Attorney-General George Brandis doesn’t like the term “occupied” being used to refer to East Jerasalem, and he’d rather the government use the term “disputed” instead.

In Senate estimates last month, he read out a prepared statement saying that describing areas subject to negotiations in the peace process by reference to their histories is unhelpful. ”The description of East Jerusalem as ‘Occupied East Jerusalem’ is a term freighted with pejorative implications, which is neither appropriate nor useful,” he said.

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The issue raises a dilemma for journalists, who can be accused of displaying bias by their choice of words on the issue. SBS and Fairfax have adopted a cautious attitude, while The Australian and the ABC, not usually in lockstep, have no issue raising Brandis’ ire on the issue. And crucially AAP, whose stories are carried everywhere, continues to use “occupied territories” in its wire copy.

In an email sent to staff recently (and seen by Crikey), SBS planning editor Lissa McMillian reminds journalists of the broadcaster’s style guide about the issue. Quoting from the style guide, she writes:

“It is important that all programs take care in the language used to describe Land which is subject to peace negotiations in the Middle East, that is the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. Each side refers to these geographic areas in a different way. Palestinians refer to occupied territories, and Israelis to disputed territories. Over time, this language has been adopted in discussions at the highest level to indicate a particular political perspective on the ownership of the territory. It is important for SBS to be impartial, so to ensure fairness in our reporting we will use geographic terms. Clearly we leave it up to various interested parties to use the language of their choice and it is our duty to report their point of view.”

The guide also notes to avoid describing settlements as “on Palestinian land” or “occupied territories”, or on “disputed land”.

Age editor-in-chief Andrew Holden told Crikey that Fairfax has adopted SBS’ style for news reporters, which involves using place names as opposed to descriptors of ownership, and flagged this recently with its news journalists. But it’s a different story when it comes to opinion pieces. For example, in a June 20 editorial, The Age wrote that the government’s decision to “eschew the international accepted designation of East Jerusalem as ‘occupied’ has yet to be adequately explained”.

Over at The Australian, editors see no need to avoid references to ownership. The style is to refer to either place names or “Palestinian territories” where appropriate, as John Lyons’ piece in this morning’s edition does. Oz editor Clive Mathieson told Crikey there’s been no recent change to this guide.

The ABC takes a similar view. Its head of editorial policy Alan Sunderland told Crikey: “We are perfectly comfortable with using the term ‘occupied’ when referring to areas which are, in fact, occupied. We will also, at times and where relevant in the context, refer to areas which are disputed. Similarly, we will sometimes refer to areas simply in plain geographic terms (i.e. East Jerusalem).” The point of using words like “occupied”, he says, is to provide relevant context and information to the ABC’s audience. “Our decisions on nomenclature are driven at all times by a desire to communicate clearly and helpfully to audiences, not to express a political preference or to take sides.”

AAP editor-in-chief Tony Gillies told Crikey there’s been no changes to AAP’s style post-Brandis — the organisation’s reporters continue to refer to certain areas as “occupied territories”. “In reporting comments by politicians and authorities we accurately quote them, so if the [Attorney-General] refers to them as disputed territories then that sentence stands in a direct quote.” AAP’s copy is carried by almost all major media organisations, but can be edited for house style before it is used.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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