Antoinette Lattouf: ABC presenter sacked over Gaza post ignites row in Australia

Antoinette Lattouf inside the ABC Sydney studio
Image caption,Antoinette Lattouf inside the ABC Sydney studio

By Tiffanie Turnbull

BBC News, Sydney

On 20 December Antoinette Lattouf signed off from the Sydney radio show she was hosting with a promise she’d be back the next day.

“Can’t wait,” she told listeners.

But the veteran journalist and presenter did not return to the airwaves. Later that afternoon she was sacked, with her boss saying the order had come from “above”.

She was only three days into a week-long stint filling in as host of the local Mornings show on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). Just hours earlier she insists she was told it was going well.

But behind the scenes, her appointment to the coveted role had attracted ardent lobbying from pro-Israel groups who accused her of antisemitism and bias.

Lattouf – who is of Lebanese heritage – says she fears the ABC buckled under external pressure, sacking her based on political opinion and race. She has launched a wrongful termination case.

The broadcaster vehemently denies this and says Lattouf was let go because she broke its directions on social media by re-sharing a Human Rights Watch (HRW) post about the Israel Gaza war.

Her dismissal has triggered a wave of public outrage and created turmoil at the public broadcaster – raising questions over its independence and reviving concerns over how it supports staff, particularly those who are culturally diverse, when they come under attack.

Criticism over activism

Lattouf is believed to be the first Arab-Australian woman to be a reporter on commercial television, and today is a regular staple on Australian airwaves or in its local newspapers.

But the 40-year-old has also made a name for herself as an activist on issues like racism, discrimination in media and mental health.

Before she was hired by the ABC, Lattouf attracted criticism for social media posts on the Israel Gaza war which decried the impact on Palestinian civilians.

In other posts she accused Israel of targeting and killing journalists in Gaza, something echoed by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists but which Israel denies.

She also drew ire for an article she co-authored in which online verification experts questioned video which purported to show pro-Palestinian protesters chanting “gas the Jews” at a march in Sydney.

The ABC has stressed the critical importance of impartiality and also has strict social media requirements. It bans posts which could damage its reputation.

Lattouf has long been a regular contributor to the ABC, and agreed to curtail her social media use when she started her presenting stint.

But she says she was told sharing information from “reputable” sources like human rights groups was fine, and so on 19 December shared a post from HRW which said Israel was using starvation as a tool of war. Israel denies the accusation.

Palestinians queuing for food in Rafah
Image caption,Palestinians queuing for food in Rafah

Lattouf’s post came hours after the ABC itself had covered the HRW report, and Lattouf claims other ABC employees had also shared the post. She also alleges other staff have written “far more inflammatory” social media posts in the past but remain employed.

“The difference between them is they are white and I have an Arab background,” she told the BBC.

She wants a public apology from the ABC, compensation, and a similar role back on air.

But in its reply to Ms Lattouf’s legal action, the ABC said her case was “entirely misconceived”, and she was taken off-air “because she failed or refused to comply with directions that she not post on social media about matters of controversy”.

She was paid for all five shifts, it added.

Swift backlash

The case sparked an immediate uproar in Australia.

HRW wrote to the ABC Chair, Ita Buttrose, saying it was “troubling” that its “factual” material had been deemed “controversial'”, something it said could have a “chilling effect” on Australian journalism.

The media union also called the decision to remove Lattouf “incredibly disturbing”, while Minister for Industry Ed Husic said people expressing a “peaceful” view “shouldn’t feel like their jobs are on the line”.

Protestors have graffitied ABC offices in Perth and Melbourne, and crowdfunding for Lattouf’s legal fees has already raised over A$90,000 (£40,100; $62,500).

Others, defending the broadcaster’s decision to sack her, argued she shouldn’t have been hired for the role in the first place – given her history on the issue.

But a series of leaked WhatsApp chats have in recent days have dramatically intensified the storm.

Dozens of messages from two groups seen by the BBC show a concerted letter-writing campaign against Lattouf in the days before she was fired.

The hundreds of members in both groups – one called Lawyers for Israel and another called J.E.W.I.S.H Australian creatives and academics – were encouraged to write directly to ABC boss David Anderson, the ABC board and Communications Minister Michelle Rowland.

Ita Buttrose
Image caption,ABC board chair Ita Buttrose has been embroiled in the controversy

“It is important ABC hears not just from individuals in the community but specifically lawyers so they feel there is an actual legal threat,” wrote one member of Lawyers for Israel, Nicky Stein, something she later admitted “a bit cheeky”.

Some letter-writers claimed they had received direct responses from board chair Ita Buttrose and when news of Lattouf’s exit spread, many congratulated themselves.

“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” one person said.

“No doubt the PP [pro-Palestinians] will start whinging now about censorship and the Jewish lobby controlling the media,” another wrote.

And when she launched her legal case in the Fair Work Commission (FWC) one person called her lawyer, who is Jewish, a “traiter”.

Several members of the Lawyers for Israel chat have denied the group – which included Jewish community leaders – was controlled by any bodies or intended for organised lobbying.

Ms Stein told the Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) it was simply “a group of lawyers concerned about Israel and rising antisemitism”.

Staff revolt

The WhatsApp messages sparked a livid meeting of the ABC staff union, attended by about 200 people.

One of the broadcaster’s most senior journalists, global affairs editor John Lyons, reportedly said the release of the messages marked “one of [the ABC’s] darkest days”.

“When I read those WhatsApp messages, for the first time ever… I felt embarrassed to work for the ABC,” he said, according to the SMH.

“I was embarrassed that a group of 156 lawyers could laugh at how easy it was to manipulate the ABC.”

The meeting culminated in a rare vote of no confidence in the ABC boss David Anderson.

Union members made a list of demands, giving the editorial leadership team until Monday to respond. They have previously threatened a walkout if their concerns aren’t addressed.

David Anderson
Image caption,The ABC board has called the criticism of David Anderson “abhorrent”

The ABC board responded by calling its own emergency meeting and passing a unanimous vote of confidence in Anderson.

“Any suggestion I would not defend our position when external pressure is applied – regardless of where that pressure is coming from – is offensive and incorrect,” he said in a statement.

He agreed to meet staff – but “in the coming weeks”.

The case has reopened old wounds for the ABC.

It has revived concerns about how it treats diverse staff, after an ugly saga last year in which pioneering Aboriginal journalist Stan Grant quit over what he called a failure to protect him from racist attacks.

And it’s also fed uneasiness about the broadcaster’s independence. Advocates worry that politicised appointments to the ABC board, its government-dictated funding model, and increased – often frenzied – scrutiny is jeopardising its work.

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The saga also comes as the broader Australian media grapples with tension over the impartiality of its coverage of the Israel Gaza war.

Most notably, ABC political reporter Nour Haydar left the public broadcaster this month over its coverage of the war, as well as its treatment of culturally diverse staff. The ABC has defended its impartiality and said it is “continuing to progress” on diversity matters despite having its “most representative” workforce ever.

Lattouf says its these broader themes that make her case so important.

“It is not just about me. It’s about free speech, it’s about racism… and crucially, it’s also about a fair, independent and robust ABC,” she told reporters last week.

After a failed mediation meeting, the ABC is now attempting to have Lattouf’s case thrown out, arguing it didn’t actually sack her.

The matter is back at the FWC in March, and Lattouf says she’s in it for the long haul.

“I’m willing and prepared to fight for as long as it takes,” she said.

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