Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Media Microscope: Retreats, Retractions and Repeats

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Jamie Hyams

We often complain about how our media gets things wrong on the Middle East, but there are times when mistakes or unfair comments are rectified by the outlet responsible. One notable example occurred in editorials in the Sydney Morning Herald on Sept. 22 and 23. In the first, a generally reasonable piece about the tough tests facing new Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, there was the reservation that Kadima “remains wedded to the problematic idea that the Jewish majority must always dominate Israel.”

To those of us who believe Israel has the right to exist as a Jewish state, this was a troubling statement. It appears that the editors at the Herald realised this, too. The following day, they again editorialised on Israel. However, having made the point that democracy in Israel can be messy, the editorial continued, “But the point is that Israel is the Middle East’s only major democracy, and it abides by the rule of law. In our editorial yesterday, the Herald did not intend to imply that Israel’s Jewish majority is in any way ‘problematic’ in itself. Indeed, it is the raison d’être for the foundation and existence of the state itself. Israel’s legitimacy as a Jewish state is beyond question. It is those who refuse to recognise Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, who are problematic by dealing themselves out of a constructive peace process.”

Even more spectacular was the self-explanatory apology printed in the Canberra Times on Sept. 13, which read, “An opinion article published in the Canberra Times by Irfan Yusuf on August 18, ‘Justice the remedy required to help Bosnia heal’, cited the US analyst Daniel Pipes as predicting that Europe’s next Holocaust victims would be Muslim migrants and it alleged that Mr. [sic] Pipes suggested Muslims thoroughly deserved such slaughter. The Canberra Times and Irfan Yusuf accept that Mr. (sic) Pipes never predicted nor has he ever endorsed a Holocaust of European Muslims, and they unreservedly apologise to him for the errors.” Dr. Pipes seems to attract much vitriol for his forthright comments on the need to fight terror, and to correctly identify the enemy as the ideology of Islamism that inspires it (but never Islam as a religion, mainstream adherents of which he sees as essential to solving the problem) but this had been one of the worst examples. It will be interesting to see whether this incident affects the willingness of newspapers to publish Yusuf. His presence on the Sept. 22 Age opinion page, discussing what he sees as misinformed fears about Muslims generally in relation to terrorism, suggests not. Yusuf himself still seems to harbour some resentment towards Dr. Pipes. In the Age piece he complained that “Influential Australian thinktanks often invite speakers who cast negative aspersions on some 1.3 billion Muslims that they would never cast on any other faith or cultural group.” It is ironic that the nuance he reasonably calls for in analysing the connection between Islam and terror is so completely absent whenever he mentions Dr. Pipes, both here and elsewhere.

Of course, most of the time when journalists get stuck on what they mistakenly believe to be the correct interpretation, there is no budging them. SBS “Dateline” maintains an unflinching tradition of only reporting bad news from Iraq, despite all improvements there. On Aug. 27, host George Negus explained, “After the much-vaunted surge of US troops, ‘Dateline’’s Iraqi colleague Fouad Hady travelled from Melbourne to Baghdad, his city of birth, to get us an idea of what daily life is like there these days.” As in past stories on Iraq by Hady, he managed to interview only extremely unhappy people. One man told him, “Our life is very miserable, the government makes promises but nothing happens, car bombs everywhere and innocent people getting killed.” Another complained, “What can I say about the Americans? They are just killing people… we are an occupied country. If the Americans leave we will have stability.” Hady concluded, “Some say things are getting better in Baghdad. But after two weeks in Karrada I’m not so sure. In my short visit I have seen many broken lives, so many children without fathers.”

The following week, “Dateline” (Sept. 2) posted an unsigned, never broadcast story on its website describing the handover to Iraqi security control of the once extremely violent Anbar province. Over 750 words, they somehow managed to avoid any mention of the US troop “surge” which all informed observers believe is at least part of the explanation for the positive developments in Anbar. Instead, “Dateline” attributed the improving situation in Anbar solely to the fact that “local Sunni Arab tribes – weary of al-Qaeda’s extreme brutality – revolted against the jihadists in September 2006.”

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