Editorial: Sense and Sensationalism
Feb 25, 2014 | Colin Rubenstein
Last year, the Australian’s Middle East correspondent John Lyons interviewed Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Yigal Palmor on camera over the treatment of Palestinian minors arrested by the Israel Defence Forces for violent crime.
Asked about a critical report on the subject by UNICEF in March 2013, Palmor answered: “I have to say one thing that may come as a surprise to you. UNICEF did not write this report by themselves. They were assisted all along by Israeli lawyers, from the Military Attorney General, from the Ministry of Justice, from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, by Israeli civil servants who deal with this issue day by day and who want the situation to improve with the help of UNICEF.”
However, when Lyons and his ABC “Four Corners” producers assembled a documentary on the subject, aired on Feb. 10, 2014, Palmor’s de facto admission that Israel’s Military Law until recently had not provided sufficient protections for Palestinian minors, together with his statement of fact that this was now being improved in collaboration with UNICEF, was left on the cutting room floor.
Instead, a screenplay was written promoting a sensationalist counter-narrative – one lacking any substantive evidence – that Israel had a “new policy” of “targeting Palestinian children” with the objective of using them to “collect intelligence” in Palestinian villages.
This script not only ignored Palmor’s comments, but also UNICEF’s own “Progress Report” last October which confirmed Palmor’s claim. While noting more could be done, the agency said Israel was cooperating closely with it and had implemented a number of its key recommendations. Apparently this did not fit the narrative. So rather than inform viewers of the contents of this report, the script instead suggested they not take seriously any Israeli claims about efforts to improve the situation, with Lyons saying, “While Israel appears to be making concessions, others argue this disguises a harsher reality.”
Lyons’ allegations relied almost entirely on the unproven allegations by Palestinian youth who had been arrested for violent anti-Israel activity and had no incentive to say anything nice about Israel. In a violation of basic rules of journalistic fairness, Israeli spokespersons were given no on-air opportunity to respond to the specifics of any of these allegations. Yet Israel’s chief military prosecutor for the West Bank, Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Hirsch, who was interviewed for the program, has repeatedly denied the specifics of these allegations in other media outlets interested in serious investigations.
Moreover, the claims were not treated merely as allegations, but as proven fact, both by “Four Corners” and in the considerable promotion of the program broadcast across the ABC network (see p. 39).
Coincidentally, these sensationalist and far-reaching accusations came in the wake of widespread criticism of the ABC over its recent handling of reports of allegations of abuse of asylum seekers by Australian Navy personnel. Just four days before “Four Corners” went to air, ABC Managing Director Mark Scott, and Director of News Kate Torney felt compelled to issue a statement expressing “regret if our reporting led anyone to mistakenly assume that the ABC supported the asylum seekers’ claims”.
Will the ABC ever come to regret that “Four Corners”‘ reporting led anyone to assume that the ABC supported Palestinian minors’ claims of wanton abuse at the hands of Israeli soldiers, and the claims of activists that Israel has a “new policy” of “targeting Palestinian children”?
This said, the Palestinian allegations against Israel should not be ignored, but thoroughly investigated and, if determined valid, lead to the prosecution of those responsible under Israeli law.
As Israel has acknowledged, the IDF may well not be getting its treatment of Palestinian minors right in some respects and this is certainly a valid subject for fair and professional journalistic probing. But this program fell well short on both counts – it distorted, sensationalised, scored one-sided political points and took repeated liberties with facts (see pp. 19-22 for more on this).
Tellingly, other unaired segments of Palmor’s interview with Lyons (available on the ABC’s website) explained the actual reality well. Israel harbours no hatred for Palestinians, but reserves the right to protect itself and its citizens from those who would seek to harm it; Israel isn’t perfect, and it isn’t always right, but it has no desire to make any life harder on peaceful Palestinians than absolutely necessary to maintain its security; Palestinians who break the law, even violently, must also be treated humanely – especially minors – and laws should reflect that. But Israel’s real desire is to make military administration a thing of the past through a lasting two-state peace agreement.
Instead of airing Palmor’s explanations, “Four Corners” chose to feature extremist settler Daniella Weiss saying that God promised the land to Jews alone – implying to the audience that her views represent the real roots of Israel’s West Bank policy.
Sensationalist claims by Palestinian activists, Israeli extremists and their foreign counterparts may make for “good television”, if by good television one means one-sided, emotionally manipulative, morality plays. However, they have little to do with the reality on the ground, where Israel seeks, in difficult and fraught circumstances, peace with those who want to make peace with it, and fights back against those who want to harm it.
The Australian newspaper also published material which suffered from several of the flaws evident in the Four Corners coverage. However, that newspaper, a private organisation, subsequently has provided a platform for dissection and discussion of, and debate on, the contentious aspects of John Lyons’ reporting, unlike the ABC.
Moreover, this program has raised as many questions about the ABC as it does about Israel’s West Bank policies, in particular that our national public broadcaster lacks adequate oversight over how it fulfils its Charter responsibilities. Editorial oversight of adherence to its Editorial Policies and Code of Practice often seems all but non-existent, and the complaint procedures inadequately independent, ponderously slow and heavily weighted toward protecting the interests of ABC staff. It is time for the Australian Parliament to devise ways of reversing the realities which have long since converted “our ABC” into the “ABC staff’s ABC.”