Is a debate about the Israel-Palestine conflict too hot for The Australian to handle?

In his recent controversial book Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, former US president Jimmy Carter describes the Israeli occupation of the West Bank as worse than apartheid South Africa.

I was commissioned in December by The Australian’s opinion editor, Tom Switzer, to write an article about the book and the associated controversy (he had published three Israel/Palestine-related articles of mine in 2006.) The piece was due to run in the days after Christmas when the paper was to be overseen by fill-in editor Nick Cater (replacing holidaying editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell.)

I was soon informed that Cater refused to print the article, although he gave no reason to Switzer’s summer replacement, Sian Powell. When Switzer returned from holidays he told me he hoped to prevail over Cater’s intransigence and publish my article. I’ve now been informed that the paper will not do so. The latest Cater excuse is that my recent Sydney Morning Herald essay on blogging criticised the mainstream media (though not The Australian) and therefore I clearly didn’t respect the Murdoch organ. Really.

Switzer is appalled at the level of censorship displayed in this case (and cannot recall another incident where similar moves have occurred). He had even commissioned an opposing piece by Muslim dissident Irshad Manji to counter my article.

My article simply explained the controversy surrounding Carter’s book, the hysterical response by the Zionist lobby in the US (the latest example is here) and that whenever Israel faces its greatest criticism the usual suspects in the media try and shut down debate.

Carter’s observations are remarkably similar to comments by any number of mainstream Israelis. For anybody who has spent time in the West Bank, as I have, Carter’s analysis is both obvious and long overdue. The Australian media has virtually ignored the firestorm created around the book (except for a shallow article in last weekend’s Australian).

If The Australian is serious about “keeping the nation informed”, this latest example of suppression reeks of desperation, intellectual laziness and arrogance. Its readers deserve better.

Nick Cater, The Australian‘s Deputy Editor (Weekend), writes: Antony Loewenstein is correct to point out that the debate triggered by Jimmy Carter’s latest book is an important topic which has been overlooked by every newspaper in Australia except The Australian. But Antony is incorrect to suggest that his voice is being silenced. The Australian‘s opinion pages under Tom Switzer’s stewardship provide a forum for rigorous and intelligent debate. The number of pieces submitted each day far exceed the space available ensuring healthy competition among contributors. We set the bar high and on this occasion Antony’s piece failed to clear it. I also part company with Antony on his assessment of Geoff Elliott’s piece on the Carter debate in The Weekend Australian‘s Inquirer section (January 27/28). Elliott captured the essence of the Carter controversy – the use of the word apartheid in the context of modern Israel – in a fair and balanced feature. The Australian encourages open and frank discussion of the Zionist issue and it would be false to claim we only cover one side of the debate. We ran two of Antony’s pieces after the publication of his book last year together with an extensive review. We were the first newspaper in Australia to pick up on the London Review of Books essay “The Israel Lobby” by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer. We ran a number of comment pieces and an extensive extract from the book itself. More recently we ran Elizabeth Wynhausen’s piece assessing the influence of the Jewish lobby in Australia. The Australian‘s decision to post a senior correspondent to Jerusalem shows our commitment to informed coverage of Israeli and Middle Eastern affairs. The debate over the issues raised by Carter and others will continue in The Australian.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey