ABC journalists have threatened to stage a walkout over the organisation’s handling of complaints against staff, after broadcaster Antoinette Lattouf was sacked three days into a short-term radio-hosting contract over a controversial social media post about the war in Gaza.
About 80 ABC staff met at the broadcaster’s Ultimo headquarters in Sydney on Tuesday afternoon to demand a meeting with managing director David Anderson over the handling of the unfolding situation, and to seek assurances about the transparency of the broadcaster’s complaints process and mechanisms to support staff in the face of criticism.
A potential walkout if staff demands were not met was discussed at the meeting, according to a source speaking anonymously to discuss the matter freely, after this masthead revealed a co-ordinated back-channel campaign by the Lawyers for Israel group to argue for Lattouf’s sacking.
A chain of leaked WhatsApp messages obtained by this masthead shows a letter-writing campaign from pro-Israel lobbyists targeting Anderson and ABC chair Ita Buttrose in the week starting December 18 over Lattouf’s stint on ABC Radio Sydney.
The threat comes after the ABC lodged its legal defence in the Fair Work Commission to Lattouf’s unlawful termination claim and described her application as “fundamentally and entirely misconceived”. The reason she was sacked, the response says, is because she ignored a direction from managers and shared a controversial social media post from Human Rights Watch. Her race or political opinion played no role in her departure, the ABC’s defence says.
The ABC said Lattouf was directed not to post about “matters of controversy” during her five-day contract while covering the Mornings show on ABC Radio Sydney in December. The broadcaster says she failed or refused to comply with this directive.
Cassie Derrick, media director for the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, said staff were demanding answers from Anderson and ABC management.
“Journalists at the ABC are working very hard to tell difficult stories, ethically or without fear or favour, and to be accountable to the public they work for, but they are being let down by management, who are capitulating, it seems, to external bullying,” Derrick said.
“MEAA members are demanding an urgent meeting with David Anderson, particularly to discuss the way in which complaints are handled and how staff need to be supported in a culturally informed way.”
The controversial post in question was a Human Rights Watch report reposted by Lattouf on the afternoon of December 19, two days into her five-day contract, which alleged Israel was using starvation as a weapon of war.
The ABC also published two news items on the Human Rights Watch report in the same week.
The broadcaster denied any involvement from Anderson in the decision to remove her.
In its legal defence, the ABC said any political opinion expressed by Lattouf during her contracted period, or any matters relating to her race and national extraction/social origin were “entirely irrelevant” in its decision.
In fact, it denied that Lattouf’s publication of the Human Rights Watch Instagram post was an expression of a political opinion. Sacking someone for having or expressing such an opinion is unlawful under the legislation.
“The suggestion that the ABC took action against the applicant on the basis of her race, national extraction or social origin is abhorrent,” the ABC says in its response.
The events according to the ABC
The ABC alleges in court documents that there was a phone conversation between station content director Elizabeth Green and Lattouf after her first show on Monday, December 18, during which Lattouf was informed that several complaints had been received with concerns raised over her presence on the channel and her perceived stance on the ongoing conflict in Gaza.
Lattouf was directed by Green not to post anything on her social media accounts that could be considered controversial, to avoid any perception of bias for the four remaining days of her contract as presenter of Sydney Mornings.
Lattouf sought to clarify what would be appropriate to post the following day, the ABC claims, with a conversation between her and Green. The ABC claims Lattouf said words to the effect of: “What can I post? What if another journalist dies, can I post that?”
Green is alleged to have responded: “Well 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.”
At midday on December 20, the ABC became aware of Lattouf’s Instagram post the previous day. The ABC says it was of “serious concern” that Lattouf had posted about a “controversial topic” after being specifically directed otherwise.
Despite the broadcaster having deemed this post controversial in nature, it also covered the report in question twice that same week. On December 18, ABC News online posted an article with the headline: “Israel-Gaza war: Human Rights Watch says starvation is being used as ‘a weapon of war’ by the Israeli government”.
On December 20, ABC News Breakfast on ABC TV interviewed Omar Shakir from Human Rights Watch on the subject of the report, republished online with the headline: “VIDEO: Human Rights Watch accuses Israel of weaponising starvation in Gaza”.
According to court documents, the application alleges that a meeting between ABC chief content officer Chris Oliver-Taylor, head of audio content Ben Latimer, editorial director Simon Melkman and the acting head of the ABC’s capital city network, Steve Ahern, resulted in Oliver-Taylor taking the view Lattouf was in breach of the directive she was given and was subsequently not required to return for her final two shifts.
In the chain of WhatsApp messages, correspondence from Buttrose was shared, confirming on the morning of December 20 that Oliver-Taylor was addressing complaints lodged by members of the Lawyers for Israel WhatsApp group. Buttrose’s five-year term ends on March 6 and the government is yet to announce her replacement.
An ABC spokesperson said the broadcaster has “a transparent complaints process and responds accordingly, regardless of the source of the complaint”.
The ABC also denies Anderson was involved in the decision, and rejects the claim in Lattouf’s application that she was told Anderson was behind the decision.
The ABC alleges that in an attempt to comfort Lattouf, Green said words to the effect of “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’s legal team is seeking a detailed public apology, compensation for harm to her reputation, distress and humiliation. Lattouf will also seek an order that the ABC offer her a commensurate role back on air.
The ABC claims Lattouf was paid for all five shifts, and therefore suffered no financial loss.
Lattouf and her lawyer, Josh Bornstein, declined to comment.
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