Australian Broadcaster Accused of Anti-US Bias in War Coverage

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:14 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Coverage of last year's war in Iraq by Australia's taxpayer-funded national broadcaster was largely "negative, defeatist, anti-American and skewed heavily against the Australian government," according to a new report.

The report, compiled by two Sydney-based journalists on behalf of a leading Australian think tank, the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), examined transcripts of ABC radio and television programs before, during and after the war.

The authors probed story selection decisions, guest billing, terminology, tone, and what they called a tendency "to predict events unfavorable to the coalition" -- events that invariably did not take place.

While pointing out instances of fairness in the war-time coverage, they said they found that the Australian Broadcasting Corporation "time and time again ... failed to live up to its duty to present balanced views."

The IPA report is not the first time the ABC's coverage of the war has been questioned. Last year, the government minister responsible for communications media accused the broadcaster's main morning radio program of biased and anti-American reporting.

The IPA report, entitled "Anti-American Biased Collective: Your ABC and the Iraq War," was raised, unannounced, by government lawmaker Senator Santo Santoro, during a Senate committee meeting Monday on the ABC's budget.

The meeting was attended by ABC senior officials, who are asking the government for an extra eight million Australian dollars ($6.3m) in funding this year.

Pre-war predictions and other problems

The report's authors, Tim Blair and James Morrow, said pre-war coverage was marked by exaggerations about the likely duration, civilian death toll, humanitarian disaster and Muslim world backlash.

Examples of "inaccurate predictions" included the unqualified assertion that "Australia faces a greater risk of a terrorist attack once the war against Iraq is underway."

"Anti-war commentators appeared regularly, while supporters of the war - aside from representatives of the pro-war governments - were few," the authors said.

"Great concern was held for the viability of the United Nations, should war occur without a U.N. mandate. The legitimacy and worth of the U.N. seemed to be assumed."

The report tracked ABC correspondents' mostly unsuccessful attempts to find on the ground any Iraqis prior to the war who opposed Saddam Hussein.

"It wouldn't have hurt for the ABC to indicate more regularly that many in Iraq feared for their lives if they spoke against Saddam's regime, and that opinions given in Iraq may have reflected this," the authors wrote.

Highlighting difficulties

The report found that, despite President Bush's warnings about expecting "difficulties and challenges," the ABC coverage from the outset of hostilities emphasized coalition difficulties, characterizing them as unexpected.

With the war barely one week old, a presenter said that "Australia's Defense Minister Robert Hill on Monday told this program that the war would be short as far as wars go. But is that time line now being extended?"

Ever since Baghdad fell, the report said, "the ABC has been relentless in its efforts to both de-legitimize the war and paint it as a disaster for those who no longer have to live under Saddam Hussein's yoke."

With the end of Saddam's regime came this unenthusiastic comment from one presenter: "Well, dawn has broken over Baghdad, welcoming day one of the new freedom, but if this is liberty, then it's far from perfect."

The IPA authors wrote: "The fact that all the worst wartime predictions of the
ABC and its guests - massive casualties amongst Iraqi civilians and coalition troops, a refugee camp-filling humanitarian crisis, a violent, anti-Western uprising of the so-called 'Arab street' - failed to occur did not stop the network from being relentlessly negative
during the immediate aftermath of the fall of Baghdad."

The toppling of the Ba'athist regime was followed by reports of looting, including looting at the National Museum, and -- according to the ABC -- "the loss of irreplaceable jewels, artifacts, scripts and sculptures dating back to the dawn of human civilization."

But once the reports of the systematic looting of the museum were acknowledged to have been "a complete fabrication," the authors said, the ABC had "moved onto other topics."

"For the ABC, the non-story of the pillaging of the Iraqi National Museum, was, as the saying goes, too good to be true. Not only did the supposed looting show that American troops had already lost control of the city they had just conquered, but it also helped confirm other ABC assumptions about the philistine nature of the United States."

The report also criticized the ABC for focusing since the war's end on the unsuccessful search for weapons of mass destruction, "while ignoring the constant stream of news about Hussein's human rights atrocities such as mass graves ..."

Anti-U.S. tone

The authors included examples of what they found to be an anti-war and anti-American tone in the coverage, including the description by one ABC staffer of former White House spokesman Ari Fleischer as President Bush's "chief propagandist."

Another reporter predicted that the official U.S. media center briefings would be "selective, self-serving and at times perhaps, even worse."

A U.S.-based correspondent called the "lack of political debate" in America -- that is, the lack of opposition to the war -- "the saddest thing about this whole issue."

One program ran a clip of chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Richard Myers speaking about a review into the use of cluster bombs. Myers ended by saying "there's been only one recorded case of collateral damage from cluster munitions noted so far."

To which an ABC correspondent remarked: "That's a rather offensive way of saying that one person was killed."

"This is textbook ABC anti-war and anti-American bias -- and an example of a journalist unprofessionally inserting his own editorial comments into a news story, to boot," the IPA report's authors commented.

'Subjective propaganda'

The decision by Prime Minister John Howard's government to support and participate militarily in the U.S.-led war was a divisive one, opposed by opposition parties and many campaigning groups outside of parliament.

Howard's then Communications Minister, Senator Richard Alston, at the time accused the ABC's morning radio news and current affairs program, of bias in its coverage of the war, presenting a dossier of 68 specific complaints.

The broadcaster's own complaints review body investigated, but threw out all but two of the complaints.

The ABC then referred the matter to an independent panel, which upheld 17 complaints, including 12 of "serious bias," four of breaching policies of refraining from "emotional language or editorialization" in its reporting of the war, and one complaint of inadequately identifying sources.

The panel said it found no evidence, overall, of "biased and anti-coalition coverage," as alleged by Alston.

Alston, who retired from politics early this month, declined to comment on the IPA report, saying it would not be appropriate.

But Santoro, the senator who raised the IPA report at Monday's committee meeting, told that it should be "required reading" among senior management and news executives at the ABC.

"It forensically dissects the skewed processes of news presentation by the ABC over the Iraq crisis and subsequent conflict and shows just where the broadcaster went so wrong," he said.

Santoro said despite prior criticism, the broadcaster had not shown "that it might, even momentarily, think its critics over Iraq coverage have a genuine or substantial point."

"Australians want to be kept informed. They should not be made the targets of subjective propaganda," he said.

"There are still substantial unanswered questions about the ABC's failure to achieve true objectivity in its Iraq reporting and I look forward to asking them."

Last August, Santoro publicly slammed the ABC over an internal staff memo which said ABC journalists should not refer to Australian troops as "our troops" in reports on the conflict.

"It highlights a viciously pernicious form of political correctness," he said in parliament at the time. "The ABC has no difficulty -- and certainly exhibits no hesitation -- in referring to 'our cities,' 'our scientists' and 'our athletes.'"

'They don't like Bush'

A senior Australian politician, who would not speak on the record, attributed the problems at the ABC to what he called an "anti-establishment" culture among ABC journalists.

"They seem to be constantly pulling down or rejecting what should be fairly uncontroversial propositions and they'll put their own spin on it - I think in large part because they don't like George Bush and co," he told .

The politician said another problem was that any criticism of the ABC -- "no matter how well-based" -- was seen by the ABC and many other mainstream media in Australia as a political "attempt to muzzle," without any attempt to look into whether the broadcaster was measuring up to its own standards.

He said although the focus now was on ABC coverage during the Howard era, when the Labor Party was in power between 1983 and 1996, it also clashed with the broadcaster.

The ABC's annual report for 2003 says it received more than 7,000 "audience contacts," over its coverage of the war, of which more than 5,500 were complaints, mostly relating to scheduling changes.

"There were 144 complaints related to anti-U.S. coverage and 147 complaints about pro-U.S. coverage," it says.

See also:
Broadcaster Can't Call Hamas or Hizballah 'Terrorist Groups' (Feb. 13, 2004)
Network Under Fire for Posing Children on Unexploded Missiles (Oct. 01, 2003)

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow