The UN’s special rapporteur on the occupied Palestinian territories, Francesca Albanese, recently concluded her tour of Australia, leaving as one of the most prominent critics of both the government and the media landscape in reporting on the conflict in the region.
Albanese appeared on ABC’s Q+A and gave an address at the National Press Club last week that went viral, with the human rights expert likening the situation in Gaza at the moment to a televised, 21st-century Nakba. After a week of exposure to Australia’s media landscape, Albanese said that the standard of local discourse was “very basic”.
“I found the content of the discussion generally, I wouldn’t say poor, but it’s very difficult to have a sophisticated discussion because it seems to me from the questions [I received] that the level of understanding [of the Israel-Hamas conflict] is very basic,” Albanese told Crikey.
“Sometimes it’s also misleading in the sense that I’m asked questions [with] wrong assumptions. So I spend a lot of time fixing that assumption and then struggling to provide either context or an in-depth analysis of the situation.
“The second issue [I faced] is the format — it was normally with people who had very limited or very questionable impartiality. Then all of a sudden, I became among those lacking objectivity, simply because I had to challenge what my fellow panellists were saying. This is something that generally happens where the debate is very polarised, where the host or media outlet has already taken a position, and so the forming of the panel influenced the calibre of the discussion.”
Asked about the viral moments from her National Press Club address, particularly a question from Guardian Australia’s foreign affairs and defence correspondent Daniel Hurst, Albanese said she held no ill will towards Hurst and thought he had been unfairly treated in the online storm that surrounded the clip.
Hurst described himself as “tripped up” by Albanese’s use of the term “domination” in describing the conflict, describing it as a trope, to which she responded in no uncertain terms that the term made reference to the Apartheid Convention, and was not in fact a trope. The clip has now been watched 1.4 million times. Hurst then interviewed Albanese afterwards.
“I think I was the only person in that room that thought the question was genuine. I didn’t think for a second that he was malevolent,” she said.
“I think he has been really, really vilified in the media, and he doesn’t deserve that.”
“First of all, because everyone can ask questions — and I saw that there were other malevolent questions that were asked, and they went unnoticed. But I think that he really meant the question because he didn’t know about the concept of domination [as] a legal concept. It was good to clarify that — while most people thought he was provoking me on my alleged anti-Semitic bias, I don’t actually think so. I think it was in good faith — maybe he was a bit clumsy in the way he asked the question, but it was in good faith.”
“We met the day after, and I felt sorry for him, he even apologised.
“[His] was an honest article, and it did reflect the things that we said, unlike another article.”
Pressed on the other article in question, Albanese pointed to her interview with the Nine papers’ Matthew Knott, which was headlined “Israel should make peace with Hamas, top UN expert on Palestine says”.
Knott, the foreign affairs and national security correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, also asked a viral question during Albanese’s NPC address, asking how Hamas could ever sign a peace deal. Albanese’s forceful rebuttal, calling the framing of the question “distorted”, has now been viewed almost 71,000 times.
“That was totally outrageous, because he really picked out of context things that I said, and he made his own narrative. So this is bad journalism,” she said, accusing Knott of ‘manipulating’ her words and taking them out of context.
“It was really distorted because when the question came to me, [whether I said] that Hamas needs to make peace with Israel, I said ‘you’re asking me assuming that what you read is correct, but this is not what I said’.”
Both Knott and his editor disputed Albanese’s characterisation of his coverage after this story was first published and provided Crikey with a transcript. It read as follows:
“But then Netanyahu has always said, and more bluntly, more overtly, that Hamas was an asset and the Palestinian Authority was a liability. Why? Because the Palestinian Authority would be the only legitimate I mean, the only recognised as legitimate representative for this process. While, you know, if they had Hamas they could continue the status quo of well, we need to we need to get things so they were advancing the annexation of the West Bank, Jerusalem kicking out who remains of the Palestinians. So this this came as a shock. This came as a shock. It has changed everything in the sense it was ground zero politically. So a legitimate goal would be to dismantle Hamas’ military capability, which Israel cannot do on its own and cannot do just like this. It needs to make peace with Hamas in order not to be threatened by Hamas, which means that it needs to give freedom to the Palestinians. Because the flood of Al Aqsa was called like that, out of the repression that Israel has imposed on the Palestinians, it has become fiercer, I mean more and more fierce over time. As you know, because you’ve been there.”
“Crikey should issue a correction rather than a clarification as it’s clear that Matthew Knott accurately quoted Ms Albanese and she was not taken out of context,” David King, national editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age told Crikey after this piece was republished with a clarification.
“Crikey’s failure to call Matthew and get a response to Ms Albanese’s claims was a lapse of basic journalism standards.”
Albanese said that Al Jazeera’s coverage of the conflict, in which events are not recounted “through the voice of the military”, is an example for Australian media outlets to follow.
“Israeli military commanders repeating over and over that they were trying to do everything to minimise civilian loss, and then just passing the figures of those who have been killed, normalising the sense that these lives were collateral damage — this is what I see the Western media tending to [do].”
Albanese noted that the Qatar-owned broadcaster had “given a lot of space to the stories filtering from Gaza, that the Palestinians in Gaza themselves have collected and passed through. And these stories resonate very much with the data and information provided by the United Nations.”
Albanese said while the Australian media landscape on Gaza is not unique (and indeed, nor are Australia’s positions in the international order), it is among few peers in how “intense” it is.
“It’s pretty intense, but it’s not unique,” she said.
“The only parallel, where I think it’s so extreme, is Italy — there is a lot of fear of the pro-Israel lobby in my country. Here, you have a pro-Israel lobby, which is also made of Australians.”
“[In other countries], either the media doesn’t interview me, or I’m interviewed but then respected. Sky News, for example, doesn’t respect [me]. In general, what I say is respected, it’s taken as an authoritative source — while here it is very much challenged, which was embarrassing.”
Speaking to the presence of political lobbies on the conflict in Australia, and asked about the phenomenon of paid trips to the region for journalists and politicians by lobby groups, Albanese said she got a sense there was a “fear of being smeared” amongst the Australian political class.
“I’ve not had this sense from the media [that there is a close relationship with partisan actors]. But I get it from when I’ve gotten closer to other actors in civil society, or the political body of this country, I do sense that there is a fear of being smeared,” she said.
Albanese met with Deputy Foreign Minister Tim Watts, after their joint appearance on Q+A, and left a message for the Australian government.
“If Australia is truly committed to international law, as it says to be, it is to be truly consistent and truly compliant with international law, it means acting to prevent atrocities and crimes [under international law]. Is it doing that?”
“In my view, no — because it is struggling to even call for a ceasefire. It’s struggling to even condemn the multiple violations of international law that Israel is committing. And that is unacceptable.”
Clarification: A previous version of this article did not include as much detail regarding Albanese’s claims about Nine’s coverage nor a comment from the reporter, who was not contacted before publication. It has now been updated with a transcript and an acknowledgement that Nine disputes Albanese’s claims that her quotes were taken out of context.