The Palestinian Question: Celebrating the Liberal Media?

It’s so interesting to see the mainstream media in Australia begin to argue that reporting on Israel-Palestine is unbalanced. This is the theme of a small book by journalist John Lyons that has been published by Monash University Press. Well, that is a breakthrough. Given how rare any mainstream mention of this lack of balance has been, one does suppose it is a brave thing for a journalist and publisher (even editors-in-chief of Murdoch newspapers) to do: come out against an Israel lobby in Australia, and elsewhere, that tutors Jewish-Israel patriots how to counter sympathetic reporting of the Palestinian situation and mounts strategic campaigns to shut down certain journalists and shape public opinion . Lyons gives copious evidence of strategic disinformation and dissimulation, of forms of clever smearing, and of the very significant power of the lobby to influence through outright threat at the highest levels of media.

It is brave, no doubt, because the responses of members of the lobby are ferocious, undermining of one’s reputation and moral purpose, and of the kind that leave ordinary folks, Jews and otherwise, suspicious of who and what you are. That is, that you are ‘anti-Semitic’, and that any such anti-Semitism is a cunning thing that lies beneath the surface—always ready to rear its head and destroy again. Anti-Semitism indeed is likely exactly this; but is it anti-Semitism that we are dealing with? Again, Lyons makes this point and brings certain evidence and the opinion of important people to bear: criticism of Israel is not to be confused with anti-Semitism. He also makes what seems an overriding point, that within Israel itself critical commentary about the Israeli state, its treatment of Palestinians and its strategies for denying a Palestinian state is readily available in the domestic media. Israel’s media seem to be doing a better job of living up to the modern liberal values of the Fourth Estate than Australia’s! But why did those values, the liberal model, to which our liberal media cleave and within which they endlessly self-congratulate on the moral coverage of every other issue, not stand them in good enough stead in the Palestinian case?

What Lyons doesn’t do is tell any of the story about how the issue and struggle around Palestinian history and rights has been kept alive in Australia and elsewhere by others outside the mainstream media. If it has been kept alive it is because others have bothered to continue bearing witness to Palestinians’ suffering and political struggle, typically with a perspective on history and politics that steps beyond the limited framework of journalistic values and media’s denial of the structural power, and the power relations, that support it. That perspective on history and politics is not one focused simply on the ‘facts’ as they present themselves, but rests on an understanding of the contours and context of empire and nationalism, on colonialism and settler consciousness, on US, and Australian, power, as well as on causes of anti-Semitism, fascism and war. Such matters are precisely what mainstream journalists generally don’t read deeply about, and about which they may be scurrilously critical at times because those broader viewpoints confront the very liberal vision of media to which they cling..

A certain anti-intellectualism, perhaps especially rife in the Australian context, is arguably one of the major problems of mainstream respectable media. Arena, like other small publications, has felt and suffered the accusation of anti-Semitism many times, despite many of our writers on the question being Jews themselves, as a number of our editors are, and certainly drawing, like Lyons has, on all kinds of on-the-ground evidence, as well as those larger sources of historical insight. That some of our writers have been Palestinians with complex histories is also apposite. We have welcomed them. Not only has the mainstream media not published certain materials, or a range of opinion, but it also once actively ‘black-listed’ some writers, as was the case with Jeremy Salt, an expert on the British in Egypt, who wrote for Arena for a number of years. Lyons does quote and refer to some Australian Palestinian journalists, but he does not acknowledge the extended work of other Australian Jewish critics of Israel, who have written extensively—and indeed bravely, given the trouble it causes within families and communities—to break with accepted verities and often genuinely fearful imaginaries. Antony Lowenstein springs to mind.

Another source of insights and examples of bravery, and also a condition of Lyons’ now being able to speak, is those support bodies and organisations that have kept the issue as best they could in the public eye—the Palestinian Authority spokespeople in Australia, with their generally thankless task of officially representing a Palestinian view; members of the enormously effective BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions), and IPAN (the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network) as one example of a grassroots community solidarity organisations. One might also think globally of those international volunteers, some of whom have lost their lives, on the ground, standing with the Palestinian people, to confront Israeli demolition policies, indeed even the bulldozers themselves.

Another, and much vaster, source of possibility for the kind of story Lyons now tells is the transformation of opinion among young Jews here and elsewhere, and especially in the United States. This change has gone hand in hand with the emergence of new frameworks for thinking through the complexities and resistance to change and to justice, such as settler-colonial theory, which puts white Australians as much as Israeli Jews in the spotlight of colonial power and settler denial. It is these various complexities and braveries that have helped to keep the Palestinian question alive, if only grudgingly, on the edges of mainstream media consciousness.

Lyons thanks Louise Adler for her encouragement as publisher of the series within which this book sits. Adler was deeply intellectually formed through an education that included the postcolonial thinker Edward Said as one-time teacher; and one can assume that Lyons’ book is intended as a limited, strategic intervention into where media power resides. Of course, that’s important. Let’s hope this book makes an impact. But it truly galls to think that the media might now celebrate itself, and the liberal model of media it assumes, when concern for justice and the flourishing of Palestinian people has never, first of all, come from it.

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About the author

Alison Caddick

Alison Caddick is Editor of Arena (third series), was co-editor of Arena Magazine and is an Arena Publications Editor. With a background in the history and philosophy of science, politics and social studies, she writes on techno-science, the body and prospects for social and cultural change.

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