Senator Mehreen Faruqi – Estimates questions to the ABC regarding its dismissal of Antoinette Lattouf; complaints to the ABC about Gaza coverage; and an ABC staff survey

photo of Senator Mehreen Faruqi
May 31, 2024

Mr Anderson, UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese in a recent interview mentioned the dismissal of Antoinette Lattouf, stating that she had been smeared and vilified and that her treatment was an example of silencing of journalists. What kind of message do you think the dismissal of an Antoinette Lattouf sends to Muslim journalists or journalists of colour?

Senator FARUQI: Mr Anderson, UN Special Rapporteur Francesca Albanese in a recent interview mentioned the dismissal of Antoinette Lattouf, stating that she had been smeared and vilified and that her treatment was an example of silencing of journalists. What kind of message do you think the dismissal of an Antoinette Lattouf sends to Muslim journalists or journalists of colour?

Mr Anderson: It is before the courts, as you know. Fair Work Australia has not handed down its decision after having heard all of the evidence. That is expected at any moment. There was a second filing, as you know, which is in the Federal Court, with regard to procedural fairness. As per our previous PII claim, I am not at liberty to discuss it further. What I will say is that we are defending ourselves against the allegation that Ms Lattouf—engaged for five days, paid for five days but did not present for two—makes; it had absolutely nothing to do with her race. That is what we are arguing in the court, and it is sitting before the courts at the moment.

Senator FARUQI: What do you make of the fact that Antoinette Lattouf was dismissed over a Human Rights Watch post stating that starvation was being used as a tool of war, when not only did the ABC report the exact same thing the day before, but now the ICC has issued arrest warrants for Israeli leaders for using starvation as a tool of war? Why was a fact deemed as a matter of controversy?

Mr Anderson: I will point to the previous PII claim that we have put forward and, if need be, take that on notice and resubmit the PII claim, if that is required. That matter is before the courts. I fully expect that, if this goes to trial, I will be called as a witness, and I will have to give my evidence then. But, because that is before the courts, as one of the elements of the PII claim, I do not want to prejudice those proceedings.

Senator FARUQI: I might go to the ABC Ombudsman report that was released on 19 February, which shows that 6,539 complaint issues relating to matters published or broadcast on the ABC that were raised in 2023 reflect a five-year high, with 51 per cent of all issues related to the genocide in Gaza. Of those, 58 per cent argued that the content was biased, being pro-Israel and anti-Palestine. And this 58 per cent figure does not include complaints relating to a Q+A episode from 13 November 2023. I am sure you have seen that report. Taking into account the Q+A episode, do you know what percentage of complaints about the ABC’s coverage of Israel’s war on Gaza considered that the content was pro-Israel and anti-Palestine?

Mr Anderson: Senator, I will defer to Mr Fang on that one.

Mr Fang: Senator, I would have to see those figures, because my figures from the ombudsman’s office are slightly different. I am happy to go through those with you, if you like. Since the start of the conflict in regard to the Israel-Gaza war, we have had 3,939 complaint issues. Setting aside, as you say, the 1,974 issues from that single Q+A episode, the ombudsman said we have had 1,965 issues that have been complained about. Of those, 80 per cent relate to bias and a lack of balance, and 51 per cent suggest content that was pro-Israel and 47 per cent suggest the other side.

Senator FARUQI: So that 51 per cent doesn’t include the Q+A episode, as I understand it?

Mr Fang: Correct.

Senator FARUQI: So what does that percentage become when you include the Q+A episode?

Mr Fang: I would have to take that on notice, I’m sorry.

Senator FARUQI: I am presuming that it would be much higher than that. From what I understand, the multiples relating to the Q+Aepisode were excluded. Why were they excluded? From where I sit they do distort reality and make it seem like the dissatisfaction was less than it is.

Mr Fang: I can’t comment on that last part, but I would go back to the ombudsman’s office that says that a number of these complaints were identically worded and this was the result of a campaign calling on people to contact the ABC.

Senator FARUQI: But that doesn’t mean that the complaints weren’t valid.

Mr Fang: That is correct, Senator, but, in terms of the way that the ombudsman has categorised those complaints, she has separated those out in terms of the issues.

Senator FARUQI: I understand that, but, yes, could you please provide that other percentage to me on notice.

Mr Fang: Will do.

Senator FARUQI: Mr Anderson, clearly the public does not think the ABC is doing a good job when it comes to reporting on Israel’s war on Gaza. Does that bother you?

Mr Anderson: We take every complaint seriously. We don’t dismiss it. It doesn’t matter if it is part of what is an obvious campaign of people writing to us or just individuals off the cuff. I have mentioned previously that, due to our rather inflexible impartiality standards, when you are seen not to be taking any side you are against whatever side that your perspective is. I see that coming through in the complaints and from different perspectives. We do take the complaints seriously, particularly when we have made a breach of some description or we have had to resolve an issue of accuracy. Again, this is where the complaints actually help us. If we have an issue of accuracy, a complaint has come through and we can see that, and we can resolve this and we can verify it, we make the change. What I don’t see is systemic bias one way or the other. What I do see is this evolving complex issue where nuance matters and words matter. We have worked very hard to make sure that we are accurately describing the situation as correctly as possible, and we need to continually learn from it. So we will update our guidance notes with regard to this ongoing coverage, as we need to. We develop those guidance notes in response to staff wanting them. So we continually learn about it as the coverage evolves.

Senator FARUQI: Yes, but, on top of the public, as you know, staff at the ABC also told you in November that the ABC’s coverage of the war in Israel relied too much on Israeli sources and used language that favoured the Israeli narrative over objective reporting. Have you followed up with meetings with the staff on this?

Mr Anderson: I think I have had one or two meetings with the MEAA. I think Mr Fang has met with them more than I have. There are a couple of things that we have undertaken to take on board with regard to that, and we are always looking at the Israel-Gaza war and how that has moved to involve the region more and more over time. But there are certainly things that we have undertaken to go back to the MEAA with that we will go back with soon. One of those things is complaints, actually, and that is to have clarity over our complaints process and what happens when complaints come directly to me and where they go after that. Hopefully, what we have prepared will satisfy them when we get back to them, and, hopefully, that will be within the next week.

Senator FARUQI: I asked you earlier about another internal review that was happening, and you said a survey was being conducted at the moment. Am I right on that? Is there a staff survey that is happening, a staff engagement survey?

Mr Anderson: Yes.

Senator FARUQI: So that is currently happening. From what I understand, it was meant to close last week or this week but it has been extended and it has been changed in some way. Could you tell me a bit more about why it has been changed and how it has been changed?

Ms Amorelli: The survey hasn’t been changed. We did extend the closing date in order to increase participation in the survey. It was due to close last Wednesday 22 May. We extended that date to Monday of this week, and then we kept it open for an extra day as we encouraged staff to complete it. But the survey wasn’t changed in any way.

Senator FARUQI: Okay. So there were no questions added or removed from the survey?

Ms Amorelli: No, not at all.

Mr Anderson: Senator, if you mean from last time we did the survey two years ago to this time—

Senator FARUQI: No, the survey that was already happening—so nothing else.

Ms Amorelli: No. The survey opened with a set of agreed questions, and those questions remained unchanged during the course of that survey being opened.

Senator FARUQI: Okay. One last question from me: researchers have recently conducted a detailed study of the BBC’s coverage of the genocide in Gaza and established that there was proportionately far less coverage of Palestinians being killed than Israelis and also that there was a clear difference in how language was used. For example, words like ‘murdered’ and ‘slaughtered’ were used in relation to Israeli victims and words like ‘died’ were used for Palestinians. Given the extent of public dissatisfaction and staff dissatisfaction with the ABC’s coverage of this war in Gaza, will the ABC commit to a similar study?

Mr Anderson: Mr Fang, do you know more about the study that was conducted at the BBC?

Mr Fang: I’m not aware of the study at the BBC, no.

Senator FARUQI: It is a BBC study, by Jan Lietava and Dana Najjar.

Mr Fang: No, I haven’t seen it.

Senator FARUQI: Could you have a look at it, and maybe provide an answer to the question. And I will leave you with one question on notice. At a meeting in January, union members at the ABC passed a vote of no confidence in you, Mr Anderson, and the motion stated that, to win back staff and public confidence, senior management had to do five things. Could you provide us with an update on how senior management is meeting, if they are meeting, any of those demands?

Mr Anderson: I will give you a response on notice, Senator.

Senator FARUQI: Thanks very much. Thank you, Chair.

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