Analysis: Australian TV gets more neutral

By Dan Goldberg, October 1, 2009

Its geographical distance from the Middle East has done nothing to prevent a row in Australia over the terminology used by a major broadcaster to describe the occupied territories. Staff at SBS, a taxpayer-funded broadcaster, have been ordered to avoid using the term “Palestinian land” when referring to the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Instead, SBS’s Ombudsman recommends referring to “Israeli settlements on the West Bank” or “Israeli settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem” because SBS wants to ensure “the language used is neutral”.

Contrast this with the BBC, which rejected a complaint in 2003 over a report which referred to “Palestinian land” and “Arab land”. The BBC ruled that the terms “appropriately reflected the language of UN resolutions”.

Has SBS’s decision put Australia “further into Israel’s camp than any other country, including the US,” as claimed Jake Lynch, an executive member of the Sydney Peace Foundation? Is the SBS decision a victory for Zionists and the Beeb’s verdict a victory for anti-Zionists? Does it really matter?

No and yes. The language used by a broadcaster in faraway Australia, or even England, will not bring about a peace treaty. However, the battle for hearts and minds does matter as Israel faces a seemingly endless chorus of condemnation. In 2003, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council tabled a 67-page report in parliament accusing SBS of “an entrenched and strongly pronounced bias against Israel”.

Unsurprising then that AIJAC’s executive director, Dr Colin Rubenstein, described SBS’s decision as “a step in the right direction”, which “brings it into line” with the ABC, Australia’s other major public broadcaster.

Its complaints review panel recommended in June that the terms “disputed land” and “occupied territory” could suggest “lack of impartiality”.

Director of News Paul Cutler would only say that “SBS doesn’t comment on internal editorial decisions”.

As a serial sceptic, I wonder whether SBS has simply tired of receiving countless complaints of bias from the likes of Mr Rubenstein. As a journalist, I wonder whether it is in fact possible to report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without stirring the passions of either side — even in far-off Australia.

Dan Goldberg is the JC’s Australia correspondent

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010