What 'Impartial' Means At The Oz


Journalist Christian Kerr recently filed a series of critical articles in The Australian about me over my support for an academic boycott of Israel, and then boasted to friends about using the paper to further his own views on the subject.

Kerr posted on his personal Facebook page that he was "proud of breaking the story" about my refusal to host a visiting academic from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem because, in his opinion, the boycott amounted to "institutionalised racism masquerading as a statement of liberty" and was "contemptible".

The next day, the Canberra-based correspondent reported that the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), which I head, "may be breaching the Race Discrimination Act".

Equating support for the boycott with racism is a contested question at the heart of Kerr’s story. Peter Slezak, of Independent Australian Jewish Voices, described it as a "slur" calculated "to demonise those who speak out publicly in support of Palestinian human rights and international law".

Professor Wendy Bacon of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism told NM:

"When reporters have a personal stake or interest in a story, they should be very careful to give someone against whom they are making allegations the right to respond. Otherwise you can end up doing hatchet jobs, getting things wrong or creating stories to meet your own agenda".

I was not quoted in Kerr’s article about the Race Discrimination Act.

In emailed replies to questions from NM, Kerr attributed his Facebook page entry to his excitement at "the feeling of breaking a story that generates an enormous amount of comment and interest".

The Australian is known for its strong editorial lines, but its mission statement, issued on the publication of its first edition in 1964, promises "impartial information". A profile of editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell, published last year in The Monthly, said "Mitchell and his staff take this credo seriously. They refer to it often and cite it in their defence when criticised".

In a telephone interview with NM, Mitchell said he was not concerned about Kerr’s own political views tilting his reporting: "Any reporter is influenced by their own personal views … you try to obtain some sort of internal balance" by using a range of sources.

Asked how this could be reconciled with the Australian’s commitment to impartial news, Mitchell added: "After 40 years as a journalist and 21 years as a national newspaper editor, I wouldn’t get into the idea that any reporter has ever been completely unbiased".

Peter Fray, former Managing Editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, told NM, "journos obviously do have personal views and they should keep them out of news reporting", although Kerr, he believes, had "every right to get excited… I am not sure [he]was biased".

Another of Kerr’s articles quoted Opposition Deputy Leader Julie Bishop, calling on Foreign Minister Bob Carr to "reveal" whether AusAID knew of CPACS’ support for the boycott before granting it $47,000 under the International Seminar Support Scheme in 2010. The ISSS pays conference expenses for delegates from a list of developing countries — not Israel, which is a high-income country so it is assumed Israelis can pay their own way. As an open, competitive scheme, ministers have no role in determining the outcome of individual applications.

Professor Stuart Rees, Chair of the Sydney Peace Foundation, told New Matilda: "Julie Bishop’s comments appear to make no sense. Either she was speaking with her foot in her mouth, or the reporter failed to spell out the nature of the grant [to get the quote]".

Up to the time of publication, NM was seeking a response from Bishop. Both her office and Christian Kerr declined to specify whether these aspects of the scheme were fully explained before she made her comments.

In a separate development, CPACS’ governing Council this week reaffirmed its commitment to the academic boycott of institutional ties with Israeli universities, and expressed support for the stance Lynch had taken, by 16 votes to one, with two abstentions.

Jake Lynch explains why he supports boycotts here.

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