ABC Australia staff’s concerns over pro-Israel bias revealed

Staff warned that language in the national broadcaster’s coverage ‘favoured the Israeli narrative over objective reporting’.

a grey pillar with the letters ABC
The ABC has been embroiled in controversy over its coverage of the war in Gaza [Joel Carrett/EPA-EFE]

Staff at Australia’s national broadcaster warned that its coverage of the war in Gaza relied too much on Israeli sources and used language that “favoured the Israeli narrative over objective reporting”, internal communications reveal, shedding new light on bias claims that convulsed the outlet.

In a summary of a meeting on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC)’s coverage of the war, staff detailed concerns that coverage displayed pro-Israel bias, such as by accepting “Israeli facts and figures with no ifs or buts” while questioning Palestinian viewpoints and avoiding the word “Palestine” itself.

The three-page summary, which Al Jazeera obtained via a freedom of information request with the ABC, is undated, but its contents correspond with a meeting of 200 staff that was held in November to address concerns about the broadcaster’s coverage.

While the broad thrust of concerns aired at the meeting was reported by Australian media in November, the document contains extensive detail about staff’s complaints and previously unpublicised examples of alleged pro-Israeli bias.

“We’re worried the language we’re using in our coverage is askew, favoring the Israeli narrative over objective reporting. This is evident in our reluctance to use words such as ‘War crimes’, ‘Genocide”, ‘Ethnic cleansing’, ‘Apartheid’ and ‘Occupation’ to describe the various aspects of the Israeli practices in Gaza and the West Bank, even when the words are attributed to respectable organisations and sources,” staff said in the document, which is signed “Concerned ABC journalists and staff” and addressed to “managers and colleagues”.

“Meanwhile, we’re quick to use ‘terrorist’, ‘barbaric’, ‘savage’ and ‘massacre’ when describing the October 7th attacks. Similarly, we regularly quote sources referring to highly contested claims made by Israel, but not those made by Palestinians and their supporters.”

While the ABC could not make accusations of genocide or war crimes taking place, staff said, the broadcaster “should be more proactive in reporting them to properly contextualise the conflict”.

“This is especially the case as we are far more comfortable in labelling Hamas’s actions ‘terrorism’ yet lack the language to correctly describe Israeli aggression in the region,” they said.

“We mention the number of Israeli hostages in many stories, but we never mention the number of Palestinian prisoners in Israel.”




As a result of the ABC’s editorial policies, staff said, audiences had been led to believe that the broadcaster “stifles one narrative in favour of another”.

“Many community members – not limited to the Arab and Muslim communities – in Australia have expressed this view to several ABC journalists and in other forums,” they added.

Staff also said they felt ABC management had failed to defend their staff from attacks by other media and politicians for expressing their personal views on the war, “despite there being instances of the ABC doing that for some senior journalists who have posted about other issues in the past”.

In response to the concerns raised by ABC staff, an ABC spokesperson told Al Jazeera the broadcaster does not comment on confidential staff matters.

“All major stories are subject to robust internal discussion and we listen to and respect staff input,” the spokesperson said.

The spokesperson added that the ABC Ombudsman’s Office had found the outlet’s coverage of the war in Gaza to be “professional, wide-ranging and reflective of newsworthy events”.

“Given the extent of our coverage of this important and difficult story, this is a testament to the professionalism, expertise and dedication of our journalists,” the spokesperson said.

Months after the staff meeting, tensions continue to simmer at the ABC over the conflict.

The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) union last week registered a second vote of no confidence in the ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, and “all ABC managers involved in the decision to unfairly dismiss” freelance broadcaster Antoinette Lattouf.

Lattouf’s short-term contract as a presenter on ABC Radio Sydney was abruptly cut short in December after the journalist shared a report from Human Rights Watch accusing the Israeli government of deliberately starving civilians in Gaza.

The Sydney Morning Herald later revealed that a WhatsApp group calling itself Lawyers for Israel had lobbied for her removal with ABC’s top management.

Lattouf, who is of Lebanese heritage, has filed an unlawful termination claim against the ABC with Australia’s Fair Work Commission.

The ABC has denied that external pressure played a role in its decision to take Lattouf off the air.

The ABC spokesperson told Al Jazeera that the broadcaster “has a demonstrable track record of doing our utmost to defend our journalism and employees against unwarranted criticism.”

The spokesperson said the ABC is currently “defending the Antoinette Lattouf matter before the Fair Work Commission” and it would be “inappropriate to comment further while that decision is pending”.

The ABC’s chair, Kim Williams, on Monday accused staff who had joined the votes of no confidence over Lattouf’s treatment of rushing to judgement and being “enormously unhelpful.”

Williams earlier this month also warned journalists against letting their personal politics affect their work.

“If you don’t want to reflect a view that aspires to impartiality, don’t work at the ABC,” Williams told the Fourth Estate podcast.

Rachel Withers, the editor-in-chief of the new Australian publication The Politics, said the ABC chair’s comments about impartiality were “worrying”.

“Would we rather have a public broadcaster committed to ‘integrity, transparency and rigour,’ to investigating facts and exposing the truth, or to ‘impartiality’, whatever that means, in the context of a conflict that is seeing civilians die in their thousands?,” Withers told Al Jazeera.

In the document obtained by Al Jazeera, ABC staff also expressed concern that the broadcaster’s coverage of the war in Gaza risked alienating certain audiences, including younger listeners.

“We believe failing to offer different perspectives has them turning away from the ABC to alternative media sources,” they said.

In July, the Australian Financial Review reported that 80 percent of the audience for the ABC’s leading 7pm news programme was more than 55 years old, while less than 8 percent was under 40.

Tito Ambyo, a journalism lecturer at RMIT in Melbourne, said young people “cannot ignore what’s going on” in the world and that the ABC shares problems with other newsrooms in Australia, including a reluctance to address “journalism’s colonial history and problems with racism”.

“From what I can see, many of my young students do care about what’s happening in Gaza in quite a deep, empathetic way,” Ambyo told Al Jazeera.

Ambyo said young journalists’ willingness to challenge their “biases and privileges” may be dismissed in newsrooms as “naive instead of exciting and relevant”.

Ambyo said, however, that the ABC’s recent episode of its flagship investigative programme dedicated to the war was one example of how the broadcaster could cover the conflict well.

The Four Corners episode titled The Forever War drew praise from, among others, Francesca Albanese, the United Nations special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian Territories.

In their summary of their meeting with management, ABC staff noted that the broadcaster did not have a correspondent in Gaza despite stationing several reporters in Israel.

Staff also said that the ABC’s style guide advice against using the word “Palestine” was out of step with international norms and that the broadcaster used terms favoured by both sides in the case of disputed territories in East Asia.

“Nearly every UN member state recognises Palestine as a state. What grounds does the ABC have to refuse the mention of Palestine? How can we explain what Palestinian means without calling it Palestine? How can we show our audiences that this is a people, not just some ‘territories’?” they said.

The ABC spokesperson said the outlet’s coverage is always grounded in its editorial policies and pointed to its style guide’s detailed instructions on acceptable ways to refer to Gaza and the West Bank, including the “Occupied Palestinian Territory”.

Source: Al Jazeera