Jews, Journalists And Junkets: Why Australian Media Covers Palestine So Badly

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Michael Brull spoke at a one-day symposium in Melbourne last week, organised by Australians For Palestine. Following is an edited version of that speech.

In speaking today, I was asked to discuss why Australian journalists go on propaganda tours of Israel, instead of looking at how Israel oppresses the Palestinians.

For some journalists, the answer is straightforward. For whatever reason, they are ideologically sympathetic to Israel, and so they’re eager to go on these trips to bolster their already existing worldviews.

Take Sharri Markson, currently a senior writer at the Australian. This example will give you a sense of her worldview.

Markson published on twitter what she called a “thoughtful question” from a newsletter about Peter Slezak, spotted speaking at an “anti-Israel rally” wearing a “Palestinian scarf”.

It claimed that Peter Slezak’s parents are Catholic converts, he’s not circumcised, had no bar-mitzvah, so can we really say that he’s Jewish?

The response – which Markson also featured – expresses “disgust” at Peter, says that Peter “reviles everything Jewish”, and is “using his Jewishness as a weapon against Jews”.

If this is the kind of thing that impresses Markson outside of work, and which she regards as “thoughtful”, it’s not that hard to figure out why she’d be happy to go on a propaganda tour of Israel.

Markson isn’t the only Zionist eager to learn about how great the Holy Land is. In 2008, Greg Sheridan went on a trip to Israel, and came back claiming that 1,500 Israelis were being killed every year by Palestinian terrorists.

The Australian's Sharri Markson goes 'deep undecover' in 2014, posing as a university student to expose Universities telling the truth about News Corporation.
The Australian’s Sharri Markson goes ‘deep undecover’ in 2014, posing as a university student to expose Universities telling the truth about News Corporation.

In fact, about 700 Israeli civilians had been killed in the previous 8 years. I’m sure his sponsors were very happy with their investment.

However, it is not just the true believers who go on these trips. Journalists across the media spectrum have signed up for them.

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Those who went last year include David Lipson, presently a political correspondent for ABC’s Lateline, Alexander Hart from Channel 7, the deputy editor of the Daily Telegraph, the federal politics editor for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age, and Aaron Patrick, the deputy editor of the print version of the Australian Financial Review.

Why do they do it? Well, it’s a free holiday. They get paid to see the world, they get wined and dined, and they get treated like they’re important.

During his trip as a guest of AIJAC, Patrick said the trips have “attained almost legendary status in media circles”. They flew business class, they went through the VIP lane at the airport. They had an armed driver, a full time guide, experts who were paid to brief them.

They met with the deputy prime minister of Israel, and, “most exciting”, got to fly in light aircraft to the Golan Heights.

He also met with a Palestinian, who seems to have offended his sensibilities by seeming “Marxist”.

Patrick claimed that the reason they didn’t cross into Gaza was because it was “too dangerous”. Not because, as the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process said, “no human being who visits” Gaza “can remain untouched by the terrible devastation” there.

Now, it’s not just flattery and perks that gets journalists on the propaganda tours. I would argue that it’s not hard to understand why so many journalists go on the trips, because there’s nothing really anomalous about it.

Journalists overwhelmingly don’t cover oppression and discrimination in Palestine, because they also don’t cover those issues here.

Take the Northern Territory Intervention in 2007. The Federal Government rolled out a raft of racially discriminatory legislation and sent in the army. It got support across the mainstream political spectrum, including both major parties.

(IMAGE: Chris Graham)
(IMAGE: Chris Graham)

There was no meaningful scrutiny from the media, and its strongest supporters came from the supposedly more highbrow news team at the ABC.

Almost nine years later, two billion dollars have been spent, the report on the sexual abuse of children that supposedly triggered the Intervention lies forgotten, and so do its un-implemented recommendations.

There’s been zero accountability for these racist and failed policies, their architects or their cheerleaders.

Thus, I think it’s too narrow to think of the propaganda tours as merely about ideology, or free trips. I think they should be considered as reflective of a systemic problem.

A helpful way to understand that problem is to apply the propaganda model developed by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in the ‘80s. They argue that there are five news filters which the “raw material of news must pass through”, leaving “only the cleansed residue fit to print”.

I’ll briefly discuss four of them.

 

Media ownership for profit

The first filter is ownership and profit orientation of the major mass media. In Australia, we have a very concentrated media. The print media is mostly divided between Fairfax and Murdoch.

In 2011, Fairfax and Murdoch accounted for 86 per cent of newspaper sales. In 2013, Murdoch papers accounted for 59 per cent of sales of daily newspapers in Australia. That rose to 65 per cent in capital city and daily papers.

The concentration of media ownership influences coverage of Palestine in a few ways. Firstly, the Murdoch press, with all its influence, tends to slant in favour of Israel.

For example, the Murdoch press has run obsessive campaigns attacking BDS activists and calling them Nazis.

There’s another point to consider. Suppose you’re a journalist. If you write about Israel too critically, and alienate the Murdoch press, you have shut yourself out of a lot of media jobs.

(IMAGE: André-Pierre du Plessis, Flickr)
(IMAGE: André-Pierre du Plessis, Flickr)

In Australia, there aren’t that many media jobs to begin with. So for someone who needs to make a living, who doesn’t want to close too many doors, there are strong incentives to be very careful in discussing Israel, or just avoid it altogether.

This also applies to the high-brow progressive publications. At the Monthly, Saturday Paper, and Quarterly Essay, published by Morry Schwarz, the coverage of Israel and Palestine ranges from the non-existent to the derisive.

I’ll cite one of the few articles they ran, this one from the Saturday Paper: Nick Dyrenfurth discussing BDS.

He began with an account of his grandparents in Europe. They saw Nazi posters demanding that people not buy from Jews. His article ended with Dyrenfurth sadly observing Jake Lynch’s “utter incapacity to understand that the descendants of those who lived through Nazi-era boycotts”… you can guess the rest.

Why is their coverage of Palestine so lousy? John Van Tiggelan, who used to edit the Monthly, explained in a panel in 2014. Van Tiggelan said that he worked “very closely” with the publisher, because it’s a small publication. There were “certain glass walls set up by the publisher that you can’t go outside of”.

Tiggelan explained that “one of those is Palestine.” The Monthly is seen as left-wing, but “the publisher is very right-wing on Israel… he’s very much to the Benjamin Netanyahu end of politics”, so “you can’t touch it”.

Or take the largest commercial television network, Channel Seven. It is owned by Seven West Media. SWM owns The West Australian, the only daily newspaper in Western Australia, along with Pacific Magazines, the second largest magazine publisher in Australia, 21 regional papers, nine regional radio stations, and a publishing business.

SWM is chaired by Kerry Stokes, and its largest owner at 33.2 percent is Seven Group Holdings.

SGH was formed by the merger of Seven Network Limited, and WesTrac. It is 67 per cent owned by Stokes. WesTrac was known as Wigmores until 1989, when it was bought by Stokes’ company. WesTrac, for those who don’t know, is the authorised dealer for Caterpillar in WA, New South Wales and the ACT.

Caterpillar is the company that makes the bulldozers Israel has used to demolish thousands of Palestinian homes in the West Bank.

IDF D9 bulldozers made by CAT for the Israeli Defence Force. They're used to demolish the homes of Palestinians. (IMAGE: Zachi Evenor, Flickr)
IDF D9 bulldozers made by CAT for the Israeli Defence Force. They’re used to demolish the homes of Palestinians. (IMAGE: Zachi Evenor, Flickr)

In 2012, WesTrac earned $387.1 million before interest and tax – whilst SGH’s media investments generated less than a third of that: $116.1 million.

Let me break that down. SGH is an enormous corporation. Part of its interests are in media, but it makes a lot more money from a business which is heavily implicated in Israeli war crimes. That gives Channel 7 – and the West Australian, and all the assorted radio, newspapers and magazines – enormous financial incentives to steer clear of any serious discussion of the occupation.

 

Advertising revenue

So let’s now turn to the second filter: advertising as the major source of revenue. Revenue for media companies has generally been declining in recent years. Though Fairfax made a net profit of $27.4 million in the last half, it has been struggling. It recently announced it is cutting 120 jobs, after cutting another 1800 in 2012.

Bearing in mind that Fairfax is a vulnerable media company on the ropes, let’s return to the war on Gaza in 2014. Mike Carlton wrote some critical comments about Israel bombing Gaza, and cartoonist Glen Le Lievre portrayed a Jewish man with stereotypical features watching the bombing of Gaza.

Fairfax apologised for the cartoon, and Carlton wound up resigning after being told to apologise to readers he had abused. This wasn’t enough penance for some.

The Jewish News reported that “high-profile businessmen have said they will not advertise in the SMH.” Avstev Group’s Steven Rom said, “We won’t be supporting them with our dollars that we spend on advertising, and that runs into seven figures”.

In recent years, Ruth Pollard, Fairfax’s Middle East correspondent, produced increasingly courageous coverage of Palestine, such as her review of the Breaking the Silence report on the 2014 Gaza massacre.

Yet in December last year, Fairfax closed down their Middle East bureau, effectively firing her, and it seems they are in no rush to acquire a new correspondent. Given their slim profit margins, and increasingly mercenary business model, I suspect that if they do get a new correspondent, they’ll choose him or her very carefully.

 

Selective sourcing

The third filter, which I’ll discuss more briefly, is sourcing. For example, suppose a news channel wants to interview someone about Israel and Palestine. They won’t speak to an academic specialist on the Middle East, though if there is a terrorism angle they’ll probably consult Greg Barton.

They won’t speak to Palestinians in Australia, and they definitely won’t consult Hamas on anything.

Every story has to have the Israeli government’s version. Palestinians and their supporters are extreme, so they’re excluded.

The Israeli government, however, is balance, and so are its domestic supporters, so they need to be cited.

(IMAGE: Michael Loadenthal, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Michael Loadenthal, Flickr)

For domestic issues, a reaction will be sought from organisations like AIJAC. Critics of Israel are usually not featured, as they’re not part of the spectrum of respectable opinion.

The most significant exception is probably Bob Carr, but any story featuring him is balanced by the demonization of him by the Israeli government lobbies, and others in the Murdoch press.

Fairfax has a tendency to abstain from discussing those issues. In the rare event that someone critical of Israel is allowed access to a large audience, there will inevitably be demands for balance.

 

Character assassination

The last filter I’ll discuss is flak. Flak is backlash. It can come in the form of petitions, abuse, Nazi comparisons, complaints about breaching the RDA, and ongoing attempts to fire Jake Lynch and shut down CPACS.

The goal of flak is to prevent critical coverage of certain issues. In the case of Palestine, the classic form of flak is the charge of anti-Semitism.

Even though I’m Jewish, I’ve been accused of anti-Semitism. Similar charges have been made against many others, including Antony Loewenstein, Peter Slezak, John Docker, Jake Lynch, the Max Brenner picketers and so on.

It is hard to overstate how glib and cynical these accusations can get. Here’s one example.

Owen Jones wrote a column in the Guardian, where he urged a vote for Labour in the UK. It included one reference to the establishment, including Rupert Murdoch and Goldman Sachs.

The ECAJ Public Affairs Director responded: “Takeaway from @OwenJones84 @guardian column? If you dislike @rupertmurdoch and bankers with Jewish names, vote Labour”.

He actually thinks criticising Goldman Sachs is a form of anti-Semitism. I’ll spare you his wilder claims.

The point of these smears is to bully people out of discussing Palestine. If criticising Israel means that you’ll have to deal with abuse, and be called anti-Semitic, some people prefer to pick their battles elsewhere. There are plenty of less controversial issues in Australia worth addressing.

 

I think these filters mean there is a systemic problem in Australian media coverage. That doesn’t mean it is an insurmountable problem. The quality of Australian correspondents has improved in recent years. Think Sophie McNeill at the ABC, or John Lyons at the Australian, now associate editor.

I want to end on a positive note. So, what can be done for those who want better coverage of Palestine?

Support independent media. Say nice things to those who offer good coverage of the issues. Complain at lousy media coverage, and loudly judge those who spout Israeli propaganda.

If those of us in the media get something wrong, tell us, and demand better. We can get better coverage of Palestine if we want it.

For as Theodore Herzl once explained, if you will it, it is no dream.

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Michael Brull

Michael Brull writes twice a week for New Matilda. He has written for a range of other publications, including Overland, Crikey, ABC's Drum, the Guardian and elsewhere. His writings can be followed at his public Facebook page (click on the icon below right).

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