Journalism, propaganda and war

Dec 14, 2023
Disinformation fake news, manipulation and propaganda. Newspaper print. Vintage press abstract concept. Retro 3d rendering illustration.

Journalism, whether practised in a proclaimed democracy or in a country controlled by politburo or despot, is fraught and contentious but it is meant to tell the public and the world what is really going on.

In war the even greater obstacles to truth telling are obvious: access to verifiable eyewitness accounts, informants, probative video, photography and audio, when at the exact same time, a formidable counter measure, propaganda, is aggressively deployed as a war winning strategy.

Such is the confronting emotional and psychological risk involved in demoralising your country’s people that by publishing any fact-based reportage, the journalist or publisher instantly can be denounced as traitorous and righteously vilified by those who feel aggrieved, outraged or offended.

Nationalism, or love of country, is a political phenomenon easily exploited by constituent politicians, politburos and despots.

After October 7, some wind-vane journalists quickly swung to what they thought their audiences wanted to hear. “What did they expect?” asked one TV producer off-camera as Gaza civilians suffered death and destruction from the IDF’s missile strikes that followed Hamas’ unconscionable brutalities in Israeli border communities with hostages forcibly taken for later leverage.

Kill .. and be killed.

“Quentin … they’re trying to kill us,” pleaded a Jewish friend as I asked a question about IDF bombing raids which many around the world saw as indiscriminate enraged reprisal, or even calculated mass killing to force evacuation, under cover of Israel’s “right to self-defence” justification.

(Personally I have been a supporter of the formation of the state of Israel as a refuge for the Jewish people after the European Holocaust. At the same time I recognise that Israel was formed through conflict in 1948 which dispossessed Palestinians. The peaceful pathway to reconciliation was a two state solution which, after cumulative events of the last 20 years, now seems impossible).

In Australia, a letter signed by dozens of journalist employees of mainstream media outlets provoked a management declaration from Nine Entertainment that those employees who signed had displayed a personal bias and therefore would not now be assigned to cover the conflict. See the journalists’ letter attached below.

The ABC’s editorial management was not so censorious: warning employees against expressing any personal opinion which might be perceived as compromising their Charter obligation to impartiality or likely to bring the ABC into disrepute.

Australian journalism has been influenced to a significant extent by a Code of Ethics first adopted in 1944 by the old Australian Journalists’ Association, a civil society union of journalists, which now incorporates media and arts creatives, re-named the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance.

The letter, emerging from the MEAA rank and file, not its leadership, clearly indicates a widespread despair with the humanitarian consequences of the IDF bombing of Gaza, while acknowledging the atrocity of the Hamas murder, rape and capture of Israeli civilians.

Also motivating the signatories was the collegial grief and anguish over the killing of journalists in Gaza monitored and updated by the Committee to Protect Journalists, noted as “the deadliest conflict for journalists since it began tracking deaths in 1992”. More than 50 journalists are now listed to have been collaterally killed in the conflict. There are also allegations of the targeted killing of some journalists.

The Code of Ethics as currently drafted is attached below.

Yes. There is such a thing as “journalistic ethics”.

This may seem to many cynics to be an oxymoron. Like “military intelligence”.

But the code has stood the test of time, surviving two Australian High Court challenges brought by newspaper proprietors or their agents who opposed their employees’ declaration of professional independence.

The point to be acknowledged here is the application of proprietorial power.

Proprietors or corporate media boards appoint editors-in-chief and senior editorial executives who are delegated to determine what is published. This may differ from what individual journalists may wish to have published, motivated, they would argue, by a professional commitment to tell the public what is really going on.

Under Australian media practice it is undoubtedly the employer/proprietor’s lawful right to determine what leads the TV, radio, online or print breaking news bulletins and associated analysis, solicited opinion, interviews, comment and columns. Fair enough. Media employers take a heavy financial and market reputational risk in publishing their paid journalists’ work however fail-safe they may think their pre-publication systems are. Those journalist employees who submit copy or content which is not to their editor or management’s editorial judgment may find their contributions altered in the sub-editing phase, “spiked’, dropped from the bulletin rundown or, as disgruntled newspaper journalists once observed, placed “down near the truss ads”.

In seeking to defend journalists moved to sign the letter, and clearly biased in favour of freedom of expression, even for journalists, I refer again to the Code of Ethics:

  1. Disclose conflicts of interest that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of your journalism.

In keeping with Clause 5, that now world famous Crikey journalist Bernard Keane made an ethical declaration after his recent excoriation of veteran editor and journalist Michael Gawenda’s published objection to the journalists’ letter. Keane told Crikey readers at the end of his piece that in 2016 he had been a guest of the Australia Palestine Advocacy Network, a declarative practice he told me he had repeated every time he wrote about the Palestine-Israel dilemma.

He had never been invited to Israel as a guest although he recalled having once been duchessed (drinks) by an Israeli lobbyist.

In helpful transparency Crikey has posted an updating list of Australian journalists and politicians who have been guests in tours of Israel and the region. The overwhelming bulk are sponsored by pro-Israel groups. Perhaps the pro-Palestinians do not have the resources of the Israelis.

Many have pointed out that influential Australian journalists and editorial executives, including Sydney Morning Herald editor Bevan Shields, have been to Israel in paid goodwill visits, something that was not declared in the Nine admonition to staff journalists who had signed the letter posted by the MEAA.

For decades post WWII, many Australian journalists and editors have been flown by the US State Department to visit Washington for briefings and tours, all expenses paid. These trips have become known as “CIA scholarships” but are clearly part of soft influence with Australian media.

So it is clear then that public opinion is also “war gamed” when it comes to strategic support.

Australia has a concentrated ownership but still to some extent a rivalrous mainstream media, leavened now encouragingly by new digital outlets. As private ASX-listed news media corporations, the mainstream entities have business plans squarely based on market-share commerciality, subscriptions and advertising revenues. Editorial judgments can be tailored to appeal to an audience/revenue base and its perceived prejudices. Rupert and Lachlan Murdoch’s News Corporation outlets are now well understood to monetise prejudices rather than take the risks of audience-confronting journalism. Lachlan recently warned of an alarming rise of anti-semitism which, he seemed to urge, must be countered by NewsCorp journalists after the Hamas atrocities. There was no analysis from this executive chairman of historical context which might help to explain this rise of anti-semitism. The Australian last week (P11 8/12/23) ran headlines targeting United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres’ invocation of Article 99 requiring the Security Council to meet immediately to consider his call for an IDF ceasefire to avert a “humanitarian catastrophe” in Gaza. The report noted in passing that Guterres was “a former socialist prime minister of Portugal”. Obviously woke. It was a pathetic demonstration of the now typical Murdoch “messaging’ to News Corp editors and journalists.

Although their side businesses in the property market, dependence on Harvey Norman blanket retail ad revenue, and Murdoch/NewsCorp investments in online gambling, real estate, job ads, arms trade supplements, fossil/nuclear energy and subscription/cable TV are well known to financial journalists, neither Nine nor News make ethical declarations of any possible conflict of vested interests to their readers alongside their sometimes thundering editorials.

The ABC under the ABC Act’s Charter is, by law, independent of executive government. It therefore has no editorial position on the Israel-Hamas conflict. But its clear legislated duty is to factually and fearlessly report to the “recognised standards of objective journalism” what is really going on, including as complete an historical context as possible to explain the conflict to its audiences. While ABC audiences are quick to complain of any alleged examples of bias or omission, the ABC’s performance in this most polarising and deadly conflict ultimately will be judged by the competence of its fact-verified journalism.

Fact-based journalism can change understanding and public consciousness about an issue, dispute or conflict. The now daily footage of extreme weather events worldwide, lethal rain dumps, pyro-convective wild fires in heat spikes and species under threat of extinction, is moving public opinion about climate change.

Truth can cut through propaganda. Sometimes.

In conflict coverage, verified TV video or photographic images can move the global body politic. Remember the naked napalm girl photograph in the Vietnam war; white police sjamboking (flogging) blacks in apartheid South Africa; the tortured and humiliated Abu Ghraib prisoners?  While images of Hamas’ atrocities on October 7 galvanised support for Israel, now nightly footage of the starving, terrorised populace of Gaza, new born babies expiring in hospitals (no humidicribs), lines of body bags, and bombed buildings are undermining Israel’s public support.

With Australia’s “melancholy” declaration that we were now at war with Germany at the start of World War II, press censorship was invoked, freedom of the press suspended, said to be in the national interest. Germany pre-war had a vibrant inquisitive press, both gutter and high brow, which was shut down from Hitler’s Reichstag fire decree in 1933 “for the protection of the people and the state”.

The combatants controlled their media during war.

But now in the 21st century in the current Israel-Hamas and Russia-Ukraine wars there is no such suspension in the proclaimed democracies. Russia and China retain effective state control of their media. The digital revolution with smart phone camera video and audio instantaneously available, if its authenticity can be verified, is changing war coverage.

But at the same time propaganda is now in full confrontation with journalism.

With that has come the greatest challenge for journalism as a truth telling obligation.

So remember the Code of Ethics: Respect for truth and the public’s right to know are fundamental.

Appendix 1: Letter from journalists to Australian media outlets.

Please sign the below letter to support ethical reporting on Israel and Palestine.

Israel’s devastating bombing campaign and media blockade in Gaza threatens newsgathering and press freedom in an unprecedented fashion. Newsrooms around the world have a duty to cover these events with integrity, transparency and rigour.

As of November 23, more than 14,000 Palestinians have been killed – including roughly 6,000 children – by Israel’s bombardment of Gaza since the October 7 Hamas attack that killed 1,200 Israelis. Included in the mounting death toll are at least 53 journalists – 46 Palestinians, 3 Lebanese and 4 Israelis – according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, which it says is the deadliest conflict for journalists since it began tracking deaths in 1992.

As reporters, editors, photographers, producers, and other workers in newsrooms around Australia, we are appalled at the slaughter of our colleagues and their families and the apparent targeting of journalists by the Israeli government, which constitutes a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

We join hundreds of our colleagues in the US, Reporters Without Borders, the International Federation of Journalists and others in calling for an end to attacks on journalists and journalism itself. We also call for an end to violence against civilians in Gaza, the West Bank, Israel and Lebanon; the perpetrators of crimes against journalists and civilians be held to account; and Australian newsroom leaders to be as clear-eyed in their coverage of atrocities committed by Israel as they are of those committed by Hamas. We stand by our Palestinian, Arab, Muslim, Jewish and Israeli colleagues during a time that is personally and professionally confronting for them. The rise in both Islamophobia and antisemitism has ripple effects for those communities worldwide.

It is our duty as journalists to hold the powerful to account, to deliver truth and full context to our audiences, and to do so courageously without fear of political intimidation. Audiences are viewing much of this war through the lens of social media, fuelling suspicion of the mainstream media’s ability to properly inform audiences of events on the ground. We risk losing the trust of our audiences if we fail to apply the most stringent journalistic principles and cover this conflict in full.We – journalists from across the Australian media landscape – call on Australian newsrooms to undertake these steps to improve coverage:

1. Adhere to truth over ‘both-sidesism’. Both-sidesism is not balanced or impartial reporting; it acts as a constraint on truth by shrouding the enormous scale of the human suffering currently being perpetrated by Israeli forces. The immense and disproportionate human suffering of the Palestinian civilian population in Gaza should not be minimised.

2. Centre the human tragedy in the coverage of the conflict. Human-focused coverage can include, as examples, daily updates on the civilian death tolls, sharing the profiles and stories of the lives lost and highlighting the humanitarian catastrophe.

3. Apply as much professional scepticism when prioritising or relying on uncorroborated Israeli government and military sources to shape coverage as is applied to Hamas. The Israeli government is also an actor in this conflict, with mounting evidence it is committing war crimes and a documented history of sharing misinformation. The Israeli government’s version of events should never be reported verbatim without context or fact-checking. This is our basic responsibility as journalists.

4. Give adequate coverage to credible allegations of war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and apartheid, and don’t avoid using the term “Palestine” where appropriate.

5. Provide historical context when referencing the October 7 Hamas attacks on Israel. The conflict did not start on October 7 and it is the media’s responsibility to ensure audiences are fully informed.

Important contextual references include:

a. the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians from their native lands in 1948 to make way for the state of Israel

b. the illegal occupation of Palestinian territories by Israel since 1967, including that the UN deemed Gaza an Israeli-occupied territory even after Israel’s withdrawal from the enclave in 2005

c. the roughly 5,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, including around 150 children, thousands of whom are held without charge and many of whom are tortured

6. Provide full and fair coverage of Australia’s growing anti-war movement, including the large weekly protests in capital cities, and the traumatising impact of the conflict on Arab, Muslim and Jewish communities.

7. Be transparent about journalists who have been on all-expenses paid trips to Israel organised by pro-Israeli government groups. It is essential for audience transparency that reports include disclosures of a journalist’s participation in all-expenses paid trips to Israel. We also urge all Australian journalists from hereon to reject offers of paid trips to the Middle East.

8. Trust Australian journalists of Palestinian, Arab, Muslim and Jewish backgrounds to do their jobs. Diversity is an asset in newsrooms and should be harnessed to enrich coverage. Journalists with identities that intersect with a live issue bring insights and perspectives otherwise unattainable from a disconnected, privileged vantage point.


View the full list of over 300 signatories and add your name here.

Appendix 2: Journalist Code of Ethics

Respect for truth and the public’s right to information are fundamental principles of journalism. Journalists search, disclose, record, question, entertain, comment and remember. They inform citizens and animate democracy. They scrutinise power, but also exercise it, and should be responsible and accountable.

MEAA members engaged in journalism commit themselves to:
Respect for the rights of others.

Journalists will educate themselves about ethics and apply the following standards:

1. Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair                  opportunity for reply.

2. Do not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, including race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, sexual orientation, family relationships, religious belief, or physical or intellectual              disability.

3. Aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source. Where confidences are          accepted, respect them in all circumstances.

4. Do not allow personal interest, or any belief, commitment, payment, gift or benefit, to undermine your accuracy, fairness or independence.

5. Disclose conflicts of interest that affect, or could be seen to affect, the accuracy, fairness or independence of your journalism. Do not improperly use a journalistic position for personal gain.

6. Do not allow advertising or other commercial considerations to undermine accuracy, fairness or independence.

7. Do your utmost to ensure disclosure of any direct or indirect payment made for interviews, pictures, information or stories.

8. Use fair, responsible and honest means to obtain material. Identify yourself and your employer before obtaining any interview for publication or broadcast. Never exploit a person’s vulnerability or               ignorance of media practice.

9. Present pictures and sound which are true and accurate. Any manipulation likely to mislead should be disclosed.

10. Do not plagiarise.

11. Respect private grief and personal privacy. Journalists have the right to resist compulsion to intrude.

12. Do your utmost to achieve fair correction of errors.

Guidance Clause: Basic values often need interpretation and sometimes come into conflict. Ethical journalism requires conscientious decision-making in context. Only substantial advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial harm to people allows any standard to be overridden.

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