Speaker by Various Artists

Keeping perspective

by Reid Aug 18

Two years ago in my capacity as a feature writer for the New Zealand Herald I wrote a piece about the immunisation debate. Please God, never again.

Aside from the confusingly similar names of the bickering protagonists -- the Immunisation Awareness Society v Immunisation Advisory Centre -- it was the kind of issue where the people you speak to assume your interest in them means you will act as their advocate. Of course if you get criticism from both sides after publication you've probably done a good job -- although you can feel pretty shitty hearing that double dose of abuse.

In this case the warring tribes -- the IAS v IAC, see what I mean? -- were eerily silent until a few days later one of the parties got in touch and said I had done a good job and felt their views were fairly reported. That was all I hoped to do and so said as much to my caller. And I thought that was it, time to move on an interview a speed metal band or something.

But that wasn't where it ended. I was now on their e-mail list -- and in the following week I would open my computer in trepidation. There would be yet another 25 page report sent to me. When I tried to explain via e-mail reply that I had finished with that issue, I was moving on to other things and anyway was a mere journalist in their Greater Game it was as if I'd admitted to buggering their first-born and having stolen the wedding photos on the way out the door. Suddenly the e-mails took on a nasty tone.

I cried "Spam" when I was accused, less than 10 days after being told I had done a good job, of not having presented their side of the story at all well and that they, quite frankly, had been disappointed by the piece. These people had expected me to continue presenting their views and when I didn't I had failed as their advocate.

Immunisation? Never again. They are prickly people these unpricked people. And something similar happened recently. So, like Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City, "I got to thinking ..." Recently I interviewed people inside and outside the local Jewish community about their fears, or otherwise, of a rise in anti-Semitism in this country. The story was prompted by the prime minister's comments on the alleged Mossad agents and the subsequent damage to Jewish gravestones. The mood, if there was one, was exacerbated by the impending arrival of historian David Irving. The story ran before the recent, deplorable desecration of Jewish graves and the burning of the prayer room in Wellington.

The Jewish people I spoke to were generous with their time, reasonable and articulate, and because of my upbringing I was aware of how sensitive they could be to even the most veiled suggestion of anti-Semitism. I was fortunate when growing up that here my adopted family, whom I called aunty and uncle, were Jewish and so we shared family holidays and celebrations, birthdays and bar mitzvahs, and unfortunately many funerals. Every year at Christmas the family, as we called them, would come over for a huge lunch and exchange presents. It wasn't until I was a bit older that the irony of this -- and the fact none of my other friends ever had contact with Jews -- struck me as unusual. And so I guess I brought that to what I wrote in my article when I concluded that this was "a concern perhaps only fully understood within a minority community which has a history of being oppressed, marginalised and murdered."

The people I spoke with were not alarmist, didn't suggest for a minute that anti-Semitism was rife here, and indeed a non-practicing Jew I interviewed said he saw no evidence of it at all.

I got a very nice phone call from one of the ladies I spoke with to say she thought the article fair and that she had been faithfully reported. And so to bed. Well, not quite.

Then the e-mails started to fly, most behind my back but some passed on to me. There were suggestions that I only interviewed the non-practising Jewish guy because he was a journalist who knew me and so got in my ear. (Never met him actually, hadn't even spoken to him before that phone call.)

It was said his opinion should not have been presented because he was the type of character who would pull out his Jewishness when it suited, and what did he know anyway. It was a really low ad hominem attack. Then somebody else said, then he said ...

At this point the e-chatter turned into idle gossip, which is just skin-distance above rumour and innuendo in my book.

(Incidentally, his opinions were brief but included because I thought he had an excellent point: that people such as himself were perfectly entitled to comment because anti-Semites don't distinguish between practicing and non-practicing Jews. In other words, those who discriminate aren't discriminating.)

Then a week later in what I jocularly referred to around the office as "the right hand giving and the left wing taking away" I wrote another separate and largely unrelated piece.

I interviewed a non-practicing, American-born, Jewish professor who had lived in Israel since 1974. He was pro-Palestinian (which isn't to say anti-Jewish, or even anti-Israel of course) and a peace activist. I interviewed him for the Herald's regular "Perspectives" page in which people get to put their viewpoints forward. Often contributors write their own, sometimes a journalist like me simply acts as a conduit. This is not adversarial journalism (although in this case hard questions were obviously asked) but is a chance to let someone air their opinion, whether it be popular or not.

The gentleman I interviewed was articulate and even amusing. But I knew his views, which I faithfully reported, would meet with condemnation from those who saw his questioning of the actions of Israel against the Palestinians as tantamount to supporting Palestinian terrorism. And I figured his views would get approval from those pro-Palestinians who felt their perspective was finally being heard.

The first e-mail, which came from Chicago within minutes of the interview appearing on the Herald website congratulated me (Me? The mere messenger?) for telling about "the atrocities committed by the Israeli government in the occupied territories".

The writer poetically added the adage: "The ink of a scholar is holier then the blood of a martyr" and said my article was living proof of this statement.

"Keep up the good work sir, God Bless the truth tellers and the peace makers. Sincerely yours," it was signed. I knew there would be more to come from the counter-view.

What I didn't realise, as Carrie rarely says, is that I would be perceived a supporter of such atrocities as the killing of innocent Israeli civilians.

For some who wrote it seemed that to be the conduit for an idea or opinion was to be complicit. Huh? So we now not only burn the book and hang the author, but we go after the subeditor, the publisher and the whole damn building? This was absurd and clearly these people did not understand the notion of a section in a newspaper quite clearly labelled "Perspectives".

But the e-mails and phonecalls came in with accusations of the interview being one-sided (Yes. And?), and the old myth of objectivity had to be debunked yet again. And on this issue, as with criticism of contemporary art, if you don't agree with someone's opinion you "don't understand". Sorry, but that's an accusation I have always considered offensively arrogant and the last refuge of the cowardly who cannot accept a debate. I feel sorry now for the person I spoke to who foolishly used the phrase. Their ear is possibly still ringing.

My actions in reproducing this man's opinions were variously described as shameful and highly distorted. Interestingly in this time of global communication, many of the writers were from the United States.

Now, nowhere in my manual of life does it say that if you are critical of an opinion that means you are by definition supportive of another. Or vice versa. It also doesn't say that you will come into this world with a stamp on your birth certificate which says you will never be offended.

But as with the so-called "immunisation debate", the Israel-Palestine discussion is often little more than a Mexican stand-off between two blind men with loaded guns waiting for the slightest rustle of noise before blasting away.

I had a more amusing version of this kind of thing once last year when I wrote a satirical piece for the Herald's Sideswipe column. I wrote it as a letter from someone from Howick who came to the central city and was surprised by the number of non-New Zealanders on Queen St "lounging around using the seats provided" and speaking in a foreign language, "German possibly". It was, to any thinking person, a swipe at the anti-Asian sentiment which seemed prevalent at the time -- but then I got stuck into an overlong e-mail debate with a haughty fellow about it. He, like a few people, hadn't got the joke. But unlike the others who railed against the racism of my imaginary writer then accepted with some embarrassment it was a humorous piece when it was pointed out to them, this gentleman didn't want to shut up after he learned it was satirical.

It was wrong and irresponsible to mislead readers he said, and that such writing was acceptable in Private Eye but not in the Herald. I pointed out that Sideswipe was clearly a humorous column and that even the Herald had a small tradition of such writing, and that I didn't consider my editors irresponsible. He came back at me with something else, I returned the volley, he said his German friends hadn't been amused "and should I tell them they had no sense of humour?" I said yes, and added that he had none either. He came back outraged even more, I said I was weary of this discussion and that I considered the matter now closed, he came back and said that was arrogant and how dare I? He wanted to know how to contact the editor. I told him the details were in the paper every day or he might want to try something called the telephone directory.

Needless to say the editor never heard from this humourless, bullying and self-important git.

But it was much the same mindset as these more serious issues have revealed. That context in which writing and opinions appear is important, and that some people have the unreasonable expectation that all sections of a newspaper be "objective" and "balanced" -- and free of humour it seems. Some people even bang on about this when they read a review of something they don't like: "Yeah but it's just one person's opinion" they'll say to which I invariably reply, "True, but it is an informed person's opinion, and that makes all the difference." That always stops them, and usual pisses them off even more.

Anyway, as Carrie says, it got me to thinking ...

But in the Palestinian/Israeli/Jewish issue -- as with immunisation -- I was reminded of an epigram I heard many years ago which I consider an injunction we could all, journalists included, remember.

It's a saying which comes in handy before blasting at those who hold an unshakeable opinion or even have the temerity to advance someone else's: We all see the world from our own disadvantage point.

I think they called them perspectives.