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More than 200 ABC journalists participated in a mass meeting about the public broadcaster’s coverage of the war in Gaza, with a number of grievances raised, leading to a possible shift in how the conflict is reported on, according to multiple sources who were present.
The meeting on Wednesday afternoon, which ABC staff described as emotional and at times heated, took place in person and online and was initiated by Mark Maley, the ABC’s editorial policy manager.
A key issue raised by ABC staff was the language used to describe the Israel-Hamas war.Credit: Paul Jeffers
“Our coverage of the war in Gaza is one of the most important and difficult stories imagine to cover,” Maley wrote in an email to staff. “It affects many of our staff in a deeply personal way and raises complex humanitarian, legal and journalistic issues.”
The meeting was framed as an opportunity to discuss and get feedback on the “editorial challenges this story poses and how we have navigated it so far, and how we can continue to in coming weeks”.
At the beginning of the meeting, Maley acknowledged that the conflict had led to “challenging discussions” with both Muslim and Jewish journalists at the ABC, particularly those with connections to Palestine and Israel.
A key issue raised by staff related to the language used to describe elements of the conflict. Journalists argued that the ABC’s coverage of Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza was too heavily reliant on the talking points of the Israel Defence Forces.
They also raised concerns around the ABC’s unwillingness to use language such as “invasion”, “occupation”, “genocide”, “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” regarding Israeli government policy and allegations made by human rights groups.
“There is no single easy universally recognised definition of apartheid that is necessarily fulfilled by what Israel is doing on the West Bank,” Maley said in the meeting.
“The allegation of war crimes against Israel at the moment is obviously a credible allegation. There are all sorts of credible people and organisations out there who are saying that, in their opinion, what Israel is doing is a war crime, but it’s only an opinion. But it’s an opinion which has got enough basis, in fact, that it’s credible enough for us to be reporting it”.
Another issue raised related to a concern among journalists that there was a blanket ban on reporters using the word Palestine, and general confusion about what language the broadcaster had signed off on.
A number of journalists from Muslim and Arab backgrounds expressed concern that the perception that the ABC was too pro-Israel has impacted their relationships with the communities and their ability to do their jobs. Another staff member voiced concerns the broadcaster has made “possibly irreparable damage” to the trust it has built with the Australian Muslim community over the years with its reporting.
In response to questions about how the organisation is verifying claims it publishes, particularly on its live blog, ABC senior editors acknowledged that they removed a specialist verification team after it noted the impact it was having on its staff – particularly junior members of staff. Instead, the organisation was relying on the ad-hoc advice of former Middle East correspondents.
Gavin Fang, the ABC’s deputy news director, said he and news leaders acknowledged the broadcaster doesn’t get it right all the time, “but we want to try and get it right, and that’s why I’m sitting here wanting to hear from you all”.
“I don’t want you to feel like we aren’t listening, and we are not taking this seriously,” Fang said. “We absolutely are. We think it’s vitally important to try to get this right.”
Another common thread in the meeting was the feeling among ABC journalists that spokespeople from different organisations were held to different standards on flagship ABC programs like 7.30. In particular, journalists pointed to Sarah Ferguson’s interview with the Israeli ambassador to Australia and argued many of his claims were “unchallenged”, unlike interviews with pro-Palestinian voices.
Even ABC staff who raised criticisms of the organisation’s coverage told this masthead they were thankful for the opportunity to raise their concerns and hoped management would take them on board.
A likely outcome from the meeting will be an updated editorial guidance note circulated to staff that addresses a number of issues raised, including the appropriateness of certain forms of language, ensuring adequate context and addressing the issue of false balance. The ABC has contacted for comment.
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