ABC foreign correspondent Tim Palmer took Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman to the Australian Press Council over the comment piece published below and now the Press Council ruling is out and Akerman won’t be happy. Let’s start with the offending column

The Daily Telegraph – Aunty trips up on its balancing act

By Piers Akerman

FIFTEEN-year-old Australian-born Malki Roth was murdered by a suicidal bomber as she sat among her girlfriends in a Jerusalem pizzeria two years ago.

Her killer, Izzadin Al-Masri, 23, a member of the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas, came from a middle-class Palestinian family with investments in Jenin and Nablus.

He’d been hinting for about a month that he planned to become an Islamic “martyr”.

Young Palestinians are encouraged to hate Jews and to believe they are destined to martyrdom (with a complete suite of virgins, in the case of the young boys) from their earliest childhood by the Palestinian authorities.

Al-Masri’s father, Shaheel, was subsequently quoted expressing pride in his son’s suicide and at his son’s slaughter of 14 Israelis.

Arnold Roth, the father of the murdered teenager expressed his outrage at the barbarism in The Washington Post. This prompted the ABC’s then-Middle East bureau chief Tim Palmer, to ask him for an interview.

Mr Roth said he would “have no objection at all to speaking with you on the record, and if it can help get out the story of how sad Malki’s loss is, then I would like to do it”.

But in a response which reveals either an appalling absence of any moral compass on the part of the ABC’s senior staffer, or a total lack of any understanding of the conflict, Palmer said he intended to bracket Mr Roth with an interview with the murderer’s proud father.

Can it be that this is what ABC boss Russell Balding has in mind when he babbles about “balance” at the national broadcaster?

Does it believe there can be some “balance”, some symmetry, some moral equivalence in presenting the father of a murdered teenager who spent her school holidays providing care for severely handicapped children and the father of a young man who believed it was his
religious purpose to murder innocent people?

Palmer promised to get back to Mr Roth but did not.

Last week, Mr Roth, who has set up the Malki Foundation to raise funds to assist families with severely retarded children in memory of his daughter’s passion, arrived in Melbourne from Israel to find a message from an ABC radio producer, who had earlier asked him to be a guest on a morning program.

The note said: “I’m writing to let you know that unfortunately we are going to have to cancel arrangements to interview you Friday morning on our programme.

“Given the coverage we gave on today’s programme to the latest explosion in Jerusalem, my executive producer and I agree that we will have to cancel.

“This morning we devoted considerable time to representatives from both Jewish and Palestinian organisations, and always seek to put both views forward.

“Although your foundation is working to benefit both Israeli and Palestinian families, it will nevertheless be difficult to proceed without appearing unbalanced.

“My apologies and best wishes for your trip.”

How a discussion with Mr Roth about the Malki Foundation — which places no religious or racial qualifications on those it helps — affects the ABC’s “balance” is bewildering. The second family it assisted was in fact a Jordanian Palestinian.

Could it be that the ABC searched for an equivalent Palestinian charitable organisation but drew a blank? Perhaps it could ask Federal Labor’s pro-Palestinian lobbyists Leo McLeay and Julia Irwin to point them to an Arab organisation as even-handed in its approach as the memorial to the murdered Australian volunteer child care worker?

It might produce a program explaining that Israeli children are taught peace education while the Palestinian Authority’s approved curriculum and Palestinian television teaches hate and prepares young people for “martyrdom”. Or would such a program also fail the ABC’s nonsensical idea of “balance”?

Mr Roth says the Malki Foundation (www.kerenmalki.org) is his retaliation at those who killed his daughter.

“These people, Hamas, radiate hate,” he said. “We cannot out-hate them but we can help Palestinian Arabs and show them that their strategy of hate has failed. If they choke on our aid, so be it.

“They are non-entities, when they murder they will be forgotten, but my daughter will live in the memories of those we help.”
In the warped ABC culture, however, Malki Roth will be forever marked as the equivalent of murderous “martyr” Izzadin Al-Masri — all in the interests of “balance”.

Meanwhile, this came in from the Press Council on Monday, 25 October after Crikey subscribers were alerted to the impending Palmer victory:

I have been told that you have posted all or part of an embargoed adjudication concerning the Daily Telegraph. As I cannot find it on the public site, I assume that it has been posted to your email subscribers.

At this time the Council has issued the finding only to the complainant and the newspaper and each has the opportunity, before publication date on Thursday, to advise the Council of an appeal or to note any errors of fact in the finding. That is why it is embargoed for general publication until Friday.

If you have posted this material, in defiance of the normal journalistic practice of observing embargoes, and before the newspaper has had an opportunity to first publish any finding about it, I would ask that you withdraw the material and not further publish it.

I look forward to your co-operation.

Jack Herman
Executive Secretary

Press Council ruling against Piers Akerman

Here is the Australian Press Council ruling, released on October October 29, in favour of ABC foreign correspondent Tim Palmer and against Daily Telegraph columnist Piers Akerman:

The Press Council has upheld a complaint by an Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) correspondent against the Sydney Daily Telegraph over a bylined opinion column dealing with the aftermath of the killing of an Australian-born 15-year-old girl by a suicide bomber in Jerusalem.

The Piers Akerman column claimed that the correspondent, Tim Palmer, had revealed either “an appalling absence of any moral compass” or “a total lack of understanding of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict”.

The killing occurred more than three years ago at a time when Mr Palmer was based in Jerusalem, and the article itself appeared more than a year ago. In the intervening years e-mails, letters and phone calls have passed between the girl’s father, Arnold Roth, and Mr Palmer; the Federal member for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby, and his staff joined the dispute; and the ABC managing director, Russell Balding, and Mr Roth himself had letters published in the Telegraph.

At the core of the dispute was an attempt by Mr Palmer to organise a feature story based on interviews with both Mr Roth and the father of the Palestinian bomber. At first Mr Roth agreed, but that was before he knew that the bomber’s father was to be included in the story. Mr Roth was immediately outraged at what he regarded as gross insensitivity and an attempt to create a false symmetry between the two deaths.

Mr Palmer dropped the project.

The Piers Akerman commentary criticised Mr Palmer and the ABC’s “babbling” about balance, asking: “Does it [the ABC] believe there can be some balance, some symmetry, some moral equivalence in presenting the father of a murdered teenager who spent her school providing care for severely handicapped children and the father of a young man who believed it was his religious duty to murder innocent people?”

In his complaint Mr Palmer says that since the project was dropped, Mr Akerman could not possibly have known what form the story would have taken or how the two projected interviews would have been used.

Mr Palmer produced print-outs of two Daily Telegraph stories about the bombing that both appeared on page 5 on 11 August 2001. One quoted Mr Roth and included a picture of his daughter, Malki, “murdered by a fanatic who didn’t know a thing about her”; and the other quoted the bomber’s father as saying he was “filled with pride and sadness, and I will weep for him all my life.”

This, says Mr Palmer, “is exactly the same scenario Mr Akerman suggests is without moral compass, and it is in his own newspaper”.

Mr Palmer, who says he was on the scene of the bombing within five minutes, quotes a paragraph from the report he provided for the ABC programme AM a day later: “When the Islamic Jihad group first claimed responsibility for this blast, it described the action as heroic, but this was cowardly butchery. Indiscriminate in cutting down the old and the very young, it is believed as many as six of the dead are infants.”

The Press Council believes that amid the arguments about the shades of meaning of the words “counterpoint”, “balance” and “symmetry”, it remains clear that Piers Akerman did not contact Mr Palmer, and indeed he could not have known how the story would have been handled. He had Mr Roth’s side of the story, plus the extensive correspondence between the two.

The columnist was entitled to comment, even to comment strongly, on the question of the ABC’s concept of balance. On this question the newspaper published a letter of rebuttal from the ABC managing director.

However, the Akerman commentary went further and singled out Mr Palmer for criticism. The published opinion was based on an assumption of the facts, without seeking any input from the ABC journalist. As a result, the article was unbalanced and unfairly derogatory of Mr Palmer, characterising him in a manner not justified by the matters raised in the column. For these reasons the complaint is upheld.

The Daily Telegraph has lodged an appeal against this finding. The Council’s Chairman is considering the appeal.

Akerman’s response when we first broke the story was as follows:

Crikey,

I thought that you might have seen the obvious flaws in the Press Council adjudication against The Daily Telegraph but apparently not. Might I suggest you find someone with a little intelligence to interpret it for you. As it stands, the Press Council’s finding has created insurmountable problems for all Opinion writers by implicity requiring that they don’t comment on issues unless they have contacted everyone involved. Try thinking before you rush into print.

Piers Akerman