Sky News's David Lipson

Sky News’ David Lipson addresses the gathering (Image: Giselle Haber)

There comes a moment in every journalist’s career when you know you have to pay the price: for access, for information, for that fabulous five-course lunch at Rockpool. As media budgets decline and editors stop paying for things like trips and meals, this issue is becoming more and more important. Because we all know that “he who pays the piper calls the tune”.

Nowhere is this more evident that in the standard practice of taking Australian journalists on “study trips”, or junkets, to Israel. The Jewish Board of Deputies and the Australian/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council regularly sponsor lavish five-star trips involving business-class flights, car trips with armed drivers, dinners at the Australian ambassador’s house and flights in light aircraft over the Golan Heights.

Here at Crikey, we are uniquely positioned to judge this, because we seem to be the only mainstream media outlet who hasn’t gone. I’d like to think it’s because we are so principled, but it could just be that we’re really unpopular. Either way, it’s great to be the only virgin in the brothel,  and so it was with a feeling of slight smugness that I went to the Sydney Jewish Museum last night to hear four journalists report back on the latest junket.

This trip, involving seven journalists and one academic, has acquired some notoriety because one of the participants triggered a security alert by breaching the rules concerning the identification of Syrian patients in a hospital. A photo of four of them in a mud pool in the Red Sea was also printed, causing upset.

Last night four of the journalists sponsored by the Jewish Board of Deputies rolled up to talk about the trip. They were introduced by the CEO of the JBD, Vic Alhadeff, who said he had predicted that the journalists would come back “exhausted, overweight and confused”. First up was Daily Telegraph deputy editor Ben English, who wrote a largely anti-Palestinian piece on November 28.

His talk was much of the same, and started by telling the audience that two of his mother’s first cousins had died at Auschwitz and that he had struggled with the “endless contradiction that is Israel”.

Next up was David Lipson from Sky News, who had obviously read the criticism of the trip. “To label it a junket or a propaganda trip completely misunderstands the depth and value of this trip.” The trip was essential to “opening up my eyes,” he said, adding that before he went, he was “unaware of the full complexity of this incredible country”.

However, he then showed a bit of backbone, appearing to bite the hand that fed him. “The Israelis no longer seem to be looking for a solution” to the conflict, but are just “minimising the harm inflicted on their people,” he said.

Although the journalists had been told that the hotly contested issue of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank “were not an impediment to peace, I’m not completely convinced of that,” he said. “I think that the impact of the settlements is underestimated by Israel or deliberately ignored. Imagine if the Indonesians put up homes in northern Australia and sent the military in to protect them.” He said the settlements probably inflamed the situation “a bit”.

The next speaker, Channel Seven’s Alex Hart, grabbed our attention by describing his medical emergency in Ramallah. Suffering a terrible bout of food poisoning (following the Australian ambassador’s dinner) he was forced to lie in the foetal position while a Palestinian doctor gave him an injection in the buttock. From this promising start he continued strongly, saying that he had a “firm belief” that “nothing short of a two-state solution will be an acceptable outcome. Israel and Palestine co-existing with some semblance of peace is something to aspire to. But Israel must be the driver there.”

If it were one state with two systems, the Palestinian people would be denied equality, he added.

The final speaker, The Sydney Morning Herald’s Bevan Shields, talked about the “elephant in the room” — the media portrayal of the Israel/Palestine conflict. We can “rarely please everyone,” he said, adding that there was “a difference between annoying people with uncomfortable facts and ignoring the facts. I don’t think there’s a cross-media conspiracy that is anti-Israel, [because] we are not that strategic. But I do agree with the need for balanced, accurate, fair reporting.”

Shields said that there was a “constant obsession with history rather than the future. History is important, but no one benefits from fighting the history wars.” (News Corp, take note). He also criticised the settlements, saying that they were counterproductive and “threatened to poison any peace process. But a solution will be very nearly impossible if action isn’t taken soon.”

There’s no obligation on any of these journalists to write stories about the trip, but if they do, they should disclose that they were sponsored. In the past, these rules have been more honored in the breach. But as my Crikey colleague Myriam Robin has pointed out, “regardless of whether or not the trip is disclosed, the fact remains: once a year, the AIJAC and the NSW Board of Jewish Deputies takes a number of Australian journalists, most of whom rarely or never report on this type of thing, to one of the world’s most divided countries, selectively picking what they see, and showing them a good time. And every year, the Australian media plays into this.”

Leaving the talk, I looked for the supper table and discovered to my horror that there wasn’t one. In 25 years of journalism, was this the first Jewish event where someone hasn’t offered me food, insisted I eat two helpings and take something home in a bag? Objectivity comes at a high price.