Threading the Needle: A Review of John Lyons’ Dateline Jerusalem

 

John Lyons, a Walkley Award winning journalist who has worked for Fairfax media and News Corp, and is currently head of journalism at the ABC, has written an important book. Dateline Jerusalem makes for sobering reading in that it confirms that mainstream coverage of Israel and Palestine has become less honest, less reflective, and more reluctant to air heterodox perspectives. This is an insider’s story with lots of fascinating insights into Zionist pressure tactics and the workings of editorial decision making, by a former Jerusalem correspondent for The Australian. Lyons is perhaps best known for his exposé on the way the Israeli military and its judicial apparatus treat Palestinian children in the Occupied Territories. His central premise, which I think this book amply demonstrates, is that the fourth estate is miserably failing the Australian people by not honestly and fearlessly reporting on the truth of Israel’s devastating occupation of Palestinian lands and its discriminatory treatment of Palestinians.

Lyons has been witness to the activities of the pro-Israel lobby in Australia, as Zionist functionaries relentlessly and deliberately intimidate newspapers and other media organisations into self-censorship when it comes to reporting on the occupation and Israel’s flagrant contraventions of international law, which include Israel’s attacks on Palestinian civilians and infrastructure under the cover of war. Lyons describes a world in which lobby groups such as the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) and Israeli diplomats are given relatively unfettered access to editorial boardrooms—access that helps shape permissible representation. The Australian media in Lyons’ depiction is beholden to a sanitising Orwellian mindset that assists Israel’s Hasbarah (pro-Israeli public diplomacy) offensive, in which use of terms such as ‘apartheid’ and ‘Palestine’ are off-limits. Lyons has a differentiated version of the Israel lobby (which he is careful not to conflate with a unified Jewish perspective or the views of the Jewish diaspora), reserving particular opprobrium for right-wing Zionist organisations such as AIJAC and its executive director, Colin Rubinstein, who is apparently ubiquitous enough in his coaxing and complaints to be tagged only as ‘Colin’ in many newspaper boardrooms. Lyons’ former employer News Corp, he reveals, seemed to accept as normal practice that a private lobbyist such as Rubinstein could provide it with a ‘fact sheet’ to use in its coverage of Benjamin Netanyahu’s 2017 visit to Australia.

Lyons’ indictment of Australian media, however, is much broader than News Corp and details active self-censorship and disciplinary action by more progressive mainstream media against wayward journalists, prompted by the fearful attempt to anticipate the Israel lobby’s response to a given feature article, geopolitically sensitive map, or naming practice. Lyons, for example, reports that Scott Stephens from the religion and ethics department of the ABC dutifully sent a piece by Samah Sabawi to Bren Carlill, of the Zionist Federation of Australia, before its publication, without seeking Sabawi’s permission, in contravention of the organisation’s own guidelines. The functional intention of the Israel lobby’s insistent targeting of news organisations, Lyons correctly analyses, is that those organisations should either reproduce the permissible narrative of Israel as a vulnerable country motivated by security concerns and working its way towards a political resolution of the conflict, while lamentably lacking a partner for peace, or simply remain silent. In the wake of the Sabawi affair, the ABC seems to have readily consented to the latter approach, with Stephens indicating to colleagues that in-depth analysis of Israel and Palestine is now to be considered too ‘hot’ to handle.

Lyons’ book isn’t just a discussion of the politics of representation; he’s concerned for the future careers of talented younger journalists and so spends quite a bit of time discussing the impact of pro-Israeli coverage, as an enforced consensus, on individuals. The pressure of this consensus becomes particularly acute when the Israel lobby (including Israeli diplomats and other functionaries) consistently targets Palestinian journalists and spokespeople. One particularly disturbing episode Lyons relates concerns the recruitment by The Australian of a young journalist of Palestinian origin, Jennine Khalik, to reflect a changing Australia and report on Arab and Islamic communities in Western Sydney. Not long after this appointment, Lyons recounts, Israeli diplomats visited Chris Mathieson, a former chief editor of The Australian who had recruited Khalik in 2015, letting him know that, as a Palestinian, she was ‘on their agenda’. After directly quoting a Palestinian refugee and singer who had used the word ‘Palestine’ in an interview, Khalik was verbally assaulted by a sub-editor and has since quit the newspaper. Lyons contrasts Khalik’s targeting and denigration with his knowledge of journalists, and many federal politicians, who take junkets to Israel and are yet rarely accused of pro-Israeli bias, such is the effortless normalisation of that world view in our corrupted media landscape. Lyons’ point is that in multicultural Australia, with its significant Arab and Palestinian diasporas, the silencing of Palestinian perspectives can take a real and particularly harmful material form when abetted by political and editorial interference. As Lyons summarises, ‘if someone has a Palestinian or Arab background, they will personally be targeted, whereas this never occurs on the other side’. Edward Said has memorably described the relentless hostility towards Palestinians and the idea of Palestine as the denial of the permission of Palestinians to ‘narrate’ their own identity and aspirations, a denial that intersects closely with what Nur Masalha describes as the ongoing ‘memoricide’ of the material and linguistic history of Palestine.

As someone who used to assume that US political fealty to and imaginative sympathy with Israel was unparalleled in its intensity, it was startling to absorb Lyons’ take on Australian journalism as, in fact, representing the global nadir of coverage of Israel and Palestine. Lyons points out that even a newspaper that has been reliably pro-Israel, such as The New York Times (see Chomsky’s The Iron Triangle and its discussion of the paper’s reporting of the 1982 Lebanon invasion), has become much more critical of the occupation and of Israeli military aggression in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2020 Gaza War, recognising BLM solidarity with the Palestinians and the now long-standing support of African American writers and activists for the Palestinian cause. Lyons discusses a remarkable petition launched in June 2021 and signed by more than 500 journalists in the United States, including some from The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, who have called for the media to stop ‘obscuring the Israeli occupation and the systemic oppression of Palestinians’. He points out that Australian media outlets are deeply reluctant to undertake a thorough reassessment of how the conflict is covered. A May 2021 open letter from Australian journalists and media workers seeking to improve fairness and accuracy in reporting of Israel and Palestine seems to have generated disciplinary action by newsrooms, whose instantaneous reminders to signatories about what counts as ‘impartiality’ in our newsrooms were not matched by any qualms about their journalists’ frequent media junkets to Israel.

The lack of serious progress on representing the Israeli occupation in line with the empirical findings of human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem is not surprising, when, as Lyons points out, even highly respected journalists can find themselves in danger of being censored if they approach the reality of the situation or more directly describe what they know and experience. Lyons discusses a farewell feature column by respected former Middle East correspondent Ed O’Loughlin filed in May 2008, which claimed that the Israeli army had a ‘culture of denial and impunity, repeatedly condemned by Israeli and foreign (human) rights groups’ and that Palestinians live in a constant state of vulnerability, as they’re studied by Israeli military intelligence on TV screens or through a gun sight. This admission of Israeli aggression towards the Palestinians and its psychological effects on a population under siege might be consistently reported in Israel itself through Haaretz and other media, but in Australia it was published only by The Age and not by The Sydney Morning Herald. Beholden to a particular mode of right-wing diasporic idealism about Israel that would be laughed at in Israel itself, media organisations in Australia are liable to take fright when journalists do not affirm the higher ethical principles of the Israeli army and the entrenched notion that Palestinians are, in essence, aggressors that are engaged in a continual war against the existence and legitimacy of Israel.

Another intriguing titbit is Lyons’ discussion of Schwartz Media, which publishes The Saturday Paper, The Monthly and Quarterly Essay among other prominent progressive publications. The proprietor, Morry Schwartz, the son of Holocaust survivors who spent part of his childhood in Israel, tends to regard social-media criticism of his publications’ failure to adequately cover conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as motivated by anti-Semitism. The compromise between a pro-Israeli media owner and a left-wing readership is silence about or minimal coverage of Israel and Palestine, which is well understood by journalists working for the organisation. Thus the organisation did not give any substantial coverage to the 2021 Israeli military assault on Gaza, prompting Alex McKinnon, the former morning editor of The Saturday Paper, to lacerate his former employer, noting an ‘unofficial but widely known editorial policy’ within Schwartz Media publications to avoid coverage of Israel’s human rights abuses, a policy which, McKinnon notes, was often divulged to him unprompted by staff. The palpable, internalised fear of substantively deviating from the correct line—there’s a ‘conflict’, not asymmetrical violence; Israel’s military actions, even if disproportionate, are motivated by security and are primarily retaliatory; relative silence about the Nakba and of continuing subsequent Israeli efforts to displace the Palestinians from their lands and homes; minimising of spatial, legislative and electoral apartheid practices by Israel, as documented by Lyons, referring to the detailed findings of human rights organisations; reluctance to ever cartographically visualise the ongoing Bantustanisation of Palestinian areas, as that would destabilise the comfortable chimera of a two-state solution; settler extremism is rogue and religiously motivated rather than deliberately assisted by the Israeli army; consistent minimisation of the expansionist fantasy of ‘Eretz Israel’ as animating political Zionism—in Australian media coverage of Israel differs, as we have seen, from the situation in the United States, which constitutes the epicentre of military, financial and economic support for Israel. This difference is due to significant countervailing tendencies at play in the United States, including, as Lyons has argued, the pro-Israel pro-peace lobby group J Street’s attempt to offset the Likud-aligned, pro-settlement approach of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Turning to Lyons’ current employer, ‘our ABC’, the national broadcaster has mostly ignored the opening up of debate about the future of Israel as an occupying state and instead remains reluctant to help its audiences to form mature opinions about the conflict. Lyons rues the fact that the ABC largely ignored Human Rights Watch and its landmark report A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution, which makes stunning reading as a systematic indictment of Israel’s persecutory and discriminatory treatment of the Palestinians. That report concurs with Lyons’ pessimistic view of Israeli policy: the achievement of ‘Eretz Israel’ or greater Israel, which will involve the annexation of the West Bank, the removal to the greatest extent possible of the Palestinians from their own lands, the continuing appropriation of fertile land and water resources from the Palestinians, and the ongoing subjugation, harassment and violent intimidation of those Palestinians who seek to assert their rights to remain on their ancestral lands by settlers assisted by the Israeli army.

Having explained the broad and seemingly systemic failure of the Australian media to give coverage to the enduring reality of Israel as an occupying settler-colonial state pursuing apartheid practices, a discriminatory regime which, as B’Tselem (the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories) points out, ‘is inextricably bound up in human rights violations’, Lyons’ book gives a forthright indication of what Australian media consumers are not learning and deserve to know. For example, Lyons observes that Israel’s attempts to achieve a Jewish demographic majority in Jerusalem mean that Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem are routinely demolished or occupied; that at the time of the book’s writing, 3000 Palestinians in 200 East Jerusalem properties were living under the threat of eviction according to Peace Now; and that 20,000 Palestinian homes were under threat of demolition. As Lyons’ earlier reporting revealed, in the Occupied Territories there is a military system ruling over Palestinians, and not Jewish settlers, that routinely subjects Palestinians to torture and lengthy imprisonment. We know little about it here, even while the US criminal justice system’s treatment of African Americans receives constant critical attention. Lyons discusses the abject situation in Hebron, where 500 Jewish settlers effectively imprison 200,000 Palestinians with the assistance of the Israeli military. He reminds us that Palestinians are effectively prevented from using settler roads. He discusses the cancellation of the Israeli citizenship of hundreds of Palestinian Bedouins and the violent repression of Palestinian rights to assembly and cultural expression in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT).

Housing demolition is at the forefront of this book, as Lyons wants us to understand Israel’s sustained policy of displacement and demographic transformation in the name of Judaisation. In Area C of the OPT, where 61 per cent of Jewish settlers live, he reminds us, 98 per cent of Palestinian building applications are refused. Despite living under de facto Israeli control, Palestinians in the West Bank cannot use Israel’s international airport, Ben Gurion, and do not have control of their water supply. Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem cannot vote in Israel’s national elections, and to entrench and legitimise this regime of apartheid and persecution Israel’s 2018 Nation State Law reserves self-determination for Jewish citizens alone. Imagine the uproar, Lyons points out to readers who blithely assume Israel is a democracy much like ours, if a law entrenched the supremacy of white Australians in Australia.

Of course, framed as one man’s lonely quest to right the wrongs of the noblest profession, the book has its flaws. Rather than discussing the reasons for the post-war pro-Israel consensus in this country, which dovetails with the agenda of media proprietors, state power, geopolitical interests, and profound cultural sympathies with another ‘youthful’ settler colony, Lyons somewhat fatuously implies that more realistic coverage of Israel depends on the whims of particular editors. Rather than exploring the limitations of the mainstream media more generally, Lyons reproduces its tendency towards middle-brow complacency, anti-intellectualism, and superficial historical understanding. Anxious to avoid the predictable charge of anti-Semitism, Lyons reminds us earnestly that, off the record, there are Jewish supporters of Israel who demur at the excesses of the occupation. But, as Alison Caddick has pointed out in Arena Online, where is the discussion of decades of opposition by Jewish intellectuals and activists to Israeli policies, including the important analyses of Noam Chomsky, Ilan Pappé, Naomi Klein, Jeff Halper, Judith Butler and Australia’s Antony Loewenstein?  The reality that Israel views the two-state solution, if given lip-service at all, as a handy PR technique to distract from ‘facts on the ground’ does not suggest to Lyons that there are other normative horizons including a decolonising post-Zionist state that offers genuine democratic inclusion to all of its citizens. Rather than directing readers away from the mainstream Australian media and, as Caddick suggests, towards independent media such as the Arena group that have performed important service in covering this issue for many years, Lyons, as a beneficiary, cannot conceive that the ‘Australian media’ consists of more than the organisations he works for. He will not acknowledge that the mainstream media lags well behind a counter-public sphere, energised by social media and its power of collective witnessing, that will no longer tolerate Israel’s contraventions of international laws against occupation, annexation and discrimination.

Yet the empirical vacuum on this issue matters, as Lyons points out. It has allowed the response to the Boycott, Divestments, Sanctions (BDS) campaign endorsed by Palestinian civil society and embraced by younger activists to be framed as an eruption of anti-Semitism rather than a tactical response to the ordeal of the Palestinians. Reading the muted media coverage of the withdrawals of some of Australia’s leading performers from the recent Sydney Festival in protest against a grant accepted from the Israeli government, many Australians reading mainstream media coverage of the boycott, which demonstrated to a larger constituency that BDS is proving resilient, would either be bemused by it or accept that it was an act of censorship or even supposed left-wing anti-Semitism. The sense in which Israel’s sponsorship of the event is an act of cultural brand-washing to distract from its human rights violations was barely entertained by the mainstream media.

I can imagine Lyons pointing out that this is not how political boycotts of China and the Winter Olympics will be covered by our compliant media. More obedient than ever, cowed by a scarcity of jobs, the threat of funding cuts, and a deeply internalised fear of the charge of anti-Semitism that is clearly belied by the plurality of Jewish perspectives that are better recognised in other media ecologies, we can expect that acts of civil disobedience in favour of an emancipatory goal, the just treatment and political enfranchisement of Palestinians, will continue to be decried in the Australian media as inimical to freedom of speech. At the same time, pro-Zionist pressure groups and their ancillaries in editorial boardrooms will continue to influence sanitising media coverage of Israel’s persecutory policies. The future looks bleak, but the Sydney Festival BDS movement, which was quickly mobilised, indicates that a counter-public sphere exists and will not disappear. It does not accept the cowardice and systemic bias of the Australian mainstream media. That counter-public, an Australian media in the process of becoming, is not a few large, morally bankrupt news organisations that silence, expel or ignore dissident voices. That Australian media will be constituted by our capacity to hope, by our ability to imagine otherwise, and by our willingness to engage with one of the great injustices of our age.

The Palestinian Question: Celebrating the Liberal Media?

Alison Caddick, 14 Oct 2021

A certain anti-intellectualism, perhaps especially rife in the Australian context, is arguably one of the major problems of mainstream respectable media.

About the author

Ned Curthoys

Ned Curthoys is a senior lecturer in English and Literary Studies at the University of Western Australia. His work ranges across literary studies, philosophy, Jewish studies and political theory. He is the author of The Legacy of Liberal Judaism: Ernst Cassirer and Hannah Arendt’s Hidden Conversation (Berghahn, 2013) and ~~the Bildungsroman in a Geoncidal Age~ (Bloomsbury, 2024).

More articles by Ned Curthoys

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