Saturday 9 November 2013

Inverting Journalistic Ethics – Near FM’s Justification for Anti-Israel Bias

Article updated (December 2013)

Near FM's logo

Near FM, an Irish radio station based in Dublin, broadcast a show on March the 26th 2013, featuring the trenchant views of a group called ‘Gaza Action Ireland’. No less than four anti-Israel activists offered their views, which the presenter, one Peter Kearney, sympathised with. The radio presenter, and the programme makers, did not provide any alternative perspectives on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Sadly, an unquestioningly anti-Israel perspective is all too common an occurrence in the Irish media. In this instance, however, it concerned a radio show displaying prejudice rather more unashamedly than usual. The show represented an overt platform for propaganda, and the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland, Mr. Boaz Modai, made a formal complaint to the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

The complaint was upheld, of nine complaints that the BAI had considered in its most recent group of broadcasting compliance decisions, it was the only one deemed to constitute an instance of malpractice.

Coverage of the story in the Irish Daily Mail

Such decisions should be treated as an opportunity to review journalistic practice, particularly given Near FM’s role as a broadcaster with a community-orientated remit. However, such reflection may be unlikely in view of their response since they mounted a rather absurd defence against the complaint.

Near FM dismissed the assertion that the radio programme’s presenter, Peter Kearney, was promoting an anti-Israel position himself. Near FM claim he was simply restating the views of ‘Gaza Action Ireland’ without qualification, a view the BAI would reject.
The broadcaster states that the allegations that the presenter promoted a personal anti-Israeli stance are untrue as the statements attributed to him are merely restatements of the opinions of his interviewees.
Therefore, for Near FM, it would seem that the role of journalism isn’t so much to be an endeavour of enquiry and objectivity, but rather that of parroting the selective and subjective stances of interviewees.
Near FM told the BAI that the presenter was covering an event held by Gaza Action Ireland and the pieces were representative of this event.
– in other words Near FM feels the radio programme represented acceptable content, for it was merely covering an event held by ‘Gaza Action Ireland’! Therefore, from this ethical standpoint, it would seem to be completely acceptable to present uncritical coverage of events by other highly-politicised groups, such as the far-right Irish National Party.

Abdul Haseeb, known for possessing Islamist values, presented and produced a regular Near FM radio show for a number of years. Haseeb featured coverage of almost identical events in the past, e.g. an IPSC support-Gaza event.

Near FM tried to get out of the complaint by citing a technicality, whereby broadcasters are entitled to present one perspective on a subject in a given programme, if they cover other perspectives in other programmes. However, the BAI also rejected this point as the other programmes cited, which contained some Israeli perspectives, were not linked as a radio series, and were separated by large time periods. These programmes were characterised as "balanced" by Near FM, i.e. neither contained exclusively pro-Israel views as a perspectival counter-weight to the prejudicial programme of the 26th March.

Near FM rejected the assertions of Mr. Modai, by forwarding a series of excuses that displayed an almost inverted sense of journalistic ethics, offering little prospect of improvement. Near FM receives a degree of funding from the BAI, a governmental body that distributes broadcasting licence fee moneys, for individual projects, under the Sound and Vision Fund.

On November 7th, Near FM broadcast a statement by the BAI at the start of a radio programme called ‘International Politics’. The BAI statement, which Near FM is obliged to broadcast under the terms of their broadcasting licence, was removed from their online podcast of the show within hours. Yet at the time of publication, the offending 26th March radio show remains available on their website. Below is a transcript of the BAI’s statement.

The Compliance Committee of the BAI has considered a complaint about an edition of ‘International Politics’ broadcast on NearFM on the 26th of March 2013. The programme dealt with political issues relating to Israel and Palestine. The complainant, His Excellency Mr. Boaz Modai, the Ambassador of the State of Israel to Ireland, argued that the treatment of this issue lacked fairness, objectivity and impartiality. In particular, he stated that the programme lacked any contributions reflecting the views of the State of Israel, and that the presenter of the programme endorsed what the complainant described as the biased comments of those interviewed on the programme.
Following its review of the broadcast and submissions from the broadcaster and the complainant, the Compliance Committee has upheld the complaint.
The Committee found that the programme included comments that were highly critical of the impact of the State of Israel on Palestinian citizens. While noting that criticisms of the foreign and domestic policies of nation-states can be appropriate, it was the view of the Committee that this programme provided no alternative voices to counter-balance the criticisms of the State of Israel expressed by guests on the programme. The Committee also found that a number of the presenters’ comments, when coupled with the failure to challenge the contributions of his interviewees, would have reasonably left listeners with the impression that he endorsed the perspectives of the interviewees.
Taken together, the programme was considered contrary to the requirement of the Broadcasting Act 2009 for current affairs programmes to be fair, objective and impartial.

Update (December 2013)

Peter Kearney, the presenter of a 26th March Near FM radio show, which was deemed to be prejudicial by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), went to the lengths of publicly ridiculing the broadcasting authority’s ruling on a later Near FM radio segment.

Kearney, argued that if he did express approval of the opinions of his anti-Israel interviewees, he would have been correct in doing so. However, he seemed to contradict this stance, in saying that all he did was allow their opinions to be expressed. This perspective misrepresents the substance of the complaint to the BAI. The complaint related substantively to the presenter’s approval, and endorsement, of the views of highly politicised activists, rather than mere expression of their views. Moreover, there was no attempt to offer any other perspective. Strong anti-Israel sentiment is commonly expressed in the Irish mainstream media, without it often being addressed in complaints to the BAI. Nonetheless, Kearney, on his Facebook page, would go on to claim that the Israeli Embassy was attempting to silence criticism of the Jewish State in the Irish media.

Kearney also seemed to suggest, during his public ridicule of the BAI ruling, that the organisation was somehow representing Israel’s interests, rather than Ireland’s, when he stated that the ‘I’ in ‘BAI’ stood for Ireland, rather than Israel. Whether or not he suggested some sort of conspiracy affecting the outcome of the ruling, it should nonetheless be in the interest of all responsible broadcasters to provide balanced programming, which allows listeners to make up their own minds in an informed fashion. Such an approach necessarily requires a reasonable level of journalistic balance, something which Kearney not only failed to provide to a very minimalistic extent, he actually partook in endorsing the prejudicial radio content.

The Sunday Times published an article about Peter Kearney’s subsequent program, which prompted Near FM to apologise for Kearney’s actions. The programme led to his suspension by Near FM, for it presumably constituted an embarrassing reinforcement of the claim that his presentation of the topic was deeply prejudicial, a point which the radio station had denied strongly in their prior response to the BAI.

Also published at Crethi Plethi.