YOUR SAY: A Question of Bias – The ABC & the Gaza Flotilla Affair

Posted on August 25, 2011 by


BY DAVID MACILWAIN.

When Israeli navy commandos attacked the humanitarian aid flotilla in the Mediterranean Sea last May, shooting dead nine Turkish civilians and injuring many more, there was widespread condemnation of this act of violent piracy.  A number of enquiries were set up to find out what really happened, as despite the presence of numerous journalists in the flotilla Israel had jammed transmissions from them and then seized cameras and laptops while holding the participants in Israeli detention.

While we waited some time for the results of these enquiries the verdict was clear on some aspects of the attack: the fleet was in international waters when intercepted, and nine civilians were dead. Confusingly Israel regarded the incident as a ‘public relations disaster’ – despite being entirely responsible for it – and immediately focussed attention on portraying it as a reasonable and justifiable act of self-defence. It is credit to the slickness of the Israeli propaganda machine that they can take the same disingenuous stance twelve months later in the face of the second flotilla without any of the western media calling their bluff.  This also in the face of reports by the United Nations (UN), the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and a Turkish enquiry that accused them of unjustifiable use of violence and possible war crimes where some victims were apparently summarily executed.    By contrast, two Israeli investigations cleared the navy and the state of any offence, after which Prime Minister Netanyahu presented the special commandos involved with medals at a strategically appropriate time.

In the month following the attack, numbers of western journalists including our own Paul McGeogh published scathing articles about their experiences of the attack, describing the ruthlessness of Israeli military personnel both on the boats and in detention. The BBC apparently felt that this tide of public opinion was unreasonably prejudiced against Israel and commissioned Jane Corbin and Panorama to make a documentary which would ‘restore the balance’.  The access subsequently granted to her by the Israeli navy, and Israel’s approval of the final presentation identifies the result as more of a reconstruction than a restoration of balance.

But on this a little background. The purpose of the ‘Freedom Flotilla’ is of course held in its title; it was delivering humanitarian aid to the world’s biggest open prison, where the population of 1.5 million has been trapped in appalling conditions since 2006 as a result of Israel’s blockade. While some basic foodstuffs are ‘allowed in’ there is a constant shortage of medicines and spare parts for machinery, and a total embargo on materials to rebuild the shattered infrastructure and thousands of homes demolished over two years ago in Israel’s criminal ‘Operation Cast Lead’. Quite evidently there would be no need for humanitarian aid were it not for Israel’s blockade, so the basic purpose of the flotillas is to break and end the blockade by delivering goods directly to Gaza port. Although the Mavi Marmara was attacked some 70 kilometres from Gaza, Israeli gunboats illegally enforce the blockade along the coast south of Israel as far as the Egyptian border, and regularly fire on Palestinian fisherman who stray more than a couple of kilometres from their own coast.

When Ariel Sharon ordered a strategic withdrawal of the 8,000 Israeli settlers who lived in Northern Gaza in 2005, who were the subject of attacks from the 1.5 million Arabs in the rest of the Gaza strip, he also accelerated the construction of settlements in the Occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. This construction, which is illegal under international law, has long been a deliberate policy – creating ‘facts on the ground’ on the land that would become a future Palestinian State.  The failure of the international community to stop settlement building, and the consequent presence of 500,000 Jewish immigrant settlers now creates an immovable obstacle to the creation of a viable Palestinian state. The current ‘right wing’ government of Netanyahu, with its racist foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman advocating removal of the Palestinian population altogether, currently proceeds apace with the legislating of a Jewish Apartheid state and accelerates the dispossession and demolishing of Palestinian homes.    It is impossible to consider the question of bias and balance in relation to Israel without understanding and acknowledging this context.

Following the screening of Death in the Med, – as Corbin’s film was called – in the UK in August, there were loud protestations from many sections of the community, with the BBC receiving some 2,000 complaints about the program’s pro-Israel bias. A group of 30 academics and politicians, including Irish Nobel peace prize laureate Maireid Maguire, wrote a public letter of objection, and the BBC was forced to launch an enquiry. Despite this reaction, the ABC obtained the film from Panorama and screened it in early September without comment or alteration other than to the title. It was now called “Collision Course” and presented as ‘news content’ on Foreign Correspondent.

Australia is arguably even more in tow to its own Israel lobby than the UK [1] and the screening of Collision Course did not produce the same volume of complaints here.  The ABC could say it was the BBC’s responsibility, and that their enquiry was ongoing. I did not think this excuse was valid, and persisted with my complaint to the ABC.

This was also because I was convinced of the essential illegality of Israel’s actions and that the presentation of them as somehow justified was a clear demonstration of unacceptable bias. Initially I requested that information on the accusations of ‘Israeli propaganda’ be displayed on the Foreign Correspondent website to make up for the presentation of the programme with no such proviso, and also requested that a link be given to Anthony Lawson’s video de-construction of Corbin’s documentary [2].  Needless to say this didn’t happen, but I did get a prompt – and totally unsatisfactory – response from Audience and Consumer Affairs. I wrote again to no useful effect, so decided to take it to the Independent Complaints Review Panel (ICRP). They considered the correspondence and decided there was a case to answer, asking me to submit a detailed restatement of my position in mid November.

Six months later I was told the report on my case had been submitted to the ABC, but I had no idea what the report said for another month, when a letter from Mark Scott arrived, along with the report. It was something of a shock to find that the substance of my complaint had been upheld by the ICRP, and there were half a dozen instances cited of lack of balance and bias, as well as the significant claim that the ABC had ‘expressed an editorial opinion’, by presenting Israel’s viewpoint with their unspoken agreement.

The ICRP, which unfortunately ceased to exist during the course of my review, showed itself to be actually independent, by comparison with the BBC trust committee. The BBC trust, in a report oddly similar to the Israeli’s internal enquiries into the attack, had found three cases of lack of balance, but overall considered Death in the Med to “have achieved due impartiality and accuracy overall”, and was “an original illuminating and well researched piece of journalism”.

The difference between the Review Panel’s perception of the programme and that of the BBC committee is well illustrated by the reaction that their Preliminary report elicited from the ABC and BBC.  The Panel said that the program “could be described as primarily an exposition of the Israeli viewpoint on the incidents of the attack”, but they countered with – “we completely deny and wish to dispute strongly” (this criticism).  I would like to think that the arguments I used to support my criticism, and links to relevant articles, might have played a part in forming the Panel’s view, though mere exposure to the weight of evidence against Israel’s stance and behaviour should be sufficient to convince most reasonable and unprejudiced viewers that the film was little other than Israeli propaganda.

The more serious question then presents itself – if you consider that the blockade of Gaza is illegitimate and an infringement of the 4th Geneva Convention on collective punishment, and you also consider, as did the Turkish and UN enquiries that the attack on the flotilla was an act of piracy which involved war crimes, then by adopting the ‘editorial viewpoint’ of Corbin’s film the ABC becomes complicit in these crimes.  And while the ABC may theoretically be independent of politics, its complicity is here effectively that of the government. This is clear if you consider whether there would have been silence from the government had the ABC shown a film which presented ‘the view from the Hamas bureau in Gaza’.

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The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.

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