good jews, bad jews

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    Closing down dissent, by AIJAC and SBS
    by Antony Loewenstein
    September 24, 2004 06:57 PM

    Antony Loewenstein writes Webdiary's Engineering Consent column on the workings of the media.

    A Webdiary investigation has discovered that SBS management is routinely holding Israel/Palestine related documentaries, films and current affairs programs due to intense pressure from Zionist lobbyists and a handful of Liberal and Labor senators.

    In October 2003, The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) released a report detailing alleged bias at SBS TV in its coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict:

    "A review of SBS current affairs coverage reveals a decade-long pattern of favouring overwhelmingly anti-Israel documentaries or material severely critical of Israel, no matter how biased or unreliable."

    The 67-page report provided examples where the organisation claimed the public broadcaster, in both its news and documentary programming, contains "...what can be reasonably termed a ‘culture of bias’."

    "Serious consideration should be given to the adoption of legislative reform to provide for a revised Charter and Codes of Practice that make explicit SBS’s obligations with respect to the presentation of news, current affairs and documentaries."

    Section 1.2 of its report examines SBS World News from January-December 2001:

    February 6: Editorialising and factual inaccuracy: Mary Kostakidis [SBS news reader]: "Israelis have started voting in a prime ministerial election that is set to sound the death knell of the current peace process. Sharon’s victory would see Israel take a sharp turn to the right, putting the nation on a collision course with the Palestinians." Garry McNab in his report stated, "Sharon’s promise of peace on Israel’s terms is alluring. No more land will be given away. Jewish settlements will be expanded, not disbanded." In fact, Sharon never publicly stated that settlements would be expanded, nor that he would refuse to relinquish more land, and during his term of office, no new settlements have been established and some illegal outposts have been removed. He has also agreed to the Roadmap peace plan, which calls for the freezing of all settlement activity once a ceasefire is in place and the dismantling of terror networks commences. Finally, he has repeatedly made it clear that he is prepared to trade additional land as part of peace agreements, speaking repeatedly of "painful concessions" and making it known through press interviews that this includes land transfers."

    Sharon’s "painful concessions" have many interpretations. The Sydney Morning Herald confirmed Israel’s violation of international law on August 14:

    "The Israeli Government moved ahead this week with plans to build thousands of new Jewish homes in the occupied West Bank, despite promises to the US and the international community to halt construction on seized Palestinian land."

    The Financial Times editorialised on August 26 that Sharon’s recent moves were irresponsible and US support for them "inflammatory".

    And yet AIJAC’s charges go on. Page after page of so-called analysis of documentaries and current affairs programs continue the obsessive AIJAC theme. Any program that features a strong Palestinian perspective or eyewitness critical of Israeli Defence Force (IDF) activity receives the same charge of anti-Israeli libel. When Dateline presenter Mark Davis was accused of being "aggressive" towards the US Ambassador to Australia, Tom Schieffer during an interview on 19 March 2003, one wonders what kind of news programming AIJAC have in mind.

    Implicit in all its complaints is one simple fact: don’t question Western hegemonic power and accept the word of Ariel Sharon. AIJAC even complained about programs that were critical of the US war in Iraq and Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.

    The AIJAC report had a serious effect on SBS management. On May 12 2004, Managing Director Nigel Milan sent a letter to all staff (after publicly stating on the report’s release in late 2003 that:

    "We respect the organisation the report comes from. They have put a considered effort into this document and we will give it the serious consideration it deserves.

    “As many of you are aware, last October the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) laid a number of complaints that SBS Television had breached its Codes in its news, current affairs and documentary programs.

    Since January those complaints have been under investigation by the News and Current Affairs Department and by Policy. I must now advise you that I have suspended our handling of those complaints. This is a result of an allegation that the process of investigation and preparation of recommendations on responses to those complaints has been compromised.

    Any claim that our complaints handling is less than fair and objective cannot be left unanswered. Accordingly, I have decided to seek an external and independent review of the process applying to the handling of the AIJAC complaints. I will advise you once the person responsible for this inquiry has been appointed.

    I expect this person to receive the fullest co-operation while investigating our handling of these complaints. In order to avoid any prejudice to the inquiry process, neither I nor anyone else involved in the handling of the AIJAC complaints will be permitted to make further comment on this matter either internally or externally.

    The outcome of the inquiry will be made public."

    SBS is a public broadcaster, and while accepting limited advertising to supplement rapidly shrinking government funding, it must respond to concerned groups or individuals complaining about its programming. As far back as 1996 AIJAC’s Review magazine featured an article by Tzvi Fleischer arguing that SBS had screened a number of documentaries that were too pro-Palestinian, too questioning of the Oslo peace deal and too much "propaganda" from Arab governments. Programs made by the Israeli government were not similarly tarred. Fleischer’s problem with SBS’s "culture of bias" could have come from AIJAC’s 2003 report. The message had not changed, and nor had a receptive neo-conservative Liberal government.

    Writing in the right-wing Front Page magazine in February this year, AIJAC’s senior policy analyst Ted Lapkin wrote that "57 cases of substantial editorial impropriety...marred SBS news programming, an average of over one transgression per week". When AIJAC released its report on November 5, 2003, Executive Director Dr Colin Rubenstein wrote in a press release that he supported the editorial independence of SBS:

    "We would certainly oppose any suggestion of political interference with regard to editorial independence of SBS or any other media outlet. Our report is meant to strengthen, not stifle, SBS as a voice of multiculturalism and tolerance in Australia with additional mechanisms that will enhance its ability to carry out the important professional responsibilities entrusted to it by the Australian public."

    Rubenstein, Lapkin, Director of International and Community Affairs Jeremy Jones, Review editor Tsvi Fleischer and Policy Analyst Jamie Hyams all ignored requests for comment for this story.

    Ali Kazak, head of the General Palestinian Delegation to Australia, released a statement in response to AIJAC’S report:

    "The request of ‘balance’ by AIJAC is ludicrous. How can one speak of balance in news coverage between the occupied and the occupier in light of Israel’s occupation and daily war crimes committed? AIJAC does not want SBS to use any critical representation of Israel’s violations because they regard Israel as above criticism. Would SBS apply the same policy to the Australian government or any other government, including those that launch wars, occupy other people’s territories, deny them their basic human rights and subject them to collective punishment, racial discrimination and blowing up their houses?"

    Sources at SBS told Webdiary that the national broadcaster has recently replied to AIJAC telling them they didn't have a case, though AIJAC can take its complaint to the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA) or a Senate Estimates Committee. SBS’s response, however, is merely the latest round in an ongoing battle of Israeli and Palestinian representation.

    Only a few weeks earlier, a source informed me that SBS management was placing on hold certain documentaries and current affairs segments deemed too sensitive on the Middle East question. A statement from SBS management claims, however, that they are "not aware of any programs being placed on hold". (Nigel Milan and Director of News and Current affairs, Phil Martin, did not respond directly to questions. Deputy Marketing Manager Mike Field provided a statement on their behalf.)

    Webdiary has information that three acclaimed documentaries have been rejected by SBS due to their perceived "sensitive" nature, most having won international film awards:

    1) Ford transit received the Spirit of Freedom Award in the Jerusalem Film Festival and a top prize from Human Rights Watch.

    2) Checkpoints.

    3) 'Wall' screened at this year’s Melbourne Film Festival and winner of the Spirit of Freedom Award for best documentary at the Jerusalem International Film Festival.

    There was an interesting parliamentary exchange on these films on May 26 between Nigel Milan and NSW Labor Senator Sue Mackay:

    Senator MACKAY - I am sorry to interrupt you, but I am talking about the three documentaries called Food, Transit Checkpoints and The Wall that have been rejected. We are concerned. The reason I am asking this question, which is similar to questions that we pursued with the ABC, is that we are interested in whether or not this may have been in response from pressure within government, for example.

    Mr Milan - No.

    Perhaps Senator Mackay should have asked whether SBS is pre-emptively barring films they think will offend the likes of AIJAC.

    AIJAC isn’t the only pro-Zionist organisation complaining about SBS. The Melbourne-based Anti-Defamation League (ADC) has in the last years shifted from a broadly based human rights organisation towards blindly supporting Sharon’s policies while attempting to silence any voices criticising Israel or US policy towards the Jewish state. Dr Paul Gardner, former lecturer at Monash University, is its chairman, and Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Neville Wran, Zelman Cowen and Lowitja O’Donoghue, among others, make up its board.

    Though other ethnic lobby groups have successfully pressured SBS to alter its policies (the Vietnamese community complained in late 2003 of a news service produced by the Vietnamese Communist Government which was soon barred), there has been little reporting on the intimidation of SBS by AIJAC and its media cheerleaders. What emerges is a history of pressure on the broadcaster to slant its programming to a blindly accepting pro-Israeli position.


    AIJAC is a Melbourne based, pro-Zionist think-tank, privately funded and with close ties to the Liberal Party (for more see my chapter in Not Happy, John! on the Hanan Ashrawi affair).

    In early June, AIJAC supported the American Jewish Committee’s award to John Howard "in recognition of [his] longstanding commitment, as a member of the Australian Parliament for more than 30 years, to championing democracy and human rights, and his unequalled friendship towards the United States and support of Israel".

    The most comprehensive debunking of the AIJAC report is by Sol Salbe, editor of the Australian Jewish Democratic Society (AJDS). He first highlights the omissions in the report; namely SBS’s programming of Holocaust-related material: "The credit it gets for this from AIJAC is - absolutely none."

    "An interesting aspect of the report is the kind of program AIJAC regards as biased - essentially, any program that does not fit into its world view. Many of the programs shown by SBS actually come from Israel. Some such as Tekuma were actually made by the Israeli Broadcasting Authority - the equivalent of our ABC. This one is a good case in point as an example of what AIJAC does not say: ‘The screening of the series in Israel caused considerable public controversy, including criticism from then Communications Minister Limor Livnat, for its largely negative focus.’ All true, but the argument is disingenuous. What AIJAC omitted to say was that Israelis watched a 22-hour Hebrew language series, while SBS showed Australians a highly sanitised six-hour program? Most of the items complained about by Ms Livnat et al were excised. I for one would like them to have kept the scene in which a senior Israeli commander explained how his troops burnt Palestinian villages ‘as if it were Guy Fawkes Day.’"

    Not dissimilarly to America or Britain, political interference against media organisations is par for the course. Unquestionably increasing since 9/11, an examination of Senate committee hearing transcripts reveals a disturbing trend of Liberal and Labor MPs harassing SBS and ABC management, as well as attempting to impose both arbitrary and draconian standards by which programming decisions should be made.

    The Senate Standing Committee on Communications, Information Technology and the Arts convened on 11 February this year. In the presence of Nigel Milan and Sean Brown, Head of SBS Television, a handful of Liberal and Labor MPs, especially Queensland MP Steven Ciobo, took it upon themselves to lobby the AIJAC way. In other words, SBS management was told that its Middle East coverage was problematic.

    NSW Labor MP Michael Hatton’s closing comments was most instructive:

    "I think we actually have a problem in that we allow our democracy to work against itself - to allow those people [Webdiary: Pilger and al-Jazeera was cited] who want to rip the very fabric of it apart to tell us that we should be guilty for most of the things we do, to give them the voice that the vast majority of people do not have and to keep endorsing them."

    The current direction of SBS has become a constant source of debate within the media. The Age reported in May that the channel is experiencing internal and external dissent on its current direction. "Among the concerns were a cultural change," reporter Debi Enker wrote, "that has transformed SBS from a network that encouraged discussion and debate to one that frowns on dissenting voices". Head of Television Shaun Brown, appointed in January 2003, has been accused of many things during his tenure, not least of which is a dumbing-down of content. The departure of Margaret Pomerantz and David Stratton’s Movie Show in early 2004 was seen by many as an ominous sign of things to come.

    Former SBS Director of Programming, Rod Webb, says that the likes of AIJAC are simply wearing down current SBS management. "They’re pretty formidable bastards," he says. "They’re terriers - they just keep at it. You know you’re dealing with a big outfit that’s persistent."

    Webb argues that SBS management is split on how to deal with SBS and the Middle East. It is therefore much easier to simply avoid aggravating these "terriers" and self-censor certain programs. Furthermore, he says that AIJAC is frequently dismissed as extremists in some senior SBS circles, but due to its power, principally political, they must be responded to, even if editorial standards are compromised in the process.

    Throughout the Western world, pro-Zionist groups have become increasingly successful in shutting down true debate on the Israel/Palestine question, preferring to label opposers as anti-Semites or self-haters. It is time we removed this veil and discovered their true motives.


    DISCLOSURE: SBS Dateline has been working on a story about dissenting Jews in Australia who speak out against the Occupation and the Sharon government. I am featured on this program. At the time of writing, this program has been placed on indefinite hold due to the perceived concerns and sensitivities of pro-Zionist groups.

    Thank you to Sol Salbe for support on this story.
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