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How to win a Walkley Award – Step 1: Become Middle East Correspondent, Step 2: Write incessantly against Israel

Back in 2010, Fairfax’s Paul McGeough won what used to be considered as one of Australia’s highest honours in journalism when he received a Walkley Award for a piece he wrote entitled ‘Prayers, tear gas and terror’. The piece was billed as an eye-witness account of the flotilla incident involving the ship “Mavi Marmara” of May in the same year. 

At the time he was commended by the judges who commented that “courageous journalism, writing excellence and newsworthiness are all profoundly evident. He put himself in harm’s way to tell of the drama that unfolded in international waters. The commitment to the process and the degree of difficulty made this entry a standout”.

It was at that moment that I started to have reservations about these awards.

McGeough was praised for being courageous when in reality, his so called “eye-witness” accounts consisted of stories picked up second hand from highly questionable witnesses including some with connections to IHH, a Turkish terrorist group. McGeough was not even on the ship in question at the time of the incident, so he certainly never put himself in harm’s way in order to get the story. There was a plethora evidence, both video and pictorial, plus admissions from the terrorists and their families that they set out to provoke violence, but McGeough and then the Walkley judges failed to recognise any of this at all, which suggests to me that the recognition given to the work was more for its one-sided propaganda rather than for journalistic merit.    

At the time I felt that the judges ought to be ashamed of what they did to the journalistic profession in gifting the award to such propaganda but McGeough got away with it and, in view of subsequent events, the continuation of the local Hamas government’s racist anti-Israel and anti-Jewish outpourings, its belligerent warlike attacks both vocal and real in the form of the launching of missiles from heavily populated Palestinian areas at Jewish civilian targets, the spending of hundreds of millions of dollars on tunnels built to launch deadly attacks on the Israeli population and Hamas’ general corruption, one would have thought that the people handing out Walkelys would have learned by now.

 Well, that is not the case. The 2014 Walkley Awards were held last night and not only has nothing changed, things have gotten worse.

The first award of note was to Ruth Pollard, Fairfax’s Mid East Correspondent, who won the Walkley for Feature Writing Short (under 4,000 words) for her article entitled ‘Grief grips Gaza’. Pollard spent some time in Gaza’s Shifa Hospital and the morgue and reported what she had seen.

The judges commented that “through her careful observation and vivid description we experience the human side of the Gaza conflict. It is a compelling read, and reflective of the courage Pollard demonstrated in securing access to this war zone morgue”.

Again the word “courage” has just been bandied about. But there is nothing courageous about a journalist filing a story from the Shifa Hospital and leaving out one of the most important facts about this hospital – which is that down in the basement, it serves as a de facto headquarters of Hamas. This fact has been widely documented over the years, including an article entitled “Top secret Hamas command bunker in Gaza revealed: And why reporters won’t talk about it”, which appeared online just four days before Pollard’s piece went to print.  

 The article points out that Hamas “obviously has no interest in having a photo-layout of one of its command bunkers beneath Shifa Hospital splashed on the front pages of newspapers. After all, such pictures would show that the organisation uses the sick and wounded of Gaza as human shields while launching missiles against Israeli civilians”. We know that missiles were actually launched from the hospital based on a number of eye-witness accounts including one from a Finnish journalist, who saw a rocket being launched by Hamas operatives in the car-park at 2am after she spent the night in the hospital. Her courageous report appeared online just one day before Pollard’s article went to print. Perhaps the two journalists spent the same day there, but Pollard conveniently left out the part about Hamas operatives roaming the building.

The Tablet article continues, “What Hamas wants is for the reporters to use very different pictures from Shifa – namely photos of Palestinians killed and wounded by Israelis, which make Palestinians look like innocent victims of wanton Israeli brutality”. Sounds exactly like the story Pollard filed for Fairfax.

There were not many “courageous” journalists reporting from Gaza during the war. Many would tweet and then delete, as was the case with the Wall Street Journal’s Nick Casey, who posted a great picture of a Hamas spokesman being interviewed from the hospital with the caption “you have to wonder w (sic) the shelling how patients at Shifa Hospital feel as Hamas uses it as a safe place to see media”. The tweet was quickly deleted. Another tweet, by Tamer El-Ghobashy, showed a picture from damage done by a rocket attack at Shifa hospital saying “an outside wall on the campus of Gaza’s main hospital was hit by a strike. Low level damage suggest Hamas misfire”. The tweet was then deleted and a second tweet with reference to Hamas removed was posted instead.

All of this seems to suggest that the majority of journalists in Gaza, either intentionally or not, are following Hamas’ guidelines for reporting on the situation whereby “Hamas particularly seeks to cement the perceptions that its actions are a response to Israeli aggression and that all Gaza casualties are ‘innocent civilians’, and to ensure that there is no evidence of rockets being fired from Gaza population centres”. Check.

And of course, there is nothing at all courageous about writing stories in that region if you make Hamas look good or follow its standard propaganda line, or make the Israelis look bad. In fact, in my book, if you omit or understate the murderous nature of Hamas and don’t tell the full story, then you are weak and a coward.

If that level of propaganda is enough to win you a prestigious award in Australian journalism then we have some serious problems.

The second award of note went out to The Australian Middle East Correspondent John Lyons and ABC’s Four Corners for investigative journalism in “Stone Cold Justice”.

Lyons and the team were praised for delivering “a joint investigation that provides a balanced insight into how justice is practiced with children of West Bank… reporter John Lyons constructed the program carefully to ensure representation and perspectives from both sides”.

It is nice that the Walkley judges were so easily duped into thinking that because Lyons inserted a story about an Israeli girl that had been severely injured by Palestinian youths throwing rocks, that the story provided balance.

But Lyons vendetta against Israel is littered with unsubstantiated claims from unreliable sources and has been well-rebutted a number of times already, including by another journalist from the Australian, Greg Sheridan.  

Off the top of my head I can think of two Palestinian “minors” who would have certainly been classified as Lyons’ “children. Firstly, Hakim Award, who in 2011 at age 17 brutally murdered the Fogel family while they slept. Included among the victims were three-month-old Hadas (whose head was severed), her two young brothers Yoav and Elad and their parents Ehud and Ruth. Awad and his cousin proudly confessed to their killings and showed no remorse. Two days ago, a sixteen year old Palestinian entered a supermarket in Mishor Adumim and stabbed two Israelis, wounding them moderately. Another minor among several hundreds who have taken part in terrorist activities against Israelis, most of them encouraged and incited to act by terror groups including members of the Palestinian leadership in both Gaza and the West Bank. These facts would have provided context to Lyons’ story but would not have fit with his agenda. Thankfully for Lyons, the Walkley judges did not care too much for context or the truth either.

Perhaps the most exciting part of the Walkleys this year came in the form of a tweet from Mike Carlton (of ‘Israel’s rank and rotten fruit is being called fascism’ fame) who said, “Help! Trapped at the Walkley Awards. Someone send food, PLEASE!!!” So I guess the night would have been a double disappointment for Carlton, no Walkley and no food. Sadly he did not win, otherwise we would have had a real anti-Israel trifecta.

Perhaps the only sure-fire way to win a Walkley these days is by sprouting Palestinian propaganda and making sure you only tell half of the story. Note to self.

Meanwhile, Israelis are headed back to the polls just two years after the last elections after Prime Minister Netanyahu dismissed Yair Lapid and Tzipi Livni from the government. The date has been set for 17 March 2015. The elections are going to cost taxpayers up to NIS 1.5 billion and important issues such as the 2015 Budget, housing and hospitals have been put on the backburner. The next few months on the Israeli political scene are most certainly going to be interesting – watch this space for more in-depth analysis in the coming weeks.

 Emily Gian

Media & Advocacy Director

Zionist Federation of Australia