From The Australian, July 19, 2006, by Rebecca Weisser:
Why are Muslims portrayed as the victims and Israel the aggressor?
... Saturday's splash headline in The Sydney Morning Herald - "Global outcry at bombing" over a story which claimed "World powers fear Israel's clashes with rivals are escalating with breathtaking speed into a region-wide conflict with global security implications."
A more detailed reading of the Herald's story sourced this "global outcry" to Erkki Tuomioja, the Foreign Minister of Finland, a country which has a clever way with mobile phone technology but hardly ranks as a global superpower. For further evidence of the world's outrage, the Herald was forced to recycle comments from Russia and France that it had printed in Friday's newspaper.
In fact, as Tony Walker observed in Monday's Australian Financial Review, the international community, including the Arab world, is deeply divided in its response to the conflict. Conspicuously absent from the Herald's coverage was Saudi Arabia's condemnation of Hezbollah's "uncalculated adventures" which had created "an extremely serious situation". Hezbollah, according to a Saudi official quoted by the state Saudi Press Agency, had to "shoulder the full responsibility for this irresponsible behaviour and the burden of ending the crisis falls on them alone".
Predictably the Herald blames Israel for its "dismissive attitude toward Palestinians and Arabs set by the former Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon". This, in spite of the fact that Sharon's Kadima party was formed explicitly with the purpose of creating a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.
Meanwhile, Sydney's The Sun-Herald reported that three young Australians trapped in Lebanon "face the possibility of being conscripted into the Lebanese army if Lebanon decides to defend itself against the Israeli attacks".
Never mind that it was Hezbollah forces from Lebanon that launched an unprovoked attack on Israel when it violated Israel's northern border and attacked two Israeli Defence Force armoured jeeps patrolling the border with Lebanon, killing three soldiers and kidnapping two others. Hezbollah also blew up an Israeli tank, killing all four of the tank crew, and an eighth soldier was killed trying to retrieve the bodies of the tank crew. Vocabulary is important here.
The Sun-Herald consistently refers to Hezbollah operatives as guerillas and operatives from Hamas as militants, words that have the ring of freedom fighters rallying to a just cause. Yet Hezbollah's External Security Organisation, responsible for the attacks on Israel, like Hamas, is listed under Australian legislation as a terrorist organisation.
It is not just the Australian media that puts Israel in the dock. BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight on Friday framed its coverage with the loaded question: "Is Israel justified in its actions or are they disproportionate?" In an interview with Philippe Sands, a poster boy for the illegality of the Iraq war, presenter Robin Lustig asked: "That question of proportionate response lies at the heart of international criticism of Israel. Is the scale of military action appropriate? Is it indeed aimed at legitimate targets?" rather than questioning the legitimacy, proportionality or legality of Hezbollah's bombing of civilians in towns and cities in Israel.
It was a point picked up later by Mark Regev, spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, who pointed out that in the war against Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia, bridges, roads and power supplies were targeted asking: "Is this not singling out Israel, holding it to a higher standard that Europe doesn't even hold itself to?"
And therein lies the rub. Israel is consistently held to a higher standard than the terrorists who attack it or the countries that condemn it, thanks to the inverted logic of political correctness.
The Independent in Britain might have surprised some of its readers and indeed its own contributors such as Robert Fisk when it editorialised in Sunday's paper that "This newspaper is pro-Israeli. We support the right of the state of Israel to exist, and sympathise with the Israeli people, who live in fear of terrorists who are intent on killing civilians indiscriminately. We share the frustration of the Israeli Government: having withdrawn from Gaza and, longer ago, from southern Lebanon, terrorists are now using both territories to fire rockets into residential districts."
But The Independent's supposed support for Israel is used to justify attacking the Israeli Government: "It is precisely because we are pro-Israeli, however, that we are so critical of the response of Ehud Olmert, Israel's Prime Minister, to terrorist attacks. In both the Gaza Strip and Lebanon, Mr Olmert has elected to impose collective punishment on entire populations for the sins of a tiny minority."
A more nuanced analysis came from Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel and director of the Saban Centre for Middle Eastern Policy at the Brookings Institute, who spoke with Tony Jones on ABC's Lateline last Wednesday. Indyk sees the makings of prisoner exchange by Israel with both Hamas and Hezbollah but says Israel is seeking to deter further kidnappings by inflicting a painful price on both organisations. "Otherwise," he points out, "there will be no end to this hostage-taking and demands for prisoner release."
The new managing director of the ABC and former editor-in-chief of Fairfax newspapers, Mark Scott, said on ABC Radio's Sunday Profile this week that he didn't think accusations of bias levelled at the ABC were any worse than those levelled at The Sydney Morning Herald. Judging by the coverage of the Middle East conflict over the past week, it is the ABC that looks balanced compared with the Herald.
Rebecca Weisser is a former Australian diplomat.