Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Media Microscope: Spinning Around

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Jamie Hyams

It is not surprising that activists on the Middle East will attempt to put a misleading spin on aspects of the conflict in order to try to establish their narrative as the accepted factual basis for understanding of the issues. It is more surprising how, at times, some journalists seem to be eager to assist them in these cynical endeavours. A classic recent example is the sailing of two ships from Cyprus to Gaza, which was intended to highlight the supposed cruelty and injustice of the Israeli blockade, while providing humanitarian aid to “desperate” Palestinians.

Of course, this was nothing more than a giant stunt (see page 40), but Andra Jackson from the Age leapt right on board. In an Aug. 25 article, she described the ships as “peace ships”, carrying “human rights activists”. She wrote that Israel has “virtually sealed off” Gaza, after “Hamas put down a Fatah coup attempt.” But most observers outside Hamas regard it as having in fact been a Hamas coup. She did not, however, see fit to give any explanation of why Gaza is isolated – because Hamas refuses to renounce violence, recognise Israel’s right to exist and accept previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements, as the Quartet has demanded, and is constantly launching and encouraging violent attacks against Israel. Nor did she mention previous Israeli statements that the goods on the ships could have been transferred to Gaza through any of the recognised charities that have regular access.

Jackson quoted Australians for Palestine advocate Michael Shaik, to whom she gave sole credit for having “organised” the ships (which as far as AIJAC has been able to ascertain is not accurate – most publicity mentions US and British activists as the main organisers), saying, “Israel’s siege of the Gaza Strip is one of the great crimes of the 21st century.”

The apparently inaccurate claim that the stunt was “organised by” Australian Michael Shaik could be seen as an attempt to garner Australian sympathy for it. Interestingly, the Sydney Morning Herald coverage that day came from Ashraf Khalil of the Los Angeles Times. But where Khalil, in his original article, quoted Huwaida Arraf on behalf of the ship organisers, and didn’t mention Shaik at all, the Herald version of his article said the ships were “headed by a Melbourne man, Michael Shaik” and included a quote from Shaik also used by Jackson.

According to Lee Lin Chin on SBS TV News (Aug. 24), the ships were crewed by “humanitarian activists… looking to highlight the dire effects of the blockade.”

However, when it comes to spin on the Middle East, it’s hard to go past ANU Professor Amin Saikal, one of whose consistent themes is to try to portray the Iranian regime in as favourable and unthreatening a light as possible. In the July 29 Age, he wrote about the Geneva meeting between Iran and the permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. The Iranians were meant to bring their answer to a previous offer of a halt to sanctions in exchange for a halt in uranium enrichment. When it became clear that the Iranians had no answer, the six nations, led by European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana, gave them a further two weeks to decide. In Saikal’s interpretation, however, this course of events became a “US demand that Tehran should either halt uranium enrichment within two weeks or face tougher actions” which with “President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s rejection of it” destroyed previous optimism about a deal.

Unfortunately, Prof. Saikal seems to be the preferred expert SBS News goes to when they need commentary on Iran. On Aug. 3, he told them, “Iran has proved not to respond to ultimatums and I think that they will do everything possible not to give the impression that they have really given in to this American ultimatum. But that does not necessarily mean that at some point later on they will not be prepared to engage in some sort of serious negotiation.” So again, its not Iranian intransigence that’s the problem, it’s US ultimatums. The fact that the ultimatums are prompted by the intransigence didn’t seem to impress him.

Similarly, on Aug.18, when the international community was concerned by the military consequences of Iran’s claimed satellite launch, Saikal reassured SBS viewers, “I think the Iranians basically at this stage would like to really show that they do have the technology, and if they want to convert this technology into strengthening their military position, they will be able to do so. I doubt very seriously that at this stage, they are really thinking of using these sorts of satellites for any offensive purposes.” Perhaps not, but satellite launchers are easily adapted as ballistic missiles, and are appropriate for carrying nuclear payloads.

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