Media Analysis

It's time the ABC resisted external threats and attacks

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The ABC fired journalist Antoinette Lattouf in highly controversial circumstances (image via YouTube)

The ABC’s sacking of journalist Antoinette Lattouf raises questions about its independence from outside influences and willingness to stand up against external threats and attacks, writes Dr Victoria Fielding.

*Also listen to the audio version of this article on Spotify HERE.

THE PUBLIC BROADCASTER'S capitulation to external forces is not just a problem for its journalists who want to uphold the ABC’s purpose of reporting in the public interest, but also for the public, whom the ABC is meant to serve.

Lattouf was fired from ABC radio in December, ostensibly for sharing a social media post by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on her personal Instagram account which reported that Israel was using starvation as a weapon of warfare.

Lattouf says she had been told by her manager not to post “anything” while she was working there “because of the risk of the perception that you are biased and not balanced”. The ABC is desperately afraid of being accused of Left-wing bias, while Right-wing bias is apparently fine. This asymmetry in policing standards of neutrality at the ABC, is, paradoxically, an overt form of bias.

The ABC is now engaged in what will likely be a protracted dispute with Lattouf at the Fair Work Commission where she says she is fighting for free speech, against racism and for “a fair independent and robust ABC”.

This dispute will hopefully start a much-needed public conversation about ABC management’s willingness to stand up for its independence. Lattouf’s firing is yet another episode that shows how easily the ABC capitulates to those who seek to destroy it.

There is already evidence that external influences may have played a role in the ABC’s decision to fire Lattouf. Jan Fran has questioned whether Lattouf’s HRW post was really the culprit, considering ABC itself did two reports about the human rights organisation’s accusations about Israel “weaponising starvation in Gaza”.

Reporting by Nine newspapers has also revealed the ABC was subject to a letter-writing campaign by a group of Israel-supporting lawyers, urging them to fire Lattouf. Leaked WhatsApp messages revealed that hours before Lattouf was fired, a group member shared a letter from ABC chairperson Ita Buttrose saying their concerns were noted and that she had directed the ABC’s chief content officer to deal with it.

While this lobbying has received much media attention, what has received less attention is Sky News’ attacks on Lattouf. These attacks focused on Lattouf’s investigations about the veracity of a video taken at a pro-Palestinian protest at the Sydney Opera House on 9 October 2023.

Writing for Crikey on 14 December 2023, Lattouf, with Cam Wilson, questioned the veracity of a video much hyped by Sky News and other media which claimed to show protesters shouting anti-Semitic hate speech.

The next day, in characteristic anti-actual journalism style, Sky News’ Sharri Markson accused Lattouf of being “from the Left” and criticised her investigative reporting.

On the same day, Latouff responded to Markson’s accusations in an Instagram video, refreshingly clapping back in a way that most journalists do not do when they are attacked by Murdoch outlets. Just five days later, the ABC fired Lattouf. And of course, Sky News was thrilled.

In an email to ABC staff who have threatened to walk off the job over Lattouf’s ousting, Managing Director David Anderson wrote 'The ABC rejects any claim that it has been influenced by any external pressure' and that the ABC took “legitimate” criticism and complaints seriously, and would 'continue to support [staff] and their work'. This is unlikely to reassure journalists; one ABC staff member told The Guardian anonymously that Lattouf’s firing was just one of many examples of staff not feeling “backed from external attacks”.

This staff member also raised the ABC’s lack of support for Stan Grant. In August 2023, Grant accused Murdoch’s The Australian of being a “racist hit squad”. He said the ABC did not defend him when he was systematically attacked by Murdoch outlets, citing this as the reason why he resigned.

There is much evidence that rather than standing up to external pressure, ABC management obediently does what it is told. One such example was Liberal Senator Sarah Henderson thanking Anderson for “quickly” rearranging ABC scheduling after she messaged him complaining Senator Jacinta Price’s National Press Club speech was only going to be shown on ABC News 24 and not on the ABC’s main channel.

Another example was when much-loved ABC radio Statewide Drive presenter Nicole Chvastek resigned and accused the ABC of bullying after she was told by an ABC executive to “get a Liberal” for an interview. This directive came in May 2022 after Nationals MP Darren Chester complained to the ABC about Chvastek reporting allegations that the Morrison Government was favouring Liberal and National seats in their flood response.

These incidents demonstrate that there is an insidious campaign of interference in the ABC by conservative politicians, lobbyists and media. When powerful people are criticised or scrutinised by ABC journalists – when journalists do their jobs as watchdogs – they use their power to attack journalists. Rather than stand up against these political attacks, ABC management too often weakly surrenders.

When asked about the ABC’s dispute with Lattouf, Prime Minister Albanese refused to criticise the ABC, saying the public broadcaster is independent from government.

He then threw shade on the former Liberal Government saying:

“I don’t want to create another issue which is for sitting parliamentarians to try to direct or even be seen to be trying to direct the ABC.”

This is an honourable position for Albanese to take, but where does that leave the public in trying to assert the independence of the ABC? There may still be ABC journalists who want to report without fear or favour, but amongst ABC management, fear-based favour seems to be systemic to the culture, a culture which is destroying “our ABC”.

*This article is also available on audio here:

Dr Victoria Fielding is an Independent Australia columnist. You can follow Victoria on Twitter @DrVicFielding.

If you would like updates from the Australians for a Murdoch Royal Commission Murdoch Referendum Accountability Project, join here.

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