Objectivity serves the powerful, and silences the oppressed
Australian journalists still cling to 'objectivity' as the hallmark of 'good journalism'. And yet, Palestine has shown us how colonial notions of 'objectivity' pave the way for genocide
(Image credit: Charandev Singh)
Last week, ABC journalist Leigh Sales, formerly of flagship ABC program ‘7:30’, delivered the annual Andrew Olle lecture. In it, she sought to explain the public’s growing distrust of the media, but not before recounting a long, mundane anecdote about the time she stole the parking space of ABC chair Ita Buttross (which is probably of no interest to anyone outside of the small, Australian media landscape, which to me, suggests a limited capacity to understand what’s in the ‘public interest’).
According to Sales, the public’s lack of trust in the media comes down to one key factor: the lack of independence and integrity, and the abandonment of core journalistic principles like ‘objectivity’.
“Too often, too many journalists, at all media organisations, are abandoning values espoused by people like Andrew Olle, for various reasons. One is that some reporters prefer to be activists and crusaders rather than fact-finders or straight reporters,” she said.
“They enjoy their heroic status among the tribes of social media or their subscribers. I’m not sure they can even identify their own bias. Others haven’t had enough training to understand what independent journalism actually is, or their organisation has an ideological bias and the reporter knows the way to get ahead is to toe the line … better still, to step over it.
“Or perhaps it’s awkward and exhausting to constantly push back against the groupthink of your colleagues. Another reason is fear of the consequences of reporting the full picture: that inconvenient facts could set back a cause the journalist believes in. Others think objectivity is impossible and so even striving for it is pointless.”
Sales’ treatise on journalistic ethics came in the midst of an ongoing genocide in Gaza, in which Australian journalists have shown their sheer cowardice in supposedly gathering the ‘facts’, ‘independently’. This is largely due to colonial notions of ‘objectivity’ and ‘balance’, which in fact are orientated towards those in authority. Palestinian voices can not speak the truth of a 75-year occupation, and 16-year seige on Gaza, without first being asked questions about whether they condemn Hamas, or Palestinian resistance at all.
Meanwhile, Palestinian journalists in Gaza are reporting relentlessly on the ground, while their families are being targeted and killed. Twenty-four Palestinian journalists have been killed by Israel since October 7. While I watched Al Jazeera, or via social media as they courageously continued reporting even in the midst of mourning, I thought of the cognitive dissonance required for Australian journalists to lecture on ‘objectivity’. Do the journalists in Gaza have the luxury of being objective?
Meanwhile, the bravery of Palestinian journalists is juxtaposed by the shameful timidity of Australian journalists, who are so weak-kneed that they cower, not from airstrikes, but on whether to call Israel’s deadly assault on Gaza a ‘genocide’. Last week, Sales’ colleague Patricia Karvelas, re-tweeted a statement put out by the ABC after an interview with Labor minister Tony Burke, who spoke out forcefully against media silencing of Palestinian voices. According to the ABC statement: “As part of a lengthy, detailed interview with Federal Minister Tony Burke on Friday 27 October she put to him the usage of the word “genocide” — which is being widely discussed, for example in a UN statement last week — and asked for his thoughts on its usage. Karvelas did not use the word herself.”
How is this ‘balance’? How is this ‘objectivity’? Several scholars of genocide have already labeled Israel’s war on Gaza as a ‘genocide’, including the Israeli scholar of genocide and holocaust studies Professor Raz Segal, who labeled it another chapter in the Nakba, and “a textbook case of genocide”. Karvelas was so quick to deny using the term ‘genocide’, with no explanation on why it could not be called a ‘genocide’, simply because the ABC, for its claims, is not ‘independent’. Instead, through it’s purported striving for ‘impartiality’, it elevates the powerful over those deemed powerless.
This is the same ABC that in 2021 banned journalists from using the term ‘Apartheid’ in describing Israel, even as international human rights organisations like Human Rights Watch and Israeli human rights organisation B’Tselem, labeled it an ‘apartheid’ state. According to the ABC, it had a specific use in the context of South Africa, even as South Africa labels Israel an apartheid state. The fearless former ABC journalist Sophie McNeill, herself targeted by Zionist lobbies for her reporting on Palestine, who claimed she was not ‘objective’, said at the time: “As a former Middle East correspondent for the ABC, I know how coverage of Israel and Palestine can work. It’s not that anybody tells you specifically not to cover something, it is just routinely put in the ‘too hard’ basket, with editors fearful of complaints over coverage of the controversial topic. The ABC should explain to its audience the modern-day legal definition of apartheid. Failure to do so will lead to misunderstanding and self-censorship, and ill-serve the millions of Australians who rely on the broadcaster for news.”
Is this the ‘objectivity’ that Sales is referencing? Is this ‘balance’? Is this ‘impartiality’? Sales suggests that diversity in newsrooms is the answer, with no understanding that black and other journalists of colour are only afforded space if they report in the limited confines of white media discourse, and have to continually fight to tell their truths and the truths of their own communities.
In turn, they are punished if dare to be unapologetic. The brave Palestinian Australian journalist Jennine Khalik outlined the continual barrage of criticism she received when joining the Australian newspaper at age 21 in John Lyon’s expose ‘Dateline Jeruselum’. As Anthony Lowenstein summarised: “The Israel lobby routinely complained about her presence on the newspaper. Within News Corp, some key editors and sub-editors were vehemently pro-Israel and made her life hell. After writing a story about a visiting Palestinian refugee and singer, Oday al-Khatib, a sub-editor came over to her desk and accused her of being a poor journalist and informed her that, ‘Palestine does not exist.’ Khalik left the paper soon after.”
Lyons, a veteran ABC journalist and Middle East correspondent wrote: “It’s the story of how the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the single issue which the media will not cover with the rigour with which it covers every other issue. And, most importantly, it’s the story of how the Australian public is being short-changed — denied reliable, factual information about one of the most important conflicts of our time.”
I’m guessing Sales is not critiquing the ABC’s dreadful coverage of the war on Gaza, which, through aiming at ‘balance’ and ‘objectivity’, conceals the historical context of the issue in which Israel is the occupier and the Palestinian people are the occupied. To tell the truth about the occupation would mean being accused of being an ‘activist’ or a journalist with ‘agenda’. The determinations of who is an ‘activist’ and who is a ‘journalist’, are made by those who are already close to power, those who are awarded for timidity with high-ranking positions in the ABC (and cooking shows!), who are part of the daily news cycle but in turn, have no capacity to interrogate anything outside of the ideological confines of their own reporting.
The issues with ‘impartiality’ and ‘two-siding’ were on clear display during the recent coverage of the Voice referendum, in which ABC journalist Laura Tingle made it clear that striving for balance had resulted in the elevation of misinformation coming from the racist no camp: “In the interests of trying to be balanced ... we’ve ended up not doing a good job of covering the referendum debate,” she said.
In turn, journalists are not held accountable for not only their failures but their complicity in the continuing oppression of Aboriginal peoples on our own shores. Patricia Karvelas, who has claimed to be a supporter of First Nations rights, spent many years at the Australian uncritically publishing stories which paved the way for the Howard government’s neoliberal agenda in Indigenous policy, while also making time to lead campaigns against our First Nations scholars like Professor Larissa Behrendt. Australian journalists claim to be ‘impartial’, but only in ways that support the interests of the powerful.
Let me make it clear: Objectivity is a colonial notion that bypasses the voices of Black Witnesses by making their legitimacy conditional on the backing of White Witnesses and authoritative accounts of those who are perpetrating violence. ‘Objectivity’ is a rope handed to the colonisers to continue strangling the oppressed, to restrict them of air in which to speak.
‘Objectivity’ means lying about your own positionings because every single article we see today is biased. Bias affects the way a story is framed, and the way a people are represented. If I can again use the example of Indigenous Australia, many of the stories about ‘violence’, are predicated first on colonial representations of Aboriginal men as inherently violent and upholders of violent traditional culture. These representations are not innocent, but instead have history: Australian journalists are working within a regime of representation in which this is the only way to speak of Aboriginal peoples. By abiding or striving for false notions of ‘objectivity’ that deny the very reality that everyone is biased, you obscure another journalistic cornerstone: that of transparency.
And it is here I want to speak of the Australian media landscape’s lack of transparency when it comes to Palestine - because it is surely the most concerning case of the severe lack of ethics. As Nazareth-based journalist Jonathan Cook wrote on Twitter recently: “All journalists are activists. The proper distinction is whether we declare our activism or not, and whether our activism is for the good of humanity or in the narrow interests of a state or a billionaire. What you should care about more is whether journalists are independent’.
So where is the scrutiny over the fact for many years, Australian journalists have been going on propaganda tours of Israel funded by Zionist lobby groups? Are these Australian journalists independent? Are these Australian journalists ‘impartial’? Isn’t there a fundamental conflict of interest in accepting a propaganda tour? Is this journalistic ethics? Why is Leigh Sales focusing on ‘journalists with an agenda’ and not those with ‘hidden agendas’?