ANALYSIS: An SBS journalist is out of a job for expressing an opinion. Wendy Bacon reviews how the Twitter storm calling for his sacking unfolded.
In the early evening on Anzac Day, SBS Sports reporter Scott McIntyre used Twitter to make some points about the causes of World War I, the atomic bombing of Japan that ended World War II, and contemporary Anzac celebrations.
Less than 24 hours later, McIntyre, who had worked at SBS since 2003 and as a full-time employee since 2008, had been sacked by SBS managing director Michael Ebeid. Although his tweets remain on line and have reached a huge audience, nothing further has been heard publicly from McIntyre.
In this piece, I aim to unravel the events that led to McIntyre’s sacking. Central actors in this account are the Federal Minister for Communication and Arts Malcolm Turnbull, SBS managing director Michael Ebeid and some News Corp commentators, most notably Chris Kenny.
SBS is established under its own act as an independent public broadcaster. The Act provides that SBS has the sole responsibility for its own content and that the government must not issue directions about the content of SBS. Under Section 11 3A, the Minister is specifically directed not to give a direction in relation to the content to be provided on a digital media service.
SBS also has a Code of Conduct that was last revised in 2014, and a social media protocol that is to be interpreted in the light of the Code. It also has a detailed complaints procedure and Ombudsman to deal with audience complaints.
Under its own act, SBS is supposed to be a "model employer". All of these regulatory instruments are relevant in the McIntyre case.
McIntyre posted his tweets in the early evening on April 25. At that time, many Australian tweeters were focussed on a spectacular hail storm that had just buried Sydney in ice, so initially the tweets didn’t attract huge attention. Most response was negative but others defended McIntyre’s right to question the uncritical celebration of Australian military history.
On the case
Less than an hour after the tweets were posted, News Corp's Herald Sun columnist Rita Panahi was on the case.
"Your tax payer dollars at work" she tweeted. Her followers chimed in, "Don't forget this man's salary is funded by you and I." One tweeted to Panahi, "He has a noted history of anti-Australian comments, this is par for the course."
This last comment is significant because while many have pigeonholed McIntyre as a sports commentator, like many good sport journalists, he builds political and social analysis into reports. For example, last year, he did a series called "Football under Fire". In part five, he focussed on how Palestinian football had been devastated by war:
"Artillery and rocket fire both into and out of Gaza has wrought untold misery on a region already on its knees and the scale of death and torment has been widely reported outside of the region.
"The stories of those like you and me, who play, watch and love football - many while actively involved in pursuit of the sport - being killed and maimed has received scant attention.
"This is about honouring those from the Palestinian football community that have been affected by these events….
"Comment was sought from both the Israel Football Association and the Israel Defence Forces but was not received. However, where available, reaction has been included from news reports of the selected incidents."
Right wing vigilantes
This and other material authored by McIntyre has been noticed by right wing vigilantes on Twitter.
Less than an hour after Panahi's tweet, conservative campaigner and lobbyist Mark Textor followed suit.
According to New Matilda's research, the first politician to enter the fray was Jamie Briggs, Federal Minister for transport and infrastructure.
Textor retweeted Briggs.
A follower brought Malcolm Turnbull into the picture:
“@BriggsJamie @SBS @TurnbullMalcolm DO something about this or resign if URnot in control of your job #FFS These DHs we R paying their wages.”
Another ‘Sir Tony’ of Coogee with the twitter handle “@ReclaimAust, a proud conservative - not very PC. Tired of big government” tweeted: Complete filth you are. When is @TurnbullMalcolm going to reign in SBS & ABC journos?”
News Corp columnist Chris Kenny then retweeted Panahi.
“@RitaPanahi: SBS presenter proudly flaunts his weapon grade stupidity. Ungrateful, disrespectful tool.”
While veterans and many who’d been up from well before dawn for remembrance services were heading to bed, Twitter was waking up for a hunt.
It was now about two and half hours since McIntyre had tweeted. At this point, Kenny made a significant political move.
Politicians joined in
A few minutes later he tried again: “Please read this timeline @mcintinhos Contact @sbs He lives off your taxes/dishonours you. Also try @TurnbullMalcolm @JasonClareMP #auspol"
A couple of other politicians joined the throng calling for Ebeid to act.
NSW Christian Democrat MLC Fred Nile made his views known.
The Queensland LNP Member for Burleigh Michael Hart joined the call for sacking: “@michaelebeid you pay @mcintinhos for his opinions. His opinion today is disgraceful, he doesn't deserve to work 4 @SBS”.
If the Opposition Communications Shadow Minister Jason Clare saw the tweets in his notifications, he sensibly decided to ignore them.
Turnbull’s Anzac Day had been a busy one. After attending a huge dawn service at North Bondi, he joined other Liberal politicians and local Councillors in Waverley at another remembrance event at Double Bay. At the time of the McIntyre’s tweets, he was attending the evening service in Martin Place. By nightfall, he had fully imbibed the official Anzac spirit.
The only reason for tweeting at Turnbull was to get him to do something. He could have chosen to do nothing. This would have preserved the spirit of independence clearly established in the SBS Act.
A glance at his Twitter notifications would have told him that the threatening and abusive assault on McIntyre was entirely about politics. Under SBS’s own code, such complaints are not accepted.
Although they both declined to provide details, the conversation between Turnbull and Ebeid is likely to have happened sometime after Kenny’s call for action. While they may have chosen their words carefully, the context of the conversation would have been crystal clear to both men.
With another budget on the way, and an increasingly competitive and flagging market for television, SBS's vulnerability must overlay all communications between the Minister and the organisation. According to Turnbull, Ebeid agreed to investigate the tweets. What form that investigation took is not known, except that it was informal and very swift.
At 9.07 pm, SBS CEO Michael Ebeid tweeted.
While disassociating SBS from McIntyre’s tweets, Ebeid left open the possibility that McIntyre’s tweets expressed his own views.
Just four minutes after Ebeid, at 9.11 pm, Turnbull selected one of McIntyre's statements to retweet.
“Innocent children, on the way to school, murdered. Their shadows seared into the concrete of Hiroshima ”
Turnbull then went in even harder than Ebeid
Why Turnbull selected to highlight this particular tweet is difficult to understand. It has never been explained why it (or for that matter any of the five tweets) were "more offensive” than anything else he could imagine, let alone 'despicable' or ‘deserving of condemnation’.
There are plenty of Australians who would agree with the anti-war expression of sadness inspired by the bombing of Hiroshima. It is highly unlikely this tweet could be found to be in breach of SBS’s code under a complaints procedure that would consider the tweets separately, as well as perhaps as a whole.
Ebeid and Turnbull had formed and publicised their views without formal investigation. Why didn’t Ebeid simply state that SBS would follow its own complaints procedures when written complaints were lodged rather than imposing his own views (or Malcolm Turnbull’s even more extreme view)?
Codes are specifically designed with checks and balances and a range of factors that need to be considered when dealing with complaints. While there is mention in the enforcement sections of the social media protocol of disciplinary proceedings, sacking is not even listed in the list of remedies.
After broadcasting his own condemnation, Turnbull endorsed Ebeid’s tweet by retweeting it.
The followers, many of them anonymous, sensed blood. The calls for sacking continued:
William Olive: “@michaelebeid @TurnbullMalcolm @mcintinhos @SBS Then I hope that he gets the sack. We pay our taxpayer $$, and he does not deserve any of it”.
Chris Kenny also wanted more: “@michaelebeid @mcintinhos @SBS don't think a little tweet quite cuts it… if he said that about Turks you'd sack him @TurnbullMalcolm
“@_rebase: @chriskkenny @michaelebeid @mcintinhos @SBS I guess SBS still endorses his soccer-related tweets?” No one in charge
Others, like tweeter Paul Peters, were urging Ebeid to protect McIntyre: “I'm a tax payer and I'm happy to hear his views”.
At some point, Ebeid had one or more conversations with McIntyre’s immediate boss, Ken Shipp.
Shipp also communicated with McIntyre.
By the time, he went to bed, Kenny was feeling optimistic: “@jimoneill50 nup, I reckon he'll sack him.”
Some, like @jimoneill50, were not so sure: “@chriskkenny it will be interesting. I'm not an employment lawyer but I wonder if this is sackable if McIntyre challenged it.”
To which Chris Kenny responded:
The following morning, Shipp called staff together and told them that McIntyre had been sacked.
Ebeid issued a statement which noted that SBS supports "our Anzacs" and had contributed "unprecedented" resources to covering the 100th anniversary of Gallipoli.
It was an odd statement from the head of a media organisation, but may reflect Ebeid’s background of telecommunications and marketing rather than journalism.
Reporters under both the SBS and Journalists’ own code of ethics are supposed to maintain an independent stance in relation to contemporary events.
It has been reported that staff were told McIntyre had refused to take down the tweets. According to New Matilda’s sources that fact is disputed.
New Matilda put a series of questions to Ebeid. SBS’s communication manager Katie Holyman responded.
“This is a matter regarding an individual which is naturally confidential and as I’m sure you can appreciate, SBS is not able to go into the sort of detail you’ve requested because of legal and confidentiality obligations.”
Smacks of hypocrisy
The fact that after McIntyre’s very public and brutal sacking, SBS is now refusing to answer questions because his confidentiality must be protected smacks of hypocrisy.
Holyman added, “SBS is an independent organisation and staffing decisions, including on this occasion are entirely a matter for the organisation.”
By focussing on staffing, both Ebeid and Turnbull step around the clear intent of the SBS Act, which expressly prohibits government interference with SBS social media content.
As a Minister and lawyer, Turnbull is extremely aware of the importance and sensitivity of the independence of public broadcasters, both in their relationship with government and between editorial staff and managers.
New Matilda sent him a list of questions. We wanted to know who or what drew the tweets to his attention, and whether he discussed the issue with anyone before he contacted Ebeid.
Of critical importance is what exactly he said to Ebeid which led him to agree to investigate the issue. We assume that he discussed the content of the tweets with Ebeid in which case we asked:
1. Do you agree that you have raised at least the perception that you could be in breach of Sect 11 3A of the SBS Act? If not, why not?
2. Before making your statement of condemnation, did you assess the tweets against the SBS code of conduct or social media protocol?
3. Do you agree that while you did not direct the sacking of McIntyre, your actions could lead to a perception from members of the public that you had acted in a way that jeopardised the independence of SBS?
Turnbull’s media advisor, David Bolt responded, “We don’t have anything to add I’m sorry.”
So unless Turnbull is pursued more successfully by other media outlets, the precise nature and timing of his communications will only be revealed if he is required to answer questions in court or parliamentary forums.
McIntyre’s deliberate journalistic intervention unearthed the silences in the contemporary stories being told about the invasion of Gallipoli. His statements were provocative but according to its code, SBS’s content can be “controversial and provocative and may sometimes be distasteful or offensive to some. Not all viewpoints presented will be shared by all audience members.”
Unlike the bullies who attack him, McIntyre has not breached the code that doesn’t allow bullying, intimidation, harassment, humiliation, or threatening anyone.
Those who initially assumed McIntyre's tweets were factually wrong now have the benefit of reading the report published in The Conversation by historian Philip Dwyer, which establishes that there is historical evidence to support several of the tweeted statements.
An aspect that Dwyer did not cover was the reference to Palestine. In that tweet, McIntyre may have been thinking of the massacre at Surafend in 2018 when Anzac forces slaughtered somewhere between 50 and 200 men in the village of Surafend, in retribution for the killing of a New Zealand soldier by a petty thief.
But what of the conduct of Ebeid himself? While the managing director is the editor-in-chief, Section 55 of the SBS act provides that its managers must “endeavour to achieve and maintain high standards as an employer in relation to terms and conditions of employment... industrial democracy, non-discriminatory employment practices and other related matters”.
McIntyre’s treatment seems to fall way below the standards of a model employer, and against the spirit of this section.
Others reporters have already reviewed the prospects of a successful action for unfair dismissal by McIntyre as high.
Ebeid has justified his actions on the need to protect the trust of SBS’s audience. A section of the code says, “SBS is committed to preserving the trust and confidence of its audience, who rely on SBS’s editorial independence and integrity.”
The social media protocol provides that “SBS, as a public broadcaster, must be, and must be seen to be, independent of political, commercial and other influences. Maintaining SBS’s independence and integrity is the responsibility of all SBS employees.”
In my view, it can be argued that Ebeid breached the code himself, in that he undermined the reputation of SBS by encouraging the perception that he bowed to political interference and intervention by the Minister.
Ironically, many of the angry tweeters he sought to placate began from the standpoint that public broadcasters have no integrity to defend.
He refused to heed any messages from free speech defenders or others urging caution. To Channel Ten News anchor Hugh Rimington, he tweeted on Sunday, ‘Hugh this has nothing to do with free speech, it’s not tenable to remain on air if your audience doesn’t trust you.’
Which audience was he referring to - Malcolm Turnbull Jamie Briggs, Chris Kenny and the anonymous bullies?
Turnbull’s original replies to Crikey focussed on staffing decisions, while the focus of the Act is on ‘content’. While publicly and privately declaring his own view, he sent a clear message about content. It seems reasonable to suggest that without Turnbull’s intervention, McIntyre would not have been sacked. Like Ebeid’s action, Turnbull’s acted to satisfy one lot of political interests while silencing others.
News Corp commentators mobilised and channelled the angry tweeters towards Turnbull. Having achieved the desired result, he and other commentators celebrated the sacking in columns last week as if they had nothing to do with it. Typically of those who would suppress dissent, Kenny equates the angry right wing bullies with the mainstream. We must hope that he is not correct.
Kenny has moved on for now but if you’re in the line of fire in News Corp’s long march against public broadcasting, you’ll no doubt be hearing from him again soon.
Silence assists the cause of suppression and censorship. Knowing that, more than 2,700 people, many of whom strongly support public broadcasting, have signed a petition asking Ebeid to reinstate McIntyre.
Consider joining them.
Another option is laying a formal complaint that SBS’s management has brought the broadcaster into disrepute by not being seen to protect its integrity and independence.
Professor Wendy Bacon is a contributor to New Matilda, where this article was first published. It has been republished with permission. Full embedded tweets and links at New Matilda.