In­ves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist John Lyons has set his sights on his most for­mi­da­ble tar­get yet, writes David Leser

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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


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