As reported in the Crikey e-mail today, Michael Backman has written to Jewish community leaders apologising for the distress caused by his controversial column, published in The Age last Saturday. Backman says in his letter of apology:

I can now see that some of the forms of words used did not adequately explain what I intended to say. Most particularly, they have allowed some to read into the column sentiments that I did not intend, and which I do not believe.

He also apologised for “injudicious use of words and themes”.

But this wasn’t always Backman’s line. Some email correspondence has come to light that suggests when the controversy first broke, Backman was engaging in that time-honoured newsroom tradition: blaming the sub-editors. (UPDATE: Backman sees this differently. See UPDATE at the foot of this story.)

The exchange was initiated by Monash University student Justin Lipinski, who e-mailed Backman late on Sunday night, the day the column was published in The Age.

Lipinski politely asked Backman to justify his words, and in particular the reference to boorish Israeli tourists in Nepal. Backman replied almost immediately, and claimed that in the original, this point was “finessed” with a reference to the Israelis being reservists – but that this had been edited out by The Age.

Here is the correspondence:

Dear Michael, I Recently read your latest column in The Age about the Israel-Palestine conflict. While I respect your work on business in Asia (I recently recommended ‘Big in Asia’ and ‘Asia Future Shock’ to some friends) I had some trouble with this article. I was wondering what evidence you were referring to when you suggested that Israel is responsible for the recent series of terrorist attacks. I was also curious about why you felt the need to discuss rude Israeli tourists in an article about Gaza. Where is the nexus? Kind regards, Justin Lipinski.

And the reply:

Hi Justin, thanks for your message. I didn’t say that Israel was behind the said events but rather anger at the treatment of the Palestinians partly allows Islamic extremists justification for some of the autrocities they have committed. I really don’t think that should be controversial, but I do of course understand that saying anything critical of Israel will always be controversial for some! The Nepal reference was simply to say that many of the trekkers ‘are reservists and it is their sometimes high-handed attitidues that they bring with them into Gaza and so on. The finessing of the point was removed by the Age’s editors unfortunately. I know that the column has caused a lot of controversy, but really I don’t think it should. I think free debate is always worth defending even if some feel offended in the process. best regards Michael

And the rejoinder:

Hi Michael, Thanks for your speedy response!
I agree with you that free debate is always worth defending even if it offends some in the process. That’s why I subscribe to Crikey :). That being said, if free debate is to be offensive, it must be grounded in some sort of evidence. There seemed no attempt to supply readers with any evidence that Islamic extremists justified their attacks by pointing to Israeli attacks on Palestinians. Non-biased evidence, although a tricky concept in itself, is important. Otherwise comments may be deemed as racist. I am by no means suggesting you intended to come across as racist, and I am sure that if you were given the space in the column you would have backed your arguments. But maybe reconsider writing in such a short column if you cannot add the necessary finess. Justin Lipinski.

Now there is something strange going on here. The article is no longer on The Age’s website but is on Backman’s website. Presumably this is the piece as he wrote it, rather than as The Age edited it. [UPDATE: Backman says not. See UPDATE at the foot of this post.] Yet there is no “finessing” of the relevant paragraph, as he claims. A check on the Factiva database reveals that in the article as published this paragraph is identical to the one on Backman’s website.

Also, strangely, the article on Backman’s site now includes a postscript with a link to the article I mentioned in a post earlier this week, making similar claims about rude Israeli tourists.

Does this mean, Mr Backman, that you are reading this blog? Or did you find that article for yourself? If you are reading, Crikey tried to e-mail you earlier in the week, and we are still waiting for a response. We’d like to talk.

UPDATE: Michael Backman has been in touch. He sent the following e-mail today:

Dear Margaret
I did not receive an e-mail from anyone at Crikey. And until now, I have not had any communications with you personally, despite you apparently having been writing all week  about what I might or might not have done, and what I might or might not think.
Your heading and contention today that I have blamed the subs at the Age is wrong. I simply said in a private e-mail to someone that some finessing of one point (that in relation to Nepal) was removed. The line that was removed linked the point about young Israelis in Nepal back to Palestine.
I do not blame the Age or the subs whatsoever for the thrust of my piece and the reaction to it. I have the utmost regard for all in the Business section at the Age.
The column as it appeared on my website was as it was published. I do not distribute pre-edited versions of my columns as a courtesy to the Age.
As I mentioned, you have included in your writings suppositions about me. At no stage have you bothered to check anything with me. A small example: I see that you have mentioned that “my” Facebook page has been removed. I do not use Facebook, I do not know how to use it, and until I was alerted to it in your writings I was not even aware that a Facebook page had been set up in my name. I believe that the page might have been established as a ‘fan’ page by someone in Malaysia for Malaysians to follow what I write about Malaysia. I have no idea about why it was removed or indeed anything else about it.
Sincerely
Michael Backman
And I replied:

Michael,

My editor, Jonathan Green, tells me he has sent you several emails over the last week. Obviously they have not reached you. I will check with him what email address he was using. I myself have hunted for contact details for you without success. I got this email address for the first time today, from Justin Lipinski. I will publish your letter to me on my blog straight away, as an update to today’s article. If you want to provide any other comment, or to write a piece of your own for Crikey about the events of the last week, I am sure my editor would be interested.

Yours, Margaret Simons

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