Something that is true of children is also true of journalists – if you reward bad behaviour, you’ll get more of it. And while this nugget has been internalised by most in the media industry (think of the Kardashians), it seems the Walkley Foundation is a little slow on the uptake.
In 2010, Paul McGeough won a Walkley for his (second-hand) account of the Israeli takeover of the Mavi Marmara, the Turkish ferry that illegally attempted to break Israel’s embargo of the Gaza Strip that year. McGeough’s account of the incident, as gripping as it was, was entirely one-sided. In it, he wrote glowingly of the ‘non-violent’ character of the ship’s passengers who attacked Israeli soldiers with steel poles and knives, and likened Israeli actions to those of hyenas. The story also contained statements that were known to be errors by the time of the article’s publication. The Walkley Foundation gave such biased writing and incompetent (or wilfully negligent) fact-checking a gong.
Fairfax’s McGeough has form writing rumour as fact, but at least this time other outlets covered the story. He didn’t get a Walkley back in 2006 when he alleged that Iraqi Prime Minister-designate Iyad Allawi (who – shock, horror! – was relatively pro-American) had personally shot seven handcuffed, blindfolded prisoners in front of Americans. This headline-generating story wasn’t picked up by any reputable outlets. McGeough’s fellow travellers on the loony left claimed it was a grand conspiracy by the mainstream media to prop up the Bush Administration.
Now Ruth Pollard, also writing as a Palestinian activist – sorry, as the Fairfax Middle East Correspondent – has been nominated for a Walkley, writing about the human tragedy that was the Hamas–Israel war in July and August of this year.
Pollard’s ‘day in the life of’ account of Shifa Hospital (which doubled as Hamas’s war-time headquarters, though you wouldn’t have read that in Pollard’s article), would be ‘vivid’ writing if it were from an activist’s pen. Her story describes the injuries of children, the tragedy of families, the frantic efforts of doctors. It uncritically swallows estimates of civilian casualties from a ‘human rights’ group that refuses to condemn Hamas’s war crimes. It was good polemical writing, but it wasn’t good journalism.
It ought not need be said that even one civilian casualty is too many and, in Gaza during Operation Protective Edge, far too many civilians died. But let us not lose sight of the fact that these civilians died because of Hamas. It was Hamas that started the war. And it was Hamas that broke all relevant laws of war by committing perfidy, by using civilian infrastructure for military purposes, and by launching attacks from within or adjacent to civilian infrastructure (including the school that so concerned Pollard in her article).
All these tactics endangered the lives of civilians in two main ways. First, it effectively removed Israel’s ability to distinguish between civilian and combatant. Second, in the words of the Red Cross’s Customary International Humanitarian Law database ‘State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law … that when a civilian object is used in such a way that it loses its civilian character and qualifies as a military objective, it is liable to attack.’
What that means is if Hamas uses a school or a mosque or a home for military purposes (storage of weapons, firing weapons, sheltering combatants), then that object becomes a valid military target if the expected military advantage outweighs the expected civilian loss. Israel took significant steps in attempting to minimise civilian losses; by texting, ringing and dropping leaflets in areas about to be targeted, in addition to using dummy missiles to give any remaining civilians a last warning of impending attack. Clearly, these tactics also warned combatants, thereby reducing the effectiveness of Israel’s war fighting efforts – and putting its own soldiers at greater risk.
It was clear from reading Pollard’s account of the human cost of the war that she either didn’t know about the relevant laws of war, or didn’t care to reveal them to her readers. Doing so would not have belittled the tragedy of war, but allowed an otherwise uninformed reader to make a judgment as to which side was ultimately responsible for the deaths.
It is, after all, not a journalist’s role to guide her readers to her version of the truth, but to ‘report and interpret honestly, striving for accuracy, fairness and disclosure of all essential facts. [To] not suppress relevant available facts, or give distorting emphasis.’ These aren’t my words, but a direct quote from the Code of Ethics of the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance, trustee of the Walkley Foundation, and presumably something by which Pollard claims to abide.
Of the essential facts that Pollard was duty-bound to disclose was that the Gaza war wasn’t all one-way. Hamas fired more than 4500 rockets at Israeli civilian and military targets – of these, 875 landed in Gaza, hitting homes, the Shifa Hospital – from where Pollard reported – and UN facilities. Another of Hamas’s rockets damaged infrastructure supplying Israeli electricity to Palestinians, leaving 70,000 Gazans without power.
While only a handful of Israeli civilians were killed during the war, this was because of the billions Israel has spent on bomb shelters and systems that literally shoot rockets out of the sky – all in the name of protecting its Jewish and Arab civilians. Given that Pollard’s screed was a human interest story, it would have been interesting to show the human side of Israel, such as life for five million Israelis under fire, scrambling to bomb shelters (some with only ten seconds warning), relief as the ‘Iron Dome’ missiles streaked into the sky toward incoming rockets. But it’s not an activist’s role to report about the other side, is it?
Paul McGeough’s 2010 Walkley confirmed to Australian journalists that reporting rumour as fact, and masquerading comment as news, can be rewarded with praise and prizes. I would urge this year’s judges to reverse this trend by not rewarding Pollard’s one-side narrative of this most vexed conflict.
Michael Danby is the federal member for Melbourne Ports.