Thursday, October 5, 2017

The Hounding of Sophie McNeill 1

"Federal Labor MP Michael Danby has paid* for an advertisement in the Australian Jewish News that accuses ABC Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill of being biased in her reporting of Jews and Palestinians. The ABC's director of news, Gaven Morris, is so appalled by the prominent ad... he has written to the opposition leader, Bill Shorten, calling on him to curb the Victorian MP's attack... This is not the first time Danby has taken aim at McNeill... She has been a particular target and the Israel lobby has also openly campaigned for the ABC to cancel her posting. In 2015 former managing director Mark Scott strongly defended McNeill from attacks by Liberal senator Eric Abetz... In July former Middle East correspondent for the Australian John Lyons revealed that pro-Israel advocacy groups in Australia targeted McNeill, fellow ABC correspondent Peter Cave and himself. Lyons said he was subjected to consistent pressure from the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council while based in Jerusalem for the Australian for six years. In his Middle East memoir, Balcony Over Jerusalem, Lyons said there was a campaign against McNeill before she set foot in the Middle East." (ABC's Sophie McNeill accused of anti-Israel bias in ad by Labor MP, Amanda Meade,, 4/10/17)

Here's John Lyons' account of that campaign from Balcony Over Jerusalem:

"I came to realise that hardline Jewish groups in Australia commonly targeted journalists. One such campaign led to an extraordinary process inside the ABC.

"The ABC's Sophie McNeill was targeted from the moment her appointment was announced in February 2015. AIJAC published a dossier which amounted to a comprehensive attack on her. It was authored by Ahron Shapiro and posted on AIJAC's website. Headlined 'Should the ABC have given advocacy journalist Sophie McNeill the keys to its Jerusalem bureau?', it went on: 'There are serious questions that must be raised about whether Sophie McNeill, who has recently been appointed the ABC's exclusive Jerusalem-based Middle East correspondent, can comply with the obligations contained in ABC's Code of Practice.'

"The dossier said that McNeill had appeared on a panel where she was 'speaking alongside' two people who had supported Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel. The case against McNeill included that she once said in an interview: 'One of the saddest things I've seen in my whole life is spending time filming in a children's cancer ward in Gaza.' On this charge, I could also be indicted - one of the saddest things I've ever seen was a baby dying in a children's hospital in Gaza because the hospital could not get through the Israeli checkpoint the medicines required to keep him alive.

"The sourcing of much of AIJAC's material was questionable. It said: 'According to the account of a Palestinian student who summarised from a personal video she made of the event... ' AIJAC said McNeill's 'apparent role at the event was to inspire student activities through her first-hand accounts from Gaza, and she appeared eager to play the part'. Apparent role? It continued, 'according to the Tweet of one attendee, she spurred the audience on.' The Tweet of one attendeee? McNeill's appearance at the conference, AIJAC said, 'was tantamount to joining a protest movement'. Tantamount to? The standard of allegation made in AIJAC's attacks on journalists often did not come anywhere near the standard of sourcing of material that they demanded from the journalists they were attacking.

"The dossier also targeted McNeill for a story she had done looking at Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. 'McNeill promotes the narrative that Israeli Jewry as a society is radicalising in terms of its Jewish character through the demographic growth of the ultra-Orthodox.' The 'implied message', AIJAC said, was that 'Israel is not really the pluralistic Western society it purports to be but is shifting towards religious radicalism'. Implied message? Of all the absurdities in the dossier, to me this was the most bizarre. Israel's own media is full of stories about the rising number - and power - of the ultra-Orthodox. Given their high birth rates - many have seven or eight children - they are increasing as a proportion of the community.

"After publishing the dossier, AIJAC wrote to the board of the ABC, referencing it. The letter set off an extraordinary - perhaps unprecedented - chain of events. The chairman of the board, Jim Spigelman, asked the managing director, Mark Scott, for a response. Scott then instructed the corporation's editorial policies department to prepare a response. Senior managers in the news and current affairs department were also enlisted. Scott believed that the ABC's selection process was thorough, and was unhappy that a lobby group had the power to require the ABC to have to defend an appointment. 'I will not cower to AIJAC,' he told his managers.

"The ABC's managers answered each claim, taking more than three weeks. The process included putting to McNeill each AIJAC accusation against her. The AIJAC attack also said that McNeill had credited British journalist John Pilger as being an influence on her - when she was 15. To her managers, McNeill pleaded guilty to this charge but said his influence was in alerting her to the situation in East Timor when she was 15. In fact, McNeill was critical of Pilger - she said that she believed Pilger's politics had 'blinded him' to the situation in Syria.

"Mark Scott was particularly angered by parts of the dossier which attacked McNeill for who she may have spoken alongside on panels. 'Here is a professional journalist like Sophie McNeill subject to a whole lot of attacks which in my view were trying to taint her by association,' Scott told his managers.

"Scott wrote for the ABC board a 12-page response to AIJAC's letter. In it he said that while AIJAC did not call for McNeill's appointment to be reversed, despite raising a series of critical questions and concerns about her 'past activities' - 'they were letting us know they would be watching'. Scott told the board that he had engaged in dialogue as a media executive for almost two decades. 'In that time, I have seen similar dossiers to the one created on Sophie McNeill on other journalists and around coverage of issues. The AIJAC website contains detailed, negative coverage of many leading Australian journalists who have reported on the Middle East, including Paul McGeough, John Lyons, Ed O'Loughlin and Ruth Pollard, as well as reporters from the BBC and The Guardian.'

"Scott added: 'The article demonstrates to Sophie McNeill and to the ABC that her every word will be watched closely by AIJAC and she starts on the ground with this key interest group sceptical. We are all aware she will be under even closer scrutiny now. As they seek to influence our coverage, this is a pre-emptive "shot across the bows". It should be noted, of course, that fair, impartial, accurate and balanced coverage from McNeill will not guarantee her immunity from ongoing criticism.' Scott told the board: 'The pre-emptive attack on McNeill is similar to the approach employed by lobby groups internationally. The US reporter, Jodi Rudoren, was targeted when she was appointed Jerusalem bureau chief for the New York Times in 2012 and accused of being biased against Israel and unsuitable for the post ... The New York Times refused to bow to the pressure and Rudoren remained in the position.'

"On 30 March 2015, Scott presented the response to Spigelman. The defence, and AIJAC's attack, went to the April meeting of the board. The board supported Scott. The whole process had taken enormous resources inside the ABC. In my view, no other lobby group in Australia would be able to command that level of response. This is real power. And as a journalist I believe that such efforts can have the effect of making a journalist or organisation self-censor. This would not prove to be the case with McNeill. However, in my opinion such a process certainly puts pressure on a reporter, raising the possibility of what is known in journalism as 'the pre-emptive buckle'." (pp 282-86)

Finally, some high comedy on the matter from today's Sydney Morning Herald: "It is not the first time the MP for Melbourne Ports has criticised McNeill's reporting. In the past, he has called her an 'advocacy journalist' on social media and has claimed she is obsessed with the 'Palestinian narrative'." (Labor MP used taxpayer funds to attack ABC reporter, Adam Gartrell & Broede Carmody)

Of course, Danby is nothing if not a pro-Israel 'advocacy politician', utterly obsessed with ensuring that only the 'Zionist narrative' is heard in public discourse.

[*The Herald account, says that Danby "admitted he had used a 'small amount' from his taxpayer-funded electoral allowance."]


Grappler said...

We have just had the spectacle of politicians born in other countries, or who by accident are citizens of those countries resign their seats. It is time that MPs whose primary allegiance is to another country be made to face the same fate. Their culpability is much higher.

MERC said...

Aren't the Danbys of this country something? While enjoying all the freedoms and creature comforts of life here, their minds are obsessively focused on protecting a distant, apartheid state - which they ludicrously imagine to be their real home - from justified criticism, targeting any journalist who dares to report honestly on its trashing of the rights of the Palestinian people.

Grappler said...

Is AIJAC a lobbying organisation? It's website says:
"AIJAC conveys the interests of the Australian Jewish community to government, media and other community organisations."

I must admit to being out of my depth here and would welcome some guidance but that seems to suggest it is indeed a lobby group. I would go further and suggest that it also serves the Israeli Government. It does not, however, appear to be on the register of lobbyists.

The definition of a lobbyist is:"For the purposes of the Register of Lobbyists, a lobbyist is any person, company or organisation who conducts lobbying activities on behalf of a third-party client or whose employees conduct lobbying activities on behalf of a third-party client."

That would seem to include AIJAC. Moreover, during 2013 Michael Danby was a Parliamentary Secretary.

The Australian code of conduct for lobbyists states:
"The Code states that Government representative shall not knowingly and intentionally be a party to lobbying activities by:

a Lobbyist who is not on the Register of Lobbyists;"

Hmmm! Or is it the case that laws don't apply to Israel?