So narrow has political debate become here in Australia over the Israel/Palestine conflict that attempts to remind Australians of basic facts, well accepted in the global community, are falling foul of censorship — silenced by the swish of a bureaucrat’s pen.
Journalists at public broadcaster SBS have been told, in a missive from their head of news, that the station’s Ombudsman has ruled out the use of the phrase "Palestinian land" to describe the occupied territories of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. The status of these territories "remains the subject of negotiation", the memo says, and should be described solely with reference to their geographical location, for instance: "Israeli settlements on the West Bank".
This shows the chilling effect of the selective deafness practised by frontbench politicians in Canberra, which has, as I have pointed out before, put Australia further into Israel’s camp than any other country, including the United States. Labor’s Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard found some rare common ground with former Liberal treasurer Peter Costello when both were part of a senior bipartisan delegation to Israel. When a delegation of that kind fails to mention, even once, the attack on Gaza at the turn of the year or questions over its legality, it has the effect of placing huge pieces of reality outside the bounds of the legitimately controversial. They fall into the "don’t-mention-the-war" category, or what media scholar Daniel Hallin called the "zone of deviancy".
In fact, it is the Australian Parliament that is somewhat deviant on this issue, compared to parliaments elsewhere. And things are not improving. Julia Irwin, who earlier this year was almost alone among Australian MPs to join with the rest of the world in criticising Israel’s attack on Gaza, last night announced her intention not to run in the next federal election. The disappearance from the Parliament of a voice prepared to say what many people know on this issue is bad news for the state of this debate in Australia.
At the University of Sydney, where I work, the Students for Palestine group have been told by their Student Union that they are not entitled to form a club, and benefit from the facilities, for reasons no one is allowed to disclose. All those present at the meeting that imposed this ban have been sworn to secrecy. So the Students for Palestine called a protest rally later this month, which is also being advertised by students from other universities: universities like Macquarie, also in Sydney, whose head of security reportedly frog-marched several of them off the campus for leafleting outside the library, occasioning complaints of "offensive behaviour".
Talking of which, the steady trickle of emails I receive from supporters of Israel has grown lately, their writers now apparently feeling emboldened to make more abusive and, in some cases, openly racist comments. Then there’s the latest stoush between the pro-Israel lobby and the Sydney Peace Foundation, over the decision to award this year’s Sydney Peace Prize to the journalist and filmmaker, John Pilger.
Pilger is famous for many things, including his reports raising the alarm over Pol Pot’s killing fields in Cambodia during the 1970s, and his courage in smuggling himself into East Timor under Suharto, and Burma, where he brought out unforgettable pictures of slave labour being used to build roads by the Burmese military junta.
His film, Palestine Is Still The Issue, is valuable precisely because it opens by situating the conflict in the context of international law and the well established view of the international community. The reason why the Occupied Palestinian Territories are so called is because there is an important difference between their claims over them and those of Israel: the Palestinians are their lawful owners. As Pilger points out, the reason why there have been countless UN resolutions condemning Israel’s occupation is because the inadmissibility of territory acquired by force is a cornerstone of international law.
As the SBS absurdity shows, these basic facts are now regarded as "controversial" in the context of Australian public discourse. It represents a triumph for Israel and its apologists here, who are thinking aloud about how best to take on the peace prize and its new laureate. "Strategist" Ernie Schwartz told the Australian Jewish News that, if professionally consulted — as some suspect he has been — he would advise critics of the award to face down allegations that they, in attacking a journalist for his journalism, are enemies of open debate. "Be realistic about the fact that we’ll always come across as myopic," he said. "That’s just the way we’re going to be cast."
Pilger-bashing over his reporting from the Middle East has already spread to academia. First into the breach, after the announcement of the honour, was a blog, The Sensible Jew, which declared him "odious" and "a joke among the serious-minded". It featured a post from Philip Mendes, a social work lecturer at Melbourne’s Monash University, drawing attention to his scholarly article on Pilger in the Australian Journal of Jewish Studies. It’s unusual for an academic journal — especially one enjoying the highest "A*" rating, as this one does — to publish a contribution by a researcher outside his or her own field.
In it, Mendes criticises Pilger for declaring that it is his "duty to rectify" an imbalance in Western news coverage. But unfortunately for Mendes that is actually what Pilger is supposed to be doing: Pilger makes documentaries for Independent Television in the UK, which is obliged to follow the requirement that TV licensees "ensure that justice is done to a full range of significant views and perspectives", as stipulated by the UK’s industry regulator, the Office of Communication. In short, they need Pilger to make up for shortcomings elsewhere.
Mendes treats the question of bias in reporting of the Palestine/Israel conflict as if scholarly opinion on the subject is equally divided, when in fact the vast majority of research finds that frames, definitions and versions of events favoured by Israel predominate in the news. Among the evidence he adduces to back up this claim, representative of the overall weakness of his argument, is the unpublished study by BBC News management of their own output, which he uses without setting it in the appropriate context, which was a dispute with the BBC’s governors at the time of the study.
Attempts like these to restrict debate or to delegitimise certain voices are of deep concern not just in relation to the Palestine/Israel issue, but to all of the issues that we rely on the media to cover. When Pilger receives the award in November, from New South Wales Governor, Professor Marie Bashir, and gives the City of Sydney Peace Prize lecture in the Opera House the following evening, it will be an overdue signal that we are entitled to know what we know, and to say what we need to say about it.
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