Antoinette Lattouf case: flashpoint for a thorny media debate

Antoinette Lattouf case: flashpoint for a thorny media debate

Antoinette Lattouf’s unfair dismissal claim provoked alarm among ABC staff and widespread concern that external parties had sought to interfere in the ABC’s editorial decisions. 

Monica Attard
Monica Attard, Co-Director, Centre of Media Transition: Courtesy UTS

Last week, David Anderson was grilled in Senate Estimates about the Lattouf claim but said he could not answer questions about the case until after it had been heard by the Fair Work Commission on 8 March.

The case has at times been a focal point for a wider debate about the ABC's reporting on the Israel Gaza war, which is probably not surprising given that the ABC has received more than 3,000 complaints about its coverage

Editorial Director, Gavin Fang, said most complaints were about impartiality and bias, with some 58% alleging the ABC had been pro-Israeli or anti-Palestinian, and about 42% the other way.

Monica Attard, the Co-Director of the Centre for Media Transition (CMT) at the University of Technology Sydney, said we were yet to see evidence that any of the 3,000 complaints “caused the decision to remove Lattouf from her contracted one week on air gig”.

Read the ABC’s coverage here.

"The case has exposed deep-seated problems that have plagued the ABC following years of sustained attacks on its funding and independence," ABC Friends President, Cassandra Parkinson, said.

In a statement ABC Friends:

  • Called on ABC senior management to take all possible steps to protect staff and defend them publicly against attacks.
  • Said the ABC board should state unequivocally that it does not and will not play a role in staff management or editorial decisions. 
  • Recommended that complaints made directly to the Chair be referred to the ABC’s standard complaints processes so the public can be satisfied that no individual or group is given special treatment.

Read ABC Friends statement here.

In an article titled Strife at ABC but don't blame the editorial policies, CMT Co-Director Derek Wilding asked if the ABC’s editorial policies were fit for purpose.

The ABC has a detailed editorial policy on impartiality that places a higher onus on presenters to ensure impartiality when presenting news and information than when they present non-news content.

“This is the first aspect of editorial policy raised by the Lattouf matter and it seems to me the ABC has the right setting,” CMT Co-Director Derek Wilding said.

“The policy avoids the rigidity that would set in if the impartiality rule applied to all content all of the time, and it helps protect the independence and integrity of the national broadcaster when they count most.”

The ABC’s guidelines on the personal use of social media require program presenters and journalists to “treat personal content with the same care as if it is being published or distributed on an ABC platform” and to “avoid engaging in advocacy on matters of contention.”

Wilding argued that the extension of the ABC’s editorial policies to personal social media accounts is reasonable for a public service broadcaster.

“As the policy itself explains, a presenter’s post to their own social media account, 'has the potential to affect the perception of the ABC’s independence, impartiality, and integrity'.”

But, said Wilding, there is “a gulf between the principles of editorial integrity embedded in the ABC’s policies and popular understanding of how and when they apply.” He recommended that the ABC consider seeking community input to bridge this gap.

Read Wilding's article.

Can ABC staff who come from diverse backgrounds meet the level of impartiality required by the ABC, when they report on their own communities?

Monica Attard says that even asking this question carries problematic assumptions: that diverse journalists have diminished or no capacity for impartiality, while journalists from the dominant culture are “somehow, miraculously, more able to be impartial”.

Attard, a former award-winning ABC foreign correspondent, says these issues should be discussed, particularly as the ABC relies so heavily on audience trust.

If the ABC can verify that its journalists are producing evidence-based, factually accurate, fair, and independent reporting, management should refer any lobbyist with complaints to the ABC ombudsman, said Attard. It’s an approach very similar to that recommended by ABC Friends.

Sophie Arnold
E-News Editor