Nothing short of genius tinged with necessary slap-downs of race-baiting Fox News:
The blandness of the mainstream media, including public broadcasters, is all about the narrow level of “debate” allowed on issues of the day.
Australian intellectual and academic Scott Burchill has written the following short essay on the problem and possible solutions:
In what is misleadingly called the ‘age of culture wars’ there are three aspects of media commentary and reporting that poison discussion about politics in Australia. None of them are new, and it is by no means a definitive list, but all of them are now more prominent than they were two decades ago. Each contaminates political discourse and significantly reduces the value of newspaper and online commentary. The first is the misunderstanding of bias, the second is a tendency to political apostasy and the third is the effect of close proximity to power.
Bias and corkscrew journalism
It is important to start by exposing some common misperceptions about the conceptualisation of media bias.
Information managers in modern societies accrue power by controlling and organising knowledge. They have the skills to process and direct information, and the influence to mobilise public support for decision-making by government. They are in the business of lobbying, cheerleading and opinion management, though they routinely masquerade as independent and objective commentators.
These managers – or perhaps more accurately “commissars” – are commonly classified in 200 year old ideological terms such as “left” and “right”, positions on a linear spectrum which are then paired with political parties which are said to approximate these approaches: in Australia – ALP = left, Coalition = right. Many commentators are in fact former party functionaries and apparatchiks who have seamlessly passed through a revolving door between politics and journalism.
The idea of political “balance” – usually only invoked as an attack on ideological adversaries who apparently lack it – assumes that both halves of the political spectrum (left and right) should be equally represented in the political process and that a optimal mid-point between the two exists. This centre or median, which is apparently free of political bias and often described as “moderate” or “mainstream”, is where taxpayer-funded media organisations such as the ABC are supposed to reside – in the interests of both fairness and their charters. No such discipline is expected of privately owned media outlets.
There are several problems with this schema.
The assumption that a moderate, responsible and “natural” balance can be found on each and every political issue is self-evidently untrue. Are there two sides to the Holocaust or indiscriminate terrorism where a balanced view in the middle can be found? Obviously not. There are not always two legitimate sides to every story.
The persistent use of terms such as “left” and “right” to characterise media opinion in Australia grossly exaggerates the diversity of views that are actually presented. It is still widely assumed that the two party system (Labor–Coalition) encompasses the full spectrum of legitimate political thought in Australia. Ideas or arguments which do not fall neatly within the policy parameters of the major parties (eg the Greens) are said to be “extreme” and beyond the bounds of respectable opinion. Debate, discussion and choice is effectively circumscribed by defining the intellectual boundaries within which legitimate political expression is possible. There is no need for formal censorship, which is usually clumsy and ineffective.
When the range of “legitimate” political ideas moves as a bloc to the right while simultaneously converging, the terms used to describe these ideologies becomes misleading. Instead, voters looking for meaningful differences within the two party system are presented with an illusion of choice. All but the narrowest of proposals is dismissed as “radical” or “extreme”. The “free market” of political ideas narrows and discourse becomes stale and repetitive.
This is the primary drawback of bipartisanship, a view of politics which avoids robust debate and disagreement believing a consensus should be achieved on most issues. It also explains the revolving ideological door used by newspaper columnists such as Gerard Henderson and the late Paddy McGuinness, opinionistas equally comfortable at houses of Fairfax and Murdoch.
Of the reasons to feel depressed about the state of the Australian media, it is this tendency towards repetition, recycling and set–piece ideological battles – sometimes described as “corkscrew journalism” – which is most deflating.
According to the late Fred Halliday, the term “corkscrew journalism” originated in the film The Philadelphia Story directed by George Cukor in 1940. Halliday defines it as “instant comment, bereft of research or originality, leading to a cycle of equally vacuous, staged, polemics between columnists who have been saying the same thing for the past decade, or more.”
This is an accurate description of much media commentary in Australia, illustrated recently by the interminable sniping between the ABC and the Murdoch press. Predictability and a lack of originality are rife, and media consumers are no longer buying it – literally.
Readers, viewers and listeners are often surprised to find commentators placing themselves at the centre of these ideological battles, frequently defending either their (often undisclosed) party affiliations or the commercial prerogatives of their employer, against other columnists and their backers. It’s a dialogue between insiders who share a grossly inflated sense of their own importance. The current ABC v Murdoch scrap is little more than competition for market share in the commodity known as news and current affairs, via direct attacks on rival management and journalists.
There is little that is thoughtful and much that is repetitive, but everything seems designed to provoke – usually other columnists. The tyranny of concision ensures that complex and detailed ideas cannot be properly explained, so much commentary is little more than the personal vendettas of ideological vigilantes, the airing of petty grievances and the venting of long-standing obsessions.
There is one golden rule in political commentary, especially for in-house regulars, which is unfortunately honoured more in the breech than the observance. If you have nothing interesting or original to say, say nothing.
A new tendency: political apostasy
If there is an increasing tendency amongst Australia’s media commentariat it is not a shared ideological conviction – although the spectrum of opinion has sharply narrowed to the right in recent years – but a trend towards political apostasy. Reflecting a pattern set in the United States and the United Kingdom by David Horowitz, Paul Johnson, Christopher Hitchens and others, Australia’s political apostates such as Keith Windschuttle, Brendan O’Neill, Piers Akerman and Imre Salusinszky, appear motivated by a desperate need to cleanse themselves of the ideological sins of their youth by suddenly adopting diametrically opposite views. In the case of Robert Manne and Malcolm Fraser, the transition from liberal to conservative has been reversed.
Political apostates have the same limited credibility as reformed smokers who lecture others about the risks of lung cancer, and are equally insufferable. By renouncing their earlier faith and converting to its polar opposite they display a psychological need for devotion to some cause or belief system. This enables them to courageously challenge the orthodoxies of the “elites,” “the left” or “chattering classes” that they were once a member of, without explaining their own immunity from such a contagion.
There is something fundamentalist about their behaviour. They inhabit the extremes of both the ideological position they originally held and the one they have more recently converted to. The move from Stalinist to free market zealot, for example, is remarkably seamless. The neocons around George W. Bush were perfect illustrations of this ideological transition, and they have a mirror image amongst the oligarchs of Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
Most political apostates in the West are victims of the ‘God That Failed’ syndrome. They began their political lives as commissars on the left but soon changed tack when they realised that real power, wealth and influence lay on the opposite side of the ideological fence. Once established as servants of state capitalism – and frequently defenders of state violence – these rugged individualists devote their time to exposing the sins of former comrades who haven’t yet seen the light and shifted like magnets to the true centres of political power.
Reconstructing themselves as faux dissenters who would prefer their earlier liberal incarnation to be forgotten, political apostates adopt reflexively contrarian positions of the risk-free kind, often portraying themselves as persecuted dissidents in a liberal dominated industry. They accomplish this without noticing that they are surrounded by a stable of like-minded conservatives, statists and reactionaries. Ensconced in the heartland of corporate media, ideas such “risk”, “opposition to power” and “dissent” are rendered meaningless. Conformity, obedience and group-think rule the day. This is why on the Op Ed pages of the Murdoch press, a “range of voices” translates to a “range of conservative voices” all saying pretty much the same thing.
Media proprietors don’t need to issue ideological edicts, although Mr Murdoch apparently instructed his editors around the world to support the war in Iraq in 2003. They select editors who have already internalised the right views and values. Self-censorship is always more effective than orders from above.
On Op Ed pages it is now common to read strident posturing and contrived provocation disguised as thoughtful opinion. Aping the modus operandi of commercial talkback radio, in-house commentators make deliberate and often unsubstantiated criticisms of their counterparts in rival papers, hoping to trigger outrage, controversy, and an equally malicious response which can then be presented as a “public debate”.
Much of what passes for “debate”, however, is remarkably shallow and ill-informed, seemingly motivated by personal animus and utterly boring to most media consumers who remain indifferent to insider breast beating. It’s largely a closed discussion between people who share an exaggerated sense of both their importance and influence. Civility and serious debate have been replaced by infantile point-scoring and a quest for 60 Minutes-style celebrity, where the presenter/commentator is more important than the story.
Intoxicated by power: a supine media class
Writing at the birth of industrial society, Adam Smith identified a major weakness in the moral condition of the species:
“The disposition to admire, and to almost worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments.”
The 19th-century Russian anarchist Michael Bakunin concurred with Smith’s observations and understood how easily this moral corruption led to a love affair between the intellectual class and the state:
“…whatever conduces to the preservation, the grandeur and the power of the state, no matter how sacrilegious or morally revolting it may seem, that is the good. And conversely, whatever opposes the state’s interests, no matter how holy or just otherwise, that is evil. … [Machiavelli was right when he concluded that for this class] that the state was the supreme goal of all human existence, that it must be served at any cost and that, since the interest of the state prevailed over everything else, a good patriot should not recoil from any crime in order to serve it.”
Little, if anything in this regard has changed in 250 years. Proximity to power remains intoxicating for impressionable journalists and commentators, especially the ambitious and instinctively obedient. A depraved submission to authority and an ever-ready desire to please those in power may be the very antithesis of an adversarial media, but it is strikingly commonplace in the “mainstream”. Conformity and compliance are too often regarded as normal and natural, whereas dissent is evidence of anti-social tendencies and a severe personality disorder: it’s Stalinism redux, this time in the West.
An inner circle, where journalists are privy to confidences and trusted with sensitive information, is a very seductive locale to inhabit. Flattery yields to feelings of being special and exclusive – becoming a player, even a decision-maker. Loyalty and discretion are rewarded with privileges and access. There might be networking and photo opportunities, a book endorsement or launch, even the receipt of an authorised leak: later perhaps, a well-paid, high-status government job.
Whether it’s being duchessed around Israel with an all expenses paid guided tour organised by the local Israel lobby or an invitation to attend the Australia America Leadership Dialogue where Chatham House rules apply, scepticism and independence are replaced by a socialisation to power. In this atmosphere a journalist may come to believe that she, and the subjects of her reporting, are not adversaries at all but colleagues in a common enterprise. They effectively become courtiers, working to “understand” current problems while preserving the status quo: a patriotic agenda.
The personal hostility of many journalists and think tankers to Julian Assange and Edward Snowden stems from both professional jealousy that they were out-scooped by unorthodox competitors, and an instinctive fear of upsetting established power. Instead of investigating the behavior of governments and welcoming greater transparency about decisions being taken in the peoples’ name, many in the media became complicit in defending state power from public exposure. Along the way the ‘right to know’ about government malfeasance was abandoned and replaced with personal smears, innuendo and outright lies about those were actually informing the public.
Framing ideas and debates, telling people what they should think about public issues and defending doctrinal orthodoxies is what lobbying on behalf of power is all about. The role of journalists and commentators is to challenge and expose these processes, not to endorse or amplify them.
My weekly Guardian column:
The news that the US had killed two Australian “militants” in a drone strike was announced in mid-April. Christopher Havard and “Muslim bin John”, who also held New Zealand citizenship, were allegedly killed by a CIA-led airstrike in eastern Yemen in November last year.
Readers were given little concrete information, apart from a “counter-terrorism source” who claimed that both men were foot soldiers for Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, though they may also have been collateral damage (the real target being other terror heads).
The Australian government claimed ignorance of the entire operation. “There was no Australian involvement in, or prior awareness of, the operation”, a spokesman said. New Zealand prime minister John Key released some more details, saying that the country’s GCSB spies had been authorised to spy on him. “I knew that he had gone there [to Yemen] and gone to a terrorist training camp”, he stated.
Since publication of these bare facts, little new information has emerged from the government or other sources – except for some reporting in The Australian about Havard’s apparent transformation after he converted to Islam in his early 20s and went to Yemen to teach English. The paper editorialised in support of the strike: “to be killed in this way is regrettable”, it wrote, but obliterating civilians without a trial was acceptable because “such attacks have done much to stop the terrorists committing even more atrocities.” There was no condemnation of the scores of civilians killed by drones since 9/11.
It’s of course morally convenient to believe that the death of these men will make the world a safer place by removing “threats” without the need to place western soldiers in harm’s way – this is, after all, the apparently compelling logic of drone warfare. But it’s a myth challenged by the former drone pilots featured in the recently released documentary Drone, in which ex-Air Force pilot Michael Haas explains that:
‘You never know who you’re killing, because you never actually see a face. You just have a silhouette. They don’t have to take a shot. They don’t have to bear that burden. I’m the one that has to bear that burden.”
Yet, uncertainty be damned, the Australian government seems to keep on supporting the CIA killings with most of the media following without question.
Fairfax Media headlined one story “Abbott government defends drone strike that killed two Australian Al-Qaeda militants” without challenging that the two men were, indeed, militants or affiliated with Al-Qaida – they may or may not have been, but innocent civilians have been killed by drones before. The sentence “alleged militants, according to the government” never appeared in the article (this is a relatively common habit in journalism – see for example this essential take-down of a New York Times report on drone killings in Yemen).
I’ve reported independently from Pakistan and Afghanistan, and accurate journalism requires finding reliable sources on the ground (or corresponding with individuals through email, phone, encryption or Twitter) who can confirm or challenge the official version. It’s not rocket science, though definitive information can be scarce in a war zone.
In the last days I’ve reached out to various sources in Yemen (some of the best are here, here and here) and asked Sanaa-based Baraa Shiban to comment. His answer is revealing. “The lack of transparency has became a fixed strategy for the US in its drone war. The US announced recently the death of almost 30 militants in a training camp in Abyan, south of Yemen, but can’t release a single name; this tells it all.”
Taking the word of security sources and the state, when this information is so often wrong or deliberately skewed by anonymous officials who strategically leak to justify their counter-terrorism policies, is sadly all too common. “We don’t know the facts” is not a shameful statement. To be skeptical shouldn’t be a flaw, but an asset.
The desultory lack of debate over this latest drone attack is a sadly familiar tale (former Australian prime minister Malcolm Fraser lent a rare voice of criticism, saying Australians assisting the US drone program could face crimes against humanity charges). The Lowy Institute’s Rodger Shanahan, former army officer and Australian diplomat, offered a commonly-held view of the deaths: “If it is confirmed that these Australian citizens were members of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and were not deliberately targeted”, he wrote, “then I don’t think either the Australian government or public will lose much sleep over their passing.”
This misses the point entirely. The two men are dead, so arguments about the legality of their assassination should surely have happened before the US fired its missiles. Shanahan expressed confidence without evidence that Australia “would not allow the deliberate targeting of one of its citizens by another power.” This is a familiar refrain echoed by governments, too: that if you’re standing, sitting or socialising with militants, with or without your knowledge, your life could be in jeopardy.
The effect of this random violence, along with the devastating signature strike policy – drone attacks based on “suspicious” behaviour without knowing names or identities of people – is well documented. In Yemen, hatred of the US, along with major social and political tensions, is growing amongst a poor and scared population.
Although the Yemeni regime works openly alongside Washington in its war against perceived enemies (unlike Pakistan, which many say behaves in a similar way but feigns opposition to appease the angry masses) the death of dozens of alleged Al-Qaida militants and civilians at a major base in the remote southern mountains last week will only inflame tensions in the nation.
Let us not forget that the US drone program, massively accelerated under the Obama administration, is mired in secrecy. Earlier this month, a US federal appeals court ordered the government to release legal advice relating to the killings of three US citizens in Yemen in 2011. The American Civil Liberties Union correctly argued that it was unacceptable for the US to both claim the program was classified and yet leak selective information to favoured journalists to “paint the program in the most favourable light.”
The latest killing of two Australian citizens is not the end of the conversation, but the beginning. If these men were threats to national security, then the public deserves to know why and the legal backing behind it. The countless lies during the “war on terror” warrants skepticism of official claims.
My weekly Guardian column:
As an atheist Jew, I find it distinctly uncomfortable to defend the free speech rights of Holocaust deniers. I utterly oppose the inaccuracy, hatred and intolerance that goes with refuting the reality of Nazi crimes against Jews, gay people, Gypsies and many others.
But a truly free society is one that tolerates and encourages strong exchanges of ideas. This includes the most abominable of them, such as those expressed by German born, Australian-citizen, Holocaust denying Frederick Tobin, a regular bogeyman wheeled out to justify laws against offensive thoughts.
I fundamentally share the view expressed by Noam Chomsky that “acceptable speech” should never be decided by the state, because we “don’t want them to have any right to make any decision about what anybody says.” As a result, “a lot of people are going to say things that you think are rotten, and you’re going to say things that a lot of other people think are rotten.”
Australian academic Clinton Fernandes furthers this argument:
“One of the most important points in any discussion about the right of free speech is this: the defence of a person’s right to express certain views is independent of the views actually expressed. Thus, one might defend Salman Rushdie’s freedom to write The Satanic Verses without agreeing with the content of that book – or even needing to read it.”
These issues have all been thrust back into the public spotlight with the Australian government’s desire to amend the Racial Discrimination Act (RDA) to, in their view, expand free and often inflammatory speech. Attorney general George Brandis said last week that, “it is not, in the government’s view, the role of the state to ban conduct merely because it might hurt the feelings of others.”
Tellingly, Brandis has also arguably given the green light for intolerance when he said that people “do have a right to be bigots“. Surely the role of any responsible government is to condemn and fight hatred, rather than encourage it.
The response from the vast bulk of the left to the RDA alterations has been horror and opposition. Minority groups are outraged. The Labor party doesn’t support the changes and leader Bill Shorten has urged the Jewish community to lobby hard against the amendments (a request he would probably not make to other, equally affected communities because of the power of Australian groups backing Israel in influencing both major sides of local politics).
The Zionist establishment, long-time backers of the RDA, have written thousands of words in opposition to the government’s proposed changes, but the irony shouldn’t be lost on us. This is coming from individuals and organisations that routinely petition politicians and media organisations to erect tightly controlled limits on so-called acceptable talk around Israel and Palestine, illegal West Bank colonies and the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. They rarely have any complaints when anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian sentiment is floated in the press.
Unlike those groups, I welcome a robust discussion over the limits, intent and interest of the state in trying to restrict the most offensive speech imaginable – although I do have some misgivings.
I share some of the concerns of learned law experts, such as Andrew Lynch, a director at the Gilbert + Tobin Centre of Public Law at the University of NSW, who writes in the Melbourne Age that the government has a wilful blindness to the profound power disparity between those individuals or groups who may be offended or hurt by hate speech and those most likely to be using them (such as media personalities or politicians). It’s a position utterly lost on cocooned editorial writers and also on columnist Andrew Bolt, who this week praised his ability to receive an apology for hurt feelings, forgetting that his requests come with the power of the massive corporation behind him. Bolt is neither a fair arbiter of how the law should work in relation to hateful speech, nor in a position to understand the awful effect that verbal abuse can have on an Aboriginal, refugee, Jew, Muslim, or Greek.
In supporting some changes to the RDA – principally supporting the removal of laws against “offensive” speech – I acknowledge that I’m writing this as a privileged white man who has rarely experienced racial abuse or hatred because of my religion (except my public, journalistic frankness over Israel/Palestine and the “war on terror” has brought constant hate mail and even death threats).
And at this stage, I also have to underline the fact that the vast bulk of commentators pushing for changes to the RDA are also white and male. It’s impossible to ignore the lack of female, Indigenous and non-Anglo perspectives (there are some exceptions, such as Aboriginal advisorWesley Aird and Sue Gordon, who both back the government’s moves).
As a result, much of the discussion about the RDA is expressed by a political and media class that indulges racism on a daily basis, from theNorthern Territory intervention against Indigenous citizens to our treatment of asylum seekers, racial profiling, or our backing of wars in the Middle East. These groups and individuals don’t really care about tackling everyday racism, preferring to distract the public from their own shocking records instead.
None of this means, though, that those of us who have spent years fighting discrimination against minorities can’t feel uncomfortable with current laws that seek to restrict free speech. The RDA has not reduced tangible racism in Australia (if anything we’re becoming less friendly to migrants, according to a new study) and we shouldn’t look to a state that entrenches racism to legislate against it.
After thinking about this issue for many years, and growing up in the Jewish community I was constantly warned about rampant anti-Semitism, I support this comment by the 20th century American journalist H L Mencken:
“The trouble with fighting for human freedom is that one spends most of one’s time defending scoundrels. For it is against scoundrels that oppressive laws are first aimed, and oppression must be stopped at the beginning if it is to be stopped at all.”
It may make our hearts sink, but we owe it to our democracy to defend the rights of the most offensive people in our community.
I appeared on ABCTV News’s24′s The Drum last Thursday talking about changes in the Murdoch empire, the ethics and politics of changing the racial discrimination laws and why unions are in such dire trouble in Australia:
My weekly Guardian column is published today:
Australia’s reactionary culture warriors are amateurs compared to their British and American counterparts. Sack the ABC Chairman Jim Spigelman, screams News Limited columnist Piers Akerman. Privatise the public broadcaster, shouts the Institute of Public Affairs (a think-tank that refuses to disclose its funders, though the ABC still allows its spokespeople to appear). Former Liberal party employee Chris Kenny demands respect for the military and tweets like a man possessed about #theirABC and its supposed leftist agenda.
In Britain and America, where Australia’s brave keyboard warriors find their ammunition and snarky lines, the daily drumbeat towards a deregulated, privatised and militarised society continues apace. The commercial interests in neutering competition to this agenda is ignored – who can forget James Murdoch railing against the BBC’s “chilling” size and commercial ambitions in 2009, just before his company was engulfed in the phone-hacking scandal? Yet, despite their massive megaphone, I have long believed that these attacks are the cries of a frustrated minority.
In America an extreme version of the culture wars has life and death consequences. The battle for gay equality and marriage, while not won, is well on the way to being achieved. This is why American Christian fundamentalists are looking further afield to fight for the right to discriminate according to their twisted reading of the Bible. Witness the horrific recent anti-gay laws in Uganda and the clear involvement of US evangelicals. This is a culture war on a global scale, the logical outcome of a perverse belief that homosexuals should be punished or killed for their actions. Thankfully, Australia’s prominent culture warriors aren’t promoting such outrages.
So listen closely. Don’t confuse a loud voice with strength or an aggressive tone with confidence. Insecurity is the mainstay of ideological culture warriors (see the hilarious lead opinion article in the Australian this week about the evil of tattoos, as if a “civilisation collapsing” is occurring because countless men and women enjoy body art. Seriously).
There is no doubt that globalisation has negatively affected the economic well-being of the lower and middle classes, just one explanation for the success of the Tea Party movement. Now Fox News amplifies these grievances, offering a steady diet of stories that leads to many American whites claiming they’re suffering from racism.
The predictability of the attacks, the co-ordinated nature of countless shock-jocks just happening to all agree every week that the ABC, climate change, indigenous rights, gay marriage, asylum seekers or Islam must be abolished, imprisoned, ignored or silenced should be treated with contempt. Tribalism is the language of the hour, mates stick with mates, though it was little different under the previous Labor regime. Our media class prefers an insider culture that rewards favouritism.
And yet the left can’t ignore it, and must find far better strategies to deal with the onslaught. Far too often progressive voices are on the defensive, arguing on the terms set by the opposition, guaranteeing a loss. The culture war isn’t just about point scoring or winning an argument but how a society is taught, ordered, shared, viewed and expanded. We have the right to want a country and community that believes in truly equality and free speech for all, whether we’re Muslim, black, white, anti-Zionist, conservative, green or radical.
The hypocrisy of the right’s position – beautifully articulated by Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last week when he unsurprisingly found Fox News more concerned with some poor people abusing the welfare system than corporate government subsidies – must be exposed and a new, more enlightened framing introduced. The Australian government and its ideological soulmates across the world like to attack the culture of entitlement of the general population while still happily enriching their mates in business with overly generous tax breaks. It’s good to be rich.
A recent case study shows the effectiveness of lo-fi campaigning to address an injustice. Take the controversy over the Sydney Biennale and the apoplectic, elite response to artists and asylum seeker activists campaigning against the sponsorship of Transfield, a company running offshore detention centres. Most media ran countless articles all in furious agreement with the idea that the boycott was misguided. Attorney General George Brandis joined the party and communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull railed against the boycott (thankfully some in the general public showed more sense and Transfield remains in the sights of ethical campaigners).
This was a classic misfire from the critics and an unqualified success by the boycotters. Culture warriors, of the faux-left and right, damned the campaign for not achieving the abolition of offshore processing. That was never the goal, but rather to highlight the supply chain complicity of companies, such as Transfield (and across the arts by Santos and Crown Resorts Foundation, amongst others) who claim to be good corporate citizens and then bleat when challenged on their role in prolonging refugee (plus gambling or climate change) misery. The boycott is the start of a conversation, not the end of it. Moral practices matter and apparently it takes non-politicians and non-journalists to point this out.
The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel is growing globally for precisely the same reason, despite false accusations of anti-Semitism, because citizens are refusing to accept a brutal and illegal Israeli occupation of Palestine and BDS is a legitimate and non-violent to resist. Likewise the Biennale boycott. Two campaigns that refuse to cave to cultural gatekeepers who prefer to operate within the system rather than acting to challenge the toxic nexus between culture, corporatism and human rights.
The culture wars aren’t solely about intellectual issues, fought between competing elites, but the effect of business and government policy on people’s lives. This is why most culture warriors prefer pontificating from the safety of their embedded, well paid bubbles. People are suffering, in Afghanistan, on Manus Island or under the Northern Territory Intervention, while shock-jocks express outrage over the latest confected scandal.
It’s necessary to include a wide variety of voices in public discussions – the BBC news presenter John Humphrys recently accused his broadcaster of ignoring more skeptical views on the EU and immigration though the BBC’s pro-government stances are clear – and the ABC could undoubtedly have far more challenging perspectives across the political spectrum.
We have to fight the tendency to ignore these battles because they’re too hard or tiresome; a more just and transparent world depends on us engaged in these arguments and gaining support from ordinary people because without them we’re merely arguing with each other.
My essay in New Matilda is here:
As the BDS campaign starts to gain traction, accusations of anti-semitism should be treated gravely – whether from pro-Palestine advocates or Israel’s defenders, writes Antony Loewenstein
The charges of racism were serious. University orientation weeks, reported Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper, The Australian, in early March, “have been marred by a series of alleged anti-semitic incidents”.
Socialist Alternative stood accused, according to the Australian Union of Jewish Students, of expressing hateful comments towards Jewish students, praising Hamas and calling for “death to the Zionist entity” at the Australian National University and the University of New South Wales.
The reliability of the allegations of anti-semitism has not yet been assessed but, if they are found to be true, those responsible must be opposed. A spokesperson from Socialist Alternative tells me that his organisation categorically denies all of the allegations.
Federal Education Minister Christopher Pyne, a man who never misses an opportunity to fight a culture war he can’t win, accused backers of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel of making anti-semitism “a fashionability among highly ignorant sections of the far Left”. He wanted universities to “step in and take a very firm line” against racism on campus. “Free speech does not extend to ugly threats and physical harassment,” he argued.
It’s time to call this co-ordinated campaign of the local Zionist lobby and the Murdoch press for what it is; a cheapening of real anti-semitism and a clear attempt to brand all critics of Israel as Jew haters. It’s a tactic imported from America and Europe, articulated from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu down, that aims to neuter opponents of the Jewish state’s brutal, military occupation as deluded and anti-semitic.
The rhetoric is increasing as BDS scores impressive wins globally — countless European firms are changing their business practices towards Israel in rejecting the occupation — and has entered the mainstream as a legitimate tool to oppose Israeli policies.
Israel supporters have long believed that better PR will solve its problems, as if, for example, there’s any way to positively spin dozens of Israeli teens announcing their refusal to serve in the IDF due to its deleterious effect on Israeli society and Palestinian lives.
It’s a small but deeply courageous step in a society that still idolises a human rights abusing army (Amnesty’s new report details countless examples of the IDF killing Palestinian civilians in cold blood).
None of these profound shifts should escape the debate in Australian, where the Federal Government refuses to condemn illegal Israeli colonies in the West Bank.
The establishment Zionist lobby has tried for decades, with a degree of success, to insulate the Jewish community from the realities of occupying Palestine.
The advent of the internet and social media, along with a more critical young population who won’t be easily bullied into support for Israel because of the Holocaust, are changing the landscape. Hence the need to use old, tired tactics. Parroting Netanyahu’s fear-mongering over Iran and Arabs is increasingly treated worldwide with the contempt it deserves.
The old men who run the Jewish community may catch on one day that it isn’t enough to run an hackneyed style enemies list against opponents; countless journalists and editors will tell you of the bullying calls, letters and emails employed by the Zionist community against critical coverage. It only sometimes now works.
It’s a failing style even called out by The Australian’s Middle East correspondent John Lyons in a recent, robust defence of his stunning ABC TV 4 Corners story on Palestine, accusing distant, self-appointed Zionist leaders of being little more than blind defenders of Israeli government policy. Pundits take note: whenever quoting such people remember to whom they pledge partial allegiance and ask about their funding sources.
Any form of racism must be completely condemned, whether it’s directed at Jews, Muslims, Christians or other minorities. But the way in which a state and community deals with racism is a more pressing the question. After years of falsely accusing critics of Israel of anti-semitism — Sydney University’s Jake Lynch is the latest person to face the predictable and costly wrath of an Israeli-government endorsed legal case against his ethically justified backing of BDS — the organised Zionist establishment lacks credibility in crying about opposing racism, when it so flagrantly encourages demonisation of Israel’s critics along racial lines.
They have a morally compromised voice by being occupation backers themselves. How dare they claim to cry over an alleged rise in real anti-semitism (mostly online) while at the same time shedding crocodile tears against the growing BDS movement? Perhaps they should learn some humility and recognise what their beloved state has become known for globally: repressing Palestinians.
Politically, the Abbott government has pledged to remove section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act in an attempt, in their words, to increase free speech (a position loudly backed by The Australian).
Federal Attorney George Brandis said on ABC TV’s Q&A this week, defending his administration’s proposed changes that are opposed by the Jewish community and many other ethnic groups, that the current drafting in section 18C restricts the rights of all peoples to speak and be offensive. Now that there are signs that Brandis may be back-tracking on a complete repeal of the section, it’s really only the Murdoch press that bangs on about “free speech” while denying the same rights to many of its critics.
Despite all this, I’ve argued elsewhere, in opposition to many on the Left who believe the legislation should remain unchanged, that although all speech has limits, a robust democracy should legally tolerate insults over race. But the vast bulk of “discussion” over 18C has been at a desultory level.
Take the recent Australian Jewish News article by Fergal Davis, a senior lecturer in law at the University of NSW. He backed maintaining the current 18C legislation and then wistfully argued that the Abbott government could be the champions of human rights because “we must convince Australians that human rights are not ‘left wing’; they are at the heart of the fair go.” Nice sentiments, but utterly removed from reality. Davis ignores the new government’s shocking treatment of asylum seekers and refusal to seriously condemn abuses at the UN by allies Sri Lanka, Israel and Egypt.
The real questions for the Murdoch press, Zionist establishment, Abbott ministers and other supposed defenders of open speech are as follows: will you follow the path of many politicians in the US, both Democrat and Republican, who are increasingly trying to criminalise civilian backing for BDS? How serious is your commitment to free speech? How willing are you to preach tolerance and acceptance while believing that certain issues, such as legitimate criticisms of Israel (defined by whom will always be the question?) are beyond the pale and anti-semitic?
Away from the huffing and puffing of self-described friends of Israel lies the real limits of insulating Israel from criticism. Trying to stop BDS, through the courts, laws, parliament or defamatory attacks, will change nothing on the ground for Palestinians, and countless people around the world now know it. Israel and its dwindling band of Zionist backers in Australia and worldwide are desperately hanging onto 20th century tactics to fight modern opposition to a racially based state.
My weekly Guardian column is published today:
2013 was the year of Edward Snowden. The former NSA contractor, voted the Guardian’s person of the year (after Chelsea Manning the year before), unleashed a vital global debate on the extent of mass surveillance in the modern age. “Among the casualties”, writes one reporter, “is the assumption that some of the nation’s most carefully guarded secrets will stay secret.”
This is a uniformly positive development, despite the bleating from countless intelligence insiders, media commentators, the vast bulk of the US Washington elite and a media class that has largely forgotten how to operate without being on the official drip feed. The general public does not accept patronising claims by NSA backers that its tools are used to protect us from terrorism.
A mature debate about post 9/11 spying is essential, something that’s almost impossible to offer when politicians who should know better - I’m looking at you, Australian minister for communications Malcolm Turnbull – slam journalists for doing their job.
So in 2014, reporters have a choice: to either continue being regarded as untrustworthy pariahs (a recent Gallop poll in the US confirmed this belief amongst the general population), or as investigators on power. In this spirit, here are my suggestions for reporters to regain trust – so that all of us finally remember what adversarial journalism looks like in a robust democracy.
Be deeply skeptical of anonymously-sourced stories
Too many stories appearing in the mainstream media are sourced to one, often anonymous source. The Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance union states in its code of ethics that a reporter should “aim to attribute information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative attributable source.” This is routinely breached as journalists prefer to receive sanctioned leaks from officials, government and opposition ministers and advisors and sympathetic business players. It’s lazy and counter-productive, because the story becomes little more than propaganda dressed-up with a byline. Journalists don’t need to leave their air-conditioned offices, and they rarely do.
Think of this year’s main story: Syria reportedly using chemical weapons against its own civilians (despite serious concerns about the truth of the claim and President Obama’s questionable use of intelligence, as raised in a recent article by legendary reporter Seymour Hersh that has barely raised a ripple). When the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights – a one-man operation in Britain – is so routinely cited as a source of Syrian casualties in the media, it becomes problematic. The truth from inside Syria is notoriously tough to get, but editors should acknowledge that they often do not know what’s happening on the ground.
Moreover, journalists should only grant anonymity to sources if it’s absolutely essential. The New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan chastised her paper for failing to learn the lesson of history (hello, Iraq and WMDs?) and continuing to allow officials to give a clear agenda without attribution. “ One part of the solution”, she wrote, “is for reporters to push back harder against sources who request anonymity. This may not work on high-stakes national security coverage, but it certainly will in other areas.” Too often journalists will allow a source to be quoted anonymously because they’re desperate to find legitimacy to boost their stories’ credibility. The result is a yarn that will please those in power, yet strong journalism should always bring discomfort for those elected to rule us.
No more opinion pieces by sitting politicians
Our media landscape is polluted by politicians pushing a partisan line. An example: on Christmas Eve, Australia’s Liberal assistant treasurer Arthur Sinodinos wrote in The Australian that the economy was once again booming after Labor administration’s apparent mismanagement. It’s a press release that any self-respecting editor would refuse to print. Likewise, ABC TV’s Q&A should ban politicians, because they offer little more than hackneyed lines produced by overpaid PR agents.
Decent media outlets would tell politicians (and the advisors who often write the columns) that political point-scoring is tiresome. The job of a robust press isn’t to simply provide a carte blanche for our leaders to freely pontificate.
Increasing the ‘Snowden effect’
The rolling coverage of documents leaked by Snowden will continue into 2014 but the big challenge, as Dan Gillmor articulates in the Nieman Journalism Lab, is to:
“use the documents to identify and amplify an issue of such importance and scope that it doesn’t flame up and out in the manner of most stories … In 2014 and beyond, journalists should be inspired by the Snowden effect. They should focus more on critical mass – how to achieve it and how to sustain it. If journalism is to matter, we can’t just raise big topics. We have to spread them, and then sustain them.”
Wikileaks pioneered this publishing model, with countless media outlets around the world covering documents that relates directly to their country. Many others should follow this inspiring lead. It’s the opposite of parochial reporting, and it forces often reluctant competing publications to collaborate on key stories. Competition for leads, and a refusal to recognise that the internet makes such old traditions close to obsolete, hampers innovative journalism.
Cherish the importance of public broadcasters
Who can forget James Murdoch, himself involved in the British phone hacking scandal, telling the Edinburgh TV festival in 2009 that the size of the BBC was “chilling” and that it was mounting a “land grab” in a competitive media market? “The corporation is incapable of distinguishing between what is good for it”, he said, “and what is good for the country.” Such sentiments are routinely mouthed by Murdoch hacks in Australia, where innumerable editorials dare to demand the ABC prostrate themselves before the surveillance state and not damage the “national interest”.
The BBC has its issues - more scrutiny should be applied to its war coverage – but its existence is a challenge to commercial interests and a threat to market fundamentalism. In Australia the ABC, successfully bullied during the Howard years from 1996 to 2007 and intimidated from pursuing countless controversial stories, faces renewed pressures to kowtow to government whims. Constant pressure works, often through self-censorship – something I examined in my book My Israel Question over the Middle East issue. Producers, journalists and editors must resist any attempt to remove or soften stories with the potential to embarrass the powerful. The inherent dangers of taxpayer funded media in such a climate are clear.
Please share below your ideas about how to bring greater strength to the media and mechanisms to hold journalism, governments and business to account. We’ll all benefit from sharing ideas rather than believing one person or group has all the answers.
My weekly Guardian column is here:
Australia has an identity crisis that has never been resolved. Are we a US client state, happy to host any number of American troops and spying assets, or a fully integrated part of Asia? Do we crave true independence, or are we happy to remain America’s ‘deputy sheriff‘ in the Pacific region?
There’s nothing stopping Canberra from having close relations with both worlds, but our regional posture over the last decades has shown a muddled understanding of how to achieve this. We usually arguably prefer to remain tethered to an arrogant Anglosphere whose influence is waning.
When we do look to Asia, it’s not solely about business ties enriching Australian corporations. We too often back the most autocratic regimes imaginable, such as Indonesia’s Soeharto (fans of former prime minister Paul Keating should recall his fondness for one of the most brutal leaders of the 20th century). Canberra’s complicity in the Indonesian occupations of East Timor and West Papua also signals a willingness to ignore human rights for the sake of political expediency.
Australia’s love of foreign conflicts are infamous; this is noticed across (particularly Islamic) Asia. We marched in unison with the US in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – three devastating wars which we comprehensively lost. A decent nation, unlike our own, would offer an apology and compensation for having civilians pay a hefty price for our aggression, or for polluting the ground with deadly chemicals. Our brutishness is not forgotten by the millions of occupied people who experienced it first-hand; terrorism is born this way. Billions of dollars in annual foreign aid isn’t enough to buy us the forgiveness that’s required.
The current diplomatic storm between Australia and Indonesia highlights the myriad of problems with a country Tony Abbott claims is “our most important relationship.” The ability of president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono (SBY) to disrupt Australian government policies on asylum seekers, the live cattle trade and intelligence sharing shows how vulnerable Canberra is in its relations with our northern neighbour.
We deserve the embarrassment and awkwardness and yet surveillance state backers, such as Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian, claim to be confused over Jakarta’s anger – but just imagine the outrage in Australia if leaks emerged showing SBY snooping on Abbott’s mobile phone (which may well be happening now). Also never forget that Jakarta already operates a brutal network of spies on its own citizens in Papua; nobody’s hands are clean.
Abbott’s response has been predictable; this is a man who sees nobility in the anglosphere, conveniently ignoring the colonial legacies of their rule. As for the Labor party, it has no credibility on the issue because the spying occurred under their watch. A Royal Commission into Australia’s out of control intelligence and security services is the least Abbott should be doing. With new revelations appearing almost daily following Snowden’s leaks, only the most loyal propagandist for unlimited state power would claim that his documents haven’t led to a vital public discussion over the excessive scope of state intrusion on privacy and liberty.
The real scandal of Canberra’s current problems with Indonesia is that we are helping the US with its dirty work. Tapping SBY’s phone and gaining its contents has interest for both the US and Australia, but SBY and his wife aren’t the only targets – in all likelihood, Indonesian civilians with no connection to terrorism or extremism are also being monitored. Snowden documents prove that close allies of the US, such as Britain, allow Washington open access to potentially millions of their own citizens. Australia could be equally supine.
The sheer scale of worldwide snooping, assisted by compliant allies such as Australia, has been exposed by Snowden’s leaks. He should be immediately granted asylum in Australia (his liberty is undeniably threatened in his homeland) for such services to local and international understanding of US behaviour (much of which is illegal, something that doesn’t seem to bother the NSA’s most passionate supporters). An adversarial media should interrogate governments and officials of all stripes and not make life comfortable for those in power.
So where to for Australia’s relationship with Asia? A mature nation treats its neighbours with respect and engagement. Trust takes more than presidential or prime ministerial visits. Speaking out against human rights abuses should also be crucial for Australia. An independent stance means having constant public discussions about the role of a former colony entering the 21st century in a region that likes the idea of declining US hegemony.
And in the meantime, let the leaks continue, and increase – for sunlight always scares the powerful who act in secrecy, too often outside the law.
My weekly Guardian column is published today:
It’s hard to think of an Australian individual since 9/11 who has experienced more humiliation and abandonment by the federal government than David Hicks. Julian Assange, who declared he felt abandoned by the Australian government, perhaps comes close. As they both found out, an Australian passport is no guarantee of protection against a superpower determined to aggressively impose its will.
Hicks is currently launching legal proceedings in the US to overturn his 2007 conviction for providing material support for terrorism – a crime he and his legal team say does not exist. A 2012 ruling in a US appeals court found that a similar conviction against Osama bin Laden’s former driver, Salim Hamdan, was invalid because US law did not recognise material support for terrorism as a war crime at the time Hamdan engaged in the activity for which he was charged. Both Hicks and Hamdan were prosecuted under a 2006 law, and the US appeals court ruled that its retroactive application was illegal. Hicks is now trying to follow Hamdan in having his conviction quashed.
Here’s what we know about Hicks. He was born in Adelaide in 1975 and worked various jobs across Australia. He converted to Islam in the 1990s, stating he wanted to be around people who “shared his desire for belonging”. Drawn to what he saw as the oppression of Muslims in foreign lands, he left for Albania to join the Kosovo Liberation Army. By late 1999, he visited Pakistan to study Islam. In early 2000, Hicks joined the radical militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba (LET), and received training to fight Indian forces in Kashmir. He wrote in a letter that “there are not many countries in the world where a tourist, according to his visa, can go to stay with the army and shoot across the border at its enemy, legally”. He was in Afghanistan in September 2001 and, though he had no knowledge or involvement in the 9/11 terror attacks, he was captured and sold to the US for $1,000 and subsequently flown to Guantánamo, where he remained without valid charge.
Hicks maintains he was interrogated, tortured and held in isolation for nearly six years in Guantánamo – including 244 days in solitary confinement in a closet-sized cell without sunlight. He says he was also experimented on by US military doctors during his incarceration (a new study by The Task Force on Preserving Medical Professionalism found that doctors tortured suspected terrorists at Guantánamo Bay). Amnesty International maintains that Hicks was illegally detained without fair trial for years, and that when he did have one, the military commission he appeared before never met international standards for fair trials.
This didn’t stop Australian commentators from baying for blood, however. In 2011, News Limited’s Miranda Devine dismissed any critics of Guantánamo’s detention practices as whingers. Those thinking that “suspected terrorists” being “smacked around a bit” constituted overly harsh treatment were naive, she wrote. In other words, Hicks deserved what he got. When Hicks was still in Guantánamo Bay in 2007, Devine also referred to him as “a well-trained terrorist, an al-Qaida ‘golden boy’… and the enemy traitor when Australian troops were on the ground [in Afghanistan].” For years Hicks was primarily referred to in the corporate press as a “terrorism supporter” by Murdoch columnists such as Tim Blair – fair trial be damned.
Repeat government smears against individuals deemed suspect is nothing new. During the Cold War, many reporters were happy to be spies and display their deluded patriotic duty. Australian citizen and journalist Wilfred Burchett, who dared investigate the “other side”, was denied his passport for years because he refused to play the insider game of praising the capitalist west. In the “war on terror”, we see a new generation of journalists who blindly re-hash propaganda dressed up as fact about war, illegal detention and intelligence.
There is documentary evidence suggesting that in 2007, former prime minister John Howard asked the US to manage the Hicks issue. Colonel Morris Davis, the former chief prosecutor of military commissions, told US journalist Jason Leopold in 2011 that he had concerns about the Bush administration charging Hicks. There was “no doubt in my mind”, Davis added, that “this was an accommodation to help Howard by making the David Hicks case go away [in an election year].” The alleged political fix, which was always denied by Howard, bothered the vast bulk of the Australian population.
It’s perfectly legitimate, indeed crucial, to ask Hicks tough questions about his background, his belief in the Taliban and his nauseating old letters denigrating Jews and praising bin Laden. But none of this justifies long-term jailing, torture and psychological abuse. Colonel Morris Davis told the Australian in early November this year that the treatment meted out to Hicks at Guantánamo was “at least as good, if not better” than towards other detainees. It was an absurd statement – suggesting that Hicks may have been tortured, but it could have been worse.
Hicks tells me that his lack of both education and friends caused him to “make some unfortunate decisions” before 9/11. He says he now far better understands the world and reads widely. “I always wanted to help people”, he says, “but today it’s not through resistance, though the Australian government uses violence and sends troops to fight in various wars.” He condemns the vast bulk of the media for following the lies told about him for all these years. “Nobody is calling for accountability or a royal commission [about my case]. I would support this or a full judicial review.”
Although he has no contact with the other former Australian Guantánamo captive Mamdouh Habib, he rightly believes that he deserves monetary compensation, like Habib received, for his years of suffering. He’s not currently pursuing a compensation claim, but it’s something he hopes will happen one day soon.
Today, Hicks works as a panel-beater in Sydney and fears leaving the country. “I have a passport”, he says, “but with the targeting of individuals who supported Edward Snowden, including Glenn Greenwald’s partner David Miranda in London, I’m scared of traveling. If the US can go after them, and they’re big names, they could get me in spite.”
Justice for Hicks – through a formal apology and legal readdress – is vital to restore a modicum of Australian credibility. Heads should roll. Careers should end. Dignity can only be restored if apologies and compensation are offered.
My weekly Guardian column is published today:
The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, a thriving Palestinian-led initiative that attacks institutional links to Israel’s illegal settlements, has been gaining in popularity. In Australia, the movement has been slowly growing as Israel continues to defy international law – and it now faces one of its greatest opportunities in the court of public opinion.
Shurat HaDin – Israel Law Center is an Israel-based organisation that claims to be a civil group “fighting for rights of hundreds of terror victims”. It is currently taking Jake Lynch, head of Sydney University’sCentre for Peace and Conflict Studies (CPACS), to the Australian federal court. They assert that Lynch has allegedly breached the 1975 racial discrimination act by refusing to sponsor a fellowship application by Israeli academic Dan Avnon. Lynch and CPACS support BDS, and since Avnon works at Hebrew University – a key intellectual hub which is targeted by boycotters for allegedly being complicit in the establishment of illegal settlements – Lynch declined to be named as a reference.
The story has been largely ignored. Fairfax Media has not touched it, and ABC TV’s 7.30 only briefly addressed it last week. Instead, it is Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian which has been driving the debate on the issue, publishing countless stories that deliberately conflates antisemitism and support for the BDS movement.
Just last week, after the horrific bashing of Jewish men in Sydney, the paper featured a Holocaust survivor on its front page condemning the attack. Within the article was the rhetorical device of inserting comment about BDS – as if physically assaulting Jewish people was on the same spectrum as a peaceful, non-violent attempt to force Israel to abide by international law. Bizarrely, an op-ed published by Newscorp’s The Telegraph also said that the best response to the assaults was to support Max Brenner – the chocolate shop whose parent company, the Strauss Group, has been a target of BDS protestors for supporting the Israeli Defence Force.
Countless letters have since been published in The Australian reinforcing a correlation between antisemitism and the boycott – following this logic, Lynch and his backers are a threat to public order. This also ignores the nearly 2,000 signatories of a public petition backing Lynch (which a number of academics, including the co-founder of Independent Australian Jewish Voices, Peter Slezak, signed).
Last week, The Australian ran an editorial which implied that Lynch blocked Avnon’s academic credentials simply because he was an Israeli. Another front page story in the paper last week claimed that Hebrew University is a bastion of Jewish and Arab co-operation, yet ignored an example of the institution repressing Palestinian rights through its connections to the arms industry.
Lynch tells me that Shurat HaDin have deliberately skewed his BDS stance. He denies, despite what the group’s Australian lawyer Andrew Hamilton said on ABC TV last week, having “admitted” that he boycotted Avnon because he was Israeli. He told me:
“I have made it abundantly clear from the start that the policy is aimed at institutional links. If the Hebrew University is anything like the University of Sydney, then it probably employs academics from various backgrounds in terms of religious affiliation and country of origin. It would not make any difference to my or the CPACS’ policy if the applicant was originally from Belgium, Botswana or Bolivia – I believe the University of Sydney should revoke its part in the Sir Zelman Cowen and Technion fellowship schemes, and I reserve my right not to collaborate with them. Andrew Hamilton has clearly not paid serious attention to our policy, or to what I have actually done in pursuit of it.”
It’s worth noting that Avnon, endlessly praised in the Australian media as a humanist who believes in co-operation between Israelis and Palestinians, sits on Israeli group Metzilah’s General Assembly. This is a group that put out a report explicitly rejecting the Palestinian right of return to lands stolen by Israel, and claims that a Jewish state discriminating against equal rights for Palestinians is not problematic. It is worth noting that the Palestinian right of return is a requirement in international law.
Largely missing from the ferocious media coverage has been any information about the real agenda of Shurat HaDin. The organisation, according to Wikileaks documents, has strong links to Israeli intelligence and Mossad, just one of the many groups that now prosecutes Israel’s argument for the Jewish state. The law firm tried to sue Twitter for daring to host Hizbollah tweets, former US President Jimmy Carter for criticising Israel and Stephen Hawking for damning the Israeli occupation. Even the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, a leading Zionist lobby, refuses to endorse Shurat HaDin’s case against Lynch, pointing out that attempts to suppress the campaign through litigation are inappropriate.
Also absent from the debate is the reason BDS exists. It is growing due to a complete lack of faith in US-led peace talks. American journalist Max Blumenthal recently published a book, Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, which shows in forensic detail the reality of the Israeli mainstream’s embrace of blatant racism against Arabs and Africans. This isn’t what the Israel Shurat HaDin and its fellow travellers want the world to see. Indeed, Australian Israel lobby AIJAC responded to the latest BDS case against Lynch by completely ignoring illegal settlements altogether. This week Dean Sherr, a young lobbyist, wrote an entire column in The Australian about BDS without mentioning their existence.
The fear of BDS is reflected in the massive amount of money and resources Israel is spending to stop it. Instead of moving towards a democratic state for all its citizens, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues to demolish Palestinian homes and build illegal colonies on Palestinian land.
Shurat HaDin’s Australian lawyer, Andrew Hamilton, told Haaretz last week that BDS “does nothing to help Palestinians and indeed harms them. It is merely an excuse for the vilest public antisemitic campaign the western world has seen since the Holocaust.” With such a statement, which essentially compares Jake Lynch to a Nazi, it’s no wonder Zionist advocates are losing the public relations battle globally.
For some of us on the left, using the racial discrimination act as a tool to silence views we find distasteful is deeply worrying – I write this as somebody who opposed the legal case against News Limited columnist Andrew Bolt in 2011. A real democracy is a place where any individual has the right to vehemently oppose colluding with an overseas university institution that disputes equal rights for Jews and Arabs.
I look forward to Australia’s leading public backers of free speech, such as Bolt, Miranda Devine and the Institute of Public Affairs, loudly backing Lynch. Somehow I think I’ll be waiting a while for these brave advocates to find their voice.
Blind compassion is killing the asylum seeker debate. While Tony Abbott entangles his new government in megaphone diplomacy with Indonesia,upsetting our biggest neighbour in the process, refugees are struggling to survive closer to home.
Vast swaths of the Australian public remain hostile towards asylum seekers, and the advocacy groups supporting them need to ask if the strategy they employed over the last decade is partly responsible for it. Accusing the bulk of Australians of racism and discrimination, a common catch-cry of the left, has done nothing except harden hearts and allow media and political elites to ramp up cruel policies towards the most vulnerable souls landing on our shores.
The previous Labor government instituted a harsh regime of dumping asylum seekers out of detention without work rights, and the Coalition is set to deepen the problem. As a result of these policies, asylum seekers require community support. But according to Sri Lanka-born Ramesh Fernandez, CEO and founder of NGO Rise: refugee survivors and ex-detainees, this is not happening nearly enough. I met him last week at his organisation’s office, a small, bustling space in the heart of Melbourne.
Ramesh Fernandez and Nazeem Hussain. Photograph: Antony Loewenstein
As new arrivals visit Rise for legal advice on their refugee status, mass persecution continues in Fernandez’s birth country – despite the foreign minister, Julie Bishop, claiming otherwise. The Australian ran a fawning profile of Bishop last week. In it, she stated that on a trip to Sri Lanka this year she neither saw nor heard any evidence of persecution against Tamils, although statements by human rights group around the world proves the fallacy of this allegation.
Fernandez was released from mandatory detention in 2004 after spending time on Christmas Island and at the Baxter detention centre in South Australia. He says that he’s proud of the fact that Rise is the first asylum seeker organisation to be run by ex-detainees and people of non-white background. Rise is not funded by the federal government, and routinely refuses offers by the department of immigration to apply for grants.
Fernandez is outspoken and unforgiving towards the vast bulk of asylum seeker support services. Just this week, he sent out a press release damning the Uniting Church and human rights lawyer Julian Burnside for pushing for temporary mandatory detention. “Will the Uniting Church or any other organisations or community groups ever have the courage,” he wrote, “to call for humanitarian reception centres and hostels used in the past in Australia that assist in the rehabilitation of a group of people who are fleeing from situations of extreme trauma and cruelty, rather than advocating for the detention and security industry and stop compromising the lives and wellbeing of the refugee community for the sake of PR?”
The group has released a list of the companies making a fortune from privatised detention, and also didn’t spare community groups receiving federal government money, such as Anglicare, Wesley Mission and the Salvation Army.
“All human rights groups in Australia use unhealthy emotional attachment to refugees,” Fernandez tells me. “I’m against the stereotyping of refugees with sad and crying faces. White guilt is rampant, which often causes people to act to make themselves feel better rather than empowering asylum seekers. I want refugees to have a voice in this debate. I hate how refugees are often told at refugee rallies, by asylum seeker groups, “thanks for coming”, which is patronising and crazy when it’s white people saying that to brown and black people. Australia is one of the most racist nations in the world. Australia has never accepted that it has a racist past.”
Rise hosts a food bank, hip-hop concerts by asylum seekers, English classes, legal advice, publishes art and writing by refugee survivors, has a library featuring books by primarily non-white authors and a drop-in centre for children and adults. There are now 1,060 registered refugees with the group, and the need for such services has never been higher.
One of Rise’s volunteers is Nazeem Hussain, a Muslim comedian with a Sri Lankan background who performs with the group Fear of a Brown Planet and is the star of the SBS skit-show Legally Brown. Hussain tells me, “I grew up in a community of refugees and Rise is the only group I know that has the understanding of what they’re going through. Too many people are involved in the asylum seeker movement to feel good about themselves instead of helping refugees. Australia has a huge problem with racism, affirmed by both major sides of politics. The intervention against Indigenous people in the Northern Territory is mostly ignored because the racism is accepted.”
Over in west Melbourne, I visit the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre(ASRC). Community team leader Jana Favero shows me around the three story office building. She fears the coming three to six months under the Abbott government will tighten the noose around refugee rights and reduce their ability to source legal and community care. ASRC’s funding is mostly from private donations and philanthropy, with only 5% from the Victorian government, which ensures they’re not at Canberra’s mercy.
Favero worries that the “Abbott government could put pressure on the immigration department to discontinue our mostly good relationship between us and them, helping individual refugee cases.” ASRC never has enough money for the daily assistance in food, legal advice, housing, english and children’s classes and job hunting (for refugees allowed to work). Thousands of asylum seekers remain in limbo, on visas that don’t allow them full rights and unsure when that status will change, if ever.
Every day, volunteers cook up a lunch meal for up to 150 asylum seekers with donated food. Refugees have access to a large storage room for food, soap and healthcare products thanks to a needs-based points system. Refugee families are also given assistance in cooking healthy meals. During my visit, I meet Hazara men and women, African asylum seekers and, since it was during school holidays, a few rampaging kids. ASRC becomes an unofficial child care centre at various times during the day, and its office now opens into the night a few times a week to cope with the huge demand for services.
The ASRC’s Pamela Curr worries that the new federal government will only increase the secrecy around asylum seekers, a policy ably challenged by the Australian’s Mark Day this week. “I know of government-backed contractors signing confidentiality agreements and NGOs forcing staff with poor english to sign agreements with no legal standing”, Curr says. “They claim that speaking out in the media is not the way forward, private engagement with the immigration department is better, but it’s not born out by the facts.” One year after the re-introduction of off-shore processing, she despairs as she still hears stories of young men being raped and abused on Manus Island.
Resistance to the Coalition’s policies, coupled with outlining viable alternatives, is surely the best way to reform Australia’s dysfunctional relationship with asylum seekers.