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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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24 Comments »

  • tarquin says:

    Typical Gawenda. Self-serving, specious and inaccurate. See the following, from his own newspaper, when he was supposedly the editor. And did he really say that he’s “taking a break” from the newsroom? Nice way to put it.

    Arabs easy winners in battle of who makes the best hummus
    By Ed O’Loughlin
    Tel Aviv
    August 30, 2003
    Print this article
    Email to a friend

    Picture: ED O’LOUGHLIN
    Humus frenzy: the first International Hummus Festival, Tel Aviv.
    What is there in Israel to celebrate these days? The peace plan is falling apart, the economy stinks, the soccer team reeks and they haven’t won the Eurovision song contest since transsexual diva Dana International sprang a big surprise in 1998.

    This week they were mostly celebrating mashed chickpeas, with the world’s first international festival of hummus in Tel Aviv. On Tuesday and Wednesday thousands of Israelis flocked to sample a dozen kinds of hummus, sip beer and listen to music. It could have been called Hummstock, but wasn’t.

    Along with falafel, another chickpea derivative, hummus reigns as Israel’s favourite snack food.

    On Wednesday night festival organiser Dody Manvich could not contain his enthusiasm.

    “Apart from the taste, hummus is just a really fun, shared experience,” he said.

    At one Sabra Salads stand children and adults jostled to get within pita-dipping range of free samples. Others queued to buy flavours from smaller stands representing hummus restaurants from around the country.

    The chief sponsor of the festival was Israeli food manufacturer Sabra Salads, whose managing director is Mr Manvich. The occasion was Sabra’s launch of three new flavours of fresh hummus, based on recipes and techniques collected by months of field research in traditional hummus restaurants throughout Israel.

    The three brands are designed to profit from a peculiarity of Israel’s 50,000-tonne annual market for hummus – although Israeli relations with Arabs are often fraught, they bow down before them when it comes to making hummus.

    “We stick to the most authentic flavour and taste and if you ask anyone in Israel where is the best hummus they will say it comes from the Arabs. They have kept the secret for generations. They pass it down from father to son,” said Mr Manvich.

    “Israel is a new country and we don’t have our own cuisine, so typical Israeli cuisine is hummus and falafel, which come to us from our neighbours.”

    Israel’s appropriation of traditional Arab cuisine has provoked some bitter comment in the region, particularly when it recently started manifesting itself at international food fairs. Lebanon may not be able to stop Israeli jets from buzzing Beirut, but it rightly sees itself as the regional culinary superpower and sniffs at Israel’s cheek.

    Israelis counter that many, if not most, of the Jews who immigrated in the past 40 years have come from Middle Eastern countries such as Iraq, Yemen and Morocco and are just as entitled as anyone else to make falafel or shwarma or hummus. Perhaps, counter the Arabs, but they seem to have lost the knack.

  • Sara K says:

    Tarquin,

    Gawenda didn’t say he was ‘taking a break,’ they were my (possibly poorly) chosen words.

    I think the article you cite further demonstrates the difference between O’Loughlin and Koutsoukis, as Gawenda describes it.

    O’Loughlin managed to turn an article about hummus into a comment on Israel’s actions in the conflict (“Lebanon may not be able to stop Israeli jets from buzzing Beirut”)

    Koutsoukis’ article on the other hand, doesn’t seek to make a wider point, its just about hummus (and what a worthy subject of dissemination it is!)

  • tarquin says:

    Dear Sara

    You have proved strangely keen to pick up Mr Gawenda’s ill-judged ball and run with it. There was no need for you to make excuses for him: it was he, not you, who made a flatly and demonstrably false statement, reflecting his own ignorance of the content of his own paper and casting doubt on his reliability as a journalist and commentator – arguments based on false premises cannot be true. Perhaps, though, you share with him a particular bias. Journalists in glass houses should not throw stones.

  • frosh says:

    Tarquin,

    It’s obvious you don’t like Gawenda, but it is not yet ovbious why. Perhaps you could disclose your issue with him in clear terms, and not with the generalities you have used thus far.

    Also, your use of the term “supposedly” is rather odd and likely damages your credibility.

  • tarquin says:

    Frosh: “Generalities”? Could I have been more specific? Mr Gawenda made a comment/allegation which was factually false. Ms K has rushed to defend him. Yet it is my credibility which you are concerned about?

  • frosh says:

    Tarquin, you seem to doubt the factual reality that Michael Gawenda was the editor of The Age.

    It’s hard to get beyond that…

    As Gawenda has commented, there are two basic types of people who might have an axe to grind with him
    1) Jews who felt that he betrayed them by not being ‘pro-Israel’ enough, or that he over-compensated and went too far in trying to be even-handed etc
    2) anti-Semites who believed that he was too ‘pro-Zionist’ etc

    and I would add
    3) people who perhaps worked for him (or applied to) and have some grievance etc

    Which of those categories would you say that you fall into?

  • tarquin says:

    There’s actually a fourth reason for disagreeing with someone, Frosh: because they are not telling the truth. I said “supposedly” because – as you seem to have failed to notice – Mr Gawenda demonstrates here stark ignorance about the contents of his own paper. Do you have anything to say about that, or about Ms K’s defense of him?

  • frosh says:

    Tarquin,

    There you go again with the generalities.

    Ignorant about what specifically?

    Oh, I left out a fourth reason.

    4) A friend/relative of Mr Ed O’Loughlin (or the Ed himself).

  • tarquin says:

    Dear Frosh. I refer you, once again, to my last post. The bit about “truth” in particular. Look the word up, if you have to.

    To recap: Gawenda stated O’Loughlin would never have written an article about hummus. He did, in The Age, while Gawenda was editor. Gawenda loses credibility. Does that make it simple enough for you? Any chance you might comment on that?

  • Sara K says:

    Tarquin,

    I guess this comes down to how you interpret Gawenda’s statements.

    I understood Gawenda’s statement (that “O’Loughlin would never publish a story like that”) as meaning that he would never publish a light-hearted and positive story about the region, that didn’t have some sort of underlying broadside about the conflict, rather than specifically a story about hummus.

    Gawenda didn’t actually say “O’Loughlin never published a story about hummus.”

  • ra says:

    Sara K – great interview.

    I note Gawenda regards the notion of objective reporting as ‘bull’. That’s been my thought too. But what I’m unclear about is this: if there is no such thing as objective reporting, then is there any meaningful basis to accuse a person of biased reporting?

    Does anyone have a thought?

  • tarquin says:

    Sara. Hole. Digging. Stop.

  • ra,

    Fascinating point. I too agree that there is no objective reporting any more, and all media set themselves a specific editorial position, and carry bias of some sort. It’s often difficult to note a difference between the slant of articles in the “news” vs the “opinion” section. Perhaps it’s now come down to a question of degree?

  • tarquin says:

    Ra. David. Please. You are dragging this discussion down to the level of a calm, reasoned debate. Where’s the fun in that?

  • Tarquin,

    Not at all … we’re turning into a debate on “exactly how biased is Ed O’Loughlin”? ;)

    It certainly beats picking on two words in the original article and turning them into a blow-up about nothing! Ed could never resist the opportunity to throw in a gratuitous reference to the conflict in any warm & fuzzy story on the middle east, and in this he differs starkly from Jason K. Are you now going to hunt through every one of Jason’s & Ed’s ME puff pieces to prove me wrong?

  • tarquin says:

    Jason K writes warm and fuzzy stories about the middle east? Is that your definition of “unbiased”? Whatever you do, don’t mention the war? Apart from that, Mrs Lincoln, what did you think of the play? Interesting. I’m off now. Enjoy the mutual grooming.

  • Tarquin,

    Just warm & fuzzies? Of course not. Equally, not every story about the ME is obliged to discuss the conflict. You see responses to, say, a story about some medical breakthrough in Israel that read: “ah, but what about the Palestinians?” Why? Can’t the story just be about that? (and yes, it goes both ways)

  • frosh says:

    Tarquin, allow me to present you a scenario:

    1)Ed O’Loughlin, who now resides in Ireland (thanks Google!), is sitting there at home and doing his thrice a day Google search of his own name.

    2)His Google search delivers for him an interview with Gawenda of which a small portion is critical of him.

    3)He creates a pseudonym (or perhaps uses an existing one) and begins to attack Gawenda in the comments section.

    4)Ed, the only person in the world who remembers that he too (all the way back in 2003!) wrote an article on hummus, pastes us some of his copy.

    If one is going to launch a public attack against a semi-public individual, they should really disclose their own identity and/or personal connection to the case.

    Wouldn’t you agree?

  • ra says:

    Ok back to journalism and objectivity.

    As far as I understand, objectivity is premised on the assumption that there is an actual & discernible reality out there. That there are things that can be proven and disproven.

    Following on from that, bias is when a person wilfully or unconsciously shuts his or her mind to possibilities other than his or her opinion, despite what ‘the facts’ suggest. In this sense, bias only works if you accept that there is an objective reality.

    If there is no objective reality, then your individual and subjective view of the world is as good as any other view, none of which is incorrect. And there’s no obligation (in a subjective world) to consider the viewpoints of others or consider contradictory ‘facts’ (because of course facts don’t really work if everything is subjective).

    So I ask again: is it meaningful to say someone is ‘biased’ if there is no such thing as ‘objective reporting’?

  • frosh says:

    Hi Ra,

    You raise a great question. I guess it comes down a little to semantics.

    On one hand, everyone brings some degree of baggage, and there is no totally objective viewpoint. So yes, everyone is biased to a degree. But the keyword is “degree”. There are degrees of bias.

    Thus when people use the term “biased” or “unbiased”, they are often not using them in absolute terms, but rather in a relative sense.

    If a mainstream western newspaper appointed a Kahanist or (slightly more likely) a member of the “International Solidarity Movement” (ok, ISM members typically only report for organisations such as Indymedia) as their Mid-East correspondent, then many people would rightfully complain of the reporter being biased.

    From what I understand, many reporters assigned to report on Israel (or many other subjects for that matter) arrive with some strongly pre-conceived ideas. This would be ok, except that they then operate under a confirmatory bias, where they (perhaps subconsciously, perhaps not) seek out stories to fit with their preconceived ideas.

  • ariel says:

    We’ve had this discussion before, I believe.

    I mentioned in a comment to another post that I find Paul Kelly to be the most balanced journalist in the country. He analyses the political situation in this country without ever revealing which side he is on, dishing out credit and criticism to all sides when they are due. He is the last bastion of reasonable objectivity in journalism today.

    It is possible to report the news objectively, presenting only the facts. For example, one could write regarding the recent tsunami in Samoa:
    “A tsunami hit Samoa. N number of people died and X were injured. An investigation is underway”.

    One could report on the same event subjectively, thus:
    “A tsunami hit Samoa. N number of people died and X were injured. Climate change has been blamed for the increased frequency of tsunamis in the region.”

    The latter example tells us that the writer wants us to think he/she has a PhD in meterology and geology. More likely, however, is that they blame government inaction on climate change (which may or may not be caused primarily by humans and not just natural cycles) and is trying to make a political point.

  • baroncohen says:

    this debate remind me of this hamas / humuus sketch in borat.
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/celebritynews/2262757/Sacha-Baron-Cohens-Bruno-Hamas-hummus-movie-prank.html
    i guess whether something is biased or not all depends on what is in the pita of the beholder.

  • Jon says:

    I agree that there is no such thing as “objective reporting” in the sense that due to imperfect information, time constraints etc, a reporter is alway limited in digging and finding the “truth” (particularly, in a 24 hour news cycle environment).

    That does not mean that this should not be a journalist’s aim – it just may not be possible. Clearly – some pieces of journalism are better then other, because they actually represent what is going on in reality. This postmodernist nonsense that says that there is nothing objective out there really does not impress me.

  • Sara K says:

    A very interesting question ra, I’m still trying to get my head around it. I agree that a journalist can be fair or unfair- A fair journalist would be conscious of how their world-view had been shaped by their environment, and would make an effort to balance this. An unfair journalist wouldn’t acknowledge how their views had been shaped, and would have a skewed perception of the world as a result.

    Another interesting point is Gawenda’s observation about growing anti-Jewish sentiment in the media. To bring up another journalistic adage, I wonder if the media is reflecting wider society’s opinion on this, or if they’re actually setting the anti-Jewish agenda?

    I think its more of the latter, due to the fact that those of a left wing persuasion, who are more likely to be critical of Israel and religion etc, are over-represented in the media. At least I hope so.

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