Tasmanian Liberal Senator Eric Abetz and ABC managing director Mark Scott exchanged heated words at last night’s ABC estimates hearing over whether the public broadcaster’s coverage of Israel was biased in favour of the Palestinians.

Abetz used the appearance to launch an extraordinary attack on ABC Middle East correspondent Sophie McNeill over her coverage of the Israel/Palestine issue. Abetz said McNeill, a Walkley-winning journalist who reported on the Middle East for several years with SBS’ Dateline before joining the ABC in 2010, had publicly stated her admiration for journalists like John Pilger and Robert Fisk, both fierce critics of Israeli policy towards Palestinians. Abetz said: “Now, just wondering, what research was done into Ms McNeil’s attitudes into matters Middle East before her appointment, and whether it is appropriate to allow somebody in that position to allow their emotions to get into their reporting.”

But Scott, who appeared very well-briefed on the issue, said McNeill was doing a good job in highly demanding circumstances. “This reporter is under more scrutiny than any other foreign correspondent reporting from any part of the world in my experience at the ABC. I think she deserves a fair go. She deserves to be judged by the quality of her reporting.”

After he left office, former foreign minister Bob Carr accused “the Israel lobby” of having an “extraordinary” level of influence in the prime minister’s office and on other MPs. “The public should know how foreign policy gets made, especially when it appears the prime minister is being heavily lobbied by one interest group with a stake in Middle East policy,” Carr said in August last year. This lobbying has often in the past included persistent criticism of the media’s reporting on Israel.

In an apparent reference to this last night, Scott accused Abetz of receiving “daily or weekly” commentary on McNeill’s reporting from “some observers”, which Abetz said was “an extraordinary allegation to make”. He put on notice a question for the ABC to answer about why a supposed campaign was being run against McNeill.

McNeill has been heavily criticised by members of the Jewish community in the past. In March, Jewish website J-Wire ran an extensive examination of McNeill’s previous coverage by Ahron Shapiro, a policy analyst for The Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council. He argued that given her “self-proclaimed sympathy” for the Palestinians, it was not clear she could comply with the impartiality obligations contained in ABC’s Code of Practice. Last month, an opinion piece in the Australian Jewish News by Peter Wertheim, the executive director of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, accused McNeill of “advocacy journalism”.

Scott said that while he hadn’t been directly involved in hiring McNeill, she had been interviewed by a panel and subject to rigorous assessment. The ABC managing director pointed to her extensive experience of the region. He said many Middle East correspondents found reporting on the region challenging, which is why McNeill’s experience was regarded favourably.

Abetz also had criticisms of specific stories. In one that featured a Palestinian girl shot dead as she tried to stab an Israeli officer that aired on 7.30, the Senator said, the attacker was described as gifted and friendly. But when it came to her having tried to stab a security officer, her crime was only “alleged”. “The friendly and the gifted are givens, not ‘allegedly’.”

“Are you concerned by this style of reporting by a journalist motivated by writings of Mr Pilger on matters of Israel?” Abetz asked. “Why do we say alleged attacker when the Israeli Defense Forces say that is what she is? Why don’t we take that at face value?”

Scott said that the Israeli side had been put by a member of the Israeli Defense Forces interviewed in the same piece. He also said describing the girl as “friendly” and the like were to showcase how “extraordinary, bewildering and inexplicable” the attacks were. “Senator, you can pick a word out of a story if you like, but fundamentally I think Ms McNeil is doing a good job in a difficult story under extraordinary scrutiny.”

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, who was present at the hearing, accused Abetz on Twitter of conducting a “character assassination” against McNeill. After Abetz was finished, Labor Senator Sam Dastyari asked Scott to read McNeill’s qualifications into the public record, which Abetz had prevented the ABC managing director from doing earlier.

It’s not the first time the ABC’s Middle East coverage has come up at Senate estimates — Abetz has raised concerns about the terminology used around the Israel/Palestine conflict in the past. The area is a fraught one — even correspondents from organisations that are not taxpayer funded are also frequently criticised.

For example, last year, Fairfax Middle East correspondent Ruth Pollard was awarded a Walkley for a feature that looked at Palestinian families and children injured or killed by Israeli strikes on Gaza. This set off a flurry of condemnation from Jewish groups. Zionist Federation of Australia president Danny Lamm told the Australian Jewish News that while Pollard had been praised by the Walkleys for her bravery, “there is nothing courageous about a report penned in Gaza’s [Al-Shifa] Hospital but ignored the simple fact that the same hospital has, for a number of years already, been home to Hamas’s de facto headquarters deep in its underground bunkers”. In The Australian, Pollard’s Walkley-winning piece was dismissed as “one-sided”.

Earlier that year, the Oz’s then-Middle East correspondent John Lyons conducted an investigation with Four Corners into how he said the Israeli Defense Forces were deliberately targeting Palestinian children for arrest. The investigation also ran in The Australian, but was shortly after criticised by foreign editor Greg Sheridan, who said it hadn’t found conclusive evidence for what it alleged. “The Four Corners program did nothing to enlighten the debate and led to a shocking outburst of rank anti-Semitism on ABC websites,” he wrote. Lyons, and Four Corners, would later that year also win a Walkley for the report.

McNeill was contacted for comment but did not respond before deadline.

Peter Fray

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