‘It appears that for European editors no doubt familiar with the significant restrictions on press freedom that exist in our heavily regulated continent, Israel is an exception’
Does Europe have a problem with Israel? In a new book, A State Beyond the Pale (Weidenfeld & Nicolson), Robin Shepherd writes that Israel is being treated unfairly in the quantity and quality of attention it receives in Western Europe. Shepherd does not focus on all criticism of Israel — only the steady slide towards demonisation and the occasional use of old anti-Semitic tropes.
Shepherd’s well-documented, elegantly written and powerfully argued book is a must-read for anyone interested in this subject. Two recent instances of Israel-related press coverage and the political response they elicited suggest he is spot on.
First, the mass-circulation Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet published a story by Donald Bostrom which alleged that the Israeli Army had systematically harvested organs from the bodies of dead Palestinians. The only established fact was the death of a Palestinian youth whose family had claimed that his corpse had undergone an autopsy without their authorisation. Bostrom later confirmed that he had no conclusive evidence to back up his story.
When Israel protested, asking the Swedish government — the current holder of the EU presidency — to distance itself from what many saw as a 21st-century blood libel, Sweden barricaded itself behind the absolute principle of press freedom. Instead of criticising Aftonbladet, it reprimanded its ambassador to Israel for having dared condemn the article without prior co-ordination with Stockholm.
In mid-September, however, Sweden’s government asked a Stockholm museum to remove a display of swastikas and female genitalia to avoid hurting sensitivities during an EU foreign ministers’ meeting. What’s the Swedish for “consistency”?
A few weeks later, the Spanish newspaper El Mundo also had a little spat with Israel. On 5 September, it published an interview with the Holocaust denier David Irving as part of a string of articles marking the 70th anniversary of the start of the Second World War. When the Israeli ambassador protested, El Mundo flew the flag of press freedom, implying that Irving’s views — while not those of the paper — might be of public interest as long as they were not inflammatory. The ambassador was accused of having a Manichaean view of the world.
The editor must have missed the irony of rejecting the Israeli ambassador’s claim that El Mundo was delving into moral relativism by calling his view “Manichaean”.
Ultimately, what Irving said in the interview was irrelevant. An interview in a prominent publication is a place in the sun and El Mundo gave him one.
It is worth noting that, in contrast to his Swedish colleague Carl Bildt, who chose silence in the wake of Aftonbladet‘s piece, the Spanish FM, Miguel Moratinos, took a robust view: “The Foreign Minister, while maintaining the most absolute respect for freedom of expression, regrets that space was given to an historian who denies one of the biggest tragedies for humanity in modern history,” said a spokesman.
Bildt, who was scheduled to arrive in Israel on official EU business on the same day that Irving’s interview was published, had to cancel his trip. Moratinos, whose country will assume the EU presidency after Sweden, visited Israel as scheduled a week later.
It appears that for European editors no doubt familiar with the significant restrictions on press freedom that exist in our heavily regulated continent, Israel is an exception. To smear and slander Israel — or the historical record of the Holocaust — is an absolute right. The Aftonbladet story was less about press freedom and more about a journalist relinquishing any pretence of fairness when a chance to promote a cause to which he is sympathetic came up. A journalist writing such lurid accusations without evidence against any other government would lose face with his colleagues. In this case, Bostrom’s colleagues rallied to defend him instead of criticising the likely long-term damage he caused to their profession.
Even when bad taste does not stand in the way of editorial choice, freedom of the press is not the same as the obligation to give a platform to every crank. El Mundo‘s editor, while waving the flag of press freedom, deleted the Israeli ambassador’s letter’s last and most damning paragraph, which suggested that his choice to publish Irving was dictated by sensationalism.
El Mundo and Aftonbladet both crossed a red line — making the outrageous legitimate and the extreme mainstream. The thread that runs through their stories is the singling out of Israel to apply a principle they follow less strictly elsewhere. Perhaps, in the editors’ minds, Israel is indeed “beyond the pale”.