On November 17, the ABC’s editor-in-chief and managing director, David Anderson, was interviewed on Radio 774, the ABC’s local station in Melbourne, about criticisms of the national broadcaster’s coverage of the Israel-Gaza war.
The interview followed a well-publicised meeting nine days earlier at which ABC journalists raised a range of concerns about the organisation’s coverage. These included the extent to which the ABC was relying on talking points supplied by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF), and the alleged unwillingness of the ABC to use terms such as “invasion”, “occupation”, “genocide”, “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” when discussing Israeli government policy.
Concern was also reportedly expressed about what was said to be a blanket ban on the use of the word “Palestine”, with journalists from Muslim and Arab backgrounds saying there was a perception in their communities that the ABC was too pro-Israel.
It was also reported that senior managers acknowledged they had removed a specialist verification team because of the impact that work was having on staff. Instead, they were relying on ad-hoc advice from former Middle East correspondents.
David Anderson addressed many of these concerns in the Radio 774 interview.
In particular, he said while the ABC did include terms such as “genocide” and “apartheid” in reports of statements made by others, it was not prepared to adopt them itself.
Genocide is a claim that’s being made. It’s a serious crime. It’s an allegation of a crime. The IDF and Israel reject that. Same with apartheid. We’ll report other people’s use of that. We won’t use it ourselves.
On the issue of alleged over-reliance on the IDF, Anderson was more equivocal. He said he wasn’t sure that was the case, but pointed out the difficulty of verifying material coming out of the war. “I think we’re trying to verify as much as we can.”
In terms of alienating local communities whose people are involved in the conflict, he said it came with the journalistic territory:
We know that there are some people who will be offended by reporting one perspective or another. It’s our job and what’s enshrined in our charter. We don’t pick sides.
This response has generated a good deal of heat on social media, including an allegation that Anderson is acting out of fear by the stance he has taken on the use of the terms such as genocide and apartheid.
At the heart of this discussion is one of the fundamental tenets of professional journalism: impartiality in news reporting, which includes the separation of news from opinion.
Impartiality is not the product of fear: it is the very reverse. It is the product of courageous efforts to be accurate, fair, balanced, open-minded, and unconflicted by personal interest, especially in the face of unrelenting pressure and highly charged emotions. It takes guts.
It takes guts because when damaging facts or allegations are reported, partisan interests affected negatively will accuse the journalist or the platform of favouring the other side. In no area of journalism is this more insistently demonstrated than in the reporting of the decades-long conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
Yet impartiality requires that important facts, once verified, be reported regardless of the anticipated blow-back. The same applies to serious allegations for which there is credible evidence.
Verification is foundational to accuracy. But in today’s world, journalists must navigate a landscape where fakery and misrepresentation have become not just art forms in images and text, but political dynamite. War makes the verification challenge even harder because of the combined effects of secrecy, confusion and the opportunities for propaganda.
In addition to accuracy, impartiality requires that the language used should be calibrated to a fair portrayal of events, and that a story should achieve balance by following the weight of evidence.
The question of evidence brings us to yet another fundamental principle, both of law and of journalistic ethics: the strength of the evidence required to support an allegation must be commensurate with the gravity of the allegation. In law it is called the Briginshaw principle. Getting that kind of evidence in the midst of war is difficult, but the imperatives of impartiality require that those accused should at least have the opportunity to reply.
A third challenge in stories where the nation has taken a clear position, as Australia has in its support for Israel, is that there is always pressure to report in ways that support the official narrative. Sometimes that pressure comes from within a media organisation, sometimes from outside and sometimes from both. It can become insidious, almost subconscious.
To partisans, these might all seem like pussyfooting abstractions. But from a journalist’s perspective they lie at the heart of good professional practice, and Anderson’s approach as outlined in his interview was that of an editor-in-chief striving for impartiality and prepared to endure the backlashes that come with it.
Without independent evidence, the ABC is right not to adopt for itself terms such as “genocide” and “apartheid”, but equally it is right to report others making such allegations. These highly contested and emotive terms are often used for their rhetorical power, which is the province of partisans but not of journalists seeking to be impartial.
Impartiality matters because it provides the bedrock of reliable information people need if they are to make up their own minds free of the manipulation that results when news reporting is tainted by partisanship. That is why it is built into the ABC charter and why Anderson is right in his determination to uphold it.
- ^ was interviewed (www.smh.com.au)
- ^ national broadcaster’s coverage (www.abc.net.au)
- ^ a well-publicised meeting (www.theage.com.au)
- ^ What exactly is a ceasefire, and why is it so difficult to agree on one in Gaza? (theconversation.com)
- ^ Briginshaw principle (en.wikipedia.org)
- ^ Gaza war: reporting from the frontline of conflict has always raised hard ethical questions (theconversation.com)