Media covering the Middle East should present balanced material showing both sides, but over the years, Channel 9’s “Sixty Minutes” has generally preferred to simply sensationalise the issues one-sidedly, employing sputtering outrage in a cheap ratings grab mixed with an ideological hatchet job. This sort of piece was formerly the speciality of the late Richard Carleton, but was resurrected with Liam Bartlett’s report on Sept. 20. There was, however, a link between the two. Howard Sacre, Carleton’s long-time producer, was behind this effort too.
In his introduction, Bartlett noted that the first overseas call Barack Obama made after becoming president was to the Middle East. Bartlett then asked himself, “Why the rush?” and answered, “Well, hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers are moving into the West Bank, building new towns on Palestinian land. And if there’s ever going to be peace in the Middle East… the settlers will have to move out. But… they’re obstinate and refuse to budge. And, as I discovered first hand, when they’re cornered, they fight back with tear gas and guns.”
It’s pretty impressive that he managed to squeeze so much disinformation into a few lines. The impression is that, as he speaks, there is a mass migration of settlers into the West Bank, and if the world doesn’t act soon, the entire West Bank will be gobbled up. Just to reinforce the point, a few sentences later he referred to “Jewish settlements springing up all over the West Bank.” The truth is that, apart from a few illegal outposts (including one that Bartlett covered without explaining it was illegal under Israeli law) Israel has not built a new settlement since 1997, and has had a policy since 2003 of only allowing natural growth within the boundaries of existing settlements. The comment that the settlers will have to move out is also misleading. In every seriously considered peace plan, the majority of the settlers, who live in areas abutting the Green Line, will stay, and the Palestinians receive other land in compensation. As for their “refusing to budge”, the evacuations from Sinai, Gaza and four West Bank settlements show that they can and will be “budged” if necessary.
Having shown a complete lack of understanding of the settlement issue and the peace process, Bartlett then has a crack at international law, declaring, “Their settlements are in breach of international law”. This is a highly contentious subject (as is his earlier claim that they are built on “Palestinian land”), as Bartlett seems to actually acknowledge in virtually his next sentence, when he tells a settler, “The UN says this is disputed territory.” There was no explanation – or perhaps even awareness – of the contradiction.
One incident on which Bartlett based much of his story was the shooting from close range, and light wounding, of three Palestinians by a settler. Bartlett, who tried to imply that this was typical of the West Bank, tracked down the settler to ask him “what brought about his frenzy with a gun,” stated he was a “man who shot three people and was proud of it” and urged his translator, “Just ask him why he shot three men at point-blank range, without provocation.” At the settler’s bail hearing, the magistrate stated that, far from acting without provocation, he was in fear of being lynched.
Bartlett also trotted out the usual journalists’ fodder of checkpoints, and roads “built for settlers only.” In fact, the roads are available for all Israeli citizens, Jewish or otherwise, and were built because of the shooting of so many Israelis driving on roads also used by Palestinians. Bartlett neglected to mention this salient fact or that the “hundreds” of checkpoints, necessitated by security imperatives, are being rapidly dismantled.
Instead, he preferred violence and outrage, showing Palestinian demonstrators hurling rocks, but when Israeli troops responded with tear gas, complaining, “Look out, tear gas! This is supposed to be a peaceful demonstration.”
He stated, “Israel is now under urgent pressure from the outside world, led by President Obama, to first freeze the building of settlements and then, somehow, to dismantle them.” It is generally agreed that under any acceptable two-state resolution most of the settlements will remain, but in relation to the rest, Israel has offered several times to dismantle them in return for peace, but has been repeatedly rebuffed by the Palestinians. Bartlett failed to give any context at all about how the settlements came to be built, or Israeli peace offers, or the Gaza withdrawal and subsequent rocket and mortar barrages. Moreover, while he spoke to well-known Palestinian spokesman Mustafa Barghouti, he interviewed no mainstream Israeli, only extreme settlers and a left wing activist from the B’Tselem NGO. Seemingly, sensationalism, mock outrage and ideology were allowed to undermine the modest levels of professionalism and accuracy one is entitled to expect from a serious current affairs program.