Worldly wisdom: interview with Peter Rodgers
As a winner of the Graham Perkins Australian Journalist of the Year Award for his article on East Timor, author of the book Herzl’s Nightmare, and a former Australian ambassador to Israel, Peter Rodgers is well versed in world affairs and media. He talks to Daniela Aroche about his thoughts on the Middle East crisis, quality journalism and the road to becoming a foreign diplomat.
Daniela Aroche: Having been a foreign ambassador to Israel – what kind of situations have you had to deal with?
Peter Rogers: The most difficult aspect of my time in Israel was growing awareness that the hopes created by the “Oslo” peace process signed in late 1993 were unlikely to be fulfilled. This was not merely because extremists on both sides were determined to derail the process. It was also because too many Israelis and too many Palestinians could not make the mental shift required to see the other as a legitimate part of the landscape.
I was fortunate in being able to travel often to Gaza and the West Bank as well as to East and West Jerusalem. So many of the Israelis and Palestinians I met were engaging, articulate people. I fear that they probably spent more time talking to me than they did to each other.
Even though my posting to Israel was in the “good period” of the mid-1990s, we were always very conscious that Israelis and Palestinians were well practiced at blaming the other for their own ongoing bad behaviour.
DA: What are your thoughts on the Lebanon/Israel crisis?
PR: For me it was not so much a question of Israeli “proportionality” as one of whether Israeli military action would work, i.e. secure the release of the two kidnapped Israeli soldiers; crush Hezbollah and embarrass Iran. Israel achieved none of those goals. It did great damage to Lebanon’s government and infrastructure; it further embittered the “Arab street” and it has not thwarted Iranian ambitions. Meanwhile Israeli-Palestinian bloodshed continues on the road to now-where.
Israel has legitimate concerns about Iran which by its own proclamation poses an existential danger. But, as the US has discovered in Iraq, unilateral action does not make the world a safer place, just the opposite.
DA: What was the driving factor in writing Herzl’s Nightmare: one land, two peoples?
PR: I really wanted to get across the fact that history has dealt a raw deal both to Israelis and Palestinians; that neither of them has a mortgage on ‘victimhood’. That both have acted badly towards the other (and continue to do so) and that neither has yet made the mental shift needed for a lasting settlement. I also wanted to convey my strong sense of frustration and despair that two gifted peoples have become so used to the conflict that they lack the courage to change it.
DA: You’ve been described by critics as explaining the issues in Herzl’s Nightmare with “fair-minded clarity”. How do you remain unbiased as a journalist/writer?
PR: We all carry some degree of bias. It’s vital that we are aware of this and gather and analyse material with as an objective eye as possible. I am at times highly critical both of Israeli and Palestinian actions. I emphasise actions. It’s what people do, not who they are, that should draw our commentary—and criticism.
DA: How did you get to this position?
PR: I had two careers as an Australian diplomat, the first from 1970-78; the second from 1983 until 1998. The first career focused very much on Asia, particularly Indonesia; the second on the Middle East. I was based in the Australian Embassy in Cairo in the mid-1980s. That gave me an interest in the Middle East, which I was keen to develop. When the position in Israel came up in I was fortunate enough to get it.
DA: What kind of training/ study is required for the position?
PR: I’d attended Sydney University in the late 1960s, where I completed a history honours degree. Israel was my fifth overseas appointment with the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) and my second Head of Mission appointment. So I’d had a fair bit of on-the-job training. I’d also had the experience of working as a journalist. I think DFAT still offers very interesting careers for those who like a bit of variety in their working life, even though the world is a pretty tough place at the moment.
DA: You also won the Graham Perkins award for your reporting on East Timor. What does it take to be a good journalist?
PR: First of all, you need to have a keen interest in what goes on in the world and in people. After all, you are trying to explain this world to those who may not have the same access to it. You need good analytical ability, high energy, and, of course, a way with words. You don’t have to be Shakespeare but you need to get the story across clearly and succinctly.
DA: Do you think that witnessing the problems around the world, as a journalist and a foreign ambassador, creates a stronger sense of understanding of international issues? What’s your advice to aspiring journalists?
PR: I think journalism, especially radio and the print media, continues to play a critical role in helping to inform a wider public. I am less enthusiastic about TV because it is usually much more absorbed with atmospherics and theatrics. As to advice, there’s no substitute for a detailed knowledge of countries or issues. That comes from reading widely and talking people. I’m yet to come across a story which has only one side.
DA: Do you think that the constant reporting of international crises by the media is desensitizing people to these issues, to some extent?
PR: I do think there is a fair bit of compassion fatigue around. The media has to take some of the blame for this because of its often sensationalist approach to issues. This can easily create a “ho hum” reaction when the next crisis comes along, even if it’s a very real one. That said, the media, like politicians, are always an easy target. The question we need to ask is whether, for all the media’s shortcomings, we’d be better of without it. The answer is a no-contest.
DA: What’s the key to writing and researching a good reportage piece, in your view?
PR: An awareness that no story will have only one side—acknowledging this does not preclude us from criticism of views or actions we regard as ill-judged. Google and other sources provide access to extraordinary amounts of material but we must bring critical judgment to bear on what we find there (reputability of source; access to sources; cross-checking and so on).
DA: Last comments on journalism today?
PR: These days the world is awash with opinion masquerading as fact. It’s not an easy place for quality journalism as almost everyone these days has access to a computer and therefore can claim to be a “writer”. Journalists also become “personalities”, so the more provocative the line the greater the audience. That modern-day reality aside, there is no substitute for well-informed, well-written material. Even the truth can be entertaining.