Antoinette Lattouf, political opinion and the ABC’s impartiality

When journalist, presenter and diversity advocate Antoinette Lattouf signed off from her ABC local radio shift last month, she told her audience chirpily, “I’ll be back tomorrow. Can’t wait. I’ll talk to you then.”

She had every reason to think this would be true. Her whisper-light, pre-Christmas morning programs on ABC Radio Sydney had seemingly been going well and she had two shifts to go under her short-term, casual contract.

Antoinette Lattouf: sacked from the ABC allegedly for expressing a political opinion about the Israel Gaza conflict.
Antoinette Lattouf: sacked from the ABC allegedly for expressing a political opinion about the Israel Gaza conflict.Credit: Louie Douvis

The following morning, though, listeners switched on to hear the voice of weekend presenter Simon Marnie. In the intervening day, according to an unlawful termination claim Lattouf later filed, she had first been told at a lunchtime meeting that the audience was “responding very well,” then, an hour later, she was sacked. The reason given, she claimed, was that she had breached the ABC’s social media policy with an Instagram post, and that the order had come from much higher up.

The post in question was a link to a Human Rights Watch report that said the Israeli government was “using starvation of civilians as a weapon of war in Gaza”. In the ordinary course of events reposting a report from a credible organisation would attract little attention. Her sacking, and her subsequent claim before the Fair Work Commission for unlawful termination, will.

Her initial complaint in December claimed her sacking was unlawful because the law protects employees for expressing a political opinion. This week, she added that it was based in part on her race and cultural background: she is “Lebanese and/or Arab and/or Middle Eastern”.

An ABC spokesman said the ABC would submit its response to Lattouf’s claims on Monday and, “We welcome the opportunity to address her allegations”.

Lattouf’s story pokes at three hugely sensitive sores spots in the Australian media, and the ABC particularly.

Stan Grant resigned from the ABC after claiming it had failed to properly support him.
Stan Grant resigned from the ABC after claiming it had failed to properly support him.

The first, raised by Indigenous journalist Stan Grant as he quit the ABC last August, is how the national broadcaster treats its racially and culturally diverse staff. The second is the alleged shortcomings in how the Australian media is covering the war in Gaza, and the third is whether journalists have a right to hold, and express political opinions, particularly about that conflict.

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“This has got the potential to absolutely blow up at the ABC,” said one of a number of insiders at the broadcaster, speaking anonymously so as not to damage their employment. “The Stan Grant thing has devastated people … morale at the moment is the pits.”

The dispute amped up even further on Friday when another ABC journalist of Lebanese heritage, federal political reporter Nour Haydar, resigned over similar concerns, saying, “commitment to diversity in the media cannot be skin deep,” and that “culturally diverse staff should be respected and supported even when they challenge the status quo”.

The ABC’s editorial standards are clear: “Impartiality is a fundamental standard … It is central to its public service purpose and to its reputation as a credible and trustworthy broadcaster.” The broadcaster’s social media policy insists that employees act to protect the ABC’s “reputation, independence, impartiality and integrity”. “High-risk workers … [including presenters] must be particularly cautious”.

On the other hand, the employment law says an employer cannot sack someone for holding or expressing a political opinion unless not expressing an opinion is an “inherent requirement” of their “particular position”.

Lattouf is now represented by one of Australia’s most high-profile industrial lawyers, Melbourne-based Josh Bornstein, who is responsible for adding the question of racial or cultural discrimination to her unlawful termination claim.

In an interview with The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, Bornstein, of Maurice Blackburn, questioned why his client was apparently being punished for her views when former ABC (and subsequently Nine) political editor, Chris Uhlmann, kept his job despite “railing against cultural Marxism in the pages of the Murdoch press”, and 7.30 chief political correspondent Laura Tingle tweeted that Scott Morrison’s petition to cut funding to the ABC was an act of “government ideological bastardry”. Tingle later removed the tweet and agreed it was a mistake.

Lawyer Josh Bornstein.
Lawyer Josh Bornstein.Credit: Simon Schluter

According to Bornstein, for “a narrow category of journalists, in the news and current affairs category, there is a respectable argument for constraining their democratic right” to express a political opinion, on the grounds that impartiality was an inherent requirement of the job. “But we’re going to say she’s not a news and CAF reporter. She was providing light entertainment.”

Bornstein said the broad social media policies of many organisations were “being abused to cast an oppressive net across people working in a back office, the camera guy, sports and weather presenters, in the interests of brand management”.

As for policies such as editorial standards or social media policies that purport to restrict expressions of political opinion, “you can’t contract out of a legislated right”. Their increasing use by companies he said, was part of “corporate cancel culture”.

The fact Lattouf is at the intersection of these questions should have come as no shock to the people who hired her. She was engaged by the ABC on December 13. On the same day, she had published a story in Crikey that raised doubts about whether pro-Palestinian protesters had, in fact, chanted “gas the Jews” at the Sydney Opera House last October, or whether the video showing it had been doctored.

On her very active Instagram account days before that she had written that the “Israeli military machine … is driven by bloodthirsty, extremist men who want to justify the ongoing annihilation of Palestinians”.

Her book ‘How to Lose Friends and Influence White People’ explores “the modern manifestations of systemic racism in Australia today,” and a TEDx talk she gave was entitled, “Reverse discrimination doesn’t exist but tokenism does”.

But the contentious posts had happened before she started her casual employment with the ABC. Knowing her views, the ABC nevertheless hired Lattouf and put her on the prominent morning slot from 8.30am to 11am. Her only social media post during her brief period of employment was from Human Rights Watch.

Her supporters, who do not want to be named for fear of damaging their employment, say she had specifically discussed with managers the possibility of reposting something “completely factual from a reputable organisation”. The managers had agreed this was permissible, the supporters say.

“They wanted the vibrant, feisty, smart, well-travelled, opinionated person she is, but they didn’t want the part that is opinionated in a way that some groups in society now object to,” said one insider.

On Lattouf’s prospect of success in the unlawful termination claim, Anthony Forsyth, a professor of workplace law at RMIT said if the Instagram post in question “constitutes political opinion it may not be protected if her manner of doing it was in breach of the ABC’s social media policy”.

However, on the question of whether her political opinions should have been restricted in this way, Forsyth said it was complicated.

“I don’t think that’s been conclusively decided in Australian law.” Cases, including that of former rugby player Israel Folau, who was sacked after posting that homosexuals were going to hell, had been settled before judgments were delivered, so the courts had not definitively ruled on the issue.

Lattouf’s claim also feeds into what has become a febrile atmosphere around the coverage of the Israel-Gaza war. One of the “substantial and operative” reasons she was sacked, according to her claim, is “because the ABC management was acting on complaints” who “are considered to be the Executive Council of Australian Jewry and/or one or more persons associated with that organisation”.

Journalists have come under pressure from both sides about their coverage of the war, but the council’s co-CEO Alex Ryvchin said this was “Total bullshit. Have never spoken to anyone at ABC about her or coordinated any campaign”. Asked if anyone from the organisation had he replied: “No”.

These are not just questions for the ABC, or Lattouf. Some journalists at The Age and Herald, as well as the Guardian and the ABC, signed an open letter last year calling for better coverage of the Gaza conflict. The letter, among other things, called on media organisations to “apply as much professional scepticism when prioritising or relying on uncorroborated Israeli government and military sources to shape coverage as is applied to Hamas”.

At The Age and Herald, staff who signed the letter were restricted from working on stories relating to Gaza. Part of that debate was whether staff who had taken free trips to Israel funded by Jewish groups should disclose their participation. This journalist took such a trip in 2018.

At the ABC, about 200 staff took part in a meeting with senior news staff in November according to a source not authorised to speak publicly, but with direct knowledge of the meeting, during which staff criticised the broadcaster’s coverage of the war between Israel and Hamas.

A number of grievances were raised, including the ABC’s hesitancy to use particular terminology such as “invasion”, “occupation”, “genocide”, “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing” in its reporting, as well as concerns over potential irreparable damage done to relations with Arab and Muslim communities.

The resignation of Haydar shows how deeply felt these issues still are at the national broadcaster. And Lattouf’s lawsuit lobs into the middle of that. Sources from the ABC say there is likely to be some action from the union to protest against Lattouf’s sacking.”Antoinette is not going to settle and she won’t accept money,” said one ABC insider. “She wants [management] in the witness box. And we’re getting a new chair in the next two or three weeks: it’s shocking timing.”

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