Greg Sheridan took what passes for public debate straight down into the intellectual gutter this week by verballing Radio National’s Sandy McCutcheon in The Australian. Check out the full column here.

As Sheridan described events, he was trying to put the Australia Talks Back host straight on the fact that Spain soldiers had not been involved in the “war” in Iraq, because they had come in after the actual invasion of the country.

“How ridiculous, replied McCutcheon. Nobody says that,” Sheridan wrote.

In fact, it was Sheridan who said “ridiculous” during a discussion between the pair when McCutcheon had made the perfectly legitimate point that many people regard what is happening in Iraq today as part of the war, in which Spain is still participating. (Check out the audio stream on the ABC website.)

Sheridan was trying to argue that the war ended when George W Bush staged his photo opportunity on an aircraft carrier in front of a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished”, a point he’d find no end of commentators happy to debate with him.

The discussion amounted to hair-splitting over a definition, but McCutcheon can point to a number of Bush administration figures who have used the “war” word to describe what has been happening in the last 10 months, and respected New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman used it in his piece yesterday to described current events on the ground in Iraq.

In any case, Sheridan seriously misrepresented McCutcheon and from there moved to the truly bizarre to claim that this showed a “stunning lack of curiosity by most Australian liberal commentators about the motivations and ideology of al-Qaeda”.

However, even alert readers who managed to stay with Sheridan to the end of what was a nasty diatribe were left none the wiser about what precisely the exact connection between al-Qaeda and the “war” word.

And from there Sheridan quickly moved on to bitch slap “Lateline’s” Tony Jones in highly defamatory and inaccurate terms for daring to interview John Pilger. We suspect this might be revenge for when Jones reprimanded Sheridan last year for going completely over the top against Iraq-friendly British MP George Galloway in a Lateline debate. He hasn’t been invited back since and you can check out this big Sheridan debate on Crikey to understand why.

Ignoring the damage he was doing to freedom of speech, Sheridan misrepresented Jones’s Pilger interview, suggesting that Jones “nightly coos and bills over left-wing commentators, even giving a respectful hearing to the odious John Pilger”.

Jones’s Pilger interview was nothing if not professional and again the transcript of it is available at the relevant ABC website.

While Sheridan was abandoning good manners, any form of relationship with the facts and a sense of proportion, his colleague Imre Salusinszky was giving him a close run for his money on the same page.

While conceding that the Curtis Levy directed documentary “The President v David Hicks” was “certainly a disturbing and thought-provoking”, Salusinszky nonetheless felt it should not have been made (at least not with public funding).

What have these guys got against freedom of speech? Isn’t that why we are fighting the Islamic fundamentalists?

The problem, according to Imre, was that even though the documentary left the viewer in “far less doubt than we were before that Australian Taliban fighter David Hicks is a vicious fundamentalist who trained with al-Qaeida”, it then goes on to conclude “that that is far less reprehensible than the detention of Hicks by George W Bush, and the acquiescence of John Howard”.

In fact, it did no such thing – it merely questioned the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay, and the military tribunal proposed to hear any charges against them.

Imre seems to have trouble holding these two thoughts at the one time, although it is perfectly possible to think that Hicks is a cold-blooded terrorist but that he should be afforded natural justice and due process under the rule of law that supposedly characterises Western democracies.

In fact Hick’s military defense counsel Major Mori and the Chief Law Lord in the UK have both attacked the detention of prisoners in Cuba and the tribunals in the harshest terms. Imre on the other hand has little trouble with them.

And it seems, he likes a more than a little propaganda with his publicly funded documentary suggesting they could be devoted to remembering the 88 Australians who died in the Bali bombing.

But the best is yet to come. The clown prince of Australian columnists, Tom Blair over at The Bulletin, is not just concerned about too much freedom of speech and dangerous concepts like habeas corpus, he is troubled by the democratic process itself.

Blair set upon the Spanish people, as they grieve and bury the dead from the Madrid bombings, labeling them as cowards and appeasers for voting out the pro-Bush Aznar Government.

Pretending to know what moved a nation of 40 million to vote as it did Blair, claimed it was mere “anti-conservative spin” and “insane” to argue that “the Spanish government was punished by voters not so much for the attacks but for trying to pin the blame on ETA”.

Well there is a lot of this insanity about, coming from both Friedman in the New York Times and US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, among others, yesterday. Neither of these gentlemen have previously been accused of pushing “anti-conservative spin”.

Blair then went on to have a swipe at the UN Security Council for the “drastically premature move, which the UN must have known would influence (one way or the other) the election” by passing a resolution blaming the bombing on ETA.

Since the Security Council vote was taken at the instigation of the Aznar Government it seems odd to blame the UN itself, but then Blair specialises in oddities.

Even more curious is the inference that the UN was thereby meddling in the Spanish election to the detriment of the Aznar Government when you remember (did Blair ever know) that to be passed, the resolution needed the support of the US whose vote against would have vetoed it.

Follow Blair’s logic and you end up with the suggestion that the Bush Administration supported a resolution likely to damage its major ally in contental Europe which has to be a serious contender for conspiracy theory of the week.

And all of this nonsense cobbled together to attack the outcome of a democratic election, in the words of a Spanish blogger he quotes, as being “a victory for appeasement. A victory for cowardice. The Spanish people demonstrated today that they have no courage.”

Whatever other impacts they may be having, the bin Laden gang seems to have seriously unhinged the minds of what are meant to be, by virtue of the positions they hold, the finest analytical minds in Australian journalism.


Tony Jones hits back

Tony Jones, Presenter of Lateline has sent a surpisingly strong defence to The Australian in response to Greg Sheridan’s crtiticism.

Curious about al-Qa’ida
19 March 2004

IT’S tempting to respond to your Pythonesque columnist Greg Sheridan (Opinion, 18/3) with the one-liner about blinkered, Philistine pig-ignorance but that would be to ignore his laziness.

Any regular viewer of Lateline, or any commentator who, unlike Sheridan, actually researched their subject, would soon find that we have devoted many hours to discussions examining the motivations and ideology of al-Qa’ida, about which Sheridan claims we have a stunning lack of curiosity.

Here’s a small sample of those interviewed on the subject: Daniel Pipes, Christopher Hitchens, Malise Ruthven, Harlan Ullman, Zacary Abuza, Rohan Gunaratna, William Kristol, George Monbiot, William Shawcross, Martin Indyk, Fareed Zakaria, George Joffe, Hamid al Bayatti, Thomas Friedman, Entifadh Qambah, Samina Ahmed, Marty Natalagawa.

Unlike Mr Sheridan, who flies in circles using his one right-wing, we seek opinion from all perspectives to better understand the subject.

Lateline’s journalists were also among the first to focus on the threat posed by Jemaah Islamiah in a series of investigations in February, 2002. Only three days before the Bali bombing we ran a piece in which Rohan Gunaratna warned the Government to upgrade its threat assessments because this country had been targeted and may have been penetrated by an operational cell.

As to Mr Sheridan’s contemptible imputation that we gave John Pilger a free-kick, I refer readers to the transcript (10/3/4) where they will see that Pilger’s views were strongly challenged in an adversarial interview.

Our intense interest in the subject of terrorism as a fundamental issue of our time is clear and it goes beyond al-Qa’ida.

We were the first to quiz the Prime Minister, in June last year, on why, after an endless string of suicide bombings in Israel, Hamas had not been declared a terrorist organisation by his Government.

Such facts may not survive in the airless atmosphere on Planet Sheridan but we hope that, at least, he may have seen last night’s Lateline which, by co-incidence, was devoted to an examination of al-Qa’ida’s methods of propaganda.

Tony Jones
Presenter, ABC Lateline

Peter Fray

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