Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Current Affairs shows revert to Israel-bashing kind

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Tzvi Fleischer

Jewish News - 12 February 2009


How would most Australians feel if a mainstream television station overseas interviewed far left-wing Australian journalist John Pilger as its only commentator on an Australian election?

ABC's "Lateline" effectively did the equivalent on February 5. To comment on the Israeli election, the program's sole interviewee was Akiva Eldar, chief political columnist of Haaretz. Eldar, an opinion columnist, is one of the more extreme, as well as most vituperative, voices at that left-leaning Israeli paper.

On "Lateline", Eldar ignored an opening question about what difference it would make who won the Israeli election to instead pontificate that the only important thing is that the Obama Administration, and Australia, should pressure Israel to end "settlements and occupation". Expressing disapproval of the Gaza operation, he added that if there was not a basic agreement on a two-state resolution by the end of this year, "we will have to kiss it goodbye," blaming Israel for destroying the possibility.

He finished by declaring of Israeli society, its "real face is ugly."

Now it is a credit to the diversity and vibrancy of Israeli democracy that voices like Eldar's are aired. But it is wholly inappropriate that the ABC deliberately used such an extreme and marginal voice as the only one discussing Israel's election, allowing him to promote his political views as the only correct ones. It may be pertinent that Tim Palmer, a controversial former ABC Middle East correspondent who was frequently criticised for anti-Israel bias, is currently executive producer of "Lateline."

SBS pursued the same strategy in its first "Dateline" of the year, on February 8, finding one of the few Israeli journalists more vitriolic about most past and present Israeli policies than Eldar.  Gideon Levy, also of Haaretz, was interviewed at length condemning the Gaza campaign in typically vehement terms as "criminal, inhuman, maybe the most brutal and cruel war that Israel had launched ever against the Palestinian people" and enumerating a long list of war crimes he argues Israel committed in Gaza. Also interviewed condemning the war as counter-productive was former Mossad analyst turned peace activist Yossi Alpher. Missing was any input from the large majority of Israeli journalists and analysts who supported the war. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman was briefly interviewed but only to issue a denial of a specific allegation of an Israeli atrocity.

In fact such allegations were the focus of the majority of report, whose theme seemed to be that Israel's actions had "triggered outrage around the world", despite a brief introduction showing an Israeli home struck by a rocket. Moreover, it is not clear that the ostensible reporter credited with the story, Evan Williams, even went to Gaza. All the atrocity allegations were narrated by Gaza resident Raed al-Atamna, described as Dateline's Gaza producer. It was stated that Atamna "risked his life to get these images to Dateline" and that Williams' story was filed "with a lot of help, it should be said, from our local producer inside Gaza City."

In any case, the story was dominated by Atamna's alleged tale of the destruction of his homes.

Reporter Williams did attend a demonstration in the West Bank town of Ramallah, and made much of the fact that "Hamas supporters in the crowd were being arrested, beaten and dragged away by Fatah's US-trained security forces." But there was never any hint that Hamas had allegedly murdered and mutilated dozens of political opponents in Gaza in recent week, nor the obvious implication that Atamna was hardly in a position to report anything that would anger Hamas, such as Hamas' use of human shields.

"Dateline" did follow up their highly one-sided story by interviewing Israeli President Shimon Peres, but it was most interesting for the questions of the presenter, self-declared anti-Zionist George Negus. Many obviously staggered the highly-experienced Peres. Negus opened with the absurd and false claim that "in the last couple of months, 80%, 90% of [Gazan] homes are destroyed." When Peres insisted Israel was responding to Hamas rockets, Negus said there must be a reason for these rockets, and the reason was "economic apartheid."    

He went on to express indignant disbelief after Peres pointed out that Hamas uses women and children as effective human shields, saying, "Do you really believe that the people of Hamas are so evil, if you like, that they would use their women and children as human shields?"

The sad part is that, on the whole, ABC News did a reasonably professional job of covering the Gaza war, and SBS TV News, while less satisfactory, has still improved since the 2006 Hezbollah war. But current affairs programs at both public broadcasters appear to be failing completely to live up to the higher standards the news programs have set.

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