A series of programs on ABC Radio National, produced by a long-standing anti-Israel activist, has undermined the objectivity of the national broadcaster and exposed serious failings in its editorial process. The programs may also have put the ABC in breach of its statutory obligation of ‘maintaining independence and integrity’, and its Code of Practice requiring ‘impartiality’ in current affairs.
The programs, Jerusalem: a divine crime scene, and An unholy mix – Jerusalem, religion and archaeology, produced by former Greens Marrickville Councillor Cathy Peters, presented the views of a parade of veteran anti-Israel propagandists, whose unstated purpose was to discredit the historical connection between Jerusalem and the Jewish people, and to level an array of unchallenged and inaccurate accusations against Israel in the guise of expert analysis.
An editor’s note published online described Peters as a member of the NSW Greens, an executive member of the Coalition For Justice and Peace in Palestine and a member of Jews Against the Occupation. What the ABC failed to disclose is that Peters is also a fierce proponent of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel. She was the instigator of the 2010 Marrickville Council motion urging the Council to consider boycotting all goods made in any part of Israel, as well as Israeli artists, athletes and academics. The motion, which also called on state and federal governments to adopt BDS, provoked a surge of protest and derision, especially from ratepayers unimpressed that the Council was being used as a vehicle to prosecute a pet international cause of a few Councillors.
None of this background was disclosed by the ABC. The Code of Practice requires the ABC ‘to equip audiences to make up their own minds’ about news and current affairs issues, but Peters’ audience was not given vital information about her partisan record on the issues about which she was supposedly ‘reporting’.
Further, the requirement of ‘independence’ and ‘integrity’ in the ABC Act does not merely mean independence from the influence of the government of the day and political parties, as important as that is. It also means independence from the personal opinions, agendas and private activism of program producers and journalists contracted or employed by the ABC itself. Peters’ use of her position on Marrickville Council to push an anti-Israel agenda was rejected by rate-payers. The use of the national broadcaster for the same purpose is as objectionable.
Given her background in the anti-Israel movement, it was unsurprising that the two programs were as blatantly inaccurate and one-sided as they were, featuring a panel of speakers all coming from a relentlessly one-eyed anti-Israel perspective. One panellist, Ross Burns, the former Australian Ambassador to Israel, has previously served on the board of the Palestinian lobby group, Australia Palestine Advocacy Network.
Sara Irving, described as a historian and a writer, has filed over 200 stories for the virulently anti-Israel Electronic Intifada website.
Jeff Halper, the Israeli professor, ostensibly chosen to present an Israeli perspective, calls for the eradication of a Jewish national home through a ‘one-state solution’ to the conflict, and has made the bizarre claim that Israel has developed a ‘spectral dust’ it can spray over wide areas of land, every grain of which is a sensor, programmed with a person’s DNA to track, locate and kill that individual.
Shawan Jabarin was presented as a human rights activist from a Palestinian NGO. The audience was not told that he has also had a long association with a Palestinian terrorist organisation. In 2007, a court found that Jabarin is a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ figure: ‘in part of his activities, he is the director of a human rights organization, and in another part he is an activist in a terrorist organization which does not shy away from acts of murder and attempted murder which… deny the most basic of all human rights – the right to life.’
The former Jerusalem city councillor, Meir Margalit, provided perhaps the most extreme turn of all, in likening archaeological digs which seek to understand, preserve and honour the history of Jerusalem, to the acts of wholesale archaeological destruction and grotesque vandalism committed by Isis.
The opinions of the panellists were punctuated by recordings supposedly presenting Israeli and Palestinian perspectives. The audience heard a gentle-sounding Palestinian poet reciting incantations of longing and pain. The ostensible Israeli perspective was presented in the form of thick American accents repeatedly speaking of God and King David. As if those are the only, or predominant, voices on either side.
Ignored was the vast body of historical, poetic and literary works from the empires of antiquity to Josephus to Amoz Oz, that capture the essence of the long and deep Jewish bond to Jerusalem. Instead of presenting Israel and Israelis in all their rich diversity and complexity, Peters portrayed them as a caricature, precisely as BDS leaders would have everyone see them – American interlopers, settlers with pistols and prayer shawls.
There were also straight-out factual errors. Listeners were told ‘if you’re not Jewish in Jerusalem you don’t have the right to vote.’ In fact, all citizens of Israel (Jewish and Arab) have the right to vote and enjoy identical civic rights. With the end of the Jordanian occupation of east Jerusalem following Israel’s military victory in the Six-Day War of 1967, Jerusalem’s Arab residents were granted permanent residency status entitling them to vote in municipal elections and were offered full Israeli citizenship. Some 12 per cent have taken up Israeli citizenship while the remainder are evidently deterred by nationalistic considerations and long-standing threats and accusations of treason by the Palestinian leadership.
While Peters is free to hold her views, no matter how offensive or misguided they may be, the ABC’s listeners are entitled to question why the broadcaster trusted an activist with a record of fanatical anti-Israel campaigning to produce current affairs content directly relating to Israel, and without disclosing the full extent of her biases to the audience.
At best, the ABC may have naively believed that Peters could set aside her extreme views and produce sensible, balanced content. At worst, those in charge of the ABC’s news and current affairs programming ignored their statutory and Code obligations and indulged Peters’ agenda by commissioning the programs knowing exactly what they would be getting, without requiring even a semblance of balance, impartiality or accuracy.