In this age of the internet, streaming services, TV on demand and social media, my children find it hard to understand the reverent silence that came over our home when the SBS news came on. Watching and listening to George Donikian and later Mary Kostakidis was a ritual all migrant families quickly adopted. They looked like us, could pronounce our names and the reportage they brought to us had a depth we looked for in vain (then and now) on the other networks. My friends and I often joked that we’d get in far less trouble laughing during a church or mosque service. SBS was the “go to” for so many migrant families. While the format of how migrant families watch or listen to SBS may have changed, its significance has not.
I’m an Australian Palestinian, and this has been a particularly horrid year for Palestinians. Near the end of the Holy Month of Ramadan, we watched Israeli soldiers fire on people praying at the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, even as Palestinians in Jerusalem fought to avoid a repeat of the brutal ethnic cleansing of 1948. And then Israel rained munitions on Gaza, in what Israeli commentators routinely call ‘mowing the grass’, a ghastly euphemism for violence which saw over 260 people – including 66 children – killed in a week, and the infrastructure of the Gaza Strip decimated.
In the face of the most brutal and longest of occupations, Palestinians practice sumud, steadfastness. We know this bloodshed and the Israeli impunity that makes it possible won’t last forever. The world increasingly grasps that Palestinians live in exile or under the boot of a merciless military occupation. Understanding that an injustice is occurring is always the precursor to its eradication.
We know that a key component to liberation is a free media that can actually report when injustice is occurring. John Lyons, a senior journalist at the ABC who reported from the Middle East for The Australian, recently published a book highlighting the challenges facing the media in Australia when reporting on Palestine/Israel, and in particular that the Israel lobby has made the topic “too hot to handle”.
Appointments to the SBS and ABC boards have become fiercely debated in recent years. This is because the government has ignored the recommendations of an independent panel and instead allowed the Communications Minister to make “captain’s picks”. It’s been such a problem that a Senate Committee was formed to scrutinise it. It recommended an end to politicised appointments, but the government has ignored this advice – last year it appointed Liberal candidate Warren Mundine, who has since been admonished for tweeting expletives at a journalist.
Who gets to sit on these boards matters. As custodians of an organisation literally sitting at the tables of power, they should be reflective of the communities they serve. A lot of good work has been done of late ensuring that boards are more diverse and less “pale, stale and male”. It is important for any organisation to contain a diversity of views and experiences. When the boards are of public entities, this is even more crucial.
This month the government appointed one of that lobby’s fiercest advocates to the SBS board: Vic Alhadeff, a man who as recently as July was lobbying the ABC for more sympathetic coverage of Israel. His lobbying team’s press release following a meeting with the broadcaster was so inaccurate that the ABC issued their own press release as a rebuttal.
Alhadeff had to resign a previous government-appointed role as chair of the NSW Community Relations Commission in 2014 because of his exuberant support for Israel while it was carrying out a large-scale military assault on the besieged Palestinians of Gaza, an assault that killed over 2000 people, the overwhelming majority of them civilians.
Israel is currently being investigated by the International Criminal Court. It is in breach of a UN Security Council resolution calling on it to stop settlements. It has been criticised by almost every country in the world, including Australia, the US and Britain, for completely disregarding Palestinian rights.
Surely it is hard to imagine an advocate for other repressive regimes, such as Saudi Arabia, Myanmar or China, being appointed to the SBS board? When the government parachutes an advocate for Israel onto the SBS board, what many Australians hear is that they don’t care to see Palestine and Israel reported on accurately.
Last week in Senate estimates, when the government was asked whether Alhadeff’s longstanding role as an advocate for Israel might compromise SBS’s perceived impartiality in reporting on international affairs, Liberal Senator Jane Hume responded that “I don’t think the SBS has perceived impartiality” and that the government has also been a prominent advocate for Israel. Armed with this blank cheque, Alhadeff is free to manipulate and advocate for an SBS that is even more accommodating to the Israel lobby.
Despite the government’s assertions and actions, public broadcasters are not the place to implement political agendas. They must be a place for all Australians to trust free and fearless reporting. That’s why the government is wrong in making and defending their latest appointment to the SBS board.
In an age when we have access to an unprecedented array of news sources, such a blatantly partisan appointment can only cost SBS its “go to” status and may even prove a harbinger of its ultimate demise.
Vice President – Australia Palestine Advocacy Network