SBS rules that “The Promise” does not vilify Jews or Israelis
An internal investigation by SBS into complaints of anti-Jewish racism associated with the four-part series The Promise, broadcast in late 2011, has concluded that “the series does not, demonise Jews either individually or as a collective, nor deny their individual and collective right to self determination and therefore does not vilify Jews or Israelis.”
In dismissing the complaints, the SBS Complaints Committee found that the series did not violate the SBS Codes of Practice and that “the ordinary reasonable viewer fully appreciated that The Promise was a fictional drama and nothing more than that”. It also noted that “accuracy per se is not a Code requirement in respect of a drama such as The Promise.”
In a 7-page response to the Executive Council of Australian Jewry (ECAJ), which had submitted a 31-page complaint to the SBS Ombudsman, SBS described it as “an oversimplification to cast the drama as being bad Jews versus good Palestinians.”
However, the Executive Director of the ECAJ, Peter Wertheim, described the SBS response as “disappointing and unsatisfactory”.
“SBS has simply failed to address many of our principal contentions,” Wertheim said. “They have failed to engage in detail with any of the 75 examples of negative stereotyping of Jews which we provided to them. I am also surprised that SBS has suggested that it is acceptable to portray entire nations in a negative light as a part of a dramatic work. One wonders which other nations will be next in line for vilification masked as drama. SBS is supposed to be committed to social inclusion.”
Wertheim challenged the SBS complaints handling process. “Five of the seven members of the SBS complaints committee were from senior management and were clearly not at arm’s length, even though their bona fides are not in question. Further, these managers lack the expertise and insight to deal adequately with complaints of racism,” Wertheim said.
The ECAJ complaint was not about the controversial history that forms the backdrop to the series, according to Wertheim. “It is the use of discriminatory stereotypes to deal with that history that was our central objection. All of the principal Jewish characters are ultimately portrayed in a stereotypically negative way. If a series about the Israel-Palestinian conflict portrayed all of its Arab characters and their supporters as murderous terrorists, betrayers and thieves, perhaps the racism would have been more evident to SBS.”
Wertheim also took issue with the Complaints Committee’s conclusion that the audience would have fully appreciated that The Promise was a fictional drama, and nothing more, pointing to the description of the series that had previously appeared on the SBS website, “The Promise: Political History’”, which was later removed, and adding, “I have a collection of media and online comments from viewers which signify that they were misled into believing that the series is a documentary, or else a factual and accurate account of historic and current events.”
Wertheim dismissed claims that the ECAJ’s complaint was intended to “censor” the series. “Our entire complaint was in the public domain as soon as we sent it and we welcome the debate about the series”, Wertheim said. “The more scrutiny it receives, the more apparent its flaws become”.
Wertheim said that the ECAJ had not demanded that the sale of the DVD of the series should be banned regardless of the outcome of its complaint. “We asked only that the marketing and promotion of the DVD be suspended until the complaint was decided. SBS itself did not suggest that this request was unreasonable. On the contrary, they assured us that our complaint would be assessed before sales of the DVD were due to commence. If the complaint had been upheld, SBS would not have been in a position to promote material that had been found to violate its own Codes of Practice.”
Describing as “completely false” claims that the ECAJ had threatened to refer the issue to a Senate Estimates Committee, Wertheim said “We made no threats. The Senate Estimates Committee reviews SBS and other government-funded bodies on a regular basis and will make its own decisions about what matters it wants to investigate”.
Asked about the ECAJ’s controversial reference to the Nazi propaganda film Jud Süss, Wertheim responded, “This was solely to illustrate that even a film that has been nominated for a prestigious award and has received acclaim can be racist to the core. We do not suggest that the nature and severity of the anti-Jewish stereotyping is the same in each film.”
“Not every criticism of Israel is antisemitic”, Wertheim continued. “It is equally false to suggest that no criticism of Israel is antisemitic. There is clearly some overlap. One test is whether the criticism makes use of anti-Jewish stereotypes. The Promise certainly does so.”
Under the SBS Codes of Practice, the ECAJ may appeal to the Australian Communications and Media Authority, but Wertheim ruled out an appeal.
“Complaints alleging a breach of SBS Code 1.3 should be able to be referred to a different body with specialist knowledge and experience in dealing with racism,” Wertheim said.
According to SBS, The Promise was produced in association with SBS TV “although SBS had no editorial control over the production”.
A spokesperson for SBS told J-Wire: “We can only confirm that all complaaints about the program have been responded to. The sale of the DVD will go ahead as planned. In any event, it is available in many countries.”
J-Wire features a Q&A with the writer/director of “The Promise” on our front home page video section.