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Not the hole truth

It's bad enough that friends of Hezbollah terrorists could trick so many journalists with just a tall story and a rusty Lebanese ambulance.

Worse is that some of those journalists seemed so eager to believe this ambulance was indeed wickedly blown up by an Israeli missile fired straight through the big red cross on its roof -- leaving not even a scorch mark.


But worst is that even now that this hoax has been exposed, none of the countless writers and commentators who fell for it have admitted to passing on as fact the propaganda of terrorists.

It is this refusal to admit that suggests there was an agenda, after all, to so much of the hysterical reporting of the war in Lebanon between Israel and Hezbollah.

No wonder Foreign Affairs Minister Alexander Downer damned that coverage at a conference in Brisbane this week of Australian newspaper publishers: "What concerns me greatly is the evidence of dishonesty in the reporting out of Lebanon."

Downer could have picked half a dozen examples of that dishonesty -- or of incompetence married to a bias. But few are as good as the Case of the Holey Ambulance.

It started on July 24, when Israel was already being accused by much of the Western media of carelessly killing Lebanese civilians. And it started with a cautious paragraph in a media release from the Lebanese Red Cross:

"According to Lebanese Red Cross reports, two of its ambulances were struck by munitions, although both vehicles were clearly marked by the Red Cross emblem and flashing lights that were visible at a great distance. The incident happened while first-aid workers were transferring wounded patients from one ambulance to another."

That same day, Cathy Gannon, a correspondent with the AP news agency, filed the first dramatic account of this latest example of Israeli badness.

She quoted a local Red Cross worker as saying Israeli jets had blasted two ambulances with rockets: "One of the rockets hit right in the middle of the big red cross that was painted on top of the ambulance."

Another worker showed Gannon video of the vehicles he said had been attacked. Gannon wrote that it showed "one large hole and several smaller ones in the roof of one ambulance and a large hole in the roof of the second". She added: "Both were destroyed."

Britain's ITV news promptly accused Israel of war crimes, and showed the same film, given to it by what it called a "local amateur cameraman". Who, exactly?

Britain's Left-wing Guardian added the colour: "(T)he blue light overhead was flashing, and another light illuminated the Red Cross flag when the first Israeli missile hit, shearing off the right leg of the man on the stretcher inside. As he lay screaming beneath fire and smoke, patients and ambulance workers scrambled for safety . . ."

The Boston Globe confirmed there had indeed been an explosion in the ambulance, quoting medic Qasim Chaalan, later pictured lying in hospital, bandages on his head: "A big fire came toward me . . ."

The story now reached Australia. On July 25 The Age listed those injured in the attacks (a list that varied in many reports): "Three patients -- a woman, her son and grandson -- were all injured further, the son losing his leg to a missile."

The Australian the next day reported: "One of the Israeli rockets pierced the centre of the large red cross marked on the roof of one of the ambulances, as if it was used as a target."

The Age then ran the longest and most dramatic account, by a correspondent with the Los Angeles Times, insisting: "Both ambulances were hit, directly and systematically, by Israeli bombs, the medics said . . ."

This was followed by countless other reports. In Australia they were carried by almost every mainstream paper, including the Sydney Morning Herald, Herald Sun, Advertiser and Courier-Mail.

The anti-Israeli tone of it all was exemplified by the Financial Review's Brian Toohey, who scoffed: "Israel would like Australian troops to join a new international force to save it the pain of occupying Lebanon after the latest exercise of its right to self defence included attacks on ambulances . . ."

The usual Israel-damners seized on it, with the Sydney Morning Herald's Mike Carlton asking "why an Israeli missile slammed with deadly accuracy into the unmistakable red cross atop a Lebanese civilian ambulance".

And on TV and in print we were shown again and again the proof: a picture of "the" ambulance that was hit -- Ambulance 782, presumably the worst damaged of the two -- with a missile hole right through the cross-hairs of the Red Cross sign on its roof.

Ah yes, that picture. Soon some bloggers, the media watchdogs of the internet, looked closer and saw something very odd.

Check the pictures on this page. You could even see where the screws went. What's more, the damaged parts of the roof were mottled with the rust of ages.

The bloggers -- notably an American one known as Zombietime, whose research I've drawn on -- dug out other damning photographs.

A side view of the ambulance, revealing the interior, showed no sign of fire or explosion, or anything to indicate a missile had slammed through the roof and landed . . . where? There was not even a dent in the floor.

The front windscreen was collapsed inwards, not outwards as you'd expect from an explosion that had blown up an ambulance and taken off a patient's leg, and the side windows were intact.

There was more. Chaalan, the medic last seen lying in hospital with thick bandages over his chin and ear, was filmed some six days later giving another interview.

But this time he had no bandages -- and the skin once covered by them had no scratch, scab, scar or even stain. A fast healer.

See the complete evidence on You will, I'm sure, conclude that if Israel fired a missile through the roof of any ambulance, it wasn't this one. And if such a strike had injured a medic, it probably wasn't Chalaan.

In fact, the proof that Israel had fired a missile through the roof of a Lebanese ambulance seemed to rely largely on a fake prop, the word of an exaggerator, and an inconclusive video given to the media by an unnamed Lebanese man.

Was an ambulance truly attacked by Israel? Where's the proof? What we've been shown so far is a hoax.

But it hasn't been the only hoax in the reporting from Lebanon. Reuters had to fire a freelance photographer in Lebanon who'd been caught by bloggers photo-shopping a picture to make a pall of smoke seem thicker.

The cover of US News and World Report magazine showed a picture of a Hezbollah soldier posed with the flames of Israel's vengeance behind him -- flames actually rising from a burning tip.

Then there was the Green Helmet Guy, a Lebanese rescue worker -- or so reporters said -- who always bobbed up at the sites of alleged Israeli atrocities, parading the victims and instructing foreign photographers on how to get the best shots.

There was also the Passion of the Toys, in which spotless, heart-rending toys kept featuring in the foreground of news agency pictures of Lebanese buildings bombed by the Israelis.

On it went, all uncovered by bloggers. A photogenically grieving Lebanese woman was pictured in front of a succession of houses we were told were hers -- and each bombed flat by Israel.

The New York Times even ran a shot of a dead Lebanese civilian, posed just like a pieta of Christ in the ruins -- only for later pictures to show him back on his feet.

What does all this tell us?

That news agencies, which hire local staff in dangerous places, can't be sure bad guys aren't dictating the coverage.

That so many media "errors" in this past war seemed to hurt Israel, not Hezbollah, indicating something more than chance was to blame.

That Western journalists are often too trusting of the claims of terrorists, and too hostile to the excuses of democracies.

And that the media has a new watcher -- internet surfers who ask the awkward questions that too many journalists seem not to ask themselves. Not, that is, if the answer would help Israel.

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