Several hundred ABC staff have rebuked the organisation’s managing director David Anderson, with one of the broadcaster’s most senior journalists, global affairs editor John Lyons, saying he was embarrassed by his employer, which he said had shown pro-Israel bias and was failing to protect staff against complaints.
At a meeting on Monday afternoon, prompted by the sacking in December of broadcaster and activist Antoinette Lattouf, ABC union members passed a vote of no-confidence in Anderson by 125 votes to three. The ABC board will convene an emergency meeting on Tuesday to discuss the issues raised.
Several in attendance at the online ABC staff meeting on Monday revealed that Lyons, who is due to fly to Israel on Tuesday to cover the conflict with Hamas, said the broadcaster’s independence and reputation for trust has been “compromised” by recent events.
Lyons said the ABC “faced one of its darkest days” last Tuesday, when this masthead published a series of leaked WhatsApp messages documenting a letter-writing campaign from a group of pro-Israel lawyers targeting Anderson and ABC chair Ita Buttrose, in the lead up to, and on the day of Lattouf’s dismissal.
“When I read those WhatsApp messages, for the first time ever, and hopefully the last time ever, I felt embarrassed to work for the ABC. I was embarrassed that a group of 156 lawyers could laugh at how easy it was to manipulate the ABC,” Lyons said, according to multiple sources.
Lyons, a former head of current affairs and investigations at the ABC, said they showed the organisation had bowed to “a group of lawyers lobbying for a foreign power.
“The clue is in the name: Lawyers for Israel thought that they could run a campaign to bully an ABC journalist out of her job and they did, they succeeded”.
Lyons, a former Middle East correspondent for The Australian, wrote a book called Balcony over Jerusalem in which he detailed his battles with Australia’s Israel lobby over his journalism.
Union staff set out five demands for Anderson and senior management to address to win back confidence from both staff and the public, including the future backing of its journalism “without fear or favour”.
Other demands include working with its house committee to build a culturally informed process to support staff facing attacks or criticism; taking urgent action on the lack of security and inequality faced by journalists of colour; working with unions to develop clearer and fairer social media policies; and upholding a transparent complaints process, where the relevant journalist is informed and supported throughout.
Lyons, who has visited the Middle East many times, including two trips since the October 7 attack, told colleagues the issues extended far beyond the ongoing Fair Work case involving Lattouf.
He told staff there had been a recent directive that the word genocide could not be used to describe the Israeli military campaign in Gaza, even when quoting someone, without it being “upwardly referred” to a manager, but that “we can talk to any of the victims of the Hamas October 7 massacre, which we should and we put that to air”.
“It’s only ever one side and that’s one of the things that has really motivated me that I want to speak out about,” Lyons said. He said staff were often “thrown under the bus” by management, and staff were beginning to self-censor as a result.
“When the heat’s on, our journalists are not being supported by management. I think that’s clear … We are being attacked by outside groups, and nobody from the ABC is out there defending us. Many of us feel we are very much on our own.”
Lyons also said the broadcaster is at risk of losing all of its best diverse staff, with Stan Grant “hung out to dry” by management in 2023 over his comments during the ABC’s coverage of King Charles’ coronation, which ultimately ended in Grant’s departure.
“They come for a while, and then they’re out the door because they get a taste of what it’s like to work here for them.”
Lyons criticised the ABC’s decision to hand over footage collected by Four Corners staff to West Australian police in late-2023 following an investigation into climate protesters, adding: “The role of investigative journalism is to expose bad things. Not to be gathering material to make it easier for the police to prosecute people who have trusted us, and given us interviews.”
And he said he had been ordered not to go to Adelaide Writers’ Week to promote his own book. “They told me that I write about Israel and, ‘you have been the focus of complaints’.
“This means it could be a fossil fuel lobby group could send five or 10 complaints about a particular journalist here and is that enough to stop you being out there to speak publicly about your journalism.”
Lattouf’s lawyer, Josh Bornstein, said earlier on Monday that the ABC had backflipped on its defence of her sacking, and was now saying she had never been terminated.
The change was an attempt to have Lattouf’s unlawful termination case thrown out, according to Bornstein over a jurisdictional issue, even though in its defence filed on January 15 it had said it terminated her employment.
“We have sought a detailed explanation from the ABC for its about face. If the ABC pursues this jurisdictional challenge, it is likely that evidence will need to be called from senior management,” Bornstein said.
The ABC denied there had been any backflip, with a spokesman saying in a statement: “It was clear on the evidence provided in the ABC’s response to Ms Lattouf’s claim that she had not been terminated. The jurisdictional objection was formalised as soon as it became clear the matter had not resolved.”
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