THE ABC’s coverage of Israel, and in particular reports filed by Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill, came under fire in a heated exchange between Liberal Senator Eric Abetz and ABC boss Mark Scott this week.
The face-off came just three weeks after The AJN urged the ABC board, which is in the process of appointing a new managing director to succeed Scott, to select a candidate who will stand up to the bias and lack of balance that characterises much of the broadcaster’s reporting on Israel.
Grilling Scott at a Senate estimates committee hearing, Abetz asked what research had been done into McNeill’s attitudes to matters in the Middle East prior to her appointment, noting that she had previously expressed her admiration for journalists John Pilger and Robert Fisk, well known for their anti-Israeli views, “and whether it is appropriate to allow somebody in that position to allow their emotions to get into their reporting”.
Scott said he was not involved in her appointment directly but noted, “She was subjected to a rigorous competitive selection panel and interviewed by an experienced panel of journalists, two of whom were former correspondents, and they did discuss at length her experience as a reporter in the Middle East.
“She has lived in Jerusalem and Beirut, filed from Lebanon, Afghanistan, Gaza, Pakistan and Kurdistan for SBS,” he said.
“Where people report from does not indicate as of necessity what bias they might have within their tool kit,” Abetz fired back, recalling a segment on the ABC’s flagship 7.30 program in October about the latest spate of violence, in which presenter Leigh Sales introduced McNeill’s story with the skewed statement: “Just hours ago Israeli security forces shot two more Palestinians after they tried to board a school bus south of Jerusalem.”
“It sounds very innocuous,” Abetz said. “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 not included in the story.”
After Sales’ introduction, the report focused on a female student who had been shot dead because she had tried to stab a security officer. “We were told ‘she’s a friendly, gifted student, but she was an alleged Palestinian attacker’. [The fact] that she was an attacker was dressed up as an allegation. Are you concerned at all at this style of reporting by a journalist?” Abetz asked.
“Why was she an ‘alleged’ attacker? Why don’t we take that at face value when the Israel Defence Forces tell her that that is exactly what she had done?”
Insisting McNeill had attempted to “show the full breadth and range of this story”, and was “doing a good job, in a difficult story, under extraordinary scrutiny”, Scott said, “There has been a barrage of complaints from some sectors about Ms McNeill. She is a very talented young journalist; she is a journalist that 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.”
Speaking to The AJN on Wednesday, Abetz said when the national broadcaster “fails to recognise the imbalance of its Middle East reporting and indeed praises the distortions; we know there is a deeply ingrained cultural issue”.
“When the ABC tells the Australian viewing public ‘just hours ago, Israeli security forces shot two more Palestinians after they tried to board a school bus south of Jerusalem’, we are entitled to be repulsed. What could be more innocent than boarding a school bus? What an outrageous overreaction by the Israeli security forces,” Abetz said.
“In this instance, what the ABC failed to tell us is that this seemingly innocent act and ugly overreaction was in fact a situation where two Hamas operatives/terrorists tried to board the bus and had stabbed a man.
“Similarly, the report of the killing of a ‘friendly, gifted student’ that tried to stab security forces ‘so they shot her dead’. The female student was shot dead by the female security officer she actually stabbed.”
Stating that this is a “complete failure of ethical reporting, of accurate reporting and of truthful reporting”, Abetz added, “The gross misrepresentation of Israel, its people and policies – along with the flood of excuses and support for terrorist organisations and belief systems that denigrate women and cheapen human life – demands an overhaul of the ABC’s personnel, their training, their research and above all their reporting.”