Investigative journalist John Lyons has set his sights on his most formidable target yet, writes David Leser
John Lyons is no stranger to controversy. When I first met him on this newspaper 33 years ago, the debate around him, at least among some of his older colleagues, was whether, at the age of 24, he had the maturity to serve as chief of staff for the country’s national daily.
To no one’s great surprise he proved he had both the mettle and the brains for the job, and over the past three decades he has gone on to an impressive career in Australian journalism: editor of The Sydney Morning Herald at 33, national affairs editor at The Bulletin at 37, executive producer of the Nine Network’s Sunday program at 42. And in between New York correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and Washington correspondent for The Australian.
In the process he has earned numerous accolades, including three Walkley Awards and, in 1999, the Graham Perkin Award for his “groundbreaking and outstanding reporting on national affairs”.
Along the way this Catholic-born son of a working middle-class Melbourne family has frequently created a storm — sometimes in a teacup but more often than not of the kind that roils the atmosphere and creates outbursts of feeling that never quite dissipate.
In the late 1980s supermodel Elle Macpherson made herself look like a super chump in the pages of Good Weekend when she told Lyons, “I never read anything I haven’t written myself.”
A few years later in a profile of Malcolm Turnbull, Lyons incurred the wrath of his subject — not hard to do, mind you — by dissecting the menace behind the young lawyer’s charm. “My tentacles spread to New York,” Turnbull told Lyons, smiling, just before Lyons moved to that city where, soon after, at a gala dinner he almost came to blows with Richard Butler, Australia’s then ambassador to the UN. (Butler was incensed by a story Lyons had written.)
Nick Whitlam, son of former prime minister Gough Whitlam, sued Lyons and Nine over an interview Lyons did with him for the Sunday program — an interview that, in 2001, won Lyons one of his Walkleys.
Four years later Paul Keating was enraged when Lyons penned a piece for The Bulletin in which he cast the former PM as a foul-mouthed, embittered and at times unhinged recluse.
Lyons often courts argument the way game hunters pursue their next kill. The bigger the better. I know this because, as a friend and colleague over the past three decades, I have watched, sometimes with a mixture of wonder and astonishment, as he takes on his next outsize target.
Now, even by Lyons’s own headline-grabbing standards, he has managed to outdo himself. In his new memoir, Balcony Over Jerusalem, based on his six years (2009-15) covering the region, Lyons has achieved the uncommon feat of not only excoriating the state of Israel for its brutal treatment of Palestinians but also one of the most powerful lobby groups in Australia, the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council, and one of his own former senior colleagues as well.
Let’s start with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has raged on and off for the past century. For exactly half this time, since the 1967 Six-Day War, the Israelis have ruled over the lives of millions of Palestinians on the West Bank of the Jordan River, aided and abetted by Balcony Over Jerusalem: A Middle East Memoir By John Lyons, with Sylvie Le Clezio HarperCollins, 374pp, $34.99 successive Israeli and American administrations, pro-Israel lobby groups and billionaire political donors such as American casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, all in defiance of international law and expert opinion.
During that time the number of Jewish settlers, fired by a messianic belief in their right to settle ancient Israel, or the “Promised Land”, not to mention cheap housing subsidies from the Israeli government, have grown from a few hundred early pioneers to more than 420,000 and counting — and that’s not including the more than 200,000 Jewish settlers in largely Arab East Jerusalem.
It is this ceaseless military occupation and land grab, together with the daily humiliations, large and small, meted out by Israeli soldiers and Jewish settlers to a desperate people, that Lyons directs his considerable firepower towards. If the whole world could see the occupation up close, it would demand that it end tomorrow. Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians would not pass muster in the West if the full details were known. The only reason Israel is getting away with this is because it has one of the most formidable public-relations machines ever seen, and enormous support from its diaspora communities.
Lyons’s memoir is not solely concerned with the perpetual entanglement of Abraham’s children. He also ventures to Libya and Egypt during the height of the Arab Spring (where in the latter case he finds himself blindfolded and interrogated by Egyptian soldiers); Iran during the rigged elections of 2009; Syria before and after the catastrophic civil war erupts in 2011; and Iraq briefly in the summer of 2014. He does all this with a fearlessness and derring-do that have become his hallmark.
But after arriving in Jerusalem in 2009 with his wife, Sylvie Le Clezio (whose arresting photographs feature in the book), and their eight year-old son, Jack, it is Israel’s vice-like grip on the West Bank that absorbs much of Lyons’s attention.
Early on we share his distress as he witnesses an elderly Palestinian woman with a trolley overloaded with belongings waiting at a military checkpoint to cross into Israel from Jordan. An Israeli security guard walks by and kicks the trolley, causing the contents to spill.
In another incident Lyons is shocked when an old Palestinian man in a wheelchair, his leg bleeding from a recent car crash, is denied medical help at the same security crossing. Lyons intercedes on the man’s behalf and has his journalist’s visa revoked soon after. (His work status is later restored.)
It gets worse. Lyons then revisits a story he wrote for The Australian, and later in a joint investigation for the ABC’s Four Corners (titled Stone Cold Justice). Palestinian children, some as young as 12, are arrested in the middle of the night, taken away for interrogation, and in some cases tortured into making false confessions.
“If police or soldiers in Australia took Aboriginal children from their beds at three in the morning and did what Israel does there would be uproar,” Lyons writes now.
The Four Corners report, which won the 2014 Walkley for investigative journalism, incurred the wrath of Australian Jewish leaders, as well as The Australian’s foreign editor Greg Sheridan. “I have the greatest respect for John,” Sheridan wrote later. “He has produced some outstanding journalism in his time … However the Four Corners program was a disgrace, a crude piece of anti-Israel propaganda that revived some of the oldest anti-Semitic tropes.”
Lyons hit back: “Why can journalists put the Australian Army or federal police or US Army through the ringer, but if we investigate the most powerful army in the Middle East it’s antiSemitism?”
Lyons continues this theme in Balcony Over Jerusalem, setting out the confronting nature of what is one of the longest-running military occupations in modern history. He looks at the unlawful seizure of Palestinian land, the growth of Jewish settlements, the constant intimidation
AS LONG AS THERE IS OCCUPATION THERE WILL BE HATRED. AND IN SOME CASES A DESIRE FOR REVENGE JOHN LYONS