Tuesday, February 27, 2018

27-Feb-18: On Australia's ABC and being unbalanced

If you have spent time living in Australia, as we did before moving our family to Israel thirty years ago, you know of the pleasures and disappointments that the ABC is capable of delivering:
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) is Australia's national broadcaster, funded by the Australian Federal Government but specifically independent of Government and politics in the Commonwealth. The ABC plays a leading role in journalistic independence and is fundamental in the history of broadcasting in Australia, its model based on – but not restricted to – the BBC in the United Kingdom... In recent times, the Corporation provides television, radio, online and mobile services throughout metropolitan and regional Australia, as well as overseas through Australia Plus and Radio Australia... [Wikipedia]
Its annual funding from the Australian government had already easily exceeded a billion Australian dollars in the 2016 budget year and it has kept rising since then. A serious operation on any view.

We posted a pained analysis last week of the coverage the ABC gave to the violent and aggressive Tamimi clan and especially to Ahed Tamimi, the 17 year-old rising star of the Tamimi collective's robust "in your face" anti-Israel political activism ["21-Feb-18: News industry activism, its tendentious outcomes and the Tamimis"]. If you haven't already read it, please do before reading on. We feel we raised serious points worthy of rational discussion and consideration. But we have been ignored by the ABC and by Sophie McNeill, its correspondent.

It now occurs to us that our past experiences with the ABC are depressingly consistent with the latest chapter.

A decade and a half ago, we documented what we experienced ["ABC Producer: "It will be difficult to proceed without appearing unbalanced...""] and published it on the Malki Foundation website since it bore directly on the foundation's work in Australia. That report is now unfortunately hard to access (stuck inside the archived edition of the website). So now and via this blog of ours, we want to revisit what happened and the issues it threw up.
NOTE: Most of the text that follows is lifted verbatim from the archived 2003 report, with some light editing we have just done to reflect the passage of the years. Here goes.
In August 2001, the then-head of the ABC's Middle East bureau, Tim Palmer, emailed me [Arnold Roth]. This was just a few days after Malki's murder. He invited me to join him for a press interview in Jerusalem. I immediately agreed. For reasons described below, that interview never took place. 

Baby carriages everywhere: The scene outside the Sbarro pizzeria in
central Jerusalem in the first hour after the massive 2001 bomb explosion.
The body of our murdered 15 year old daughter was likely inside
the devastated shell of the building when this news photo was snapped.
In fact Palmer and I did not meet then or, despite efforts on my part but not his, ever. A little after our conversation, he was posted to the ABC's Jakarta bureau and after that, I think, took up a senior ABC management position in Australia. I have not kept up with his career during the past decade and don't know where he is now or what he does. 

Fast forward. A day or two before I was due to travel back to Melbourne in August 2003 to visit my mother (who has since passed away), the ABC contacted me again from Australia. They had learned I was coming and I was invited to be an on-air guest on their widely-heard Radio National breakfast program to speak. The subject was the work of Keren Malki, the charitable foundation my wife and I had created in September 2001 to honour the life of Malki and to do good in her name for families coping with the challenges of a seriously disabled child, as we ourselves do. This early morning interview was set to take place just a few hours after my scheduled arrival from Israel. 

Late on the night before the program, just as I reached my mother's home from Melbourne airport, a phone message and an email were waiting for me. The key part, sent to me by a radio producer at the ABC, was this:
"Given the coverage we gave on today's programme to the latest explosion in Jerusalem - my executive producer and I agree that we will have to cancel. This morning we devoted considerable time to representatives from both Jewish and Palestinian organisations, and always seek to put both views forward.  Although your foundation is working to benefit both Israeli and Palestinian families, it will nevertheless be difficult to proceed without appearing unbalanced."
The quote is verbatim; I added the bolding.

The ABC's message left me astonished and perplexed. Balance, whatever view you take of how to achieve it, cannot mean - I felt - what this ABC producer interpreted it to mean.

About her mention of "the latest explosion": this referred to a ghastly Arab-on-Israeli terrorist massacre on a city bus in Jerusalem the previous night. It happened just as two of my daughters and I were stepping out of our Jerusalem home to drive to Tel Aviv airport at the start of our Australian visit. The neighbourhood where the bomb attack was carried out is close to where we live.

This New York Times report filed right afterwards says 18 were killed but eventually it turned out to be 24, with about 130 seriously injured. The dead included 8 children. Two of them were babies of 3 months and 11 months. One of the adult dead was a young mother in the eighth month of her pregnancy. From experience, we know Arab-on-Israeli terrorists usually have a strong sense of whom they want to kill and what sort of impact they hope for. Given the location, this attack was aimed at Haredi mothers, children and infants.

Piers Akerman, then as now an influential and widely-read and respected newspaper columnist whom I did not know until this visit and had never met previously, took up the issue in his weekly newspaper column a few days later.
Aunty trips up on its balancing act  
Piers Akerman | The Daily Telegraph, Sydney | August 25, 2003 | [Originally posted at this non-current location] | FIFTEEN-year-old Australian-born Malki Roth was murdered by a suicidal bomber as she sat among her girlfriends in a Jerusalem pizzeria two years ago. PIERS AKERMAN writes.
Her killer, Izzadin Al-Masri, 23, a member of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, came from a middle-class Palestinian family with investments in Jenin and Nablus.
He'd been hinting for about a month that he planned to become an Islamic "martyr".
Young Palestinians are encouraged to hate Jews and to believe they are destined to martyrdom (with a complete suite of virgins, in the case of the young boys) from their earliest childhood by the Palestinian authorities. 
Al-Masri's father, Shaheel, was subsequently quoted expressing pride in his son's suicide and at his son's slaughter of 14 Israelis. 
Arnold Roth, the father of the murdered teenager expressed his outrage at the barbarism in The Washington Post. This prompted the ABC's then-Middle East bureau chief Tim Palmer, to ask him for an interview.
Mr Roth said he would "have no objection at all to speaking with you on the record, and if it can help get out the story of how sad Malki's loss is, then I would like to do it".
But in a response which reveals either an appalling absence of any moral compass on the part of the ABC's senior staffer, or a total lack of any understanding of the conflict, Palmer said he intended to bracket Mr Roth with an interview with the murderer's proud father.
Can it be that this is what ABC boss Russell Balding has in mind when he babbles about "balance" at the national broadcaster?
Does it believe there can be some "balance", some symmetry, some moral equivalence in presenting the father of a murdered teenager who spent her school holidays providing care for severely handicapped children and the father of a young man who believed it was his religious purpose to murder innocent people? 
Palmer promised to get back to Mr Roth but did not.
Last week, Mr Roth, who has set up the Malki Foundation to raise funds to assist families with severely retarded children in memory of his daughter's passion, arrived in Melbourne from Israel to find a message from an ABC radio producer, who had earlier asked him to be a guest on a morning program.
The note said: "I'm writing to let you know that unfortunately we are going to have to cancel arrangements to interview you Friday morning on our programme.
"Given the coverage we gave on today's programme to the latest explosion in Jerusalem, my executive producer and I agree that we will have to cancel.
"This morning we devoted considerable time to representatives from both Jewish and Palestinian organisations, and always seek to put both views forward.
"Although your foundation is working to benefit both Israeli and Palestinian families, it will nevertheless be difficult to proceed without appearing unbalanced.
"My apologies and best wishes for your trip."
How a discussion with Mr Roth about the Malki Foundation which places no religious or racial qualifications on those it helps affects the ABC's "balance" is bewildering. The second family it assisted was in fact a Jordanian Palestinian.
Could it be that the ABC searched for an equivalent Palestinian charitable organisation but drew a blank? Perhaps it could ask Federal Labor's pro-Palestinian lobbyists Leo McLeay and Julia Irwin to point them to an Arab organisation as even-handed in its approach as the memorial to the murdered Australian Australian volunteer child care worker?
It might produce a program explaining that Israeli children are taught peace education while the Palestinian Authority's approved curriculum and Palestinian television teaches hate and prepares young people for "martyrdom". Or would such a program also fail the ABC's nonsensical idea of "balance"?
Mr Roth says the Malki Foundation is his retaliation at those who killed his daughter.
"These people, Hamas, radiate hate," he said. "We cannot out-hate them but we can help Palestinian Arabs and show them that their strategy of hate has failed. If they choke on our aid, so be it.
"They are non-entities, when they murder they will be forgotten, but my daughter will live in the memories of those we help."
In the warped ABC culture, however, Malki Roth will be forever marked as the equivalent of murderous "martyr" Izzadin Al-Masri all in the interests of "balance".
Battle lines were quickly drawn. Responding later that week, the ABC's managing director (equivalent to its CEO) at the time, Russell Balding, published a letter in the same newspaper. A longer version of it was then posted on the ABC's own website (the following text is from there):
Thursday 28 August  2003 | Letter by the Managing Director to the Daily Telegraph 
Dear Editor 
Usually, it hardly seems worth the effort to respond to Mr Akerman's predictable criticisms of the ABC. It is better to trust in the readership of The Daily Telegraph to decipher his unique form of prejudice. Unfortunately, Mr Akerman's latest exercise in poor taste, ("Aunty trips up on its balancing act," August 26), demands a considered response. The article criticises the award winning ABC Journalist, Tim Palmer, for attempting to construct a story featuring the father of a suicide bomb victim (Malki Roth) and the father of the perpetrator (Izzadin Al-Masri). The Daily Telegraph did precisely this when it published two stories on the same page featuring the respective fathers on August 11, 2001. The attack occurred in Israel two years ago and Mr Palmer covered it extensively, including reporting on the reaction of other relatives of the victims. 
According to Mr Akerman, the ABC has no right to feature both fathers in a story, and such an approach reveals an appalling absence of any moral compass on the part of the ABC's senior staffer. Not only was Mr Arnold Roth told about the other interview - he was given the opportunity to reject having his words broadcast in a manner unacceptable to him. This was done as a courtesy and out of respect for a grieving father. The article's conclusion then drew a startling analogy: in the warped ABC culture, however, Malki Roth will be forever marked as the equivalent of murderous martyr Izzadin Al-Masri. 
This is a disgraceful and thoroughly unjustifiable slur on the ABC and Tim Palmer. The ABC never tried to argue there was a moral equivalence between the death of Malki Roth and the murder by Izzadin Al-Masri. In the end, Tim Palmer decided not to proceed with the story and Mr Roth was not interviewed. The fact that Mr Akerman acknowledges this and still continues with his theory of ABC moral turpitude compounds the overall offence of his article. 
Malki Roth's father, Arnold Roth, was interviewed by the ABC's 7.30 Report on August 21. He spoke of his foundation to help Arab and Israeli disabled children. Also on the program were Khaled Abu Awad and Robi Damelin, other parents of children killed in the Israel-Palestine conflict. They were involved in organising camps for Israeli and Palestinian children. Mr Damelin noted: "The idea is to get them to interact for four to five days and to create a friendship by the end of this, because they can go out and be ambassadors to their friends - and maybe that will start to grow from that age-group". I invite your readers to view the transcript. Does Mr Akerman detect an `absence of any moral compass' in this story? Unfortunately, I suspect he does, as he quite simply lacks the capacity for impartiality. 
Yours sincerely
Russell Balding
Managing Director, ABC
Believing that Mr. Balding's letter did not do justice to the issues, I sent a letter of my own to the Daily Telegraph. This was published on August 30, 2003 but in a highly edited version which failed to convey the points I intended to make. The full text of my letter in the form I actually wrote it now follows.
Thursday 28th August 2003
The Editor
The Daily Telegraph
Sir: Russell Balding, the ABC's managing director, criticizes Piers Akerman's very cogent column "Aunty trips up on its balancing act". I'm sorry to be getting drawn into an unpleasant conflict over the actions and policies of the ABC. But the mis-characterization of events in the letter demands an answer. 
Mr Balding makes no mention at all of what occurred last Friday: an interview by ABC national radio with me, to focus on the work of the Malki Foundation, was cancelled because, as the producer wrote to me "it will... be difficult to proceed without appearing unbalanced."
The Malki Foundation exists to honour the memory of my murdered daughter, born in Melbourne and murdered in Jerusalem at the age of 15. The Foundation provides equipment and therapies for families, with absolutely no regard to their race or religion, so long as they want to give their disabled children the best possible home care. It does very decent humanitarian work.
On Wednesday, this human interest story was going to be a national radio feature. The following day -- not. What changed?
Just one thing: the fact that a terror attack -- the "massacre of the children" -- took place on a bus a few minutes drive from my Jerusalem home, proudly executed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists.
Thus the question of whether a human interest story about an Australian family is suitable for broadcast on the ABC has turned into a function of whether or not a terror outrage occurred in Israel that day. Was that the intention? Does "balance" have to mean this?
Mr Balding's letter describes a conversation that took place two years ago between me and one of his reporters, the "award-winning" Tim Palmer (as Mr Balding carefully describes him). In doing so, he has seriously mis-stated aspects of what happened, perhaps because he took no part in that conversation himself.
My wife and I have been determined to ensure that Malki's death two years ago never becomes a mere statistical blip. This has meant we frequently meet with, and speak to, journalists from all over the world. We talk publicly about Malki at every possible opportunity.
Thus, when Tim Palmer, the ABC's man in Jerusalem at the time, approached me for an interview after the Sbarro restaurant massacre, I agreed immediately. Then Palmer told me it would take place only if I consented to his bracketing me with the father of the murderer. He explained that this was a political story and had to be told in a political fashion with both sides being heard.
If you ask me what he meant by "bracketing", I don't know. Did he mean to put the murderer's father and me in the same room, or have us both on the same phone line? Most likely not, but I don't know. We never got to the part where he explained it to me, because I told him right away I could never give a hand to his attempt at false comparisons and bogus moral equivalence. And if you wonder what the other side of the murder of a fifteen year-old could possibly be, then you can join the club. I'm simply baffled by this way of looking at things.
The ABC's MD says his organization "never tried to argue there was a moral equivalence between the death of Malki Roth and the murder". But Tim Palmer himself said in one of his emails that he dropped the interview with the murderer's father because he "was unable to present the counterpoint". To many people, the notion that there is a counterpoint to the murder of a child will be grotesque. It greatly hurt my wife and me.
Mr Balding's letter says that whatever the ABC did, the Daily Telegraph did the same or worse, and seems to imply this is good for the ABC's case. But I have carefully read the Telegraph's report of my daughter's murder [The actual August 2001 page is posted here - AR] and it is perfectly clear to me that Mr Balding's assertion on this point is wrong. The Telegraph's treatment of the story is fair and reasonable. The ABC's treatment of me was not. 
Finally, I'm puzzled that Mr Balding's letter does not seem to address the question of whether or not Palmer and the ABC acted properly towards me. I think it is inappropriate to raise matters of this kind in a newspaper, so I am preparing a brief for Mr Balding which will include copies of all the emails passing between Palmer and me over the past two years. I will be asking him to inform himself about the judgement and approach of the journalist he seeks to defend. His answer will be very important to me.
Arnold Roth
I didn't hear from Mr Balding after the letter was published - not in 2003 and not in all the years since then. And I found it hard to follow up with a brief for him, so I let the matter drop.

One of the ABC's several regional headquarters [Image Source]
Piers Akerman then provided his own commentary on Balding's letter in another Telegraph column published the following week:
It's someone else's ABC ignoring facts
Piers Akerman | The Daily Telegraph, Sydney | September 2, 2003 | [Archived here]
ABC boss Russell Balding is in serious need of a reality check. His response to my column last Tuesday was full of argument but light on facts, as Arnold Roth, the father of murdered Australian schoolgirl Malki Roth, lucidly demonstrated in his letter published in The Daily Telegraph on Saturday. 
The bean counter's tasteless attack and threadbare defence clearly illustrated how profoundly the public broadcaster has lost its moral compass.
Unfortunately, such brainless bluster from the top appears to be in keeping with much of the ABC's warped culture of denial. Take the numerous complaints made about a Radio National broadcast just over a year ago in which reporter Peter Cave unequivocally asserted a massacre had taken place in Jenin in April, 2002.
The issue is of importance to Australian audiences as some Australian Muslims still believe that Israeli troops participated in the fictitious massacre, just as they choose to believe the US was behind the attacks on the World Trade Centre, despite Osama bin Laden's jubilant claim of responsibility, and that the US is a colonising power.
The ABC refuses to correct the record despite the fact that there have been two investigations, one by Human Rights Watch and the other by the UN, which have failed to support the claim.
The Human Rights Watch report, based on interviews with people present during the Jenin fighting, is straightforward. It states it "found no evidence to sustain claims of massacres or large-scale extrajudicial executions by the IDF [Israeli Defence Force] in Jenin refugee camp".
The UN report, compiled without a visit to Jenin, typically does not rule decisively either way. It appears to draw heavily on the Human Rights Watch report but does allow that an allegation by a Palestinian Authority official that some 500 people had been killed "has not been substantiated in the light of the evidence that has emerged".
Not good enough for the ABC, however, which remains the sole Western media outlet to maintain its curious but inflammatory view that a massacre took place.
A rational national broadcaster would recognise its serious error and atone and any examination of the record and the investigators' reports would indicate that the ABC has a clear responsibility to correct Cave's report.
But those who have asked for a correction have been treated very shabbily indeed.
When ABC listener Ralph Zwier sought a review of Cave's explicit report, he was told that the Independent Complaints Review Panel (ICRP) would first see whether it would accept the complaint. It did not.
In a patronising response, ICRP convenor Ted Thomas tartly told Mr Zwier: "You and I surely cannot be certain how all Western media dealt with the story."
He then went on to split hairs over whether the ABC's charter meant it was required to be a "mainstream" or a "specialist" broadcaster and dismissed the charter's requirement for balance and impartiality with the thought that "it does not require them to be unquestioning..." 
Mr Zwier then asked if the "independent" panel would clarify the criteria on which it determined whether to review complaints. He was told that it's up to the convenor of the ICRP - that is, it's arbitrary.
Under the ABC's risible complaints procedure, either the managing director or the convenor of its ridiculously titled panel call the shots if they are of the opinion that a complaint "alleges a sufficiently serious case of bias, lack of balance or unfair treatment to warrant independent review; or is a matter of public notoriety which warrants such a review". 
While some Muslims in this country continue to claim a massacre took place in Jenin, despite all the proven facts, and use this assertion to reinforce their ridiculous claims about a global conspiracy against their religion, it is obvious the matter is serious.
That it is a matter of public notoriety goes without saying. 
Mr Zwier is now considering whether to take his complaint to the Australian Broadcasting Authority, the next link in the chain. 
It is to be hoped that he will pursue this option - and forward copies of all his correspondence to Communications Minister Richard Alston, Senator George Brandis and Opposition leader Simon Crean. 
The ABC's refusal to correct the record and apologise about the Jenin claim indicates "our" ABC belongs to Yasser Arafat's propaganda unit.
In wrapping up the 2003 version of this article, I noted that Palmer of the ABC, who sought to bracket me with the father of my child's murderer,
emailed me several times in the two years after Malki's murder, most recently on the day Akerman's first column appeared. I was puzzled and very bothered by some of the things he wrote and did. When a politically charged issue has to be covered, there's room for debate about whether and how the media achieve a balanced presentation of the competing versions of the facts and opinions. In the case of the ABC's coverage of my daughter's murder and of the work of the foundation we set up in her memory, I feel that the failures and mistakes of ABC management and staff are plain and clear. They call, it seems to me, for lessons to be learned and changes to be implemented. I intend to do what I can to advance that process.
From an APC brochure
Several months after this 2003 report above was published, Palmer filed a complaint against Piers Akerman with the Australian Press Council.

Crikey, a widely-read independent online source of analysis about Australia's media industries, gave it coverage [archived here]. In October 2004, the APC, which had rejected my [Arnold Roth's] written request to make a submission so that my obviously highly relevant position would be heard, ruled against Akerman and in favour of Palmer and the ABC. The text of the decision is reported in the Sydney Daily Telegraph [PDF here] which appealed. Its appeal was rejected.

The Australian Jewish News reported on November 4, 2004 [PDF here] about the outcome. Here's the part where they quote me:
Roth, who now lives in Jerusalem, has not been a party to the proceedings, but wrote an open letter to the ABC last year complaining of how it covered Malki’s murder. He told the AJN from Israel this week: “The notion that an opinion piece needs to incorporate the response of the person about whom the opinion is expressed seems to me to be very odd. Bearing in mind the complaint was made by [the ABC's Palmer] one of the most influential journalists in Australia – one who manages to get his views across at will – makes this even odder.” Roth said that of around 150 interviews he has given about Malki’s murder, Palmer was one of only two journalists who said they planned to weld the interview to an interview with the bomber’s father. “I said I will not give a hand to a bogus comparison between my views and those of the father of the murderer.” Roth said he was affronted by Palmer’s plans for the interview, regardless of what the final product might have looked like. “I don’t think that the issue of what the interview would have said ought to have been the matter that decided how the Press Council reached its decision. I think it’s a totally irrelevant question.”
In its statement, the Press Council made no comment about Akerman’s account of how, on a visit to Melbourne in 2003, Roth was asked to appear on ABC Radio to talk about Keren Malki, a foundation which he founded to raise money for Jewish and Palestinian families with disabilities, in memory of Malki’s work in this area. But, recalled Akerman, Roth was later notified that the interview would not take place because of coverage given to another Palestinian bombing and that it would be “difficult to proceed without appearing unbalanced”.
The way today's ABC Middle East correspondent and her editors and managers have been tackling the Tamimi phenomenon is very much on our minds - especially their obdurate silence in the face of criticism. We mean of course our criticism, though we have the impression they are not responding to other critics on this Tamimi issue either.

Reflecting on the same ABC's conduct of fifteen years ago, it's hard to see how the mistakes of the past have been addressed or the lessons learned. We find the similarity of mindset on display depressing and discouraging.

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