When a journalist becomes a storyteller

When a journalist becomes a storyteller

“Al tagid li sipurim” (Don’t tell me stories), modern Hebrew saying
When I was a boy, there were two mischievous brothers who attended my shule. One yomtif, they hid the shule’s candlesticks. I was shocked when the gabbai angrily accused me of the misdeed. I asked him why he seemed so certain I had done it. He said he had questioned each of the other boys separately and they had both blamed me. “They had the same story!” he exclaimed, never once considering that both children might have been lying.
I was reminded of this while watching the Australian‘s Middle East correspondent John Lyons’ latest beat-up on Israel, this time on the ABC‘s Four Corners.

Of course, the commonalities between Lyons’ Palestinians and the youths from my memory only go so far. The children in my story had no real motive to blame me specifically. In contrast, the Palestinian youths on Four Corners had no incentive to be completely honest about how the IDF treated them if that treatment was humane.
In fact, quite the opposite: For those children – as part of a society which constantly looks for ways to build international support for an imposed solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Palestinian terms – there was much to gain, and nothing to be lost, by exaggerating, embellishing or even fabricating accusations of mistreatment by the Israeli army.
Am I suggesting that the allegations of mistreatment are all lies? Not at all. In areas where the IDF operates, the onus is on them to investigate every claim of abuse and, if true, prosecute offending soldiers to the fullest extent of the law.
On the other hand, it is Lyons’ responsibility to remind viewers that his Palestinian interviewees are no mere bystanders, but may have an agenda which could be more important to them than telling the unadulterated truth.
This is a particularly salient point regarding some of the most heinous accusations Lyons aired. Claims that a youth was mounted on a “cross” and beaten, or subject to electric shocks, or intentionally traumatised by dogs feeding off their head and crotch, are monstrously serious charges. 
To simply place a camera in front of a Palestinian or their advocates and have them make these accusations without any attempt to investigate or evaluate the provability of the claims is not only antithetical to the principles of journalism, it is bias defined.
Following the program, more than one tweet could be found saying Lyons’ documentary “raises some questions”. I couldn’t agree more, but those questions don’t just rest with the IDF alone but also with Lyons, the Australian and the ABC.
Where to begin?

  • Lyons, who has filed numerous stories since 2011 about IDF treatment of Palestinian children, failed to write about an October 2013 UNICEF progress report that cast Israel’s efforts to improve in a positive light. He also refused to discuss this progress report in his documentary’s script, preferring to invent a fraudulent counter-narrative that Israel had a “new policy” of “targeting Palestinian children”. Why?
  • Lyons placed focus on the original March 2013 UNICEF report that, he said, “found that Palestinian children had been threatened under interrogation by Israeli security forces with death, physical violence, solitary confinement and sexual assault … while demanding confessions for alleged offences, most commonly stone throwing.” He failed to mention that these specific UNICEF “findings” were based solely on Palestinian allegations without any corroborating evidence whatsoever. Why? 
  • Lyons dramatised night-time arrests, but failed to mention that almost half of juvenile arrests occur during daylight hours – something that would have added more credibility to Israeli spokesman Yigal Palmor’s insistence that there is no Israeli policy of trying to instil fear in Palestinians. Why?
  • Further, he had access to compelling on-location video and news reports about attempted daylight arrests that led to ambushes of Israeli soldiers and deaths on both sides. Instead of availing himself of such sources – which would have made for better television – he used the wooden testimony of an IDF military court officer to make Israel’s case. Why?
  • Lyons failed to acknowledge the existence of the Palestinian Authority throughout the entire segment. For the purposes of this documentary, it didn’t exist. As a result, viewers were led to believe that all Palestinian children live under the thumb of “abusive” Israeli soldiers. In reality, as Lyons knows better than anyone, 95 percent of Palestinians live under self-rule in the Palestinian-patrolled Area A, meaning that the vast majority of Palestinian children rarely even set their eyes on an Israeli soldier in the course of their everyday lives unless they happen to roam between towns in the West Bank or actively seek them out at distant military encampments or on frontier patrols. Lyons crafted a visual and scripted narrative which distorted and exaggerated the state of the IDF’s deployment in the West Bank and the level of direct IDF involvement or potential for interference in the lives of the vast majority of Palestinian children. Why?
  • Lyons casts an Israeli villain in the form of Daniella Weiss, an ideologue of the erstwhile settler movement Gush Emunim. He selects her to represent settler views on the West Bank even though he knows she is far more extreme than the vast majority of settlers. Why?
  • Conversely, Lyons avoids speaking to any Palestinians that incite or advocate violence against Israel or call for the elimination of Israel even though there is no shortage of those. Why?
  • Lyons repeatedly drives home the point that Palestinians are subject to military-administered law while Israeli settlers are subject to Israeli law, while depriving viewers of the fact that extending Israeli law to the Palestinians would mean annexation. Why?
  • Lyons’ documentary was riddled with inaccuracies, and always to the detriment of Israel.
    • In one instance, according to a Palestinian source, Lyons understated the age of one of the Palestinian children in his story by two years (he said the boy was nine when the boy was actually eleven) and interviewed Israeli activist and lawyer Gaby Lasky claiming that the boy had been “arrested” when he had only been briefly questioned. In a second instance, Lyons told the story of a five-year-old Palestinian boy who had been briefly detained for rock-throwing, without mentioning that the Palestinian account of the incident is disputed by Israeli sources. In a third instance, he referred to a Jerusalem Post story that Israel had kept Palestinian children at detention facilities in outdoor cages during snowstorms – a claim that has long been shown to be inaccurate. [For a detailed analysis of these factual errors, see this blog post from AIJAC’s Tzvi Fleischer].
    • In the script, Lyons calls Bassem Tamimi a “leader of the non-violent movement in the town [of Nabi Saleh]”. However, Tamimi orchestrates massive rock-throwing protests on a weekly basis, and has been tried,  convicted and served time in jail for “soliciting” activists to throw stones at these protests.
 Yet elsewhere in the story, Lyons clearly establishes that rock-throwing is a violent act. Why does Lyons present an icon of the rock-throwing movement as a non-violent leader? Lyons also fails to mention to his viewers that Tamimi calls for Israel to be replaced entirely by a Palestinian state.

The Four Corners story was not properly fact-checked despite not being time-sensitive. Why?

  • Lyons resorted to manipulative theatrics throughout the documentary.
    • For example, in Hebron, he juxtaposed video clips of soldiers firing tear gas with those of groups of idle Palestinian children in order to create the impression that the soldiers had lobbed tear gas into their midst. In reality, the cannisters visibly fell nowhere near them. Then, he attempted to question Israeli officers nearby that he knew are never allowed to talk to reporters, creating a false impression that he had caught them in wrongdoing. Why the chicanery?
    • In another instance of blatant theatrics, Lyons accompanied a group of schoolchildren past a settlement outpost (which, incidentally, looked far too highly developed to be an actual outpost, but let’s let that go for now), telling viewers that these children had often been attacked by violent settlers. Yet no settlers could be seen. He suggested that an Israeli carrying a video camera had repelled them. Lyons lives in Israel. If these kids are in such constant danger, why couldn’t he simply have come back on another occasion and taken the footage of the settlers attacking them? Why does Lyons feel like he does not need to provide hard evidence to support his story? [As an aside, in this scene Lyons makes what they call in tennis an “unforced error”, carelessly contradicting the image he had meticulously crafted up to this point in the documentary of a soulless, immoral IDF. In Hebron, he filmed a Breaking the Silence spokesman alleging that soldiers have orders not to intervene when settlers attack Palestinians, yet while walking Palestinian schoolchildren home, he sought to heighten the drama by asserting that normally the IDF escorts these kids home to protect them from the settlers. Which is it, John? Does the IDF act to protect Palestinians from settler violence or doesn’t it?]

It goes on and on. Israel’s military judicial system is absolutely fair game for investigative reporting, but Lyons’ politicised storytelling has no place in ethical journalism.

Given Lyons’ track record on Israel, it is telling who he has venerated in pre-air interviews and during the program: Palestinians who overwhelmingly claim they were wrongly arrested and abused; Israeli anti-occupation activists; and – above all – an Australian barrister who has applied his vocational skills to serve the Palestinian agenda. These are Lyons’ heroes, something he has made no effort to conceal, and reflects a long-term pattern in Lyons’ reporting.

This tendency towards bias does not invalidate Lyons as a journalist, but it does heighten the responsibility of Lyons’ editors and producers to account for his predisposition and ensure balance and accuracy. That they have not done so here reflects gravely on both news organisations and is something they should have to answer to the public for.

Ahron Shapiro

A shorter version of this essay appeared in the Australian Jewish News.