Published Under the heading ‘Was Danby Right to Place the Ads Attaching the ABC?’, in the Australian Jewish News, 13 October 2017, p. 17.
Michael Danby is a passionate man, unusual for today’s breed of careful, calculating, uncontroversial politicians. He takes up causes. His exuberance can stun, occasionally his choice of words eviscerates. There is something unnerving about a character that calls on the rest of us to think.
Recently he has got into trouble for advertisements in the Australian Jewish News that drew attention to “our ABC” employing as its sole Israel-based correspondent an activist-critic of Israel whose view of what is newsy and reportable is debatable and ought to be challenged.
The substance of what Danby highlighted has been lost in the ensuing noise.
But let’s consider the charges against him. There are four: That he mis-used public funds by paying for the advertisements from his parliamentary allowance; second, that he showed poor judgement by doing so; third, that the nature of his criticism was personal and unbecoming; finally, that the affair shows he is too obsessed with the Middle East for his own good.
There is a fifth charge, silently muttered by the China First faction, who hate Danby for raising human rights abuses in China and despise his attention-grabbing focus on the sad, debilitating situation in Tibet where religious freedoms and civil liberties are under murderous threat.
It is surely significant that, as reported, Danby’s leading critics in the past week include the usual suspects and, oddly, convicted and disgraced former NSW ALP Secretary Jamie Clements, tweeter, who works for a Chinese billionaire with suspiciously close ties to the Chinese communist party. We all want the best possible relations with China but surely speaking up for liberty is not inconsistent with that.
Now to the charge sheet: On the first, there is no question: Danby checked with the parliamentary office that looks after these things and obtained advice that the use of funds allocated to him to publish this advertisement was within the rules. Each MP is allocated an allowance with wide discretion as to its expenditure. Maybe it is too much or should be reduced. But that is another question. He complied with the guidelines.
The second charge is whether Danby should have published his criticism. I think, absolutely, based on the facts: past criticisms of the ABC reporter’s coverage have been either ignored or dismissed. It is hard to get a hearing for an opposing viewpoint. We are not dealing with the starry-eyed and innocent. The journalist in question is a self-described political activist, past contributor to the extremist website Electronic Intifada, and has publicly spoken at anti-Israel rallies. Danby’s advertisement highlighted that when Egyptian President Sisi met Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, that this was significant. But the ABC didn’t consider this major event newsworthy. A Palestinian family evicted from their homes was fully reported but the names of an Israeli family murdered during their Shabbat meal was not.
This is not about whether Israel’s behaviour in the occupied territories is unblemished. I too am a critic. It is about perspective, bias, balance.
Danby’s advertisement highlights an old problem – how to rectify a perceived injustice. A time-honoured response is to buy copy in the media outlet to put an opposing view. As this is impossible with the ABC, Danby bought space in an ethnic news outlet to narrowcast a message: I am concerned, I’m watching, and I am going to call these people to account. What is wrong with that?
Was the advertisement – as one ABC spokesperson stated – a personal attack? Let’s look at what was written: “Arab settlers have segment on 7.30 from Sophie McNeill, but momentous meeting of Egyptian President Sisi and Israeli PM Netanyahu not mentioned by Sophie McNeill or the ABC!” “Wonder why Australians have a distorted understanding of that part of the world?” Asking the question is hardly a vicious and ad hominem attack. That answers that charge.
The fourth charge is that Danby is too obsessed with the Middle East. Danby’s father arrived in Australia in June 1939, having been forced to leave Germany following the Kristallnacht pogrom. His grandparents were murdered in 1943 at Auschwitz. As someone who lost many relatives in the Holocaust, it may not be surprising that Danby takes a keen interest in Middle East affairs and the survival of the only democracy there – Israel. So do a good number of his constituents in one of the most Jewish electorates in Australia. But Danby is not a one trick pony. He is a powerful advocate for his electorate on transport and services and he is keenly interested in the arts, foreign and security policy, cyber security, human rights, disability legislation and so forth – and speaks up in the parliament on a wide gamut of issues.
Whatever your politics, Danby out of the Australian parliament would be the loss of an authentic voice. At times I wish he would phrase some things better. I do not agree with everything he says. He is a feisty man. His heart is in the right place. One thing for sure: courage, principle, fervour for just causes has a name: Michael Danby.
Note on Publication:
For 40 years a friend of Danby, Michael Easson, a former senior vice president of the ALP, NSW Branch, is writing in a personal capacity.
My article was titled “Yes. A Man of Courage and Principle”, With an opposing article on the same page by Simon Tatz, titled: “No. A Mistaken and Misguided Attack”.