Regular readers will know that my approach to journalism starts and ends with one simple rule: journalism must inform. It doesn’t matter if it’s political journalism, science journalism, health journalism, sports journalism or celebrity journalism, it needs to give readers the basic facts so they know why the story is in the news, and so they can make up their own minds about it. And usually, it fails. Over and over again, “colour” – what someone was wearing, what someone in the crowd yelled out, a slogan from a politician – trumps information.
We’ve had about a month of news about Marrickville Council and the Israel boycott, and I’ve deliberately avoided doing my own research to see if the reporting told me what it was all about. Guess what? It didn’t.
(Disclaimer: I’ve been following the story in the Sydney Morning Herald and on SBS and ABC. I don’t read News Ltd papers, so if you do, and if their coverage is any better, please post the links below.)
The latest SMH story (on the 23rd – hey, my blogging frequency is inversely proportional to the amount of Easter eggs in my belly) is Two sides to thinking global, acting local. Of the 931 words, this is the only sentence that could even vaguely be considered an explanation of the boycott:
It was one of thousands of missives, many anonymous and abusive, received by representatives of the inner west council in the four months after it gave in-principle support for a Global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [GBDS] campaign against Israel.
Do you know what the boycott is about? Because I sure as hell don’t, and I’m an engaged reader.
Five days ago, in Marrickville Council’s move to boycott Israel sinks in stormy sea of debate, we found out that Antony Loewenstein was spat on, that one woman called Arab councillors “fucking cowards” and stormed out, and that hundreds “attended the passionate meeting, which was filled with shouting, flag waving and jeers”. But nothing about what the BDS Movement is about, nor why a Sydney local council would want to be involved, nor why the new State Government threatened to sack the council over it. Sure, colour is important to a story – it helps people connect with it – but colour shouldn’t replace the very basic information the story should deliver.
If you believe that news should inform, then every story about this boycott should include a basic explanation of the boycott and what it means for a local council. Councillors are getting death threats over this, yet the reporting hasn’t even told me why.
Now for some Journalism 101 or, as I like to call it, a basic fucking Google search. On the BDS Movement website, it says it’s a “campaign of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel until it complies with international law and Palestinian rights”.
Every story about the boycott has explained what the letters BDS stand for, but it’s the second part of the sentence above that’s useful because it explains why the campaign started. It’s not many words to add to a story, is it?
A single sentence explaining that the boycott plans to target “products and companies that profit from the violation of Palestinian rights, as well as Israeli sporting, cultural and academic institutions” (quoting the campaign website) isn’t many words either.
So what about the international law bit? It was reported in 2002 that Israel holds the record for ignoring UN Security Council resolutions. And according to Foreign Policy Journal, there are 79 UN Security Council resolutions against Israel between 1948 and 2009. Some of these directly criticise Israel for violating the Geneva Conventions – the international rules for protecting people who aren’t engaged in the fighting, ie, health workers, aid workers, civilians, and injured fighters.
Now, I’m not running an anti-Israel position here. Israel isn’t the only country to get up the arse of the UN Security Council. I am simply looking at whether the reporting of this issue has performed its basic function: to inform. Whether it has explained why a local council in Sydney wanted to join a global campaign against a country, and why other people got the shits about it.
Thing is, Marrickville Council also has a policy of not purchasing goods or services from companies that do business with Burma’s military dictatorship and I don’t see that making the news. This means not doing business with Jetstar Asia, Andaman Teak Supplies, Barrett Communications, Gecko’s Adventures, Sri Asia Tourism, Lonely Planet, Chevron and Twinza Oil. Other local councils with this policy are Leichhardt Municipal Council, Mornington Peninsula Shire Council, Moreland City Council, City of Sydney, Warringah Council and City of Yarra.
Maybe, just maybe, what would be really useful to your audience is to explain what the BDS actually means for a local council. Some of the companies on the boycott list are Ahava, Eden Springs, Motorola and SodaStream. Is that really unworkable for a local council? It certainly isn’t extraordinary enough to warrant ridicule by the federal member, Anthony Albanese, or to have the NSW Government threaten to sack the council. Surprisingly, the BDS site doesn’t have a list of companies but Scribd has a list that includes Kimberly-Clark, McDonald’s, Nestle, Coca-Cola, Johnson & Johnson and Nokia. Again, all workable within a local council. Particularly if that local council explained to ratepayers exactly why they weren’t doing business with those companies, and I’m not sure that Marrickville Council did that. But that could be a result of the Oz and the Tele using the story to attack Greens candidate Fiona Byrne ahead of the NSW election – while the council was still discussing the issue – and the Greens leaving her high and dry. It turned into one big yell-fest and none of us are any smarter as a result.