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Anti-Semitism and the Media – an Interview with Michael Gawenda

November 4, 2009 – 7:20 pm24 Comments

rockyandgawendaInterview and article by Sara K

Michael Gawenda, the author of Rocky and Gawenda: The Story of a Man and his Mutt, opened up to Galus Australis last week about his time as editor-in-chief at The Age. In an extensive interview, Gawenda defended his decision to pull the controversial Leunig cartoon, criticised the publication of the recent Backman article, and flagged his concern for increasing anti-Jewish sentiments in some sections of the media.

As a three-time Walkely Award winning journalist, Gawenda is renowned for what he has published, but during his time as editor of The Age from 1997 to 2004, he also became renowned for what he didn’t publish. Gawenda famously pulled a controversial cartoon by Michael Leunig in 2002 on the grounds that it was racist against Jews. His refusal to publish the cartoon, which compared ‘Auschwitz 1942′ with ‘Israel 2002′ in reference to the situation in Gaza, generated a backlash from some sections of the media, who saw it as an attack on free speech.

Seven years on, Gawenda is unapologetic. “The cartoon in my view suggested there was some sort of equivalence between the Nazis and the Israelis.” Whilst he strived to ensure the Age presented a range of views, this was a clear limit for him. “(I wouldn’t run) anything that I thought smacked of racism on either side of the conflict. I didn’t run any commentary that suggested there was an equivalence between the Nazis and the Israelis.”

Being Jewish added to the pressure surrounding the incident, as some commentators argued this was the reason he chose not to publish it. “Leunig certainly saw it in those terms. I don’t think that was the reason. I think that most editors wouldn’t have published it at that time- they might now- but at that time they wouldn’t.”

Gawenda being Jewish, in his view, only became a significant issue around the start of the Second Intifada in 2000, which marked the point where the Arab-Israeli conflict became an increasingly ‘hot’ issue. From this point onwards, Gawenda felt that his actions and motivations were becoming progressively more scrutinised, with news website Crikey even calling for him at one stage to ‘declare’ his Jewishness, or else ‘remove himself’ from commenting on the Middle East.

For Gawenda, it was a challenging time, with attacks coming from both sides. “I think it was difficult for all editors… but it was particularly difficult for me because I was Jewish. So that you had very passionate views on both sides of that conflict, and in a way, both sides of that conflict saw me through a Jewish prism.

“Some saw me as a Jew who was betraying his people. Some saw me as a Jew whose coverage was coloured by the fact that I was Jewish, that I was… bending over backwards to be fair and was actually being biased. On the other side I had Palestinian supporters who thought, you know, I was a Zionist, a ‘secret’ Zionist.”

More recently, Gawenda has seen a worrying rise in anti-Jewish sentiment in small sections of the media, with the Backman article an extreme example. The article, written by Australian-born journalist Michael Backman and published in the business section of The Age in January 2009, suggested that Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians inspired a number of international terror attacks, and criticised the actions of Israeli travellers abroad. The current editor of The Age, Paul Ramadge, later apologised and said it was published ‘in error.’

Gawenda maintains that the article was a sign of the boundaries at The Age having becoming blurred. “The Age’s coverage of the Middle East, including its cartoons, get away with and do things that I wouldn’t have allowed in the paper… Clearly they ran that piece… because they were unclear of where the line was, for what was a robust article about Israel, and what was clearly anti-Semitic stereotyping of Jews and Israelis.”

He is concerned about the growing tendency for some media outlets, more so in Europe and Britain, but increasingly in Australia, to suggest an equivalence between Jews and Nazis. “(It) has now become a widespread trope that you can find in the mainstream media in some places… I’ve got no doubt that there is an increasing sense in some sections of the media that you can write and argue things that you would have been careful about in the past.”

He believes the reason for this shift is an increasing view in some sections of the Left that a one-state solution is the only possibility, that Israel is a ‘failed experiment,’ and that more journalists and commentators are arguing this point. “Its nonsense, I think it’s not true, but increasingly that’s a widely held view… A one state solution is a nightmare, not just for Israelis but for the whole region. There is no path to a peaceful one state solution. You would have to have a cataclysm for that to happen.”

Having said that, Gawenda believes that Jason Koutsoukis – the current Middle East foreign correspondent for The Age – is a better journalist than his predecessor Ed O’Loughlin, who held the post from 2003 to 2008. He believes O’Loughlin had a skewed view of the Middle East, and whilst he discounts the idea of objective reporting as “bull,” he believes that a journalist can be fair. Koutsoukis’ coverage is more fair and more nuanced, and what’s more, he writes about the every day lives of Israelis and Palestinians, rather than just about the conflict that besets them.

“I think Jason has tried hard to give us a sense of the place… He did a story some time ago that stuck in my mind about hummus, about what was the difference between the hummus you could buy in Israel and the hummus you could buy in Damascus, and Ed O’Loughlin never did a story like that.” In Gawenda’s opinion, these sorts of stories should be published more often, to show that there is much more to the region than war and conflict.

There is no doubt that Gawenda’s time at The Age coincided with a significant turning point in the development of the Middle East, and in Australia’s relationship with its Jewish population. He has always been proud of his Jewish heritage and proud to be a member of the Jewish community, but he strived to provide balance and fairness. “I was appointed to The Age as a mainstream paper of the whole community, and my goal was to represent the community as best I could.”

Gawenda is currently taking a well-deserved break from the high pressure of the newsroom, instead turning his talents to writing his well-received book, and to his appointment as Director of the University of Melbourne’s Centre for the Advanced Study of Journalism.

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