How we maintain the silence on Palestine: the case for the ABC

On June 29, I submitted an opinion piece to ABC’s online platform Religion and Ethics. After one week of back-and-forth editorial interventions, it was published alongside an opposing piece by Bren Carlill from the Zionist Federation of Australia.

It became instantly clear that Mr Carlill had written his piece directly in response to mine. It also became clear that some of the editorial feedback I had received from ABC’s editors had adopted the same language as Mr Carlill’s piece, down to the specific phrases. Through a series of emails with the editor that followed, more alarming revelations came to the surface regarding the editorial practice adopted and normalised at the ABC when publishing any viewpoint that is critical to Israel.

On July 17, I submitted a complaint to the ABC Audience and Consumer Affairs detailing the chronology of events and including all relevant emails and highlighting the breaches of a number of ABC standards, including that of maintaining the independence and the integrity of the organisation. I explained that no independent writer would ever accept having an op-ed they submit to the ABC being passed on without their knowledge or consent to a political lobby group outside of editorial and subjected to their scrutiny. The ABC has its own fact-checking unit, but failing that they could have approached a more disinterested expert in this area, although with sources provided for my op-ed such a requirement should have been minimal. By going to Carlill, the ABC allowed itself to be improperly influenced by a political lobby group.

This is evident in the initial emails between myself and Mr Stephens, the editor of Religion and Ethics. After my submission, Mr Stephens made editorial changes, which I accepted. He wrote back: ‘This looks good to me. I’m just running it past another pair of eyes – back to you soon.’ I believe this was the point at which Mr Stephens’ editorial input ended and the suggestions/corrections from the Zionist Federation of Australia began. Despite asking direct questions in my email on July 2 ‘Who at the ABC thinks annexation is a contentious term?’ and ‘who is it that you are quoting?’ Mr Stephens did not inform me that the person being quoted and referred to for advice was Mr Carlill.

The op-ed by Mr Carlill was directly aimed at me in an ad hominem style, eg. ‘Sabawi and those like her deny Palestinians agency and thus strip them of their humanity’. Yet Mr Stephens failed to inform me that this op-ed was being crafted or to allow me a response within my op-ed (in the same timely manner as was allowed Mr Carlill), putting the Zionist Federation of Australia and specifically Mr Carlill in a position of awareness that I was denied. This process was neither fair nor respectful, and left me feeling traumatised and ambushed.

On September 16, I received a response to my complaint informing me that an investigation reviewing all the email correspondences as well as assessing the editorial process against standard 5.1: Participants in ABC content should normally be informed of the general nature of their participation concluded that I should have been advised of the decision prior to my work being sent to Mr Carlill and that the failure to do so constituted a breach of the standard.

It is crucial to note that the investigation confirmed both that my op-ed was shared with the Zionist Federation of Australia without my knowledge, and that one paragraph of the editorial feedback was cut and pasted from an email written by Mr Carlill and sent to the editors as comment on my unpublished piece.

The investigation response conveyed an apology by the ABC for failing to tell me that my op-ed was sent to Mr Carlill, admitted that was a lapse in judgement, and informed me that the finding were  discussed with the editors and that the Religion and Ethics team would produce an information fact sheet for contributors in the future.  Further, and in keeping with the usual processes, a summary of the finding would be published on their Upheld Complaints page (as of the time of writing this has not yet occurred).

The statement explaining the findings left me far more alarmed than comforted. For example, it revealed that the investigation dismissed my concern regarding external political interference by assuring me that objection to the use of the word ‘annexation’, although contained in an email written by Mr Carlill, was also shared by the Manager of Religion and Ethics. Therefore, the suggestion not to use that word was not a result of the influence of Mr Carlill. Let me be clear: only the most extremist Zionist groups and organs of official Israeli state propaganda object to the use of the term annexation. Every other media source, including the Jerusalem Post, routinely use it. This is therefore tantamount to claiming that there was no political interference by the Israeli lobby because an ABC senior editor shares the same extremist frame of reference as they do.  

The statement also inadvertently revealed that editors at the ABC seem to be given a binary choice: don’t touch a contentious topic, or tip the scale and consult with the ‘other side’.  

When, after seeing Carlill’s response, I protested with the editor of ABC’s Religion and Ethics, he appeared agitated. His expectation was that I should be grateful because he had fulfilled the conditions needed for my op-ed to be published, which ironically was intended to strike a ‘balance’. The requirement that for any Palestinian voice to be heard, there needed to be a Zionist counter voice, reminds me of something Australian intellectual Maher Mughrabi once said: ‘In this sense the debate is very much like black lives matter v all lives matter. The latter is only an innocuous or ‘balanced’ statement if you choose to ignore all the social and power dynamics at work – occupier v occupied, state v stateless etc.’  

So what were the lessons learned by ABC’s Religion and Ethics? I can confirm that at least one high-profile opinion writer who espouses views critical of Israel was recently told in an email responding to his op-ed pitch that Religion and Ethics will no longer cover Israel/Palestine for the time being because it is ‘too contentious’. Instead of concluding that editors should be transparent and above board in their dealings with contributors  and transparent about the pressure they come under from the lobby groups, the editors have concluded that it is best to stay away from the subject altogether.   

Turning Palestine into a taboo subject is precisely what Zionist lobby groups want. They don’t care if no one writes about Israel, as long as no one writes about the injustices inflicted on the Palestinians.

Samah Sabawi

Dr Samah Sabawi is an author, playwright and poet.

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  1. The question which needs to be asked is why does Zionist Israel and its organisations have so much power over the ABC?

    If Australia had done to Aboriginal peoples what Israel has done and continues to do to the indigenous people of Palestine there would be outrage. Why the double standards?

  2. My other question would be, does the ABC consult with the ‘other side’ before publishing anything on Israel? Is the ‘other side,’ given a copy of the article so they can fashion an informed response?

    Good journalism does get both sides but NOT by offering an article from one to the other without getting the permission of the writer.

  3. A pretty dreadful account of how the ABC is scared of the Lobby. It probably also reflects staffing cuts at the ABC that affect its capacity for independent, ethical (ironic here) activity.

  4. Just as long as the ABC doesn’t use the budget cuts to hide all their mistakes. This needs to be exposed.

  5. It’s been the Australian Banal Corporation since the Howard regime, and during the Menzies era of course.
    We all know what Hannah Arendt thought of banality.

  6. Mr Stillman has it in one: the ABC is frightened of the Zionist lobby. And further, the reason why silence is a victory for the Zionist lobby is, that Zionists are perpetrating a genocide, and prefer that no-one mentions it.

  7. The ABC is treating Israel with double standard. One set of rules for the Zionists and a different set for those who wish to speak the truth about Israel.

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