The social media post simply pointed to a report from Human Rights Watch, but it was critical of Israel and came from a Lebanese Australian journalist whom critics considered biased.
Antoinette Lattouf, a well-known figure in the Australian media, was on a brief contract with the country’s main public broadcaster when she posted the Instagram story with the caption: “HRW reporting starvation as a tool of war.”
The next day, as pro-Israel lawyers continued a private campaign to have her ousted — which had begun before she started the job — Ms. Lattouf was told by managers at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that her radio hosting gig would conclude early.
The dispute over whether that was justified, now mired in legal wrangling, has thrown one of Australia’s most trusted institutions into strife and, on Monday, resulted in a rare “vote of no confidence” in its top editor. It has become another example of how intense debate over the Israel-Hamas conflict is revealing deep fault lines of identity and divided opinion in different parts of the world.
The ABC, publicly funded and with an obligation to represent all stripes of Australian life, is confronting the collision of two contentious issues. First, how do news outlets and their employees cover hot-button topics in a time of stark political divides and strong personal brands? And second, as its journalists allege, has Australia’s beleaguered public broadcaster been so weakened by underfunding and right-wing political attacks that it will not stand up for its journalists, especially people of color and women?
At a fraught union meeting of about 200 employees on Monday, John Lyons, the ABC’s global affairs editor, who was set to fly to Israel on Tuesday, said the broadcaster’s independence and reputation had been “compromised” by its willingness to yield to outside pressure on such an important matter.
Mr. Lyons said the ABC “faced one of its darkest days” last Tuesday when The Melbourne Age and its sister publications outlined how a letter-writing campaign pressured the ABC’s top two leaders in Ms. Lattouf’s case.
“I was embarrassed that a group of 156 lawyers could laugh at how easy it was to manipulate the ABC,” Mr. Lyons said, according to multiple sources. Members of the union voted 129 to 3, with dozens of abstentions, to pass a motion saying that they had “lost confidence” in David Anderson, the ABC’s managing director and top editor.
In a statement, Mr. Anderson said he had “always defended the ABC’s journalism” and would continue to do so. The ABC did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
In recent years, many ABC journalists — some Indigenous, others of Arab, Asian or African descent — have left after complaining that they experienced racism or were held to different standards than white colleagues.
Stan Grant, a high-profile Indigenous Australian journalist, publicly resigned in May, after a torrent of racist abuse over his role in coverage of the coronation of King Charles III. At the time, he said he had received no public support from the organization. Nour Haydar, a political reporter, also resigned earlier this month, citing concerns about coverage of the conflict between Israel and Hamas, as well as the ABC’s treatment of culturally diverse staff.
Diversity struggles are not unique to the national broadcaster. A study of Australian media in 2022 found that only around 10 percent of hosts and reporters on the air during a two-week period were from a non-European background, far below their proportion of the population.
Ms. Lattouf, 40, had been a frequent contributor at the ABC. The author of “How to Lose Friends and Influence White People,” she has called for greater diversity in the media and has often criticized Israel’s military actions in Gaza. In one recent post, she said 2023 would be remembered as a year when calling for a cease-fire seemed more offensive than “using propaganda, misinformation and disinformation to justify a genocide in the making.”
Last month, the ABC hired her to fill in for a host on a Sydney radio station for five days. On her first day, she was informed by a manager that “Jewish lobbyists were unhappy she was on the air,” according to legal filings, and urged to avoid potentially controversial topics on social media.
The following day, in an Instagram story, she shared a Human Rights Watch post that accused Israel of starving civilians in Gaza “as a weapon of war.” Colleagues at the ABC had separately covered the report. Less than 24 hours later, Ms. Lattouf was told that she would not be returning to the air for the final two days of the contract.
Ms. Lattouf has filed an unlawful dismissal dispute, saying that she was discriminated against for her race and political opinion.
“It’s devastating, personally,” Ms. Lattouf said in an interview, “but I think more so it’s devastating in the message it sends.”
In an open letter, Elaine Pearson, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said that the removal of Ms. Lattouf “could have a chilling effect on the ability of Australian journalists to share human rights content from reputable organizations.” She urged the ABC to “clarify its policies around what staff are permitted to repost” — echoing a request from its journalists.
In legal filings, the broadcaster denied that Ms. Lattouf’s political opinion or race had anything to do with its decision. It now says that it did not fire her, and it has called on the Fair Work Commission, a government employment tribunal, to dismiss the dispute.
The ABC has also said lobbying played no role in taking her off air, though the leaked WhatsApp messages published by local media showed the extent of pressure directed at management.
In the group chat, one lawyer wrote that she had told the ABC that Ms. Lattouf’s employment “should be terminated immediately,” encouraging other lawyers to write letters “so they feel there is an actual legal threat.” She added that she had already threatened to escalate the legal matter even though “I know there is probably no actionable offense against the ABC.”
Members of the group did not respond to requests for comment. In interviews with the Australian news media, they have not denied that the messages are theirs, while arguing that there was no coordinated campaign to get Ms. Lattouf fired. Some have since reported being subjected to death threats and abuse.
Their efforts appear to have dovetailed, in the minds of many ABC journalists, with a wider culture war. Conservative politicians often accuse the broadcaster of being too left-wing and have slashed its budget. Between 1985 and 2020, the ABC saw a nearly 30 percent decrease in real funding, according to a report from the progressive group GetUp.
Media critics frequently note that Australia’s conservative media leadership, especially at outlets owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp, have also relentlessly sought to undermine the ABC, which it sees as its publicly funded competition.
In 2017, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, a Sudanese Australian journalist, said she was all but bullied out of the ABC — and Australia — after drawing attention to the plight of refugees in offshore detention. The partisan outrage, fueled partly by heated coverage in News Corp outlets, led to a pig’s head being dumped at the Islamic primary school she attended.
The ABC’s funding insecurity has partially abated under the center-left government of Prime Minister Anthony Albanese. But pressure — from government, powerful corporations and advocates, mostly but not exclusively from the right — remains intense.
For Ms. Lattouf, the recourse is clear. She said she is hoping to be reinstated at the broadcaster after a formal apology.
“I love the ABC,” she said, “and I plan to get back on it.”