Nov 20, 2012

Gaza conflict re-opens debate: should junkets be junked?

At least two Australian journalists are reporting on the current Middle East conflict thanks to a lobby-funded study tour, but only one of them is declaring it in their articles. Is that ethical?

Matthew Knott

Former Crikey media reporter

Should journalists go on study tours to the Middle East paid for by partisan lobby groups? And if they do, should they disclose this to their readers? To many people -- particularly those with passionate views on the Arab-Israeli conflict -- the first question is highly contentious. Time and again, however, the answer from the nation's most influential and respected media figures is "yes". Each year, the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies and the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council organise study tours to Israel and Palestine for Australian journalists. The participants attend briefings with government officials, military advisers and NGO workers. They visit Palestinian refugee camps, Israeli settlements and the areas around the Israel/Lebanon and Israel/Gaza borders. They tour the Israeli parliament and supreme court. They don't usually find themselves in the middle of a major military offensive. This year they did. Among those on this year's Board of Deputies tour were The Sydney Morning Herald's Saturday editor Judith Whelan, The Daily Telegraph's chief political reporter Simon Benson, SBS managing director Michael Ebeid and Sky Business presenter Brooke Corte. According to Whelan, reporters from the Herald Sun, The Australian, The Australian Financial Review and The Age were also flown over by the AIJAC. This year's tour began on Sunday, November 11 and ended last Thursday, the day after Hamas military leader Ahmed al-Jabari was killed by a guided Israeli missile. At least two reporters -- Whelan and Benson -- decided to stay on and report. Whelan, who remains in Israel, has filed news and colour pieces from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Fairfax's Middle East correspondent Ruth Pollard has reported from Gaza. All Whelan's stories have carried the disclaimer: "Judith Whelan travelled to Israel to take part in a study tour courtesy of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies. She has remained to cover the escalating conflict." When asked by Crikey whether reporters should always include a declaration when an external party has helped finance a trip, Whelan said: "Yes it should always be declared." On Friday, The Tele ran a full-page piece by Benson on life in the southern Israeli town of Sderot, an area that regularly comes under heavy shelling from Gaza. In that piece, Benson declared he was there on a study tour. His subsequent reports -- see here, here and here -- have not carried a disclaimer. Benson declined to comment. Crikey understands his and the paper's view is that further disclaimers were not necessary because he was travelling as a News Limited reporter, not as a guest of the Board of Deputies. Denis Muller, a former associate editor of The Age, isn't convinced. "It's absurd to argue that he's there in a private capacity," said Muller, who now lectures in media ethics at the University of Melbourne. "He's there as a consequence of a sponsored trip and he should say so." Crikey's Margaret Simons revealed in 2009 that SMH columnist Paul Sheehan had not declared that two of his opinion pieces were based on an Israel study tour organised by the NSW Board of Deputies. Muller sees no problem, per se, with journalists taking sponsored trips -- as long as they declare it. Editors, however, have a duty beyond just running declarations. They must ensure their publication's coverage isn't skewed -- especially when the issue is as important and divisive as the Middle East conflict. This can be done, Muller says, by publishing accounts from different locations or perspectives to that of reporters on the study tours. Muller says accepting sponsored travel can often be the "lesser of two evils"; a view developed during his time at The Age in the early 1990s when sponsored travel pieces were banned. The edict led to a dependence on external copy, meaning editors had little idea whether reporters had behaved ethically while researching their pieces. "The crucial thing to say at the start is that the journalist will retain complete discretion over what they write," he said. "The reporter must be able to decide whether to write anything at all and have control over the content. The journalist should not become a mouthpiece for the sponsoring organisation." While declarations are essential, Muller says he would like to see journalists on sponsored trips go further by writing descriptive pieces explaining why they went and how the process works. Readers could be directed to read such pieces online if there's not enough space in print. "Why not take the reader into your confidence?" Vic Alhadeff, CEO of the NSW Jewish Board of Deputies, told Crikey: "We invite journalists to participate whose work may involve international issues. We would be happy to consider Crikey for next year's study trip. This would give you a sound understanding of the situation in that part of the world and enable you to form your own conclusions in the most open and transparent manner possible." Perhaps we'll take up Alhadeff's offer next year and write that descriptive, insider piece Muller is hankering for. We'd also consider a media tour organised by pro-Palestinian Australian groups. But according to several sources contacted by Crikey on both sides of the debate, no such tours exist.

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47 thoughts on “Gaza conflict re-opens debate: should junkets be junked?

  1. paddy

    I guess the sad reality is in that last para.
    Achieving “balance” in such a lop sided conflict is a very difficult act.
    Don’t know what the answer is.

  2. Liz45

    In short, YES!

    The current PM has been on a visit to Israel, paid for by Israel. Of course, it’s no surprise to find her supporting Israel 100%. I find it depressing, and the one sided news coverage makes me angry. Israel ‘has a right to defend ‘herself’ it would seem, but the Palestinians should just put up with being under military occupation; have their homes destroyed their children shot at or imprisoned or heckled at the point of a gun etc, and just cop it on the chin.

    I used to have some sympathy with Israel, but that’s all gone now. I think they’re just as bad as Hitler – but not quite as ‘efficient’ – no big numbers in one go! But the attitude is the same. The west thinks everything they do is OK, and the Palestinians deserve what they get, including being kept in a state of almost starvation by their occupiers. I despair that we are just leading to the next wave of radical young people who are sick of the powerful violence that is condoned by us. Despicable!

  3. Kevin Herbert

    Liz 45: agreed wholeheartedly.

    It’s now estimated by various US mainstream polls that in the US more than 60% of Jews, particularly under 30 years old, no longer accept that Israel has to be right about everything. There are some gr8 coaltions of young US Jews who publicly criticise Isarel continually including CodePink, Muzzlewatch, Not in My Name Rabbis, et al, who are voicing their strong opposition to Israeli apartheid & ethnic cleansing.

    It’s a global phenoma, with say ther UK CHief Rabbi Sacks saying that it was time for Israel to change tactics, after such a long period of unrelenting, unproductive conflict.

  4. Mike R

    I am all for balance and I also ask myself why there are no tours to give an alternative view point? The Mid-East is awash with petro-dollars. Surely it would be just pocket money for one of the oil rich kingdom’s, say the Qataris or the Saudis, to fund an all expenses junket for every pollie and journo in this country to all the he hot spots in The Middle-East. They could get the inside perspective of Hamas and the situation in Gaza for instance (once the current hostilities are over). No need to get on a flotilla as the southern border is under Egyptian control and they let through all kinds of people.

    You can get to hobnob with Mid-eastern royalty, Egyptian and Tunisian politicians. You can also examine in detail the way the Gazan economy works . Over the past year the economy has been booming in Gaza with a growth in GDP in Gaza of 28% ( see – compared to the anaemic growth here in Australia, so there may be many economic lessons for Australian pollies . Their seems to be little impediment to the import of Iranian missiles and a range of weapons into Gaza (and subsequent export via Israel) . There are also cottage industries that manufacture all kinds of associated weaponry and there is no shortage of Mercedes Benz FWD’s that have been converted into rocket launchers. Many useful lessons can be learnt on the economic front.

    Despite all this economic activity around missiles and weaponry there are claims of shortage of humanitarian aid and food which could well be true. If this is the case then thus must indicate a strange set of priorities for both Hamas and their wealthy financiers.

    It is amazing how travel, especially over long distances, can change ones perspective. Could it be that the facts found on such a tour of a place like Gaza would not correspond with the preconceived ideas of the prospective guests and may be particularly counterproductive to the hosts? Could this is be the reason why there are currently no such tours offered? Clearly money is not an issue. Anyone got any other suggestions?

    Journalists from Crikey should take up the Israeli offer and also visit the Palestinian territories (without minders), talk to the locals of all persuasions and in light of my comments above, particularly spend some time in Gaza, if the security situation permits. We might get further excellent articles such as those recently by Matthew Clayfield which illustrated the complexities of the situation and showed that many people on all sides are sick and tired of the conflict.

    Liz45 could join such a tour of the Middle-East and maybe then she might realize that the rhetoric of extremism benefits no-one, particularly those who want to see an end to all this mayhem.

  5. shepherdmarilyn

    I agree Liz, Gillard is in the pockets of the Melbourne zionist community and she is brainless.

    But then she just demanded another $1.67 BILLION TO JAIL INNOCENT REFUGEES.

  6. Sanjay

    When the British made a TV series called The Promise for channel 4 and was broadcast on SBS the local lobby group for Israel went into overdrive to try and have the DVD banned in Australia and a very detailed complaint lodged with SBS. This type of control over our media by a foreign country is an indication of how well organised the Israel lobby has become.

  7. MJPC

    Who pays the Piper calls the tunes.

  8. Mike R

    Correct me if I am wrong but I believe I saw all four episodes on SBS. Did you miss them? It seems that the Israel lobby can be remarkably ineffective.

    If a similar partisan piece was screened on SBS espousing only Israel’s point of view then I would expect a similar outcry from supporters of the Palestinian point of view and a similar response from SBS. That’s democracy for you.

  9. Sanjay

    READ WHAT I WROTE mike r

  10. Mike R

    Sorry Sanjay, did they try to get the DVD banned as well? Again the pro Israel lobby has come up short again. I f you are desperate to see it in DVD form try . It is also available at Readings and If you are really desperate then you can go online and view it on various sites including channel 4. It took a total of three minutes to obtain this information via Google. Do I have do the all the work for you?

    I will also try the local VideoEzy to see if they have not succumbed to the Zionist lobby. Maybe you are right about the Israeli lobby, I notice that so many video stores in our neighbourhood have closed recently.

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