Jonathan Cook: the View from Nazareth -

The Guardian shows its mettle

A brief correspondence with the editor of Comment is Free – 4 September 2009

Liberal journalists in our mainstream media are always outraged at any suggestion that their reports or views are in any way influenced by the threat of retaliation from powerful interests. Students of the media are taught that in Western democracies journalists on serious newspapers seek the truth and, except in the case of the odd bad apple, refuse to submit to intimidation. Israel offers a particularly interesting test case in this regard.

In reality, the fear of being labelled anti-Semitic is for most journalists a powerful deterrent to engaging in strong criticism of Israel. Israel and its supporters are only too aware of the power they have, which is why, when mainstream publications step out of line by raising issues Israel would rather were not examined, it leaps on them, flinging about the charge recklessly. The orchestrated fury that greeted the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet’s article in August 2009 about the Israeli army’s possible involvement in organ theft was intended precisely to remind other media not to make a similar mistake themselves.

The proper lesson for journalists to draw from the row over the Swedish newspaper’s story was that, when one writes critically about Israel, one should make sure to investigate the topic thoroughly, have a firm grasp of the evidence and not push the argument beyond the limits of what can reasonably be inferred. Those are worthy principles for any journalist to follow (and ones that in this case Aftonbladet forgot to abide by), even if they are more exacting requirements than those expected when writing about most other countries. Think, for example, how deterred Western journalists would be from following up a story that implicated the Venezuelan state in the trafficking of peasants’ organs, even if Hugo Chavez expressed outrage at the suggestion.

Unfortunately, however, the actual lesson of the Aftonbladet affair, the one apparently intended for and digested by our media, is to keep quiet about issues that Israel might get angry about.

A week after I submitted a commentary on the Aftonbladet story to the Guardian’s Comment is Free website (the article can be found here), its executive editor Georgina Henry rejected it. Her reasoning, at least to a former Guardian journalist like myself who worked many years on the paper’s foreign desk, seemed more than strange and did not to accord with the newspaper’s usual criteria for assessing either a news story or an opinion piece. Brian Whitaker, who had first received the piece and is the paper’s former Middle East editor, clearly liked it and told me “we’re minded to use it”. But suggesting doubts about whether his own judgment would accord with that of the site’s executives, he warned that the issue was “a hot potato” and a decision would have to wait because “a couple of people are on holiday”.

Baffled by the reasoning provided by Henry in her rejection email, I engaged her in correspondence. Her initial willingness to respond looks generous but actually is driven, I suspect, by the need to persuade me, a former Guardian journalist, and herself that she is doing a reasonable thing in refusing my article. My polite but irritating suggestions that her own words imply that she is rejecting the piece not on its merits but out of fear of the expected backlash, as well as my requests that she explain which facts in the story need “100% independent verification” (a very unusual demand of an opinion piece), quickly lead her to shut down the debate.

The correspondence offers, I think, some interesting insights into the self-delusions of many of our leading liberal journalists, who desperately need to believe that they are, as they claim, fearless in their pursuit of truth.

The entire correspondence took place over 90 minutes on the evening of September 3.

Georgina Henry: “Sorry about [the] delay getting back to you on this. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to use this on Comment is free – i’m reluctant to run what perhaps would be better done as straight news rather than comment, which our own middle east correspondent hasn’t checked out, on an issue as sensitive and as disputed as this. We’ve also, as you know, run comment from Seth Freedman on the original report by the Swedish newspaper, so we’ve already had a full debate on the site. Sorry not to be more helpful.”

Note already here, and later in her correspondence, her references to CiF’s inclusion of a piece by Seth Freedman on the organ theft row (which can be found here). This is intended as pre-emptive and decisive proof that she is not “scared” of the Israel lobby and potential threats of anti-Semitism. Her implication is that she and CiF took a brave decision in publishing Freedman’s article – or possibly any article on the issue. But objectively it was the easiest option for them to take. Publishing a piece by a Jew living in Israel, one who regularly points out that he served in the Israeli army, saying that the Swedish report was nonsense and poor journalism but that the Israeli leadership’s accusations of anti-Semitism were misjudged and counter-productive is hardly a daring or bold position to take.

Jonathan Cook: “Obviously you’re not going to be swayed from your decision but the reasoning you’ve provided seems very strange indeed. In Seth Freedman’s earlier piece, and in the debate among CiF readers, there was absolutely no discussion of the evidence of possible involvement in Palestinian organ theft of Prof Yehuda Hiss [Israel’s chief pathologist] – the important contribution to this debate provided by my piece. As for this being better done as a news report, how would this be possible? The ‘news’ linking organ theft to Hiss is several years old (even if it was widely ignored at the time) and would be of absolutely no interest to a news editor now. Also, linking Hiss to the story requires speculation, even if of the informed variety, that, while being acceptable in commentary, is hardly the staple of the news pages.

“As for the topic being disputed and sensitive, well that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? I’m trying to clarify the issues in dispute. By ‘sensitive’, I assume you mean that the sensitivities of Israel requiring us to keep this debate closed trump the senstitivities of the Palestinian families who are still waiting nearly two decades on for answers about what happened to their loved ones. It was ever thus.”

Georgina Henry: “It’s a sensitive issue, because it requires 100 per cent satisfaction at our end that it will stand up to scrutiny. You will be the first to accept that anything you write will be combed through minutely by Israel supporters for evidence of bias and/or anti-semitism. For that reason, everything about this story would have to be independently checked by a Guardian reporter and I don’t have the resources on Cif to do that. I can, as I said, put you in touch with Rory McCarthy, our correspondent in Jerusalem, via the news desk.

“Please don’t jump to other conclusions like the worst of the conspiracy theorists on the threads on the I/P articles we carry. I hardly think you can accuse the Guardian or Comment is free of shying away from controversy.”

In fact, I most certainly could make such an accusation but let’s save that for another day and argument. Interesting that Henry now appears to be suggesting that she is doing this for my benefit as anything I write will be scrutinised by Israel’s supporters. Why is she more worried about my reputation than I am? In addition, her comments again suggest that her reasoning is being dictated by fears of the expected backlash.

Jonathan Cook: “On the issue of scrutiny, that was why I included the links to the articles published in the Israeli media. Yehuda Hiss’ involvement in organ theft is beyond dispute, even if it was given minimal coverage at the time. Interestingly, although it was reported by Haaretz and others, Israel National News – the settlers’ news service – gave it the most prominent coverage because Hiss was regarded as having violated the sanctity of the Jewish body, as far as religious Jews are concerned, in having removed organs from Jews before their burial.

“CiF’s motto is “Facts are sacred, comment is free”. That’s why I stuck very strictly to the reported facts, easily verifiable by reading the links from Israeli sources, and made the most cautious speculation possible: that there are reasonable questions about what happened to the bodies when they were autopsied; that the [Palestinian] families deserve answers; but that they won’t get them because of the relations of power under occupation. (Incidentally, and not a little ironically, I also tried to make the point that we journalists often fail in our duty to the Palestinians to investigate their claims, in this and other cases, because we are more worried about Israel’s response than their rights).

“Also, I think the suggestion that I am arguing that there is any kind of conspiracy going on here unfounded and inappropriate. In my view, what’s going on here is that CiF is taking the easy option, avoiding getting caught up in a row that has already engulfed another newspaper, and choosing to turn a blind eye to an issue of Palestinian human rights. That was doubtless the reason why Netanyahu and Lieberman leapt on Aftonbladet in the first place.”

Georgina Henry: “your view’s wrong, actually. If i was trying to avoid the row, I wouldn’t have run Seth’s piece. No matter though – like so many people I deal with through Cif you’ve made your mind up about my motives and it’s not worth corresponding further with you.

“The reality is that on this story I want independent verification by a Guardian reporter of what you’ve written and I don’t, on Cif, have the resources for that. I still believe that it is better handled by news, so by all means contact the foreign news desk.”

She closes down further debate but not before salving her conscience by reviving a suggestion that I had already argued was not feasible: rewriting the piece as a news report. The verification argument is a red herring too.

Jonathan Cook: “I haven’t made up my mind: you’ve told me yourself. This piece will be intensely scrutinised (because of Israel’s intimidating lobby) and you therefore need a standard of proof – 100% independent verification, as you say – before publishing my informed commentary on this issue. If such standards were applied to other issues on CiF, nothing would get published at all on the site. There can be only one reasonable inference from your remarks: that you think this story is too hot to handle. If you can offer any other reasonable interpretation, I’d be delighted to hear it.

“You could instead have told me what facts still need verifying despite the links from established Israeli sources I supplied. I could then see whether it is possible to provide satisfactory proof. Certainly, I’m struggling to work out what the problem is myself. It is reported all over the Israeli media that Hiss admitted organ theft on a massive scale, and that he was Abu Kabir’s pathologist through the 1990s. The army admitted to Aftonbladet, and no one has claimed otherwise in all the row about the story, that it carried out many autopsies on Palestinians in the early 1990s. It is widely reported in the Israeli media that all such autopsies are carried out at Abu Kabir, where Hiss was the pathologist (Rory can confirm this last point in a minute for you). The rest of it is educated and informed speculation and opinion, which by definition cannot be verified.

“Also, it should be pointed out that, even regarding the ‘facts’ included in this piece, it is not necessary that they be proved beyond any doubt. I am relying on credible reports from established Israeli sources about what they say happened in a police investigation. (The kind of evidence Guardian journalists use every day in writing their reports, by the way.) In the extremely unlikely event that any of those reports turned out all these years later to be wrong, that would not damage either my or CiF’s reputation. We would still have made a reasonable argument – that the families’ plausible claims need investigating – in good faith based on the available credible evidence.

“My problem with your response so far is that you are applying an unreasonable threshold of proof on this issue – one that could never be reached by a piece of commentary.”

Henry did not reply again. Paradoxically, a short time later, the Forward, American Jewry’s establishment newspaper, published a commentary piece confirming all the facts that Henry believed needed verifying.

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