Its response to Danby lays bare ABC’s hubris
Even Media Watch attested to the accuracy of the Labor MP’s criticism over reports on Israel
As the great Yugoslav dissident and democratic socialist Milovan Djilas once remarked: “In politics more than anything else, the beginning of everything lies in moral indignation.”
Michael Danby, the federal Labor member for Melbourne Ports, has been feeling some moral indignation about the ABC’s coverage of Israel.
He has been the Labor member for Melbourne Ports since 1998. Before that he was a union official and for a time worked for Jewish community organisations.
Danby is Jewish. His father was born in a part of Germany that later became a part of Poland. Danby’s grandfather, though he had served in the German army, was, along with his wife and many members of his family, slaughtered at Auschwitz.
Melbourne Ports is one of the two federal seats with the highest proportion of Jewish voters. Danby is not a single-issue politician but is a strong supporter of Israel who believes the ABC does not report the nation fairly.
Frankly, no one could seriously contest that proposition.
Danby is a passionate man, sometimes impetuous. He almost never gets invited on to any ABC program and the Melbournebased Fairfax media never prints his opeds but merely attacks him from the left, as do the fellow travelling websites such as Crikey and The Guardian Australia.
So occasionally he buys ads to make his point. He has even used his electorate communications allowance for this, after checking with the relevant agencies that this was kosher, so to speak.
He has bought advertisements to campaign for public transport in his electorate, for more federal infrastructure spending, for same-sex marriage, and sometimes for issues relating to Israel and, on a couple of occasions, Iran.
A former chairman of the parliamentary joint standing committee on foreign affairs, he is an old-style social democratic internationalist with a passionate concern for human rights, free trade unions and the like.
Danby took two ads in The Australian Jewish News over a couple of weeks to complain about the treatment of Israel by the ABC’s Sophie McNeill.
The ABC’s Media Watch summarised one ad. It said: “The nub of Danby’s complaint is that two recent stories by McNeill received very different coverage. The eviction of a Palestinian family last month after a court returned their home to Jewish ownership scored a two-minute feature on the midday news.
“But the stabbing to death of three members of a Jewish family in July did not receive such personal treatment and was reported only in the context of a surge of violence in which four Palestinians were also killed. They did not get feature treatment either. So, is that bias? Or part of a pattern?”
It is honest of Media Watch to pose the question that way. Let me answer it: Yes, it is a pattern, and yes, it is bias.
The ABC is consistently biased against Israel in a similar way to the BBC and for similar reasons. The overwhelming majority of ABC reporters and general broadcast commentators share a fairly narrow spectrum of world view, ranging from the middle left of Labor to the green left.
This is why the ABC finds it so difficult to come to grips with, or even understand, the complaints this kind of bias generates.
Within their world view these ABC broadcasters mostly behave professionally, and in the field often with heroic distinction. But in that world view, as has been well established in countless books and studies, Israel represents, entirely falsely in my view, Western colonialism, militarism and racism.
This gives reporters and producers an instinct never to represent Israel sympathetically. Jewish Israeli civilians (even victims of terrorism) are almost never portrayed sympathetically on the ABC, unless they are abusing their government or society. Then they are moral heroes.
To humanise an innocent Jewish Israeli grandfather or child brutally murdered in their home by a terrorist seems somehow or other to be supportive of Israel, so it is rarely done.
Danby in his ads was responding to this profound emotional truth. The ABC’s response to Danby’s criticisms is dismaying. It exhibits bullying, hubris and unchecked power.
But first a word on McNeill. It is the case that she had a record, before her appointment as a correspondent, of pro-Palestinian activism. It is entirely legitimate for critics of her journalism to point to that history. It’s also entirely legitimate to criticise journalists. This may shock you, dear reader, but there have been occasions when I myself have been criticised, even indeed on the ABC, meaning the criticism came from taxpayers’ money.
ABC broadcasters sometimes darkly refer to “dossiers” that have been compiled on McNeill, as though this involved nefarious access to ASIO files. What they mean by dossiers is articles and footage that McNeill herself has produced. In other words, judging a journalist by their output.
Quelle horreur — surely only the Elders of Zion could plot such fiendish stratagems!
The ABC issued a kind of papal document beatifying McNeill and condemning Danby’s criticism as “highly inappropriate”. McNeill herself issued a bizarre statement demanding Danby be censored. She said: “If using taxpayer dollars to print false claims about a journalist is allowed within parliamentary guidelines, then clearly they need to change.”
Just take a step back and look at the larger picture. Danby, who almost never appears on the ABC, has paid for critical but not remotely abusive ads, the basic accuracy of which is attested by the ABC’s Media Watch, in small-circulation newspapers that might reach 20,000 readers. In response he is attacked, mocked, vilified and condemned in many ABC news programs and by numerous ABC commentators to a cumulative audience in the hundreds of thousands if not millions.
A more sophisticated broadcaster would have interviewed Danby at length about his criticisms
Surely even in the ABC someone must see this is a kind of parody of free speech.
It’s more like the Chinese Communist Party discovering an enemy of the state preaching in a home church and simultaneously denouncing him in People’s Daily, Global Times and the Xinhua News Agency (irony alert, that sentence consciously involves exaggeration, don’t pretend to take it literally).
The ABC did the same thing a couple of years ago when a Jewish old folks’ home withdrew an invitation to the actress Miriam Margolyes to read from an anti-Israel play. All over the country the ABC beat this story to death as a crime against free speech.
Naturally the nursing home didn’t want to debate Margolyes, so she was given uncritical interviews, with no attempt to provide a balancing voice, to a cumulative audience in the hundreds of thousands to berate Israel and defame the Jewish community. Oi vey! The implication is always that Jewish criticism of the ABC over Israel is somehow sinister. Two questions: what penalty has any ABC producer or broadcaster ever paid for this criticism? Answer: none. Therefore it is really not too sinister. And is not even the ABC aware of the true, astonishing weirdness of a body that gets more than $1 billion of taxpayers’ money each year trying not to answer criticism but to declare it “inappropriate”?
A more sophisticated broadcaster would have interviewed Danby at length about his criticisms, even if the interview was robust or Danby’s views were answered by somebody else.
The worst part of this saga is that Bill Shorten gave in to ABC pressure and admonished his colleague.
Full disclosure: I have known Danby for more than 40 years, and admired him all that time. He is exactly the kind of person we need in parliament — passionate, fiercely independent, brave as a lion, taken up with human rights concerns in China, Tibet, North Korea, Darfur — a genuine internationalist of which there are almost none in Canberra.
In taking on the colossus of the ABC, Danby spoke truth to power. Good on him.