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Senator Santoro and Malcolm Turnbull: Adjournment debate

SENATE Tuesday, 16 August 2005

ABC News Coverage

Senator SANTORO (Queensland) (7.22 pm)—I listened very carefully to Senator Stott Despoja’s speech, the contents of which certainly are more deserving of greater consideration.

I take a very close interest in the ABC, not least because it has a vital role to play as our national broadcaster. It is a service that is very heavily relied on in rural and regional Queensland in particular. Most of what the ABC does is of a very high standard, but it lets itself down by continuing displays of bias, most particularly in news and current affairs, much of which, it would seem, is caused by confusing and inconsistent management. It is on this theme that I wish to speak tonight.

The ABC news boss, John Cameron, has recognised the potential for allegations or realities of bias to damage the ABC in a series of memos.

‘We leave ourselves open to reasonable criticism,’
he warned in one such memo. In a memo in March 2003 Mr Cameron said,
‘Do not use anything that could be construed as emotional language or editorialisation.’

The issue is also covered in ABC editorial policies and in its news division style guide, where it states the following:

‘The familiarity bred by the use of first names when addressing or referring to certain people often evokes a sense of ABC sympathy for the cause.’

News and current affairs staff were banned from referring to ‘our troops in Iraq’ because the ABC does not own them and therefore they are not ‘ours’ as far as the ABC is concerned. Staff were warned about the consequences of breaching the rules.

‘The rules are not optional; they are mandatory,’ wrote Mr Cameron. The memo went on to say, ‘Continued transgressions will lead to formal documentation which in turn can have a major impact on career progression and eventually ongoing employment status.’
Mr Cameron issued the memo banning the use of ‘our’ in March 2003. Between then and now I have found more than 400 examples of breaches of this rule, including ‘our Anzacs’, ‘our Vietnam soldiers’, ‘our diggers at Gallipoli’, ‘our forensic police in Bali’ and ‘our Australian FederalPolice helping in London’. There were 400 ‘ours’ in two years and the only time Mr Cameron did anything about it was when someone said ‘our troops in Iraq’.

Despite the warnings about disciplinary action, Quentin Dempster from Stateline New South Wales breached the rule 65 times and he is still on air. There were no memos from Mr Cameron and no action against staff, because the breaches did not involve the Iraq war. Just as Mr Cameron predicted, the ABC has created an unfavourable impression—that is, that the ABC opposes Australian involvement in the Iraq war.

Mr Cameron was quite right to point out to staff that referring to some people by their first name creates an impression that the ABC sympathises with that person or their cause. Since that memo, David Hicks has become ‘David’ on The World Today with Nance Haxton, Cornelia Rau has become just ‘Cornelia’ on the 7.30 Report, and Vivian Alvarez Solon became ‘Vivian’ six times in one report by Margot O’Neill on Lateline. In Western Australia, Stateline interviewed a Liberal Party candidate and an ALP candidate. The Liberal was ‘Dean Solly’ but the ALP man, Jay Radisich, became simply ‘Jay’. Kim Beazley became ‘Kim’ on Insiders.

John Howard became ‘Howard’ with Kerry O’Brien on the 7.30 Report, while Kim Beazley became ‘Kim’. So the ABC has allowed itself to do exactly what Mr Cameron warned against: create a distinct impression that it sides with David Hicks, the Labor Party and the causes celebre of immigration activists.

In a further example of antigovernment and pro-Labor bias, the ABC breached its rule on disclosure on The World Today on 27 May this year. In a story about the union campaign against government workplace relations reforms, the reporter, Liz Foschia, introduced one Fran Tierney as a community worker in the not for profit sector. Fran Tierney is in fact a trade union official and was a federal Labor Party candidate at the 2001 election. Geraldine Doogue on Saturday Breakfast failed to disclose during an interview on the terrorist group Hezbollah with a commentator from a Lebanese TV station that the TV station was owned and operated by the very same Hezbollah.

That brings me to the issue of how the ABC describe terrorism. They do not want to label anyone—labels are not helpful. First the ABC used the old cliche ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’, as if the Bali bombers, Al Qaeda or the London fanatics could ever be regarded as freedom fighters. Then they decided to be guided by the United Nations. If the UN listed a terrorist organisation the ABC would call them ‘terrorists’. But their journalists broke that rule so many times they had to get a new rule. Two dozen terrorist groups not on the UN list became ‘terrorist organisations’ according to no fewer than 20 different ABC journalists. The only times that news management did anything about it were when someone called Hezbollah or Hamas ‘terrorists’. I am still waiting for the ABC to get back to me on the difference between terrorists in southern Russia killing children in a school and terrorists in Jerusalem killing school children on a bus.

Now the ABC have a brand new rule: ‘Only call them terrorists if a third party is using the term.’ The style guide even gives an example:

‘What the Israeli government calls a “terrorist cell”.’
But guess what— since that latest new policy came in, ABC journalists have broken that rule more than 30 times. Peter Lloyd on the PM program of 13 June said ‘local terror groups the MILF and Abu Sayef’. There was no attribution to any third party. But what happens when the terrorists are Hamas or Hezbollah and the third party is the Israeli government? Mark Willacy on 15 July said,
‘A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is blaming the Palestinian Authority for the rocket attacks, saying its failure to crack down on militant groups is undermining steps towards peace.’
But the Israeli spokesman actually said:
‘The Palestinian Authority is responsible for this fatal rocket attack because it continues to refuse to take the necessary steps to fight terror. Israel has lost six people this past week to terror.’
There was nothing said about militants. And I have a significant number of similar examples in store.

Look at what ABC TV’s Behind the News program is telling children about terrorism. I would like to quote from its report on terrorism since September 11:

‘As you know on September 11 2001 the US was attacked when four planes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Centre, the Pentagon and a field. Many consider the people behind the attacks terrorists. Terrorists create terror or fear. They do that by using violence or threatening to use violence to persuade governments or people to make changes in society. But many governments including Australia’s think terrorism is wrong.’

I ask the question here tonight: which people in the world do not consider that those who carried out the September 11 attacks were terrorists? Let me give you one example: David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. He thinks it was ‘a Zionist conspiracy’.

And which governments in the world think terrorism is alright? There was one: Saddam Hussein’s. Remember him celebrating on the balcony with a gun? But he is gone.

Behind the News, on your ABC, our ABC, is suggesting to children that the people behind September 11 were not necessarily terrorists and that terrorism is not necessarily wrong. I would urge Mr Russell Balding, the Managing Director of the ABC, to get serious about terrorism. He could do worse than take the advice tendered on one of his own shows, Lateline, by the executive director of the United Nations counterterror agency, Mr Javier Ruperez:

There is not one single action that could be construed as being enough in the fight against terrorism. I think that we have to try and put together a number of different actions— political, legal, financial, philosophical ...

Refusing to call a terrorist a terrorist and instead using their preferred terms, like ‘militant’, plays straight into the hands of the terrorists. Matt Brown even called al-Qaeda ‘militants’ the other day. And why does the ABC consider that ‘terrorist’ is a label but ‘militant’ is not?

Then there is ‘so-called’. We get ‘the so-called war on terrorism’ on the ABC, but you never hear, for instance, ‘the so-called human shield Donna Mulhearn’ on Australian Story. Perhaps the next ABC policy will be ‘the so-called war on alleged militancy’. There is nothing ‘so-called’ about the war being waged against the Howard government by one Lindsay McDougall, a sometime musician and now ‘the doctor’ from Triple J morning show Jay and the Doctor. Fresh from his spectacularly unsuccessful election CD Rock Against Howard, with such memorable little ditties as ‘John Howard, gun him down’, Mr McDougall moved on to his post-election strategy to get the ‘c*’—again, will not say the word, but he did—‘and his Treasurer mate’ at the next election.

The delighted management at the ABC rewarded this fellow traveller with a plum full-time job on the youth network. Mr McDougall has had a longstanding and publicly stated opposition to government immigration policies. Rather than play music and keep his angry left-wing political opinions to himself, we now find the Minister for Immigration and Multicultural and Indigenous Affairs, my colleague here, Senator Vanstone, is nominated on Mr McDougall’s show as the Triple J ‘Friday F**kwit’. On a daily basis we get snide comments about the Howard government, and yet the ABC appointed Mr McDougall knowing he had a clear political agenda to support the Australian Democrats and the ALP—more left-wing bias served up to Australia’s young people by ‘our’ ABC.

Mr Cameron, the news boss, made it very clear to journalists in various memos that injudicious behaviour will create an impression that the ABC is biased. It is much more than an impression. I intend to continue to ask the ABC managing director, Russell Balding, for an explanation about all of this and for some definite action in terms of avoiding continuation of bias within the ABC.

The ACTING DEPUTY PRESIDENT (Senator Watson)—I remind you that the ABC has broadcast your views tonight on the ABC.

Gaza Strip: Withdrawal of Jewish Settlers

Mr TURNBULL (Wentworth) (9.14 p.m.)—Yesterday the Israeli defence forces began supervising the final withdrawal of Jewish settlements from the Gaza Strip. Many of these settlements have been home to Jews for more than 30 years. It came as no surprise that there is enormous sadness about this withdrawal on the part of the Israeli people, nor can it come as a surprise that many Israelis have opposed the withdrawal—vigorously, but so far without violence. Long may that be so. Traditionally, victors do not surrender land to those they have defeated. Israel occupied the Gaza Strip from Egypt after its successful defence against attack from its neighbours in 1967. Now it is withdrawing from those last parts of the Gaza Strip upon which it built settlements. It is not receiving anything in return; this is a unilateral withdrawal.

The pragmatic justification made by Ariel Sharon is simply that Israel cannot maintain settlements in areas which are overwhelmingly populated by Arabs. There are about 1.4 million Palestinians in Gaza and just 8,500 Jews. The cost of defending the settlements is $US560 million each year. It is better to consolidate in those areas where the Jews are a majority. This is an about-face for Sharon, often known as the father of the settlement movement, and a reminder of the wisdom of Moshe Dayan’s reproach to those Israelis flushed with victory after 1967 who thought of a greater Israel from Jordan to the Sea: ‘You want the dowry,’ he said, ‘but you do not want to marry the bride.’

But the opponents of the withdrawal say that this is a capitulation to terror. It will be seen as a victory for the violent, a win for Hamas and a confirmation that Israel will continue to retreat in the face of a terror campaign that has been waged against it. They cite Sharon’s earlier claims that a withdrawal is not a recipe for peace but a recipe for war. Many observers watching the demonstrations with thousands of Jews flying their orange flags of protest will conclude that it is Sharon and Israel that have most at risk. I beg to differ. If the withdrawal results in no diminution of terrorism, if it results in a Hamas controlled Gaza being the source of further attacks against Israel, then the Israeli defence forces have the capacity to respond decisively. Sharon said yesterday, in a nationwide address, ‘If they choose fire, we will respond with fire, more severe than ever.’

But, most importantly, if this unilateral withdrawal is rewarded with violence, Israel’s complaint that there is no partner for peace will be confirmed. The world will have seen Israel go through the most agonising and demoralising internal struggle as it withdrew from Gaza. It will have seen how difficult—nearly impossible—it was even for a leader like Sharon to complete that withdrawal. Then, if after all that, the critics of withdrawal are confirmed—if, after all that, withdrawal is a recipe for more violence, not peace—how can the world continue to pressure the Israelis to cede more territory? On the other hand, if all our prayers are fulfilled and the withdrawal does succeed in creating a new level of trust and the end, or perhaps the beginning of the end, of violence, then all the people of Israel and the Palestinian territories will be winners, as we will all be.

Prime Minister Sharon is as tough and as shrewd as they come. He knows what he is playing for. One outcome least sought but most likely is that the withdrawal does nothing to diminish the level of terror, but it will certainly make Israel’s borders somewhat easier and much cheaper to defend. It will give Israel a powerful moral argument to use to resist further concessions. The other outcome most sought but less likely is that it will be the beginning of peace. Abu Mazen and the Palestinians have the most at risk in this game. It can be the renewal of a peace process or it can be the loss of considerable moral capital in the eyes of the free world. So while the world focuses on Sharon and Israel, it is the player on the other side of the chessboard who has the most challenging moves to make and the most to win or lose. Sharon is putting the ball in Abu Mazen’s court—he cannot afford to drop it.

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