War on Gaza: ABC was lobbied by pro-Israel WhatsApp groups to fire journalist, reports say
Evidence that pro-Israel campaigners were using two WhatsApp groups to pressure ABC executives into sacking journalist Antoinette Lattouf has emerged, as senior figures at Australia’s national broadcaster furiously rejected the accusations and denied that they had even fired her.
Lattouf, a Lebanese Australian, told Middle East Eye in an interview published on Monday that she had been sacked in December, just three days into a short-term contract to work on a lifestyle radio programme over the Christmas period.
At an all-staff meeting, Lattouf said she was told she was doing a “great” job, but less than an hour later, three managers brought her into a room to tell her that she was no longer needed and that she should leave the building immediately.
The journalist told MEE that when she asked why she was being dismissed, the managers told her that her “credibility” and “impartiality” had been called into question by the fact that she had shared on social media a Human Rights Watch post accusing Israel of using starvation as a weapon of war in Gaza.
Lattouf had shared the post without comment and pointed out to the managers that ABC had covered the story itself.
“Was the post controversial, or was it controversial that an Arab woman should post that, or is it only controversial when Human Rights Watch criticises Israel?" she told MEE.
"Because if I had shared an HRW post that criticised Hamas on 7 October for their atrocities, of which there were many, would I be fired? And I’m pretty confident I would not have been.”
Initially, the broadcaster said that she had been fired for violating its social media policy. However, last week, the Sydney Morning Herald published leaked messages from a WhatsApp group maintained by the Lawyers for Israel group.
In the messages, the pro-Israel lawyers reportedly coordinated a campaign to barrage the ABC with complaints about Lattouf. One lawyer said she would initiate a legal threat if the journalist was not sacked, while admitting that there were no actionable grounds for such a move.
According to reports in Australia, the messages made it clear that the lawyers were in regular and prompt contact with senior ABC executives, including the chair of the broadcaster’s board, Ita Buttrose.
'Something needs to be done'
On Monday, leaked documents revealed that a second WhatsApp group, entitled “J.E.W.I.S.H Australian creatives and academics”, had also helped lobby executives over Lattouf. One of the group’s members said they had received a response from Buttrose.
According to Pedestrian.tv, one of the messages, from someone identified as “MG”, reads: “The ABC assigned Antoinette Lattouff (sic) an advocacy ‘journalist’ (with an active anti-Israel social media presence despite ABC policies to the contrary) to host the ABC morning show in Sydney.”
“In short, the ABC does what it wants and we foot the bill!” In another message, MG added: “Something needs to be done.”
Another member of the group, Talia, posted an “urgent call for any screenshots” of Lattouf “saying anything anti-Israel or antisemitic since Monday 18th… Need evidence from her socials for why she is not an impartial journalist”.
The messages were sent on 20 December, the same day Lattouf was fired.
“I just got an email at 5.42 from Ita Buttrose in response to my letter,” a WhatsApp message from someone called Esther reads. It goes on to say that Buttrose told Estther that Lattouf “no longer works at the ABC”.
The Age reported on Monday that more than 100 ABC union staff rebuked the organisation’s managing director, David Anderson, as global affairs editor John Lyons said he was embarrassed by his employer, which he said had shown a pro-Israel bias and was failing to protect its staff against complaints.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Lyons, who has a long history of reporting from the Middle East, told staff there was a directive from the ABC that the word genocide could not be used to describe Israel's campaign in Gaza, even when quoting someone, without it being "upwardly referred" to management.
In contrast, Lyons said, "we can talk to any of the victims of the Hamas 7 October 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.
Buttrose rejected the claims, saying accusations that Anderson did not support his staff were “abhorrent and incorrect”.
“The ABC regularly receives, and responds to, complaints from individuals or organisations and the assumption that either the managing director as editor-in-chief or I would be influenced by any sort of lobbying pressure is quite simply wrong,” Buttrose said.
Late on Tuesday afternoon, local time, ABC’s board also rejected claims put forward by Lattouf in her Fair Work case against the organisation, alleging unlawful termination.
When Lattouf spoke to MEE, news of the second WhatsApp group had not broken. She said that people had a right to organise and lobby. “What concerns me is what influence a WhatsApp group could have on a body that is meant to be impartial and independent,” she said.
Once she became aware of the second group, Lattouf tweeted: "It makes me sick in the stomach to see people celebrate my sacking. It makes me sick in the stomach to see an alleged Ita Buttrose response saying I’m now gone. It makes me worry about the ABC’s integrity."