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Cancelling a journalist was a cowardly act by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

January 18, 2024 at 2:45 pm

Award-winning journalist and author Antoinette Lattouf on 30 April, 2022 [@antoinette_news/X]

What a cowardly act it was. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), a national broadcaster supposedly dedicated to fearless reporting, was cowed by the intemperate bellyaching of a lobby group concerned about coverage of the Israel-Gaza war. An investigation by The Age newspaper demonstrated that the dismissal of broadcaster Antoinette Lattouf last month was the nasty fruit of a campaign waged against the corporation’s management, including its chair, Ita Buttrose, and managing director David Anderson.

The official reason for Lattouf’s dismissal was disturbingly ordinary. She had not, for instance, decided to become a flag-swathed bomb thrower for the Palestinian cause; she had engaged in no hostage-taking campaign; nor had she intimidated any Israeli figure. The sacking had purportedly been made over sharing a post on social media by Human Rights Watch about Israel that mentioned “using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war in Gaza”, calling it “a war crime”. It also noted the express intention by Israeli officials to pursue this strategy. Actions are also documented: the deliberate blocking of the delivery of food, water and fuel “while wilfully obstructing the entry of aid.” The sharing of this on social media by Lattouf followed an ABC directive not to post “matters of controversy”.

Human Rights Watch might be accused of many things: the corporate face of human rights activism; the activist transformed into fundraising agent and boardroom gaming strategist, for example. But to share material from the organisation on alleged abuses is hardly dangerous radicalism.

Prior to the revelations in The Age, much had been made of Lattouf’s fill-in role as a radio presenter, a stint that was to last for five shows. True to form, The Australian had its own issue with Lattouf’s statements made on various online platforms. In December, the newspaper found it strange that she was appointed “despite her very public anti-Israel stance.” She was also accused of denying the lurid interpretations put upon footage of protests outside Sydney Opera House, some of which called for gassing Jews. And she dared to accuse the Israeli occupation forces of rape.

It was also considered odd that she discussed such matters as food and water shortages in Gaza and “an advertising campaign showing corpses reminiscent of being wrapped in Muslim burial cloths” which “left ‘a lot of people really upset’.” If war is hell, then Lattouf was evidently not allowed to go into quite so much detail about it, at least when the fate of Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli war machine is concerned.

READ: Report: Half of Israel army battalion refused to fight in Gaza

What also transpires is that the ABC managers were not merely targeting Lattouf on their own, sadistic initiative. Some degree of pressure had been applied from outside the corporation. According to The Age, WhatsApp messages had been sent to the ABC as part of a coordinated campaign by a group called Lawyers for Israel.

The day that Lattouf was sacked, Sydney property lawyer Nicky Stein began proceedings by telling members of the group to contact the federal minister for communication asking “how Antoinette is hosting the morning ABC Sydney show.” Employing Lattouf, it was claimed, breached Clause 4 of the ABC code of practice on impartiality.

Stein cockily went on to insist that, “It’s important ABC hears from not just individuals in the community but specifically from lawyers so they feel there is an actual legal threat.” She went on to say that a “proper” rather than “generic” response was expected from the broadcaster “by COB [close of business] today or I would look to engage senior counsel.”

Did such windy threats have any basis? No, according to Stein in leaked WhatsApp messages. “I know there is probably no actionable offence against the ABC but I didn’t say I would be taking one – just investigating one. I have said that they should be terminating her employment immediately.” Utterly charming, and sufficiently so to attract attention from the ABC chairperson herself, who asked for further venting of concerns.

READ: Israel lawyers broke every possible record for ‘feigned innocence’ at ICJ over Gaza war: Journalist

Indeed, another member of the haranguing clique, Robert Goot, also deputy president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, could boast of information he had received that Lattouf would be “gone from morning radio from Friday” because of her anti-Israel stance.

There has been something of a journalistic exodus from the ABC of late. Nour Haydar, an Australian journalist also of Lebanese descent, resigned after expressing her concerns about the coverage of the Israel-Gaza conflict at the broadcaster. There had been, for instance, the creation of a “Gaza advisory panel” at the behest of ABC News director Justin Stevens, ostensibly to improve the coverage of the conflict. “Accuracy and impartiality are core to the service we offer audiences,” Stevens explained to staff. “We must stay independent and not ‘take sides’.”

What proves acceptable… is never to say that Israel massacres, commits war crimes and brings about conditions approximating to genocide

This pointless assertion can only ever be a threat because it acts as an injunction on staff and a judgment against sources that do not favour the official line, however credible they might be. What proves acceptable, a condition that seems to have paralysed the ABC, is never to say that Israel massacres, commits war crimes and brings about conditions approximating to genocide. Little wonder that coverage of South Africa’s genocide case against Israel in the International Court of Justice does not get top billing on ABC news headlines.

Palestinians and Palestinian militias, on the other hand, can always be written about as brute savages, rapists and baby slayers. Throw in fanaticism and Islam, and you have the complete package ready for transmission. Coverage of Israel-Palestine in the mainstream media in most Western liberal democracies, as the late Robert Fisk pointed out, repeatedly asserts these divisions.

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After her resignation, Haydar told the Sydney Morning Herald that, “Commitment to diversity in the media cannot be skin deep. Culturally diverse staff should be respected and supported even when they challenge the status quo.” Haydar’s argument about cultural diversity, though, should not obscure the broader problem facing the ABC: policing the way opinions and material on war and any other divisive topic is shared. The issue goes less to cultural diversity than permitted intellectual breadth, which is narrowing at the national broadcaster.

Lattouf, for her part, is pursuing remedies through the Fair Work Commission, and seeking funding through a GoFundMe page, steered by Lauren Dubois: “We stand with Antoinette and support the rights of workers to be able to share news that expresses an opinion or reinforces a fact, without fear of retribution.”

Kenneth Roth, former head of Human Rights Watch, expressed his displeasure at the treatment of Lattouf for sharing HRW material, suggesting that the ABC had erred. ABC’s senior management, in a statement from managing director David Anderson, preferred the route of craven denial, rejecting “any claim that it has been influenced by any external pressure, whether it be an advocacy group or lobby group, a political party, or commercial entity.” Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.