The Walkley Award for Fiction
Dec 20, 2010 | Bren Carlill
Paul McGeough has won a Walkley – the most prestigious Australian journalism award – for his story “Prayers, tear gas and terror,” published in the Sydney Morning Herald and Age on June 4 this year. The article purports to describe the lead up to and actual take over of the Mavi Marmara by Israeli soldiers. The Mavi Marmara was the largest ship in the ‘Gaza Flotilla,’ whose interception by Israel on May 31 led to the death of nine Turkish activists and generated international headlines, some interesting articles, and a whole lot of fiction.
Unfortunately (and unfortunately typically), McGeough’s various articles about the flotilla – including the one honoured at the Walkleys – were skewed by bias and replete with factual errors. That is to say, Paul McGeough was awarded the “Best News Report” Walkley for a news report containing several untrue claims.
McGeough spent much of the article describing the lead up to the interception. He writes that Israel demanded the flotilla’s ships “change course away from the Gaza Strip or be confronted with lethal force.” While it’s true the IDF threatened to take over the Mavi Marmara if it insisted on breaking the blockade, the suggestion Israel threatened “lethal force” is fiction. But then, McGeough was never actually on the Mavi Marmara at any point during the incident, which means he never heard what the IDF actually said, but had to rely on hearsay.
Throughout the article, McGeough describes the incident as the “Israeli attack,” never an interception. An “attack” implies warfare, with planes and bombs and the like. It’s of interest that later in the article, where McGeough describes the pro-Palestinian activists beating the Israeli soldiers with “lengths of chain and metal posts” – McGeough chose to avoid mentioning the activists’ use of knives and guns – they weren’t “attacking” the soldiers, but merely “resisting”.
McGeough accused Israel of timing the “attack” for dawn prayers, later writing “sound bombs and tear gas were exploding on the main aft deck, where prayers were held five times a day.” Ignoring for a moment the insulting and false claim that Israel timed its interception in order to disrupt religious devotions, footage shot by on-board activists reveals that no one was praying when Israeli tear gas canisters were lobbed onto the Mavi Marmara. In a rare instance of straight reporting, McGeough at least acknowledged the tear gas was in response to activists throwing “whatever [the ship’s] passengers found on deck or could break away from the ship’s fittings” into Israeli boats below.
The Israeli boats were small craft, carrying about a dozen soldiers each. They were attempting to board the Mavi Marmara, in complete accordance with international maritime law – a small fact McGeough didn’t bother including anywhere in his 1,400 word article. These boats were described by McGeough with ominous language – they were a “tightening noose” and “sneaking in,” their hulls “bullet-shaped.” The Israelis “hunted like hyenas.” Later, he writes that Israelis didn’t merely descend from a helicopter; they “slithered.”
McGeough’s elasticity with the truth continues when he describes the boarding of the ship by soldiers rapelling from a helicopter. “Some of the people caught the first commando before he touched the deck,” McGeough writes, correctly, “a few started to hit him, but a lot of people moved in to shelter him with their bodies.” Of all the available footage, including that of an activist stabbing an Israeli soldier, there is none of activists sheltering soldiers.
But the doozy comes in the next paragraph. “A leader of the Swedish Palestinian support group,” writes McGeough, “confirmed the soldiers had been beaten, but insisted those involved were unarmed and in keeping with the ship’s non-violent charter, the soldiers’ weapons were thrown overboard.” Does McGeough not grasp the irony of describing both the activists’ beating of the soldiers and their “non-violent” character in the same sentence? Indeed, this irony was beautifully highlighted by Age cartoonist John Spooner two days before McGeough’s article. Spooner depicted an assailant with raised pole telling an Israeli soldier, “We demand our right to peacefully beat the crap out of you until you make us martyrs.”
It’s of interest that McGeough chose not to mention the Israeli soldier who was shot by an activist, or that ammunition was found on board of a different calibre to that used by the IDF. This means it likely was true that guns were tossed overboard, but at least one of them had been fired at an Israeli soldier. And at least one other had been on the ship before any Israeli soldier arrived.
The Spooner cartoon reveals another shortfall of the McGeough story. Already by June 2 reports were coming out of flotilla participants boasting on camera about their desire to become martyrs in their confrontation with Israeli soldiers. It was later shown that most of the nine people subsequently killed had recorded such a death wish. But nowhere in the McGeough piece – published June 4 – is this mentioned. And since McGeough had provided background on other aspects of the flotilla, including the makeup of its volunteers and its sources of funding (though not the links to Hamas the flotilla’s main organisers maintained), the excuse cannot be used that he was only reporting on what happened during the incident, not before.
Other allegations made by McGeough were that an Indonesian cameraman “was said” to have been killed and that a Malaysian doctor was definitely killed. Not only were these rumours proven false, they were known to be false by the time McGeough’s article was published on June 4. Someone made a mistake. The question is, why did the Walkleys award such incompetence?
It’s not the first time McGeough has reported unsubstantiated rumours as fact. In 2004, he alleged in the Sydney Morning Herald that Iyad Allawi had shot dead six Iraqis in a Baghdad police station – in front of four Americans – just days before he was handed interim control of Iraq. McGeough’s evidence centred on two unnamed witnesses, who he claimed had told him the whole thing. The story, which one would think would be of global, front-page importance, was not deemed reliable enough to be covered by any other major media outlet.
The sad fact is, McGeough has appeared little short of an activist for the Palestinian cause for some time. Evidence includes his glowing tribute to Hamas leader Khaled Meshal (in McGeough’s book Kill Khaled), his amateur Palestinian activist girlfriend, the free advertisement he gave the flotilla’s organisers in a Fairfax website video and, of course, the six-page, soft-focus spread about the flotilla’s organisers he wrote for Fairfax’s Good Weekend (Nov. 6) lift-out, in which he never once mentioned the words “Hamas,” “rockets” or “terrorism.”
The video was a multimedia presentation that appeared on The Age and SMH websites on May 24, a week before the flotilla was intercepted. In it, McGeough speaks about the aims of the Free Gaza Movement, the organisation behind the flotilla, while photos of the flotilla’s preparation are shown. Renee Jaouadi, an organiser of the Free Gaza Movement, speaks after him. She discusses the aims of the movement, and is at times rather casual with the truth. The presentation ends with the Free Gaza Movement website address and an invitation to “Track the Freedom Flotilla.” There was no contrary opinion given by anyone. It amounted to an unpaid advertisement for the flotilla and its organisers.
And while all people – including journalists – are free to have personal views on any issue, journalists should not allow these views to affect the way they report the news. Article one of the Code of Ethics of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance (the same organisation ultimately responsible for handing out Walkleys) instructs journalists to, “Report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. Do not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis. Do your utmost to give a fair opportunity for reply.”
In the citation of his award, McGeough was congratulated for “courageous journalism,” and that “he put himself in harm’s way,” which is remarkable since the boat McGeough was on attempted to flee the area from the moment Israeli helicopters hovered over the Mavi Marmara. Courageous indeed!
Increasing the general sense of irony, the Walkley description of the article included, “Paul McGeough and his Sydney Morning Herald colleague, photographer Kate Geraghty, were the only English language reporters to secure places aboard the Gaza Aid Flotilla.” This is incorrect, as al-Jazeera English had a correspondent on board the Mavi Marmara.
Last year was an astounding one for news media. Think of Kevin Rudd’s fall from grace, the federal election, the economic meltdowns in Greece and Ireland, the WikiLeaks saga, and what a flop the final episode of “Lost” was. Surely there were news articles about issues of more importance – news articles with objective, not objectionable, content – news articles with fewer mistakes! The Walkleys are supposed to award fact, not fiction.