“Stone Cold Sensationalism” from ABC’s Four Corners

Feb 14, 2014 | Colin Rubenstein

Stone Cold Sensationalism from ABC's Four Corners

Colin Rubenstein

A shorter version of this article was submitted to the Australian and published there today (Feb. 14, 2014).


Two weeks ago, the ABC was grudgingly forced to express “regret” and to review its editorial standards in the wake of massive media and political criticism of their handling of a story about asylum seekers. In that case, the ABC took uncorroborated claims from asylum seekers and massively promoted and exaggerated them as “proof” that abuse of asylum seekers was occurring, in what was clearly a biased and unprofessional effort to score political points against the government’s refugee policy.

The ABC has done it again – this time in the massively promoted “Four Corners” program on Monday about Israeli treatment of children – created together with the Australian’s Middle East correspondent John Lyons. Most of the allegations in the program about abuses of Palestinian minors during arrest and interrogation were just that – uncorroborated allegations, with no supporting evidence provided by the ABC or the Australian. While the story claimed that UNICEF “found” the allegations to be true, this is wrong – the UN agency merely “found” that these concerning allegations exist but did not investigate further.

Of course, if these stories are true, they involve clear breaches of Israeli law and those responsible deserve punishment. But it is important to remember that in the heat of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, horror stories of the sort alleged here – electric shocks, being strapped to a giant cross, dogs licking genitals, threats of rape – often turn out to be untrue or grossly exaggerated, and need to be corroborated. Moreover, Palestinians involved in anti-Israel activity have a strong incentive to paint Israeli behaviour as negatively as they can.

But what was most indefensible about the story was the distorted, politicised, sensationalised and unprofessional way the events, policies and background surrounding these allegations were treated in the report – starting with the repeated allegation in ABC headlines, and Lyons’ newspaper reports, that the story provided evidence that Israel was “targeting” Palestinian children. No evidence of this was actually provided apart from an unsourced claim by a radical Israeli advocate on the issue, lawyer Gaby Lasky.

In fact, even data on the website of Gerard Horton – a critic featured in the story – show that Israel’s arrest rate against juvenile Palestinians has been steady or declining and is comparatively low. Israel reportedly arrests 700 juvenile Palestinians annually from a population of 2.5 million. Victoria, with a population of 5.4 million, saw 29,198 juveniles arrested over 2012-2013 for violent crimes – a rate roughly 19 times higher per capita.

Meanwhile, in Britain almost 160 children are convicted of crime every day – including ten-year-olds. In the USA, thousands of juveniles have been sentenced as adults and sent to adult prisons and nearly 3,000 have been sentenced to life imprisonment. Trying 10 years old, trying and sentencing minors as adults, and life imprisonment for juveniles are all impossible under Israel’s West Bank system of justice.

And contrary to the ABC claim that Israel has a “new policy of targeting Palestinian children,” Israel has actually been taking many tangible steps in recent years to improve conditions for Palestinian youth arrested for violent offences, something the 4Corners story tellingly avoided mentioning. It repeatedly referred to a critical March 2013 report from UNICEF, but except for a cryptic comment by Kerry O’Brien at the end, failed to mention an October 2013 progress report from UNICEF. This noted that, whilst more could be done, Israel was cooperating closely with it and had implemented a number of its key recommendations.

And then there was the story’s comprehensive effort to sensationalise and distort the realities of the situation.

The program emotively concentrates only on young “children” accused of “stone throwing”, and mentions a UNICEF report claiming “700” Palestinian “children” arrested on average each year, giving the impression that these cases are typical. Actually, Israel does not imprison or try children under 12, and the vast majority of juveniles arrested are 16 or 17.

Even Horton’s data shows that for all of 2013, Israel detained no more than 12 Palestinians under 14 and for the last four months of the year, none.

Meanwhile, many of the juveniles arrested are involved in serious terrorist crimes, including shootings, bomb plots and murder, and are celebrated in Palestinian society for this. Just a week ago, the Governor of Ramallah Laila Ghannam held a ceremony in which she called 17-year-old suicide bomber Ayyat Al-Akhras and other terrorists “brave heroes.” Ayyat Al-Akhras detonated a suicide vest at a supermarket, murdering two. In 2011, Hakim Awad, 17 , along with an 18-year-old accomplice, entered a home and killed an entire family, including a three-month-old baby, and children aged 4 and 11.

Further, even stone-throwing at cars is actually a serious offence. In NSW it carries a penalty of up to 5 years in prison and similar penalties apply in some other states. Palestinian stone-throwing has killed at least 12 Israelis over recent decades, and injured dozens if not hundreds more. Just last month, a major West Bank highway, used by Israelis and Palestinians alike, had to be closed because of the danger to drivers created by repeated attacks by stone-throwing gangs.

A core complaint made over and over in the story was that Israeli minors and Palestinian minors are not treated the same. As was never explained on the program, this is because of Israeli compliance with the international law of occupation, not discrimination. That law requires Israel to continue to apply to West Bank residents the law that was in place when they took control of the area in 1967 – which is obviously different from Israeli law. To apply Israeli law to the West Bank would be legally tantamount to annexing the area.

Meanwhile, the story obscured the fact that Israel has to confront a wicked problem of trying to respect human rights, while protecting the lives of its citizens amid the widespread organisation of terrorist networks amongst a civilian population full of Palestinian minors constantly bombarded with messages inciting them to use violence. This has been widely reported in many major media outlets – Palestinian children are exposed to messages in the media and at school lionising terrorists, and urging violent “resistance” against Israel. But somehow, this reality did not make it into the 4Corners story, or feature in Lyons’ other reports this week, even in passing.

This reality of an ongoing low-level terror war amidst massive incitement makes it absurd to demand that Israel’s approach in this situation be exactly the same as how the police in Melbourne or Sydney approach teenagers involved in petty crime, as the main participants in this report do.

Thus the late night arrests of some juveniles – the story made it appear it was all of them, when it is just over half – are not designed to intimidate Palestinians. It is done to save lives. We saw in two raids in mid-December what happens when Israeli soldiers enter a Palestinian town to make an arrest in broad daylight. They were attacked by local gangs and terror groups members, resulting in clashes in which people ended up dead – two people in that case, with at least 8 injured.

The same goes for Israeli attempts to gain intelligence from those arrested – presented in the program as proof of a sinister conspiracy. The West Bank is full of terror gangs seeking to recruit teens. In such a situation, surely law enforcement authorities anywhere, after arresting a minor involved in violence, would want to question them about who recruited them and what else the group might be planning.

Finally, in keeping with this program’ s sensationalism, it contained quotes totally irrelevant to Israeli treatment of Palestinian juveniles from an extremist Israeli settler, Daniella Weiss – included apparently to paint Israeli policies as driven by the sort of religious extremism she espouses and to make a broader political point the producers wanted to convey about the alleged evils of Israeli occupation.

Lyons stated that “2.5 million Palestinians live under Israeli occupation,” yet failed to note that some 2.4 million of them live under Palestinian Authority rule and are subject to the PA’s jurisdiction in health, education, economics and other important domestic governance.

Similarly it was never mentioned that there have been three offers of statehood made by Israeli governments to the Palestinian leadership which would see a Palestinian state established on close to the equivalent of 100 per cent of the West Bank with a capital in East Jerusalem.

Israel is still waiting for a Palestinian leader to emerge who will sign on the dotted line, and in return promise to renounce violence and end all claims – and thus end the tragedy of sending children out as cannon fodder, as well as the difficult security dilemmas for Israel that it has to face.

In the meantime, Israel may not be getting that response right in some respects, but is improving its treatment of arrested minors, as UNICEF attests – but this program distorted, sensationalised and scored one-sided political points, rather than examine the issue fairly.

And as a result, our ABC, which claims to be “Australia’s most trusted, independent source of news,” should rightfully take yet another well-deserved hit to that reputation as a result of this major failure of journalistic professionalism, accuracy, balance and fairness.



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