Danby Laments Loss Of Control Over The Message


This speech was given to the House of Representatives by member for Melbourne Ports, Michael Danby, on Monday 7 September.

Mr DANBY (Melbourne Ports) (9.01 am) — Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth, offered the following comment in response to a recent speech by Iranian President Ahmadinejad: "There can be no doubt as to the most tenacious ideology of modern times. German fascism came and went. Soviet Communism came and went. Anti-Semitism came and stayed".

Rabbi Sacks went on to note that the re-emergence of anti-Semitism is one of the most frightening phenomena of his lifetime because it is happening after 60 years of education after the Second World War, anti-racist legislation and interfaith dialogue.

As a member of parliament in this great democratic country of Australia, I am saddened to have to agree with the Chief Rabbi of the Commonwealth. Indeed, there is a modern resurgence of anti-Semitism, although Australia, with its unofficial doctrine of a fair go, is perhaps the most tolerant and pluralist of all global societies. Constituent communities contribute to the success of pluralism. The Australian Jewish community has made a substantial and durable contribution to this country, offering a distinct culture that nonetheless furthers cohesion and the national interest by its commitment to core democratic values, secularist laws and the constraints of our parliamentary system.

As members will no doubt know, the Jewish presence in Australia began with the First Fleet and has grown to some 120,000, according to the authoritative Jewish population survey just published by the Australian Centre for Jewish Civilisation at Monash University. Recent generations of Australian Jews have never forgotten the debt to the Australian people who provided refuge to our parents and grandparents, the remnants of European Jewry, during and before the darkest period of Jewish history, the Nazi genocide of the Second World War.

Within this history and context of Australian tolerance and pluralism, I recently spoke of the bigotry that has attended the exponential rise and proliferation of the internet. In particular, I focused on two Australian online magazines, Newmatilda and Crikey, with their slanted commentary on the Middle East which has been used as a cover for unmoderated, unleashed and unhinged comments on their websites. My analysis prompted an exchange of letters between well-known civil rights organization (sic) the Anti-Defamation Commission and Newmatilda’s editor, Marni Cordell. (You can read the exchange here.) In April of this year the Anti-Defamation Commission sent Cordell a sober, detailed and careful analysis (Ed: We’ll let you judge for yourselves) of the magazines’ contents for the first three months of 2009, highlighting ADC’s concerns over not its partisan opinion but the broad slabs of hate speak published in the comments section following each article. En passant, Cordell virtually agreed that her online publication presented no semblance of fairness, asserting her publication’s role was as a counterweight to the biased, pro-Israel media. One wonders what planet she lived on during the war in Gaza.

Cordell fudged why Newmatilda publishes blatantly bigoted commentary, even though the magazine explicitly reserves the right to moderate that commentary if it is abusive or promotes hate. Only since being exposed has Newmatilda stopped publishing race hate in its comment columns (sic). I seek leave to table some of the comments that followed articles in these two publications during the first three months of 2009.

Leave granted.

Mr DANBY — Crikey and its editor, Jonathan Green, have made no explanation or issued no apology. Eric Beecher, the owner of Crikey, who hails from a similar ethnic cultural background to me, owes an explanation for Crikey’s publication of these hate filled comments. Such comments would be suited for publication in Julius Streicher’s Der Sturmer.

I take as my guide the definition suggested by former Soviet dissident and human rights activist Natan Sharansky in addressing these issues in total. Mr Sharansky distinguishes the two by his 3D principles. He warns to look for three things: demonisation, delegitimisation and double standards. Looking at the coverage in Crikey and Newmatilda we see a tiny country of seven million people portrayed as a manipulator of world events, a state engaged in ethnic separation — without any mention of the thousands of civilians murdered by homicide bombers — and an initiator of wars that have no strategic or defensive codex. That is demonisation.

Of course people can be fairly critical of any state in the world and critical of particular actions of any state, but, following the Sharansky model, anyone who looks at Cordell’s Newmatilda or Green’s Crikey during this period could only conclude that Israel was a country deserving of rocket attacks on its citizens and not entitled to defend its sovereignty. That is delegitimisation. Scant attention is given in the same publications to Burma, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Tibet, North Korea, Chechnya, Eastern Turkistan or any other place witnessing gross abuse of human rights. That is a double standard.

I was particularly outraged, however, by the tenor of readers’ comments which followed these articles and contained repeated examples of bigotry. I have tabled a small percentage of these verbatim comments from the Newmatilda and Crikey websites from the first three months of this year. Of course, all members will find these comments as abhorrent as I do. No doubt some members will ask the obvious question: how does this kind of vile commentary following the articles — I am not talking about the actual articles; people are entitled to have different views on these kinds of things — find its way onto a site that reserves the right to censor such comments? The editors of Newmatilda were not moved to address this issue until I publicly intervened.

Thereafter, on 7 July, they responded by way of an editorial that began:

"Regular readers will notice that we have turned off all comments on articles about Israel/Palestine." (You can read the whole thing here.)

Predictably, what followed was a long self-justification, which read in part:

"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."

Open and diverse debate is different from publishing unregulated, vile racism. Again, I repeat that the Newmatilda decision to moderate their own site happened not out of consistency or out of some sense of decency but because the searchlight of public opinion was shone on these dark and ugly recesses of the internet. Two regular contributors to Crikey and Newmatilda — Antony Loewenstein and his Sancho Panza, Michael Brull — also responded to my speech in a jointly authored article stating that my criticism could be condensed into the following:

"Michael Danby erodes his credibility by accusing two Jews of anti-Semitism because they don’t agree with him …"

I am certainly content to reiterate here that, in relation to their commentary of the conflict, the two individuals are guilty of double standards, demonisation and delegitimisation. However, contrary to their response, their ethnicity was not addressed in my speech at all because it was clearly not my principal concern.

Their writing and the editorial bias of the online publications for which they write clearly puts them on the fringe of Australian politics. If one compares the things that they wrote with, say, Labor Party discussions at the recent national conference, one would see that they are completely outside the mainstream of the centre-left party in this country, for instance. For those writers to seek refuge behind their ethnicity is particularly craven. It is dishonest.

The thrust of my previous speech and tonight’s lies with the creepier bigotry that their articles and other articles unleashed in these two online publications, which apparently had no problem with publishing them. I agree with Thomas Friedman, who wrote:

"Criticizing Israel is not anti-Semitic, and saying so is vile. But singling out Israel for opprobrium and international sanction — out of all proportion to any other party in the Middle East — is anti-Semitic, and not saying so is dishonest."

In examining the evidence of lopsided coverage of these two internet publications, our toughest critique must be of their unadulterated racism: the perverse nature of their criticisms and the vitriol that is not present in the appraisal of other conflicts; the use of terms such as "ethnic cleansing" and "Nazi"; and the dropping of all pretence of anti-Zionism by openly discussing Jews and so-called Jewish proclivities. George Orwell wrote:

"To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle."

Perhaps — but my fear is that the internet is now so pervaded by such views that they can attain a patina of truth and respectability. In many of the articles in both magazines, the ability to link and cross-reference to other sites and commentaries apparently bolsters and legitimises the views of the authors in circumstances where readers cannot vouch for the credibility of the concurring opinion. Opinions and commentary are therefore expressed in an ethical vacuum absent of the strictures which we have come to accept as inherent in the profession of journalism, such as fact checking and peer review.

It is clear in my view that Newmatilda.com and Crikey.com disgraced themselves and the wider circle of Australian journalism — and the tolerant ethos that characterises Australia — by publishing clearly bigoted comments in the comments sections of their publications in the first three months of this year.

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Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.