The ABC’s senior management has strongly denied being influenced by outside lobbyists when it fired journalist Antoinette Lattouf, with managing director David Anderson addressing the issue in an all-staff email on Wednesday.
On Tuesday staff at the ABC headquarters in Ultimo threatened to walkout unless management addresses concerns Sydney Morning Herald reported it had seen a chain of leaked WhatsApp messages showing a campaign from pro-Israel lobbyists to have Lattouf sacked days before her dismissal.
In the afternoon around 80 staff met, and threatened to walk out if their concerns over the situation were not addressed. In an email sent around 5:20pm on Wednesday, Andrews wrote that the ABC’s independence was of “paramount importance”.
“The ABC rejects any claim that it has been influenced by any external pressure, whether it be an advocacy or lobby group, a political party, or commercial entity,” Anderson’s statement said.
Staff, he added, “routinely perform their roles for the Australian public without fear or favour, adhering to our responsibilities of impartiality and accuracy – often in the face of significant unwarranted criticism”.
And that the ABC took “legitimate” criticism, feedback and complaints seriously, but would “continue to support [staff] and their work, internally and externally”.
It comes as the ABC filed its defence with the Fair Work Commission in response to Lattouf bringing a wrongful termination claim against the broadcaster in December after her final two shifts filling in on mornings on ABC radio Sydney were cancelled by the broadcaster over an Instagram post on 19 December.
The ABC claims Lattouf was warned against social media posting on controversial topics before she was dismissed from the casual radio role.
Lattouf has claimed unlawful termination on the grounds of “political opinion or a reason that included political opinion”, and later expanded the claim to include race, due to her Lebanese heritage.
In the ABC’s response to Lattouf’s submission, the broadcaster said Lattouf was first advised on Monday 18 December that the ABC “had received some complaints” about her being on air “in relation to her perceived stance on the Gaza conflict”. They advised her that while she was on air, she should not post anything on her social media accounts that could be perceived as controversial.
On Tuesday 19 December, after her on-air shift, Lattouf asked ABC content director Elizabeth Green what she could post on social media, such as if “another journalist dies”, and the ABC has claimed in its submission she was told by Green “that would be fact-based. But really it’s probably better that you don’t post anything while you’re with us because of the risk of the perception that you are biased and not balanced”.
Lattouf has said in her submission she was told by Green “sharing straight facts and material from reputable sources was fine”.
On the evening of 19 December, Lattouf reposted on Instagram a post from Human Rights Watch that said: “The Israeli government is using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war in Gaza”.
The ABC covered the claim at the time, as Lattouf noted in her submission.
Lattouf, a Lebanese-Australian social commentator, columnist and diversity advocate, reposted with the comment “HRW reporting starvation as a tool of war”.
The ABC said it “became aware” of the post at midday on 20 December, and the ABC’s chief content officer, Chris Oliver-Taylor, met ABC’s head of audio content, Ben Latimer, ABC editorial director, Simon Melkman and ABC head of capital city network, Steve Ahern, to discuss the Instagram post.
The ABC said Oliver-Taylor “formed the view” that the post was in breach of the directions given to Lattouf, and that she should not go to air on the Thursday and Friday, 21 and 22 December.
The ABC said Lattouf was paid for the final two days, despite not working the shifts. The broadcaster has denied the Instagram post “was the expression of a political opinion or otherwise associated with a protected attribute referred to in the Fair Work Act”. The ABC said that Lattouf’s race was “entirely irrelevant” to the decision.
The broadcaster also said that Anderson, the managing director, did not make the decision. The ABC response said that Green had told Lattouf “in an effort to comfort” her that “these types of matters are taken very seriously and decisions like this can be referred all the way up to the MD’s office”.
Lattouf was told that Jewish lobbyists were unhappy she was on the air, according to her statement.
“Ms Lattouf’s employment with the ABC has been the subject of numerous complaints from the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ),” Lattouf’s submission says.
The ECAJ previously denied it made any complaints about Lattouf.
The ABC has faced criticism from all sides over its coverage of the Israel-Gaza conflict. Late last year the ABC’s Southbank office in Melbourne was vandalised with red paint splashed on the doors stating “tell the truth about Palestine”.
The ABC also removed, then reinstated, a TikTok video on the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, after criticism from pro-Israel groups. The video has been reinstated with the note that the BDS movement is a legitimate story for the ABC to cover.
Cassie Derrick, the MEAA media director, said staff wanted answers from management.
“Working journalists are the ones who are holding the line on public interest journalism, and telling the stories we need to hear without fear or favour,” she said.
“And at the ABC, the management is letting these journalists and the public down. Management needs to work with the staff to ensure that the trust in the ABC can be maintained.”
The ABC house committee has now written to Anderson and Buttrose requesting they meet with staff. The ABC was contacted by Guardian Australia for comment.