Nine papers’ journalists are despairing after The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) and Age newsroom leaders banned staff from covering the Israel-Palestine conflict if they had signed an open letter criticising Australian media’s coverage of the war.
Crikey understands reporters are worried that the “hypocrisy” of the decision — made while staff who have taken sponsored trips to the area from pro-Israel groups are still allowed to work on coverage — threatens to damage the papers’ reputations.
“It is our duty as journalists to hold the powerful to account, to deliver truth and full context to our audiences, and to do so courageously without fear of political intimidation,” it read.
“We risk losing the trust of our audiences if we fail to apply the most stringent journalistic principles and cover this conflict in full.”
The letter makes a number of requests ranging from “adhere to truth over ‘both-sidesism’” to “give adequate coverage to credible allegations of war crimes, genocide, ethnic cleansing and apartheid”. It also calls on newsrooms to disclose when journalists have been on sponsored trips to Israel organised by pro-Israeli groups and to reject them in the future.
The letter had more than a hundred signatures when it was published, including a number of Nine staff, mostly junior, along with journalists from other major Australian newsrooms.
Early on Friday afternoon, SMH/Age executive editor Tory Maguire responded to the letter in a message sent to the company’s Slack chatroom #ed-metro-allstaff on behalf of herself, Age editor Patrick Elligett, SMH editor Bevan Shields and the paper’s national editor David King, obtained by Crikey.
“It is a strong-held tenet that our journalists’ personal agendas do not influence our reporting on news events. This applies across the board, including to our coverage of the current war in Israel and Gaza,” Maguire wrote.
“Any newsroom staff who signed this latest industry letter will be unable to participate in any reporting on production relating to the war.”
Nine staff, speaking to Crikey on the condition of anonymity, said that they were “disappointed” by management’s response to the letter.
Everyone who spoke to Crikey mentioned the hypocrisy of implying that staff who signed a letter calling for better reporting were no longer impartial while still allowing staff to go on paid trips to Israel.
“They’ve taken a conversation we were hoping to start in good faith with the industry as a whole and turned Nine (and their own hypocrisy over Israel trips) into part of the story, damaging the papers’ reputations in the process,” one staff member said.
Another pointed to the fact that many of the newsrooms’ leadership and staff had themselves been on such trips. Crikey has previously reported that Maguire and Shields have both taken such trips, and a 2013 article written by King in The Australian disclosed that he’d also been on a “study tour provided by the Australia-Israel & Jewish Affairs Council”.
“A number of people are cognisant of the fact that [Shields and Maguire] have both attended Israel sponsored trips/junkets … and the perception that has on our paper,” one journalist told Crikey.
A Nine spokesperson responded to Crikey’s inquiries to Maguire, Shields, Elligett and King about the decision and their newsrooms’ policy about junkets by sharing text of the original Slack message sent to staff.
Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) communications director Mark Phillips told Crikey that the journalists’ union had written to Nine management “calling on them to refrain from targeting staff” and had sent a message out to staff as well.
“MEAA fully supports your rights as a member to stand up for your MEAA code of ethics, which has been agreed to and endorsed by Nine management in the charter of editorial Independence,” the email said.
“Any pressure or intimidation from managers to prevent workers from doing this, including removing them from relevant stories, is an overreach and an attack on both journalists’ rights and the public’s right to know.”
ABC’s director of news Justin Stevens also addressed the open letter in an email sent on Friday afternoon, warning staff that “signing this petition may bring into question your ability to cover the story impartially”.
“You should not sign any petition that may bring into question your impartiality or that of the ABC’s coverage,” it said.
The response to the letter echoes the backlash faced by Australian journalists who signed a similar letter in 2021. Staff at the ABC and SBS were asked by management to remove their signatures, the Intercept reported, after calling on Australian news outlets to “do better”.