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A Tepid Defence of SBS

20 May 2005

Australia's SBS Television cops a lot of criticism from those of us who don't lean to the left for its airing of certain documentaries. In the context of a documentary I watched on SBS recently, I must disagee. Certainly, the editorial stance of SBS News seems to lean to the left in an ABC-like manner. But when it comes to documentaries, while SBS tends to screen more left-leaning ones that the ABC, it also screens right-leaning ones of the kind that would never be seen on the ABC.

Here are a few I've seen in recent times on SBS that were, from my point of view, nicely balanced (although many would accuse some of them of being very right wing):

What prompts me to write now is the screening by SBS on 10 May 2005 of the Canadian documentary Jenin: Massacring Truth. This 48 minute piece, run under SBS's 'Cutting Edge' packaging, was made by Canadian reporter Martin Himel and follows up on the misrepresentation in Western media of the April 2002 Israeli incursion into the West Bank city of Jenin as a massacre, in which some 500 civilians were killed. As he makes clear, when the UN finally did a study it determined that 26 Palestinian civilians died, in the midst of door-to-door fighting which also cost the lives of 26 Palestinian fighters (members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade) and 23 Israeli soldiers.

The technique used by Kimel was to outline the immediate reason for the incursion (a huge peak of suicide bombings by Palestinians, killing hundreds), showing video of the actual fighting filmed by both Israeli and Palestinian fighters, running interviews with both sides (including a surviving Palestinian fighter, who spoke very professionally about the fight), and then contrasting the media reports with the reality.

Kimel introduces former Dutch, now Israeli, Jonathan Van Caspel who was an Israeli soldier fighting in Jenin, and who lost thirteen of his soldier friends in the battle. Then Kimel takes Caspel around to meet with various journalists, primarily in Britain. Some had already recanted, and seemed a little ashamed but there was a truly fascinating exchange with the London Times' Senior Foreign Correspondent, Janine di Giovanni. Here's my transcript (my recording from SBS was a bit flaky, but I think I've got it accurate from both audio and subtitles). Bold is my emphasis, italics theirs:

Himel: Ah, Jonathan [Caspel] was in Jenin. He was in Jenin as a soldier. And I thought it was very ...

Giovanni: As an Israeli soldier?

Himel: Yes, yeah.

Giovanni: Oh, I don't want to go into battle with someone. I'm not in the mood for that.

[Interlude showing clip from Giovanni report on Jenin: 'Rarely in more than a decade of reporting from Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leane, Kosovo have I seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life.']

Himel: What you said in your articles was that what you saw in Jenin was worse than what you saw in Chechnya and Bosnia. Doesn't it seem disproportionate?

Giovanni [Nods]: Well, first of all I stand by everything I wrote. I never said it was a massacre, personally because I've, I've spent years and years working in war zones. What happened in Jenin was an outrage and a violation of all human rights and the Israeli Army acted, I think, out of control. However, they did not commit a massacre. Um, having said that, I still was shocked by what I saw. And I've seen a lot.

[Interlude showing brief interview with Olivia Ward, correspondent with The Toronto Star newspaper, who reported from Chechnya and Kosovo and Jenin. She says that Chechnya and Kosovo were much, much worse than Jenin, and denies allegations by the UN Middle East envoy, Terje Larsen, about the 'stink of death' in Jenin, and that she interviewed Palestinian fighters, who made clear that they had intended to draw in the Israeli soldiers.]

[Himel voiceover of scenes of destruction and rebuilding, says that Giovanni puts Israelis, Serbs and Hutus on the same plane in her book Madness Visible.]

Giovanni: The worst part of it, I think, was that, you know, the Serbs got condemned. The Hutus got condemned. Um, you know, they were both vilified, but the Israelis never are.

Himel: The statistics of people killed in Chechnya and Bosnia are in the hundreds of thousands. When you compare it to 26 fighters, 26 civilians dead in Jenin, doesn't it seem disproportionate?

Giovanni: No. I was in all those places that you're talking about. Were you in Jenin?

Himel: No, that's why I want you to talk to him [referring to Jonathan Caspel].

Caspel [off camera]: [Indistinguishable]

Giovanni: I don't want to talk to him. In fact, I actually don't want him in the room when I'm talking. Can I ask you something?

Himel: Yep.

Giovanni: Are you Israeli?

Himel: No.

Giovanni: Are you Jewish?

Himel: What does it matter?

[Interlude in which Caspel says that after he left the room, he heard Giovanni asking members of the film crew if they were Jewish. Then he left the house, feeling uncomfortable about being in a house where such questions are put.]

Giovanni: Time and time again, Sharon is excused for massive human rights violations. I could go on and on. And it's just, I think, the simple fact that it's not just that they're excused from it but they're allowed to get away with it and it's very rarely reported accurately, I think, in America, in North America.

Himel: Americans look at the war in the Middle East very differently than what Europeans look at the war.

Giovanni: Um, I think America has a very strong um, Zionist lobby, first of all. Much stronger than, than in Europe. So I think that affects some of the newspapers. And I think it affects their editorial policy.

Controversial Dave Brown cartoon Kimel also raised the question of the Dave Brown cartoon which won the Political Cartoon of the Year for 2003 from the British Political Cartoon Society. Brown declined to be interviewed, so instead Kimel interviewed Dr Tim Benson, the director of the Society. The cartoon depicts Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon kneeling naked in ruins, wearing a 'Likud' fig leaf, surrounded by the machinery of war, as he eats a Palestinian child in the manner of Goya's early 19th Century painting, 'Saturn Devouring His Son'. A speech balloon puts words in Sharon's mouth: 'What's wrong ... You never seen a politician kissing babies before?' Personally, I found the cartoon very clever, even though I disagree with it. What's interesting for me here was Benson's view on why certain topics aren't covered. Bold is my emphasis, italics theirs:

Benson [holding cartoon]: This will go down in history as one of the famous cartoons. Here we have a cartoon. It's certainly anti-Sharon, but in no way is it anti-Israel or anti-Jewish.

[Cuts to comments by Professor Alan Dershowitz, in which he argues strongly that the cartoon evokes the 'blood libel' of which Jews have long been falsely accused, then returns to interview]

Benson: I believe it was chosen by our members mainly because of the impact it had above all the other cartoons in the competition. Because the impact it initially had in January. We have had a hysterical response from all around the world. Our website, the day after the awards, got 73,000 hits. We've been receiving over 400 hate mails a day.

Himel: Talking about impact, here we have Sharon eating Palestinian babies [holding Dave Brown cartoon]. Here's an impact, too, that's out of reality. [Hands over photographs.] This is a dead Israeli girl, one of five children from the same family, who was blown up by a suicide bomber. And this is a soon-to-be-dead Israeli boy who was blown up by a suicide bomber. Now obviously these pictures have impact. And my question to you is why, in all these paintings, don't we see maybe Sharon and Arafat eating babies?

Benson: Maybe Jews don't issue fatwas.

Himel [long, long pause, then quietly]: What do you mean by that?

Goya's 'Saturn Devouring His Son' Benson [amused sniff]: Well, if you upset an Islamic or Muslim group, as you know, fatwas can be issued by ayatollahs and suchlike. And maybe it's at the back of each cartoonist's mind that they could be in trouble if they do so.

Himel [even quieter]: If they do what?

Benson: If they depict, ah, say ah ah an Arab leader, in the same manner.

Himel: Then they could suffer?

Benson: Nya [my rendering of a non-word], they could suffer death, couldn't they? Which is rather different.

See also this transcript of a section of the documentary, in which Human Rights Watch attempts to justify the different levels of disapproval the organisation holds for Israeli and Palestinian actions.

© 2005 - Stephen Dawson