The verdict is finally in, and it doesn't look good for the BBC. The much-anticipated Hutton Inquiry report into the death of British weapons scientist David Kelly has exonerated Prime Minister Tony Blair of any serious wrongdoing. By contrast, Lord Hutton's scathing criticism of a "defective" editorial process at the BBC triggered the resignation of the Corporation's Chairman and Managing Director.
It is arguable that the Blair government's accusation that "large parts of the BBC had an anti-war agenda" has been borne out by the sheer magnitude of the network's journalistic malfeasance. Moreover, the travails of Britain's publicly-funded broadcaster logically gives rise to the question of whether Australia's equivalent media institutions are tainted by a similar partisan bias.
Alas, the answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) has chronicled a pattern in which both the ABC and SBS, the two main Government-funded national broadcasting television services, regularly deviate from standards of journalistic fairness that are mandated by their own Codes of Conduct. Moreover, AIJAC also discovered what might fairly be described as a "BBC-esque" campaign by management at both broadcasters to elide and excuse this problem.
AIJAC recently concluded a comprehensive examination into SBS coverage of Middle Eastern issues. During the year 2001, for example, AIJAC researchers found 57 cases of substantial editorial impropriety that marred SBS news programming, an average of over one transgression per week. These flaws of fact and focus ranged from the substitution of pro-Palestinian commentary in the guise of objective reportage, to 13 serious factual errors that would make the rawest cadet journalist blush.
Note, for example, the way nomenclature at SBS is subtly used to influence viewer perceptions of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The network's news broadcasts reveal a consistent habit of portraying Palestinian suicide bombers who deliberately attack civilians as "militants." Yet, the network uses the word "terrorist" to describe Al Qaeda members who committed functionally equivalent acts on 11 September 2001.
Thus, a Palestinian wearing a vest packed with explosives who blows himself up in a crowded Tel Aviv café is not considered by SBS to be a terrorist. The broadcaster apparently restricts the application of that term solely to those who murder non-Israelis.
In another instance, SBS blamed Israeli army fire for the deaths of six Palestinian bomb-makers who in reality were killed when their explosives detonated prematurely. Yet, when the truth of this incident emerged, the network did not see fit to modify its original story.
And then there's the retrospective report on the third anniversary of the current round of Palestinian-Israeli fighting aired on September 30, 2003. This report featured a completely one-sided montage and commentary replete with scenes of Israeli tank and helicopter fire and destroyed Palestinian cars. But, the televison piece completely failed to mention the deadly havoc inflicted on Israel by Palestinian suicide bombers. Thus, this all too typical SBS distortion of reality would cause uninformed viewers to conclude that Palestinian terrorism was an inconsequential part of the story.
At the ABC, an unregenerate penchant for pro-Palestinian partisanship is nowhere more apparent than in the network's choice of documentary programs. A particularly egregious example of anti-Israel bias appeared in a film entitled "The Killing Zone" that was broadcast last year on ABC Television's Four Corners.
Anyone who watched "The Killing Zone" might be excused for thinking that Israelis are cold-hearted murderers, while Palestinians are pacifists who espouse the non-violent doctrines of Mahatma Ghandi. Yet, in truth, Gaza is a stronghold of Muslim extremism and its streets teem with gunmen from the Hamas and Islamic Jihad movements who are constantly conducting armed assaults against Israeli soldiers and civilians alike.
But, despite spending five entire weeks in this high intensity combat zone, journalist Sandra Jones did not see fit to document any of the numerous Palestinian sniper, grenade and suicide bomb attacks against Israelis that took place right under her nose. In fact, throughout her hour-long program she never once showed direct footage of a single armed Palestinian. The only weapons on display in "The Killing Zone" are Israeli.
These one sided images that so distort the situation in Gaza serve as a mere backdrop for a narrative that is even more skewed than the program's visuals. "The Killing Zone" devotes itself almost entirely to an uncritical presentation of the Palestinian viewpoint. On those rare occasions when the documentary solicits Israel's perspective, great care is taken to portray Israeli spokespersons as untrustworthy spin-meisters. Israel's assertions are invariably preceded by the words "the Israelis claimŠ," while the contentions of the Palestinians and their sympathisers are presented without any such doubt-inducing preface.
"The Killing Zone" is emblematic of ABC Television's seemingly insatiable appetite for one-sided documentaries that uncritically present the pro-Palestinian point of view. The resulting imbalance is exacerbated by the network's consistent refusal to equalise its documentary fare with programs that present a mainstream Israeli perspective on the conflict.
Australia's publicly funded broadcasters play a vital role in the promotion of informed public debate on the issues of the day. But, the lifeblood of any media organization lies in its credibility. Both the SBS and ABC forfeit any serious claim to journalistic integrity by allowing partisanship to trump objectivity in their news and current affairs coverage.
The unfolding debacle at the BBC should serve as a tocsin call to our public broadcast networks. The ABC and SBS need to wake up and smell the coffee before their reputations for fair-minded journalism are irredeemably shattered.
Ted Lapkin is Senior Policy Analyst at the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council.