Australia’s pro-Israel media fights facts and ends careers

The day after Scott Morrison set the date for the mid-May 2019 federal election, Labor lost one of its star women performers. International lawyer Melissa Parke, the Member for Fremantle, a shrewd “get” by Kevin Rudd back in 2007, announced her resignation from politics.

She had once been the Minister for International Development, the parliamentary secretary for Mental Health, Homelessness and Social Housing, chair of the Australia-UN Parliamentary Group, and the co-recipient of the Parliamentary Integrity Award from The Accountability Round Table (awarded once every three years). Before that, she served as an international lawyer with the UN for eight years in Kosovo, Gaza, New York and Lebanon.

This time she was hoping to occupy Julie Bishop’s prize seat of Curtin for Labor. But it was not to be. A few weeks earlier she had given a speech about her experiences in Gaza to a new internal group in WA Labor – the WA Labor Friends of Palestine.

A hail of what she later called “vitriol” descended on her in the local and Melbourne media denying her claim that, when in Gaza, an Israeli soldier made a pregnant Palestinian refugee woman drink from a bottle of bleach – an action that caused serious injury to the woman’s throat and internal organs.

Her reference to the incident last year was immediately condemned in print as “a lurid claim”, “inflammatory”, “a laundry list of slanders”, “downright falsification”, a “vivid concoction” and “a medieval trope against Jews”.

But the incident was a fact. The action was reported to Melissa Parke in February 2003 as an international lawyer working in Gaza for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) by a British Operations Support Officer. UNRWA reported the incident to the Israeli Defence Forces and the soldier was later charged. It was also reported in the Fairfax Melbourne “Age” and “Sydney Morning Herald” on 23 June 2003.

Suddenly the centre of attention of an attack that would deflect from her campaign as a Labor candidate and aware her reputation may have been damaged by the ferocity of the articles in “The West Australian”, the Melbourne “Herald-Sun” and the Jewish press by Colin Rubenstein, the Executive Director of the Australia-Israel and Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC), Parke later said she “had no choice but to step down as a candidate”.

A superb comeback in Australian politics from a respected and strong woman lawyer was lost.

The then-candidate for Wentworth, Dave Sharma, added his assessment of the situation across the continent of Australia and accused her in a 16-word tweet of “anti-Semitism” and of being a conspiracy theorist as well. As a former Ambassador to Israel (2013-2017) Sharma would have been well aware that Parke had championed human right issues, including those of the Palestinians, in various speeches across her decade in federal Parliament and he must have known she is not anti-Semitic.

Following the election, Parke sent concerned notices of defamation to “The West Australian”, “The Herald Sun”, Dave Sharma and Colin Rubenstein and later filed a claim in the Federal Court of Australia. “The West Australian” and “The Herald Sun” withdrew the defamatory implications in their reports and apologized. The “Herald-Sun”, for instance, listed the alleged imputations named by Parke and stated baldly:

“The Herald-Sun accepts there is no truth in any of them. It apologizes if readers inferred that was being said of her”.

In addition, both newspapers supplied space for a substantial reply by Parke. Parke’s headline in the “West Australian” was:

“Supporting Palestinian rights is not anti-Semitic.”

But Sharma, now ensconced in Parliament, as of last month is sticking to his tweet. So too is Colin Rubenstein. Both appear to have rejected a call to apologize for their defamation. A mediation has failed and the case continues.

But Sharma has now taken a new tack. As “The Australian” reported last month, Sharma thinks “freedom of speech” will be hurt if his ability to abuse a former parliamentarian – hounded from election by the Israeli lobby’s lies about an atrocity in Gaza 17 years ago – is not protected.

Sharma referred to calling Parke “anti-Semitic” as “normal political discourse”.

I think Sharma thinks he’s still in Israel where throwing this card around is par for the course. He is certainly not in Australia where racial vilification was condemned in the 18C public discussion (Zionist groups led the charge), where judges are increasingly tough on journalists using sloppy language to demonise Chinese-Australians and where the coronavirus has seen communities “all in this together” for the first time for years. “Anti-semitic” doesn’t pass the pub test.

As ambassador, Sharma is famous for causing a serious diplomatic incident in May 2014 when he met the Israeli Housing and Construction Minister, Uri Ariel, in Israeli government offices in occupied East Jerusalem. It sparked a formal stinging rebuke to Julie Bishop by the chief Palestinian UN negotiator, Saab Erakat. There was a report in the quality Israeli newspaper “Haaretz” and, back home, in the “Sydney Morning Herald” by Defence Correspondent, Daniel Fitton. Meetings like that imply “complicity in ongoing Israeli violations”. Sharma seemed either ignorant of the protocol or ignored it.

It might be an idea this time for Morrison to give the fresher Member for Wentworth a rebuke about how to apologize when you get things wrong through malice aforethought. The two newspapers presumably didn’t apologize for anything.

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Dr Peter Manning is Adjunct Professor of Journalism at UTS, Sydney, a former Executive Producer of "Four Corners" and head of News and Current Affairs at ABC TV and Channel 7 and the author of "Representing Palestine"

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