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Journalists can’t be writers and activists on political causes

Michael Gawenda
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Journalists can’t be writers and activists on political causes

Published: 21 November 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Australian journalists who signed the wave of pro-Palestinian petitions and letters have renounced their independence in reporting the conflict.

A week ago people identifying themselves as members of the journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, signed a public letter which they circulated on social media and sent to news organisations, including the ABC.

The letter condemned the Australian government’s support for “Israel’s genocidal assault on Gaza”. The letter went on to demand that the government change its policies and condemn Israel for its genocide of the people of Gaza.

The letter was signed by hundreds of people and if you scroll through the names, the journalists who have signed it – some I know – do not refer to themselves as journalists but media workers.

Did they not want to be recognised as journalists? Perhaps they believe the designation journalist is no longer meaningful. After all, being a journalist implies an adherence to certain values and ethical principles.

Like fairness, like factual accuracy, like making sure you are not – and could not be seen to be – pushing an agenda, being an activist for a cause.

It is on that basis that journalists have certain rights. The right, for instance, to ask questions of people in power and even the right to poke into the lives of people who are not particularly powerful.

How could any of these media workers cover anything to do with the conflict and be trusted to be fair and accurate?

The right to protect sources and the right to offer a public interest defence of journalism that breaches privacy laws and even national security laws. Among other rights and privileges.

All this is why the codes of conduct of most media organisations, including the ABC, forbid journalists from being members of a political party or any other organisation that they might one day have to cover.

That’s the price we journalists pay for the rights and privileges we enjoy.

How then does the MEAA letter – signed by media workers, most of whom once called themselves journalists – square with this sort of ethical basis for journalism, for this sort of code of conduct? It does not.

How could any of these media workers, given what they have signed, ever cover anything to do with the conflict between Israel and Palestinians and be believed and trusted to be fair and accurate?

This letter is not the only one journalists have signed.

In May 2021, hundreds of journalists and media workers signed a petition urging journalists and media companies to “no-longer prioritise the same discredited spokespeople and tired narratives” and instead make space for the Palestinians who are the victims in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

I assume that included making space for Hamas?

It went on to say that media companies should respect the right of journalists to “publicly and openly express personal solidarity with the Palestinian cause without penalty in their professional lives”.

Is this not troubling? Journalists demanding the right to a sort of activism for a cause? Journalists demanding to prioritise some voices over others, on the basis of what these journalists believe about this most complicated conflict.

Media companies need to get over their fear of offending staff. They must tell their journalists that they cannot be promoters of any cause.

Is it not troubling that one day they may have to cover the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, or the way that conflict is playing out in Australia? How could their reporting ever be trusted?

Indeed, it has happened. Journalists who signed this petition have written major stories about the conflict and its impact in Australia. They wrote news stories.

Were they “prioritising voices” in their reporting? Were they activists for the Palestinian cause? Who knows? But they clearly had a conflict of interest. They should not have been allowed anywhere near the story.

There have been other petitions and letters since the Hamas slaughter of civilians on October 7. Journalists signed these letters, too. There was no mention of October 7 in most of these letters.

They signed a letter produced by the cultural and literary magazine Overland, which is supported by the taxpayers of Victoria. One of the signatories and instigators of the letter is a senior lecturer in journalism.

The letter is full of the crude jargon of anti-colonialism, so ideologically driven, essentially justifying the Hamas attack, that Barry Jones, the magazine’s patron, described it as “appalling”. Journalists signed this letter. Including senior journalists who work in the mainstream media.

An increasing number of journalists want to be social-justice warriors, anti-racism warriors, anti-colonialist warriors. This is a trend across the English-speaking world.

In the main, media companies have not called them out. Mostly, they have been silent.

They cannot remain silent. Media companies need to get over their timidity and fear of offending their staff. They must tell their journalists that they cannot sign letters and petitions. That they cannot be promoters of any cause.

The companies must do this if they want the journalism they produce to be believed and trusted.

This article was first published by the Australian Financial Review.

Michael Gawenda was editor-in-chief of The Age from 1997 to 2004. His latest book, My Life As A Jew, is published by Scribe.

About the author

Michael Gawenda

Michael Gawenda is one of Australia’s best-known journalists and authors. In a career spanning more than four decades, Michael has been a political reporter, foreign correspondent in London and Washington, and was editor and editor in chief of The Age from 1997 to 2004. He has won numerous journalism awards including three Walkley awards.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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