“War of words at SBS over Middle East”, The Australian, 28Sep09 September 30, 2009

The Australian: “War of words at SBS over Middle East” by Sally Jackson, 28Sep09

CONFLICT over Israel’s disputed territories has caused a skirmish about terminology at SBS, with the multicultural broadcaster accused of misleading viewers for directing that the term “Palestinian land” not be used in news reports about the Middle East.

SBS ombudsman Sally Begbie made the ruling in response to a complaint about the description being used in a World News bulletin.

Begbie said the phrase breached clause 2.2 of the SBS Codes of Practice, which states: “Reasonable effort should be made to ensure news and current affairs programs are balanced and impartial.”

She said: “The land concerned remains the subject of protracted and deep dispute and therefore the reasonable viewer could consider that the use of the term ‘Palestinian Land’ indicates a lack of impartiality as required under the codes.”

A subsequent internal memo from news boss Paul Cutler told journalists and editors to “take care in the language used to describe the occupied territories”.

“The status of Israeli settlements on the West Bank is controversial, and is the subject of ongoing negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians,” Cutler said in the memo.

“When discussing territory whose status remains the subject of negotiation, care must be taken to ensure that the language used is neutral and cannot be interpreted as being favourable to one side over another.

“The best way to achieve this is to describe the geographic location of the settlements e.g. ‘Israeli settlements on the West Bank’ or ‘Israeli settlements on the outskirts of Jerusalem’ or similar. We should avoid describing them as ‘on Palestinian land’ or ‘on disputed land’. If anyone is in any doubt on this issue, please refer upwards.”

Tzvi Fleischer, editor of Australia/Israel Review, which is put out by the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, backed SBS’s position.

“It’s sensible where we have a dispute about territory that reports should reflect there’s a dispute and use language that makes that clear without adjudicating that one side or the other is in the right,” he said.

But Jake Lynch, director of Sydney University’s Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, said the ruling showed “a lamentable ignorance of the facts and … should be rescinded forthwith”.

“No reputable expert in international law, international relations or my own field of peace and conflict studies would dispute that the land in question is Palestinian,” he said.

“One of the main points of this story is that the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank are Palestinian, and SBS journalists must be allowed to explain that, or viewers and listeners risk being misled and confused.”

Professor Lynch said the BBC Board of Governors had reached the opposite conclusion to SBS when considering the question in 2004 after a complainant objected to references in its broadcasts to “Palestinian land” and “Arab land”. The BBC said in its ruling that “these terms appropriately reflected the language of UN resolutions”.

Professor Lynch and lobby group Australians for Palestine have complained to SBS about the ombudsman’s ruling.

An SBS spokeswoman said no one would comment further.

“SBS does not make public comments on internal editorial decisions which are made from time to time for a variety of reasons,” she said.

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