Here is an interesting sentence from the ABC’s Editorial Policy:
"By pushing the boundaries, the ABC stimulates and develops creative new content … which [may]challenge some community sensibilities but also contributes to the diversity of content in the media."
That’s in the latest version of the ABC’s policy, from 2009. A previous version was pithier: the corporation "seeks to be a pace-setter in community discussion … impartiality should not mean endorsing the status quo".
They are indeed fine words: but there is a yawning gap between words and actions. After years of political interference and intimidation — intensified under Howard as public broadcasting was seen as an enemy in the culture wars — a survival instinct has been inculcated in ABC executives, one that exploits such provisions as a labyrinth of hidey-holes, a refuge from inconvenient calls to live up to their principles.
The latest dash for cover was prompted by a documentary, Hope in a Slingshot, by a young Australian film-maker, Inka Stafrace. It showcases grassroots peace initiatives, and the perspectives of human rights campaigners, in the Israel-Palestine conflict — including Palestinians, Israelis and internationals. There are some memorable sequences, especially when the camera follows activists as they defend Palestinian farmers against armed Jewish settlers from one of Israel’s illegal colonies in the occupied West Bank.
I know this because I have watched the film, on a DVD supplied by Inka herself. It has also been shown to small audiences in a few public screenings, but I believe it is worthy of wider attention. Others agree: the rights were acquired by a production company, Ronin Films, and offered to the ABC, who obviously liked it because they made a formal offer to buy it and screen it. But that offer was then abruptly withdrawn, following a personal intervention by the Head of Television, Kim Dalton.
According to Dalton, writing in a letter to Ronin’s managing director, Andrew Pike, Hope in a Slingshot is "an opinion program" about a "contentious" subject. For the ABC to air it would incur an obligation, as required by Clause 6.6.3 of its Editorial Policies, to broadcast another program to "balance" it. Because producers had "not been able to access content which would put an alternative view", Dalton continued, the plan to run Inka’s film would have to be scrapped.
As Greens Senator Scott Ludlam pointed out, that logic seems to require that the ABC broadcast a pro-war program to balance one in favour of peace.
Dalton’s attitude is tediously familiar to those of us who have tried to invoke the ABC’s public service obligations to get fairer coverage of other issues. Clause 5.2.2 (e) states: "Balance will be sought [and]achieved as soon as reasonably practicable and in an appropriate manner … As far as possible, present principal relevant views on matters of importance".
That should also mean regularly airing the widespread view among Australians, revealed by several opinion polls over recent years, that we should stop fighting the war in Afghanistan and pull our troops out — not uncritically, of course, but aired and tested. And it should mean the majority of Australians who — according to a poll last year by the Australian National University — now oppose further rises in "defence" spending, also get a chance to put their case.
Apparently not. A complaint made by me — using the corporation’s formal procedures — that these views were conspicuous by their absence from the ABC’s output, was rejected. ABC executives are able to do this because they have, on the quiet, come up with a sneaky little device to exempt themselves from having to abide by these obligations. It’s done using a statement of seven so-called "news values", drawn up by a management committee in 2008. One of those news values is "prominence", which guides the ABC’s decisions on how and what to cover according to the "[s]tatus, power of the information source, or of the individuals or institutions involved in the event".
For example, the Leader of the Opposition is of equal news value to the Prime Minister, so when they disagree, the differing views must be reported. When they agree, as on the issues mentioned here, then no such obligation exists — unless an exponent for the countervailing opinion can be found, of comparable fame, status and power. As a result, the cosy bipartisan consensus of front-bench politics over the "security" agenda is safely insulated from having to justify itself against other views.
So it has been with Australia’s generally one-sided approach, under governments of both parties, to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Hope in a Slingshot shows the consequences, for Palestinians, of living under Israel’s illegal military occupation of their territory. This last phrase is very simple, and its one in which every word is in keeping with international law, but you are very unlikely to hear it in Australian broadcast news. Over at SBS, an internal memo last year tried to forbid reporters from even using the words, "Palestinian land".
This, in fact, is precisely why broadcasters need something like Inka’s film, because it explores aspects of the conflict that are vital to understanding day-to-day developments, but usually ignored in official political exchanges. The occasional back-bencher who raises them tends to get shouted down and hounded out, as Julia Irwin, retiring MP for Fowler, could tell you.
The ABC censorship is just one of several sinister recent developments. Another is the emergence of a group of academics, led by the Monash Social Work lecturer, Philip Mendes, who criticise what they call a "fanatical form of pro-Palestinian orthodoxy" on the university Left in Australia. The not-so-hidden agenda is to demonise advocates of human rights who argue that the conflict should be seen through the prism of international law, and to attempt to discredit such advocates as racists because they are unwilling to go along with Israeli (and, behind that, US) exceptionalism.
Significant iterations of this campaign include a tendentious scholarly article, smearing the journalism of John Pilger, and a recent contribution to the Australian website of the B’nai B’rith "Anti-Defamation Commission", in which Mendes accuses advocates of a cultural and academic boycott of Israel of "essentialising" all Israeli Jews as being "racist oppressors of the Palestinians".
In fact, the originators of the boycott call go out of their way to distinguish between individual Israelis and the institutional links that are the campaign’s real target: but Mendes is less interested in considering evidence than in assigning labels. The group seems to have ready access to the Australian newspaper, in whose opinion columns Mendes has accused boycott advocates of belonging to the "loony Left".
This strategy of implying that a heterodox opinion is a sign of insanity is a well-worn ploy of authoritarian regimes. Such tactics are a menace to community discussion because they narrow the borders of what the media researcher, Daniel Hallin, called "legitimate controversy". The phrase arises from his study of US media coverage of the Vietnam War, a conflict that was at the time routinely presented as vital to America’s interests, but is now seen in retrospect as a massive waste of life and resources, and a violation of international and humanitarian law.
Happily, such sober reevaluations against prevailing media slants may now proceed more quickly, thanks to the profusion of independent outlets like newmatilda.com. By gaining access to perspectives and versions of events routinely excluded from the "mainstream", we can see round the sides of self-serving agendas of power, despite the surrender by bureaucrats like Dalton at the ABC in the face of thought police like Mendes and the Israel Lobby. The bad news of newmatilda.com‘s passing must be matched with a renewal of the same energy somewhere else.
One good first step would be to watch Hope in a Slingshot for yourself — on Saturday 10 July at the conference of the International Peace Research Association, which we are hosting at the University of Sydney.
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