UPDATE: The Michael Backman column has been removed from his website. His Wikipedia entry has been recently edited, and his Facebook page seems to be missing.
I was out frying other fish yesterday so did not catch up with the controversy consuming The Age newsroom until late afternoon. This morning as I ring around, it is clear that the newsroom remains tense and upset. Staff are rallying around. They fear unfairness.
It’s all about an anti-Semitic column by regular contributor to the business pages, Michael Backman. published last Saturday – and about the bizarre “apology” The Age had on page two yesterday.
The original column has been taken down from the Age website, but is still available on Backman’s own website,
Bad enough. Very bad, in fact. How did such a racist column come to be published? Keep reading, but first some more background.
Yesterday a bizarre apology was published on page two of the Age, under the usual pro forma information about contact numbers and the like:
A column by Michael Backman headlined “Israel living high on US expense account’’ was published in error.
The Age does not in any way endorse the views of the columnist, apologises for the distress the column caused to many readers, particularly in the Jewish community and regrets publication of the column.’
Now, if publishing the column was strange, this was even stranger. The wording suggested that the column was – woops – published as a production error – without anyone realising or thinking about it or noticing what it said. This was not the case, as I detail below.
As for saying that the Age does not endorse the views – who ever said it did? Every day newspapers around the world publish columns expressing dozens of views that the editorial team does not endorse. That is part of the job of a newspaper.
So why was this strange apology published? Part of the background is the instant action by the Jewish community, and in particular the Australia-Israel Jewish Affairs Council and its chairman Mark Leibler and executive director Colin Rubenstein.
Rubenstein spoke to Age editor Paul Ramadge on Monday morning, and he and Leibler met Ramadge face to face that afternoon.
Rubenstein told me this morning that Ramadge “happily agreed” that the column was offensive and outrageous, said its publication was due to a “breakdown in editorial proceedures” and promised that he had the affair “under the microscope”. He also promised an unreserved apology.
Is Rubenstein happy with the result? This morning he did not argue when I suggested the wording of the apology was a little strange, but said it was a “gesture in the right direction”. What was really needed, he said, was an investigation into how the piece came to be published and an assurance that such things could not happen again.
Caroline Overington of The Australian has been breaking the news on this controversy, and expressing strong opinions on her blog. She was the one who got comment yesterday from former Age editor Michael Gawenda, which The Australian (no doubt gleefully) published as a news story today. Gawenda accused the paper of journalistic failure. He said to Overington:
I think the real question here is what publication of this article says about the prevailing journalistic culture at The Age. The apology is a non-apology really. It apologises for the hurt it caused some people, especially Jews. This is a clayton’s apology–the sort, for instance, that Wayne Carey once offered up when he apologied for grabbing a young woman’s breast.
The apology states that The Age does not hold the views expressed in the article. I assume The Age publishes many oped pieces that do not express the views of The Age.
What this apology seems to be aimed at doing is limit the damage to the paper from the publication of this piece. What I want to know is how it came to be published and how The Age has reached the point where racist rubbish like this gets published. And what the new editor in chief intends to do about changing this culture.
There is a history to this. Just a few months ago Gawenda accused editor Ramadge of “payback”. This was because Gawenda had been sacked as a columnist after his criticism of of Farifax management in the A. N. Smith Lecture in journalism at Melbourne University. There is no love lost between the two men.
Nevertheless there is no doubt that the apology is weird – and so is the fact that the article ran at all.
So how did it run?
I have to say here that I am somewhat constrained. I am not naming names, because I have found out this morning that the person within The Age who is getting the blame – and who has taken responsibility for the “error” – is both under enormous strain, and not solely or chiefly to blame. Nor, in case management should think otherwise, are they talking to me.
There is a strong view in the newsroom that there is unfairness afoot in the promised “under the microscope” review.
Here is what happened, as I understand it. The Business editor, Michael Short, was on holiday. So too was Ramadge. Backman’s column arrived as usual. It was clearly evident that it was a strange piece, well off Backman’s area of expertise and offensive to Jews. Should it be run?
There was debate around the sub’s table. The person who is now getting the blame for running it was reluctant. Others argued strongly in favour of publication. Part of the argument was that pieces critical of Muslims often got a run. The Age should not be seen to be frightened of the “Jewish lobby”, and Israeli treatment of Palestinians and actions in Gaza were legitimate topics of debate.
The final decision was collegiate – and now of course deeply regretted.
So what are we to make of all this?
Here’s what I think. The column is clearly offensive, and also weird and badly written.
It makes the classic logical error of the racist – generalising from the particular deeds of an individual or group to the race as a whole. It manages to blame Jews for Muslim extremism and violence, talks carelessly about that classic of anti-Semitic hate speech – that Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus – and leaps bizarrely from what is happening in Gaza to the alleged rude behaviour of Israeli tourists trekking in Nepal.
I don’t think it should have been published.
Yet is the case really all that clear cut compared to other things that have been published recently in mainstream media, without the organisation concerned feeling the need to apologise, or to disassociate itself from the views expressed?
I can understand how this decision was made, in an understaffed holiday season newsroom where the subs are reduced in number and under pressure.
Think about other controversial material recently published. What about some of Paul Sheehan’s columns? Crikey, reported a case a while ago where Sheehan used the words “parasites” to describe refugees let in during the 1970s and 80s (in other words, Lebanese). These words were quickly amended in the website version, but are still on Brisbane Times site.
Sheehan’s writing is largely a legitimate, though controversial, questioning of policies of multiculturalism and immigration. There are also legitimate questions to be asked about Israel’s actions in Gaza and treatment of Palestinians. Sheehan sometimes steps over the line, as Backman has. He still gets published, and nobody suggests it is necessary for the Sydney Morning Herald to disassociate itself from his views.
Then there are the practices described by Media Watch in this program a few years back. There are the diatribes from Alan Jones in the lead up to the Cronulla riots.
Or the Janet Albrechtsen column that led to her stoush with Media Watch, that includeed this paragraph:
‘French and Danish experts say perpetrators of gang rape flounder between their parents’ Islamic values and society’s more liberal democratic values, falling back on the most basic pack mentality of violence and self-gratification.’
The Australian July 2002
You can read for yourself the controversy that generated on the Media Watch site. The Australian, of course, vigorously defended Albrechtsen. No apologies or disassociation.
Then there was the media treatment of African youths in Flemington late last year, something I have written about in Crikey before. In that case the facts were incorrectly reported, and that resulted in opinion columns based partly on incorrect facts, chiefly by Andrew Bolt. No apologies. No disassociation.
I think the Backman column shouldn’t have been published. It’s a pretty vile and silly piece.
Do I think it was so extreme, so obviously and extraordinarily vile, that it was obviously not the kind of thing the mainstream media should publish? No.
Colin Rubenstein said to me this morning that “it is a long time since we have had this kind of thing from the mainstream media.”. Well, I disagree. It happens all too often. The Jewish community is efficient at combatting it, and in this case good on them. Not all communities have such able spokespeople.
What will the “under the microscope” examination promised to Leibler and Rubenstein by Ramadge amount to?
I hope not laying blame where blame does not really belong.
I would hope that it might result in some transparency – in Ramadge taking the readers into his confidence about what happened, and engaging in some debate about what constitues legitimate, if controversial expression of views, and what crosses over the line in to unacceptable racism.
If space prohibits doing this in the pages of the newspaper, there is always online, where the technology favours an open exchange with readers.
I rang Ramadge asking for comment yesterday afternoon. I have not yet had a return phone call. I have not been able to contact Backman.