THE Lebanese ambulance affair is giving Foreign Minister Alexander Downer a first-hand lesson in the difficulties of accurate reporting from the front line of war. But Mr Downer is correct to highlight the media's responsibilities and failings in its international coverage, particularly in the Middle East. In a keynote address to the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers Association (PANPA) conference on Monday, Mr Downer drew together the interlocking themes of Australia's global mission to further the cause of democracy and freedom and the media's responsibility to report the truth. In doing so, Mr Downer accidently made a useful contribution to highlighting the real value of established media over the myriad of online and new media bloggs competing for reader attention. Mr Downer said that while Australia was well served in reporting on many of the key topics that shape our international relations, he remained disappointed with some of the recent reporting out of the Middle East. He expressed particular concern at evidence of dishonesty in reporting out of Lebanon. Mr Downer highlighted the sacking of Reuters photographer Adnan Hajj's for embellishing photographs of Israeli damage inflicted on Lebanon. He criticised the media tendency to report every casualty on the Lebanese side of the conflict as a civilian casualty, when it was indisputable that a great many of those injured or killed were armed Hezbollah combatants. He said that in a grown-up society such as ours, the media cannot expect to get away with parading falsehoods as truths, or ignoring salient facts because they happened to be inconvenient to the line of argument – or narrative – that particular journalists, or media organisations, might choose to adopt on any given controversy or issue.
The Australian could not agree more. Selective reporting, is an affliction not confined to the Middle East conflict. It is the issue on which this newspaper has most recently taken the ABC's Media Watch program to task. Together with the Fairfax press, Media Watch is a repeat offender when it comes to presenting only views that suit its cause. Selective reporting, as Mr Downer is correct to highlight, is corrosive for journalism and democracy. Selective reporting of the Middle East does not serve the public interest and hinders proper analysis of the root cause of the continuing violence. Mr Downer said international reporting of the conflict was biased in favour of Lebanon, noting exaggerated claims of casualties, a well-worn propaganda tactic utilised to great public relations effect by Hezbollah. Casualty details released by Israel, which shares Australia's respect for free speech and democracy, have generally been respected as accurate by all sides.
In the media's defence, war reporters often work under time pressure in the most trying of circumstances. And casualty numbers can be imprecise in the immediate aftermath of violence. That the truth is not always easy to discern must be better appreciated by Mr Downer following his embrace of the Lebanese ambulance incident, as presented by internet site http://www.zombietime.com. In his speech to PANPA, Mr Downer said the incident, in which it was claimed Israel had deliberately bombed a Red Cross ambulance, did not stand up to even the most rudimentary scrutiny. Mr Downer said that after closer study of the images of the damage to the ambulance, it was beyond serious dispute that this episode has all the makings of a hoax. His source? A pro-Israel website that specialises in posting pictures of student protests, naked bicycle riders and historic pictures of the prophet Mohammed. In a lengthy posting, the website puts forward its own conspiracy theory and claims the incident never took place. This newspaper was aware of the website claims but, rather than accept them at face value, dispatched reporter Martin Chulov to review the evidence and reinterview those involved. In his report in the Media section today, Chulov stands by the original account and says damage to the ambulance is consistent with the original claims of attack. We have done what a good newspaper should, done the leg work and reported the facts. Mr Downer may himself have fallen for the propaganda trick he is keen to warn against. While his point may be true, that most media have taken a pro-Lebanon, anti-Israeli stance, what Mr Downer's experience most highlights is the benefits of an unbiased, well-resourced, established media, as opposed to its new online cousin. In this case, readers have a choice, a website that relies on analysing photographs a long way from the action or media with resources on the ground. Mr Downer is correct that the first duty of responsible media is to get the facts straight even when that story might not necessarily conform to existing opinions or prejudices. But, as his experience highlights, this is equally true for politicians.
Also see Tim Blair's blog
Original piece is http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,20308892-7583,00.html