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Unbalanced and distorted media coverage doesn’t help sensitive matters of free speech and international conflict

By Paul Duffill - posted Monday, 16 March 2015


Disruption by students of a presentation by retired British army Colonel Richard Kemp on Wednesday at the University of Sydney, has been followed by some extremely unbalanced and distorted media coverage. This coverage omits key events that happened during the affair and makes inaccurate claims about what actually did happen. This disappointing reportage has appeared on sites such as J-Wire (Riot at Sydney University,Protest at Sydney University – the video and Sydney University: Violent protest under investigation) and the Australian Jewish News (Anti-Israel protesters run riot at Sydney uni). As someone who was present at the lecture and witnessed the affair, this reporting comes across as unhelpful and sheds far more heat than light on the sensitive issues around this event. I should also be clear as I write this, in the interests of full disclosure, that I witnessed events as a member of the audience and that I did not take part in nor support the students' protest.

Col. Kemp, while taking a break from an Australian fundraising tour for the United Israel Appeal, was set to give a public presentation titled Ethical Dilemmas of Military Tactics in Relation to Recent Conflicts in the ME: Dealing with non-stated armed groups.

The advertisement of Kemp's lecture posted on J-Wire quotes Kemp as declaring: “during Operation Cast Lead, the Israeli Defense Forces did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in the combat zones than any other army in the history of warfare” and noted that Kemp is “an outspoken supporter of Israeli conduct in its armed conflict with Hamas.”

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Indeed during this lecture he remarked that “I was in Israel during the 2014 summer conflict and I do believe that the IDF in their attack on Hamas in Gaza… were doing everything they could to protect civilians”.

Israel’s most recent offensive on Gaza in July and August last year according to the UN  claimed the lives of over 1400 Palestinian civilians, including 521 children. One foreign national and five Israeli civilians also lost their lives in the conflict.

Several minutes into his presentation, a group of around a dozen students entered the room, chanting “Richard Kemp, you can’t hide, you support genocide”. The students then proceeded to address the audience on their concerns about the lack of free speech at the University of Sydney and their criticism of Kemp’s support for the Israeli military's practice in using military force against Palestinian civilians.

After a few minutes of chanting and heated arguments between the students and some audience members in the lecture theatre, University security staff proceeded to forcibly remove the students from the lecture theatre. Col. Kemp’s presentation resumed after this.

Understandably this is a sensitive and emotive topic. Thus is falls on respectable media to be even more scrupulous than usual in presenting an accurate and balanced picture of events. Unfortunately the hasty reportage by J-Wire and the Australian Jewish News of the affair has not lived up to these important journalistic standards.

Articles by the Australian Jewish News and J-Wire somehow fail to mention that at the event on Wednesday one of Col. Kemp’s supporters physically assaulted two Sydney University staff members in the audience. The same individual also attempted to damage and seize the property of these two Sydney University staff members. This violence is of course a serious issue and these events were reported to NSW Police who arrived on the scene.

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This serious omission is linked to a second serious problem in their reporting of this event. A photo has emerged, apparently taken during the Kemp lecture, posted by the Australian Jewish News whose caption claims that: “A shocking photo has emerged of Professor Jake Lynch holding money to the face of a Jewish student during yesterday's anti-Israel protest at Sydney University.”

Unfortunately the Australian Jewish News did not wait to hear and publish Prof. Lynch's account of what happened before publishing this claim. I have personally spoken to Lynch regarding this photo, and the Australian Jewish News' claim sharply contradicts Lynch's account. Lynch states: “There was, by this time, a great deal of anger in the room and a great many people standing up and moving around. One of them was a lady with dyed orange-red hair, probably in her 50s, who started to behave more and more violently. She threw water over people’s heads, used some pretty industrial language. I was recording some of the events on my iPhone and she seemed to take exception to this, kicking out and catching me (twice) in the groin”.

Lynch also confirmed that “she also attacked” another member of the audience who is also a colleague of his. (Note: I have omitted mention of this other person's name who was also the object of assault as I am unsure as to whether it is appropriate to publish their personal details online at this time).

Lynch continues: “In vain did I (a) tell her to stop and (b) try to get the security guards to intervene. Eventually I had the idea of showing her the banknotes I was carrying in my pocket to emphasise the point I then made to her, that she would leave me with no choice but to take out a private prosecution for assault, and that this could cost her a lot of money.”

The Australian and the Daily Telegraph has published similar accounts of Prof. Lynch's statement. Even Prof. Lynch's emotional critics on Facebook who have claimed to have also spoken to Lynch about the photo report a similar account from Lynch and admitted that after the photo in question was published that no hard evidence had emerged contradicting Lynch's account.

During the lecture I also observed this older lady -whose hair was dyed red and who was wearing a purple top, and who I would guess was in her 50s or 60- assaulting Lynch and his colleague. What's more The Daily Telegraph's description of video footage they have viewed also supports reports of the older lady's physical attacks on Lynch: “Dr Lynch can be seen arguing with the woman before she throws out her right arm at him”. At this point even James Jeffrey, “Strewth Editor” in the Australian weighed in, in an effort to add some comic relief to the affair. Jeffrey offered “a small get-well message to the bollocks of University of Sydney academic Jake Lynch, which we gather got in the way of a pro-Israeli foot during a mid-lecture scuffle yesterday...His bits copped a kick from someone who felt differently to Lynch. Get well, boys.”

To their credit J-Wire have already broken with the Australian Jewish News' problematic description of the photo.  J-Wire now describes events around the photo as involving “Associate Professor Dr Jake Lynch,  Director of the Centre for Peace and ­Conflict Studies, who reportedly waved a $5 note in front of one of those attending the disrupted lecture.”

These accounts of events are very different from the claim by the Australian Jewish News of “A shocking photo has emerged of Professor Jake Lynch holding money to the face of a Jewish student during yesterday's anti-Israel protest at Sydney University.” And the older lady that attacked Lynch and his colleagues is not even shown in the photo posted by the Australian Jewish News. She also refused to give her name to audience members who observed her carrying out the assaults. Thus it is especially unfortunate that footage of these assaults and this older lady is not included in the material and photo that the Australian Jewish News reported.

We do see in the photo a young man in a grey shirt standing to Lynch's left. Presumably this is the individual who the Australian Jewish News' are claiming to be the “Jewish student” Lynch was “holding money to the face of” in the photo. In fact, during the lecture, and at the time this photo was taken this young man physically inserted himself between Lynch and the older lady that assaulted  Lynch and his colleague. When this photo was taken the older lady is to the left of the young man in the grey shirt, and not included in the image posted by the Australian Jewish News. The young man wearing the grey shirt also spent approximately 5 minutes talking quietly with the same older lady, trying to discourage the older lady from further attacking Lynch and other audience members. The older lady had unfortunately refused to listen to other audience members trying to dissuade her from her physical attacks. Unfortunately I also witnessed the older lady continuing to threaten audience members with violence even after they had left the event.

Despite this serious inaccuracy, the Australian Jewish News has yet to correct the sensational caption they first added to the photo: their original inaccurate caption remains as the supposed description of photo.

A third issue is that the students' protest was clearly not a “riot” (let along a “student riot”) or violent as the J-Wire and Australian Jewish News piecesargue. Being present during the whole event I did not observe any violence what-so-ever from the students protesting or from Lynch. This clear lack of violence is also shown in a video recording of the student demonstration posted by The Australian Jewish News.

Fourth, again as shown in the video, Lynch did not lead or even take part in the protest, and was sitting in the audience listening to the lecture with other audience members when the students came in to protest the event. He did take video footage of University security staff forcefully removing the protesting students and video footage of the older lady who assaulted him, as did other members of the audience. Claims that he somehow lead or instigated the protest are entirely false. What's more, at no time did I observe Lynch acting in a violent manner and unsubstantiated claims that he did act violently amount to extremely irresponsible and possibly defamatory journalism.

Lastly, while arguing for Col. Kemp’s right to “free speech” the J-Wire and Australian Jewish News pieces articles also fail to mention that the University of Sydney unfortunately actually already has a history of barring, or trying to bar,  particular speakers from campus that do not align with the University’s private interests or for claimed security reasons. One recent example - widely reported by mainstream media including in the New York Times, Reuters, the Guardian, the Huffington Post and the ABC (a range of media links here are: http://sydneypeacefoundation.org.au/pursuing-freedom-democracy-and-human-rights/- was the University’s secret attempt to ban the Dalai Lama from speaking on campus in early 2013. Sydney University has also banned other groups from speaking on campus including Hizb ut-Tahrir spokesperson Uthman Badar. It should be noted that proposals to ban Hizb ut-Tahrir in Australia have been criticised, including by Dr. Adrian Cherney, Head of Criminology at Queensland University. Of course at Sydney Uni and more broadly in Australia speakers that engage in Holocaust denial are prohibited from speaking in public, as part of Australian legislation prohibiting hate speech and racial vilification.

Thus one would be naive to believe that the University does not restrict freedom of speech on campus. Whether one agrees that the University should restrict freedom of speech or not, or where along the spectrum people believe the correct balance lies, I think we can all agree that the result should be consistent and transparent.  Given Col. Kemp's outspoken support for the Israeli military’s record in killing civilians, one can’t help but wonder how consistent and transparent the University’s decision-making process was in allowing him a platform to speak at that respected public academic institution.

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About the Author

Paul Duffill is a part-time acvisiting scholar at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney. His research and teaching focuses on peacebuilding and dialogue, evaluation, pedagogy and non-violent civil society initiatives in response to the Israel-Palestine conflict. He has worked as a trainer in inter-cultural communication and dialogue in Japan, Australia and the West Bank in Palestine.

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