that. Justin Stevens, as director of news, went to quite some length to explain that to people at the time. I don’t believe that anybody was otherwise constricted with regard to what they could do.

Senator FARUQI: I will clarify. No-one at the ABC faced any limitations on their reporting or news production work?

Mr Anderson : Senator, I will take that on notice and get back to you. I don’t believe so.

Senator FARUQI: That is a no. I might move on to—

CHAIR: We will need to rotate the call.

Senator FARUQI: Yes, sure. You can come back to me.

CHAIR: Absolutely.

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