August 7, 2017
Former Middle East correspondent for The Australian John Lyons is right that objectivity doesn’t come easy when reporting from Israel (Media, 31/7).
His explanation for the claim, however, is not that information is harder to obtain in a conflict zone or that agendas are often opaque, but that Lyons says he found it hard to do his job because the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council called him out because it believed his reporting often lacked objectivity.
Of course journalists should report “what they see”, as Lyons says, but good journalists know they must also give meaning to what they see, provide context, and attempt to provide relevant perspectives in a balanced and fair way.
This leaves questions to answer: in our opinion, some of Lyons’ journalism features a propensity to rely on sources highly critical of Israel; tends to portray Israeli security measures without explaining their justification; and reports Palestinian allegations of mistreatment without giving Israel adequate opportunity to respond.
Promoting his new memoir, Balcony over Jerusalem, Lyons says AIJAC wields too much influence over journalists covering Israel.
As a mainstream Jewish community organisation working to facilitate positive Australia/Israel relations; to increase awareness of Israel’s security challenges; and to progress a two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace we engage politicians, the media and business to try to promote greater understanding of complex issues.
Lyons not only objects to this expression of free speech but his book denigrates as “polluting Australian public opinion” journalists who take part in fact-finding study visits to Israel and return with a different interpretation to his.
I’d encourage Lyons to take this up with respected journalists from diverse media organisations, including his own, who have participated in these visits and attest to their balance and educational value.
Far from obstructing objectivity, AIJAC’s aim is to build more informed understanding and fairness in an environment where journalists can readily cross the line into activism, a professional digression so serious that journalists often can’t admit it even to themselves.
Neither in his column nor his memoir does Lyons mention an encounter he had with Bob Carr in 2012, chronicled in Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister. Carr recalls arriving at a function in Jerusalem hosted by my brother, Isi Leibler, and being ambushed outside by Lyons and his wife. Carr describes the encounter as “an eerie pantomime” in which he felt Lyons wanted to present his attendance as “some conspiracy between the Australian government and the Israeli right-wing”. *
As it happened, Carr’s media adviser was able to present Lyons with the list of guests my brother had invited, including a range of people described by Carr as “moderate Israelis”.
In response to our legitimate articulation of an alternative viewpoint on the Middle East, Lyons has devoted a chapter of his memoir to falsely portraying AIJAC as an extreme, hardline mouthpiece for the Israeli Right.
Is this the same AIJAC that sponsors programs for prominent Israeli Labor leaders to visit Australia, as part of our efforts to expose people from both countries to counterparts from across the political and social spectrum?
Is this the same AIJAC that issued a media release in February this year openly criticising Israeli legislation that would retrospectively legalise settlement outposts on land owned by Palestinians?
In a healthy democracy, holding the media to account is arguably as important as holding politicians to account.
Lyons ended his comment piece by quoting hard-left Israeli journalist Akiva Eldar’s demonising of AIJAC and saying the Australian government as did “not (give) a shit” about his children. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Lyons also describes as a hero another Israeli journalist even more extreme than Eldar, Haaretz‘s Gideon Levy, an advocate of economic, artistic and academic boycotts against Israel. That’s like forming your view of Australia from Green Left Weekly.
It’s sad that Lyons’ response to the normal functioning of interest groups in a pluralist democracy is so vitriolic but it does demonstrate the value of AIJAC and others in advancing additional evidence and alternative views to his.
* Lyons says he was not present when Carr arrived at the function but his wife Sylvie Le Clezio was on hand to take photographs for The Australian
Mark Leibler is senior partner at Arnold Bloch Leibler and national chairman of the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council