Dateline Jerusalem: Uncovering Australia's double standard in media coverage of Israel and Palestine

Dateline Jerusalem: Uncovering Australia's double standard in media coverage of Israel and Palestine
7 min read
20 January, 2022
Book Club: The New Arab sits down with journalist John Lyons, whose new book, Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism's Toughest Assignment, examines the current stranglehold of the Israeli lobby within Australia and how to shift the current narrative.
Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism's Toughest Assignment by John Lyons

Israel’s extension of coercive censorship has impeded accurate media dissemination of its colonial violence against the Palestinian people. Despite how well Israel marketed its security narrative to the international community; the latter being quick to jump to its defence each time aggression against Gaza makes headline news, there is still a preoccupation with perception.

A recent book by veteran journalist John Lyons who is currently Head of Investigative Journalism and Executive Editor at ABC News, Dateline Jerusalem: Journalism’s Toughest Assignment” (Monash University Publishing, 2021) takes up this subject within the context of how the Israeli lobby influences Australian media reportage, resulting in self-censorship in newsrooms, obstruction of journalism and, as a result, a misinformed Australian public.

"Due to the activities of the Israeli lobby over many years most Australians are not aware of the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. For example, most Australians have no idea what the reality of life under military occupation is for the Palestinians"

Speaking to The New Arab, Lyons clarifies that the book was written independently of his current editorial position. The book, he states, and his comments, are not tied to his role at ABC News, “but as an author and former Middle East correspondent who has focused for many years on the Middle East and, in particular, the Israeli-Palestinian situation."

Lyons’s book provides an intricate and detailed look into the Israeli lobby’s influence on media in Australia. “The Pro-Israel lobby has been spectacularly successful in framing the perception of Israel’s strategic and political situation as vulnerable,” Lyons writes.

To retain the victim status, therefore, what better tactic than to single out journalists reporting accurately in a bid to dissuade them from their role and subject? Israel’s lobby groups are well placed to extend the government’s censorship objectives. While editors in Australia self-censor and fear being called anti-Semitic, reporting barely scrapes the surface when it comes to Palestinians’ lives under colonial rule and military occupation.

With a lack of accurate dissemination comes a lack of knowledge which, Lyons writes, also extends to the Jewish community in Australia. So concerned is Israel with its portrayed image that discrepancies exist between the news published in Israel and in Australia. What is acceptable for the former is preferably kept away from an international audience – a point that is reiterated on several occasions in the book.

Lobbyists’ influence in Australian media, in this case, the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), interfered with journalists’ reporting on press briefings. Lyons gives an example from 2017, when Colin Rubenstein, head of AIJAC, emailed journalists present at a briefing by then Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about settlement expansion, to ensure that the content remained a secret.

The journalists were given an alternative – a fact sheet prepared by AIJAC itself – to use for their reports on Netanyahu’s visit to Sydney. Journalists and editors had their roles rewritten by the Israeli lobby, and on an issue that has so far earned Israel no punitive measures other than routine condemnation by the international community.

Lyons tells The New Arab, “As I state in the book, due to the activities of the Israeli lobby over many years most Australians are not aware of the reality of the Israeli-Palestinian situation. For example, most Australians have no idea what the reality of life under military occupation is for the Palestinians.

"Most Australians do not understand what living under Israeli military occupation means – that the Israeli army has final authority over the Palestinians, which means that Israeli soldiers can and do enter Palestinian homes some nights and take away Palestinian children as young as 12, who are then put on trial in a military court before Israeli soldiers. Based on my access to this military court, which I attended with the permission of Israeli soldiers, I documented all this in a Four Corners documentary in 2014 called 'Stone Cold Justice."

The pro-Israel lobby, Lyons asserts, is incomparable in terms of the pressure it creates on journalists and editors. Complaints cover a spectrum from ludicrous – such as the 2019 incident over a crossword clue in the Sydney Morning Herald that used the word Palestine which warranted “an investigation”, to outrightly offensive, as in the case of Palestinian-Australian journalist Jennine Khalik, which is detailed in the book.

“I witnessed up close the extraordinary story of Jennine Khalik, at the time a 23-year-old Palestinian Australian journalist who worked on the national newspaper, The Australian, when I worked in the same newsroom,” Lyons says. “The Editor from the time confirmed to me that two Israeli diplomats came to see him raising their concern that Khalik was working on the newspaper. He said they made clear that there was some 'surprise and discomfort' that the newspaper had employed Khalik." His recollection is that one of them said words to the effect: "It's interesting that you have a Palestinian activist working on your paper."

Lyons recalls his own experience coming up against interference from Israeli diplomats in Australia. “While I was based in Jerusalem for the same paper, a diplomat from the Israeli Embassy in Canberra came into the Sydney head office of the paper and went to my various section editors, running down me and my performance.”

Editors and journalists, Lyons points out, should not allow such behaviour. “If diplomats from the Chinese or Indonesian or US embassies came into a media office to tell editors that they should not have hired a journalist there would be a major and public pushback. Yet the pro-Israel lobby has done this and it's tolerated."

Such tolerance has resulted in editorial policies which avoid the politics of Israel and Palestine, censored op-ed articles and, in the case of Gaza, opting for either misrepresentation or oblivion.

The extent of influence Israel has been able to exert in Australia was explained to Lyons by a senior Israeli army officer who he met when invited to a function for foreign journalists in Jerusalem. As narrated in Dateline Jerusalem, the army officer explained that Australia has the highest number of Holocaust survivors facilitated unity in terms of political leanings towards the lobby, while several affluent men in the country are financial donors to Likud.

Voices

The influence is then exerted in strong opposition to facts, even if blatantly obvious, such as leaders from the Melbourne Jewish community objecting to Lyons using the term “occupation”.

"My argument is that Australians should have access to all information to better understand the Israeli-Palestinian issue. One example I give in the book is the starkly different treatment by the Australian media of two reports by Human Rights Watch, a centrist, well-regarded group. It is without question, not an anti-Jewish organisation – it is run by Kenneth Roth, the son of a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. HRW did one report on China's human rights atrocities against the Uyghur people in Xinjiang. The Australian media gave huge coverage to that report. But when the same human rights group did a landmark report soon after called A Threshold Crossed: Israeli Authorities and the Crimes of Apartheid and Persecution, it received virtually no coverage in the Australian media.”

Lyons adds, “HRW was only confirming what Israeli human rights group B'Tselem had concluded. This is the sort of double standard in media coverage that needs to stop." 

Ramona Wadi is an independent researcher, freelance journalist, book reviewer and blogger specialising in the struggle for memory in Chile and Palestine, colonial violence and the manipulation of international law.

Follow her on Twitter: @walzerscent