Regular readers will notice that we have turned off all comments on articles about Israel/Palestine. This is not a permanent state of affairs but a stopgap while we develop the technical ability to pre-moderate comments on the site. We do this reluctantly, and in response to a handful of comment "trolls" who continue to abuse our open comments facility.
Historically, we have erred on the side of free speech — we did not pre-moderate comments on the site, which is rare in this litigious age, because we wanted to promote open and diverse debate.
However we have, for the most part, been very disappointed by the level of debate that has taken place on articles about Israel/Palestine. We are appalled to find ourselves hosting Holocaust deniers and racists. Such comments in no way reflect the views of the staff of newmatilda.com. Obnoxious comments aren’t limited to articles on this issue — but Israel/Palestine does provoke a greater volume of impassioned and divergent responses than any other.
As our comments policy says, we reserve the right to delete abusive comments and ad hominem attacks. We do delete comments and we have blocked repeat offenders, but sometimes offensive content slips through. The most objectionable comments usually get posted very late at night and very early in the morning. Now of course, we recognise that if as a news and analysis site we don’t have the resources to monitor the comments facility effectively, we need to change the way the site functions.
The transformation of our comments function into a slanging arena has worked to shut down discussion and deflected attention away from those who are trying to engage with the issues. Frustratingly, the trolls have actively discouraged productive debate.
We firmly believe the comment trolls misrepresent our readership. In fact, we know this to be true because we frequently receive emails of a very different tone responding to articles on the site. We hear from people who can’t believe how few media outlets in Australia are prepared to publish strong criticism of the Israeli Government’s actions. We stand by our decision to publish many articles on this conflict — which is indeed more than we publish on many other conflicts.
This is a position that is unpopular with some.
Recently a politician, federal labor MP Michael Danby, wrote an attack on what he described as "antisemitism" on Australian websites, in particular newmatilda.com and Crikey. (He also singled out two of our contributors — Antony Loewenstein and Michael Brull — for special criticism, and you can read their reply here.)
In his argument, Danby made extensive use of a "special report" by an organisation called the B’nai B’rith "Anti-Defamation Commission" (ADC).
In April we received a letter from Tony Levy, chairman of the ADC, accusing newmatilda.com of displaying prejudice and imbalance in our coverage of the Israel/Palestine conflict. (You can read their letter to us and our response here). The charges were based on a "special report" done by an ex-editor of the Australian Jewish News, Deborah Stone, who we believe is employed as their research director.
The report, which was sent to the ADC’s members last week and is available here looks at 18 articles published by newmatilda.com over a three-month period at the beginning of the year.
There are two strands to the ADC’s charges. Firstly, they target the comments on the articles. We acknowledge that, like other news and analysis outlets publishing on this issue, our site has attracted comments from a handful of extremists. These people have expressed views ranging from virulent anti-Israeli sentiment to anti-Palestinian slurs — views which we in no way endorse. However, rather than being a symptom of the tone of our coverage, as Stone claims, their presence is a result of us giving coverage to a highly charged, antagonistic and difficult debate.
The ADC’s second charge concerns the articles we publish, however, and it requires a more considered rebuttal. They allege that the coverage of Israel/Palestine issues on newmatilda.com is "unbalanced and disproportional" and unduly represents Israel as an oppressor — and it is worth noting here that the period they have chosen to focus on is the period in which the Israeli Government was bombing Gaza.
In the report, Stone defines three "narratives" that articles on Israel/Palestine can fit into. The first is the "Palestinian narrative". This narrative "characterises Israel as an oppressor", while "the Palestinians are victims of occupation/apartheid/racism and/or heroes of resistance. Israeli victims or security concerns are not acknowledged".
In the second narrative — the "Israeli" narrative — "Israel is characterized as taking defensive action against terrorism. Hamas is described as a terrorist organization that wants to destroy Israel. Israelis are victims of terrorism and rocket attacks. Palestinian civilians are victims of their own leaders’ attacks on Israel and the resulting war."
And the last possible narrative is the "neutral" narrative, in which "both narratives are presented without judgement".
Where the truth is supposed to fit into these strict options we’re not entirely sure.
In her "findings", Stone reports that 17 of the articles she has analysed fit into the first narrative, one fits into the second, and none in the third. She concludes that this is evidence that newmatilda.com‘s "dissemination of hate and prejudice is unfair both to Israel and to the Jewish people", and says, "As an increasing percentage of the population relies on websites for news, discussion and opinion formation it is essential that we bring the standards of quality journalism to bear on this new medium". Stone appears to believe that just because a piece of analysis is online it is necessarily of a lower standard than one that is in print or on television. In fact, in 2009, many qualified and experienced editors and journalists work in this "new" medium — including right here at newmatilda.com.
On the subject of professional journalism — no serious journalist believes the situation in Israeal/Palestine is reducible to the kind of "Us and Them" world that Stone presents. There is no singular "Israeli" or "Jewish" narrative, as she must be aware. Nor is there such a thing as a simple, unified "Palestinian perspective". Our contributors — Israelis, Australians, Jews and Palestinians — demonstrate this consistently. Furthermore, it is odd that a supposedly anti-racism group would try to cast a political situation along racial lines — a reductive and simplistic approach that seems more consistent with the tactics of a lobby group.
Stone’s study, which criticises newmatilda.com for running "disproportional coverage" of Israel/Palestine, has chosen to focus on the period of the Israeli Government’s military operation in Gaza. That operation, along with its aftermath, was the biggest story in the world at the time. Here again, there is the voice of a lobby group seeking to influence what a media outlet pays attention to, irrespective of what is happening in the world or the desire of its readers to see those events covered.
As part of that attempt, Stone’s report is based on the premise of "balance", which she describes in this way: "The principle of balance in journalism requires that an equivalent coverage is given to both sides of a conflict."
We strongly disagree.
To clarify our editorial policy here: we believe balance is desirable where it is approriate — but we do not attempt to provide a "for" and "against" analysis of every issue we cover. That is because we believe that some things are simply wrong, and should not be justified on any terms. Bombing innocent civilians is, in our minds, one of those wrong things. The Holocaust is another.
This criticism over "balance" and others like it pick up on the fact that at newmatilda.com we have described ourselves as providing "non-partisan information" in the About Us section of the website. We agree this is open to interpretation. When we said non-partisan we meant "non-party political". We have now clarified this on the site.
Balance is not always a straightforward issue. And on that matter we seem to be in at least partial agreement with the ADC. We noted with interest that in none of the ADC’s communication with us, (nor in their report or on their site) have they protested about the significant anti-Palestinian racism also present on newmatilda.com from commenters who support the Israeli Government. This from an organisation that purports to oppose racial discrimination.
As an ethnic lobby group, B’nai B’rith is perfectly entitled to lobby on this issue. However, as we are an independent media outlet, such lobbying — whether it takes place behind the scenes as in this case, or in public — can have no role in influencing our editorial policy. The fact that Israel-related topics are highly sensitive will not deter us from continuing to publish articles on Gaza, on refugee camps, on the Israel-US relationship, and on US foreign policy in the Middle East and in general.
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