Yesterday Sydney Morning Herald columnist Paul Sheehan published a column headed “It’s Too Easy Just to Blame the Jews” which referred to a time last November when he “happened to be in Israel”.

Sheehan referred to briefings he received from the Israeli Government on the reasons for the operation in Gaza. He also referred to a tour he took of a Palestinian refugee camp.

The column was about the depth of passions — on both sides —concerning Israel.

But Sheehan did not just “happen” to be in Israel. He was on a tour organised and sponsored by the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies and the Israeli Ministry for Foreign Affairs — part of the Israeli public relations effort.

This fact was not declared in his column.

He has previously written this column based on his trip to Israel, and here too the sponsors of his trip were not declared.

There were four journalists on the trip, which took place last November. The others were Janet Albrechtsen of the Australian, Jacinta Tynan, news journalist and presenter for Sky News, and Peter Charley, executive producer of SBS’s program Dateline.

Paul Sheehan seems to be particularly smiled upon by the Israeli Government and the Jewish Board of Deputies. The latest trip was not the first, as this article from Australian Jewish News reveals.

Albrechtsen wrote this column as a result of her November trip, in which she said: “To spend a week in Israel is to begin to understand that this country is generations away from peace with Palestinians,” and focussed on the “hate education” of Palestinian children.

But Albrechtsen scrupulously declared who had sponsored the trip at the foot of her column.

A spokeswoman for SBS confirmed that Charley (who is presently on leave) had been on the Israeli sponsored trip. She said that the station had a “fairly open policy” on the taking of sponsored trips, with journalists left to themselves to decide what was worth doing.

She said that the taking of trips would not interfere with the reporters’ objectivity and the sponsorship of the trip would be declared. Since Dateline has been in recess ever since Charley returned, the issue has not yet arisen.

Tynan and Sheehan did not return calls asking for comment before Crikey’s deadline today.

Vic Alhadeff, Chief Executive Officer of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, told Crikey this morning that trips for journalists are run every year, and there was nothing unusual about the one last November.

He said there was no “scientific” process by which journalists were selected, and that the aim was to allow them to “see for themselves”. Meetings were lined up with key figures, in government and the military but the journalists were otherwise allowed open access, and were not controlled. “We try to make the opportunity available to as many as possible,” he said.

The Israeli Government has been running a highly innovative PR campaign during the current troubles, including the world’s first media conference conducted via Twitter.

Sponsoring trips by journalists is a much older technique, and you’ll get a debate in any journo pub or café about whether such trips should be taken, or not.

I think there are two worrying things about this scheme. First, the journalists are approached directly, and at least some media organisations seem to leave the choice of whether to accept entirely up to them — raising the risk that the reporters will be selected because they are sympathetic, or perceived as likely to be sympathetic, to the Israeli side of the story.

Second, not all organisations seem to require their reporters to declare the fact that they have taken the benefit in their copy. Surely Fairfax should require this of Sheehan?

Particularly given the present focus on what and where Israel will allow journalists to report, full declaration is surely the very least that should be required.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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