So that’s it, then. With the interception by Israeli navy commandoes of the Dignité al Karama, the last vessel in this year’s Freedom Flotilla to take a convoy of aid to the Gaza Strip, the mission has seemingly fizzled out. No dramatic breach of Israel’s unlawful siege of the territory; no repeat, thankfully, of last year’s violence, when soldiers armed with live rounds were dropped on to the deck of the Mavi Marmara, killing nine activists and injuring many more. Taking place in international waters, Israel’s action amounted to piracy, but at least this time no-one on board was hurt.
But the failure to achieve the stated aim — of providing medicines, building materials, children’s toys and other everyday goods to the Palestinians, who are deprived of them — should not be allowed to obscure the symbolic gains the activists have made, notably here in Australia.
By providing an Australian angle to a story of grassroots initiative they have managed to reframe the media conception of peace activism in the Palestinian cause. Readers and audiences have been able to relate to Australians acting on impulses we can all recognise: straightforward humanitarian mateship, reaching out to people who’ve been denied a fair go.
By coincidence, the Avaaz group has just launched a campaign for tougher laws on press ownership, drawing attention to the wrongdoings of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire, exposed in the UK, and the perils to democracy from Australia’s narrowly based corporate media.
That narrowness constantly threatens to constrict what the media researcher, Daniel Hallin, called the "zone of legitimate controversy", within which journalism — and political debate — takes place. Case in point: the campaign by The Australian newspaper earlier this year to demonise the Greens over strong advocacy, by some of their prominent spokespersons, of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, of which the Flotilla is a part.
This amounted to a systematic and well-funded attempt to consign to Hallin’s "zone of deviancy" anyone seeking to put forward international law and human rights as a lens through which to view the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the avalanche of verbiage, sustained over many days in our sole national broadsheet, one word was conspicuous by its absence: "occupation". The basic, underlying fact about the conflict — Israel’s illegal, ongoing military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza — was entirely suppressed.
Hallin’s theory caught on because it neatly captured an essential element of news reporting. Usually, a statement is treated as newsworthy, and worth taking seriously, not so much for its content as for who says it. The lowest of the low, in terms of news sources, are activists: especially in Murdoch’s newspapers, where politics is properly left to professional politicians, who can be bullied or bribed with headlines hostile or favourable. Anyone seeking to raise issues, supply perspectives or draw attention to versions of events from outside this charmed circle is routinely ignored, smeared or belittled.
To gauge the value created by the four Australians who joined the flotilla, therefore, it’s instructive to look at how their action was reported. Before setting off, three of them — former NSW Green MP Sylvia Hale, along with Vivienne Porszolt and Michael Coleman — were interviewed on Channel Ten’s 6.30 with George Negus. The program also heard from an Israeli government spokesman. What was interesting, however, was that the three activists were presented as Australians doing something interesting and noteworthy, not as though there was something wrong with them.
Conventional news framing in Australian media would regard activists in this context as "extremists", but there was an opportunity, as they were leaving, to dislodge this apparently fixed meaning from the journalistic stock of background assumptions.
In response to a letter from Hale, DFAT made the shamefaced admission that it had meekly waived Australia’s rights under the Vienna Convention to render consular assistance to any of our nationals who were taken into custody. Now, the government — not the activists — could be portrayed as aberrant, having "let the side down" by putting loyalty to Israel before the hard-won rights of Australians travelling abroad.
Sure enough, the line taken by the PM program, on ABC Radio National, was interrogative. As well as Hale herself, reporter Connie Agius interviewed Greg Barns, of the Australian Lawyers’ Alliance, introduced as a former adviser to the Howard government. He told her: "Australia should not tolerate Israel simply saying, well we will drag people into a closed military zone and have no consular access".
Then, following the safe return of activists to Australia, local newspaper the Inner West Courier featured on its front cover a colour picture of Michael Coleman in a canoe, trying to slow down the Greek coastguard as the Canadian-flagged vessel they had joined, the Tahrir, tried to make a break for open waters — together with a sympathetic account of his adventures.
The report by SBS World News Australia, on the drama that unfolded in the harbour on the island of Crete — the Tahrir’s intended jumping-off point — was impeccably balanced and well-explained.
These are scattered indications, indeed, but between them, they offer hope that Murdoch’s baleful grip on this section of our national conversation can be at least circumvented, if not loosened.
I myself gave a couple of radio interviews, as a local spokesperson for the campaign, during which I took the opportunity to turn the question around: who, after all, are the extremists in this situation? Australian diplomacy under Gillard has placed us in a small "hard core" of half a dozen countries prepared to vote with Israel, at the UN, no matter what. Canberra stands at the pro-Israeli extreme of world political opinion, in spite of polls suggesting that Australians would prefer a more even-handed approach.
Hallin made his name by tracing the process by which an important viewpoint — opposition in the US to the Vietnam war — migrated from the zone of deviancy to come to be regarded as part of the spectrum of legitimate controversy. The same process is palpably underway for the advocacy of international law and human rights in the Israel-Palestine conflict — and the Flotilla activists have given it a timely boost here in Australia.
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