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.