Media Microscope: The Fading X-Factor

Allon Lee

And so the Prisoner X story came full circle, with ABC “Foreign Correspondent” reporter Trevor Bormann on May 7 following up on his February 12 expose that Melbourne-born Ben Zygier was Israel’s mysterious “Prisoner X”.

After the original broadcast, it appeared that Bormann’s scoop had been largely superannuated when former Fairfax Middle East correspondent Jason Koutsoukis stepped forward to share his interactions with Zygier in the months leading up to his arrest.

Then, Koutsoukis and his life partner, Der Spiegel reporter Ulrike Putz, along with Israeli analyst Ronen Bergman, further overshadowed Bormann’s scoop with their international features for Der Spiegel and Fairfax on March 25. These arguably explained Zygier’s alleged misdeeds – involving the exposure of Israeli agents in Lebanon as part of a rogue effort to recruit a Hezbollah operative.

Certainly the underpinnings of the May 7 episode relied primarily on the information that was revealed by Koutsoukis, Putz and Bergman.

Bormann followed up these allegations via an interview with Ziad al Homsi, one of the two Lebanese agents that Zygier reportedly compromised – thus allegedly ruining Mossad efforts to retrieve the bodies of three Israeli soldiers, Zachary Baumel, Yehuda Katz and Zvi Feldman, captured in Lebanon in 1982 and missing since then.

Potential avenues of inquiry ignored by the program included asking al-Homsi what happened to the remains of the Israeli soldiers after his arrest by Lebanese authorities.
Two days later, University of Adelaide Associate Professor Felix Patrikeeff flagged some more of the many unanswered questions the report raised.

“The ABC programme…raised more questions than it answered. No mention was made of two Lebanese contacts. Instead a Lebanese man, Ziad al Homsi, was interviewed. After he had been unwittingly exposed by Zygier, he had been sentenced to 15 years imprisonment, but released after just three. Why? Was it because he wasn’t quite as valuable as was originally suggested? Was it because he was, as suggested by the programme, in fact a double-agent… If it was the former, a punitive action against Zygier makes less sense. And if it was the latter, why was he imprisoned at all, and why was he willing to be interviewed by the ABC? And where is Mustafa Ali Awadeh, the other significant mole who, it is alleged, with al Homsi, worked with Hezbollah?” Conversation, (May 9).

And why did Bormann not interview Ronen Bergman, whose work for the Der Spiegel article was praised by Bormann in his interview with Elizabeth Jackson on May 12 (Radio National “Correspondents Report”)? Instead Bormann questioned the professionalism of Israeli journalists, telling Jackson: “Israeli journalists are in a very difficult situation. I mean, they are citizens in country surrounded by neighbours they’re in a state of war with. Now Israeli journalists – they’re very tenacious, they’re very rigorous in what they do, they’re very hard-nosed people in many ways – but they all serve in the army as citizens. Many of them serve in the intelligence services. So sometimes, I think they find it hard to separate their role as journalists with their responsibilities and their obligations to ensuring that state secrecy is maintained.”

Following the screening, Bormann did the rounds on ABC TV and radio, and it is a pity that some of the pressing questions that had been raised by Patrikeeff were not raised.
The closest that anyone came to alluding to some of these riddles was Middle East correspondent Matt Brown’s interview with Miriam Baumel, the mother of missing Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel.

Brown reported that “Miriam Baumel believes the whole Bekaa Valley operation was a waste of time because of earlier reports that her son was seen alive in Damascus after he went missing”, ABC Radio “AM” (May 8).

When interviewed by Jeremy Fernandez, Bormann was asked “what more is there to come on this story? It seems a lot of questions are yet to be answered.”

Bormann admitted to Fernandez that there were lots of “holes” in the story, and mentioned finding out what evidence was presented to the Israeli court in the early stages of Zygier’s incarceration and a suggestion that Zygier had in his possession a USB drive “full of other information” when arrested, ABC TV “News24” (May 7).

Yet it is fair to say that the intense media speculation stirred up by the Prisoner X issue had largely exhausted itself by the time Bormann’s latest report screened.

There was no hand wringing, no thunderous accusations of a cover-up, the dual loyalty bogeyman levelled at Australian Jews was missing and no claim was made that Australia was hurting its own interests by protecting Israel’s failures. On the other hand there were certainly no mea culpas.