Matt Seaton is the editor of Comment is Free, the opinion Web site of The Guardian, with 3 million unique users and 10 million page-views a month. The site posts about 30 articles a day, in addition to those that appear in the print edition of The Guardian.
Many of the articles deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The site has been harshly criticized by Israel supporters in Britain for what has been perceived as a preoccupation with Israel, disproportionate criticism and even anti-Semitic overtones to some of the hundreds of talk-backs, or threads, on every article about Israel that appears on the site.
Many in Israel see The Guardian as presenting an anti-Semitic line. Is the British press hostile to Israel and does this hostility influence coverage of the Dubai passport affair? I think that would be a mistaken view for Israel to adopt: to assume that Britain or the British are hostile to it. But I can only really speak for The Guardian and my colleagues, and we are very aware of our responsibility to be fair and balanced in our reporting; and, in our commentary, to give more than one side of the debate. Over the expulsion of the diplomat, because British passports were used and there was a clear betrayal of trust, it's a little hard to know what comment would not be somewhat critical of Israel in this instance. Reading comments on the threads, we also had some quite vociferous backers of Israel, arguing that there is a degree of hypocrisy - that the British government, when it was fighting the IRA, was often suspected of having a 'shoot to kill' policy, which is a fair point. But Miliband's action was not based on a judgment about of the assassination by the Mossad - if it was the Mossad - but because of the forging of British passports and it's completely fair for there to be criticism of that.
But there is also a feeling that the British government acted this way because of pressure from the media.
It would be very flattering if British media commentators had that much clout, but the passport business was an official matter that at some level the Foreign Office had to take a public stand on.
Your remarks show a deep understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In your position, you should be dealing with the entirety of local British and international issues. Why are you so involved in Israeli affairs?
In my job you have to have a fairly good working knowledge about the debates on the Middle East, because you need good judgment of what is fair and balanced for comment. I have to have a more detailed knowledge of this than some other subject areas, because it's sensitive material.
What makes the Israeli issue so sensitive for you?
It's a very long and intractable conflict, and it's difficult territory because it touches people's identities - both for Israelis and Diaspora Jews, and for Palestinians, Arabs and even Muslims around the world. Any subject that touches identity, nationality, ethnicity and religion is bound to be sensitive - and that's not exclusive to the Middle East by any means.
What other issues have the same sensitivity?
We also have to be very careful on how much and what type of coverage we give to the [far right] British National Party, and the race and immigration debate in Britain. Any comment about areas of Islamic belief and doctrine are also delicate: for instance, any debate on the attempt to legislate on the veil in France will be very sensitive.
An editorial that appeared in The Guardian yesterday said that Israel is acting like "an arrogant nation that has overreached itself." Are you comfortable with such a statement?
I would look hard at the use of the word "nation." I would certainly endorse calling Netanyahu's behavior arrogant; you might reasonably say that his government is behaving arrogantly. Personally, I wouldn't use the term "nation": it flattens out all sense that politics is contested and that there are many views inside Israel.
There is a great deal of criticism in Britain about the way your site deals with Israel. There is even a special site that follows the articles about Israel and the responses, analyzes them for lack of balance and hints of anti-Semitism. Do you think that this is organized activity by the Jewish community?
We feel it is essential to keep open the space for debate that we do, and occasionally, as a consequence, we get harsh criticism from some quarters of the British Jewish community. But do I see that as pressure from a 'pro-Israel lobby?' Definitely not.
But there is a very large number of articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, disproportionately so. Isn't that preoccupation?
We spend a great deal of time thinking how to cover the subject in a balanced and fair way and not in excessive quantity. It's difficult to do that when the Middle East is setting the news agenda.
Perhaps all of British media is obsessed with Israel?
I really don't think so, although it does loom large for very respectable historical reasons - Britain's colonial involvement in Palestine, for instance; and British support for early Zionist aspirations, including notably that of the great Guardian editor C.P. Scott.
The Arab-Israeli conflict is also a fault-line in the geopolitics of the region. That's just a reality. But Israel/Palestine is chiefly an issue for discussion in metropolitan media circles - most ordinary people consuming mainstream media probably have a limited appetite for discussion of the Middle East. The Guardian, of course, has a correspondent in Israel. It's a region of the world that generates so much news; we're part of that, but it's not of our making. I think we're more open to a broad spectrum of views on all subjects, including on Israel/Palestine, than any other media outlet in the UK. We genuinely do provide a platform to all shades of opinions. We probably publish more Israeli voices than we do Palestinian voices, though many of them may be critical of the government.
You have been harshly criticized for posting articles by Hamas members. What are your red lines?
For example, if I was offered a piece that spoke of a Jewish lobby, as opposed to a pro-Israel lobby, that would mean automatic disqualification.
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