Writing on Russia for Forbes.com

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Starting in July 2018, I will also be writing on Russia’s foreign policy and recent history for Forbes.com. You can read my latest post ‘August: The Crisis Month That Shaped Modern Russia’ here , and more of my posts here, on my author profile.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘War in 140 Characters’ by David Patrikarakos

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War in 140 Characters: How social media is reshaping conflict in the twenty-first century

by David Patrikarakos. Basic Books. 2017.

PREPARING FOR A TRIP TO THE MIDDLE EAST in the 1990s, I bought a guidebook which had just been published. The author, apparently enthused by Israel’s recent signing of a peace treaty with Jordan, suggested that one between Israel and Syria might soon follow. Alas, the world has not turned out that way.

Writing on current trends in a way that will have some enduring relevance is a great challenge for an author. In his engaging new book, War in 140 Characters, David Patrikarkos succeeds in telling us much which we did not know about the new world of media and conflict.

The book’s strengths include an approach which combines eyewitness reporting with more considered analysis. The author’s readiness to accompany Ukrainian social media activists into the warzones of the east of their country offers the reader truly revealing insights. The chapter on the Russian troll, Vitaly Bespalov, is the highlight of the book — leading as it does to the disgruntled former employee of St Petersburg’s infamous troll farm concluding that ‘unfortunately’ he too was ‘an actor in the Ukraine war’.

As anyone who has written or spoken on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows, it is impossible to offer any analysis which will be universally accepted. That said, Patrikarakos’ discussion — enlightening though it is  — of the social media war which accompanied Israel’s 2014 campaign in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead, comes across as one-sided. His interview with the teenaged Palestinian twitter user, Farah Baker, is compelling for the way that it identifies a new front in the propaganda battle between Israel and the Palestinians. As Patrikarakos notes of the Palestinians, ‘Hopelessly outgunned, their side could never hope to win militarily’.

His argument that ‘Israel bombed and invaded Gaza with deadly success, but it still “lost” the 2014 war’, because the Palestinian media campaign was more effective, is stretching a point. Israel does all it can to avoid negative media coverage, but surely it cares more about its ability to win on the battlefield.

Nothing which has happened since 2014 suggest that this supposed Palestinian victory in the media war has delivered any lasting benefits. The killings of protesters at the Gaza border fence over the last few weeks tend strongly to suggest the opposite. Patrikarakos seems to admire the slick Israeli PR operation — right down to the ‘immaculate’ uniform of the ‘courteous and well-disposed’ Israeli Amy spokesperson whom he interviews — but then, that is what it is there for.

The undoubted effectiveness of the reportage is occasionally weakened by a tendency to overuse the weather and the light as a means of introducing new scenes. Patrikarakos’ point about the political significance of the use in Russian of the prepositions v or na when talking of Ukraine is important, but muddled here. ‘Na Ukraine’ does not mean ‘on the border’ (although the country’s name does share a root with the Russian word krai meaning edge, or district). The significance of the preposition is whether the speaker implies that Ukraine is a country in its own right (v) , or a region, (na). The use of the Google definition of ‘propaganda’ feels a little lazy when so much has been written on the subject.

Overall, though, Patrikarakos is to be congratulated on a book which makes important contributions to a number of important debates. War in 140 Characters is especially worth reading for its sections on Russian trolls, and its account of Bellingcat’s impressive investigation of the shooting down of MH17. I recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the way war, politics, and the media interact in today’s conflicts, and look forward to discussing it in Journalism seminars.

 

Misled by elites? Not every journalist

This is the first part of an essay which I wrote for the current issue of the ‘British Journalism Review’. Based on my experiences reporting from Russia in the 1990s, and partly as a response to concerns raised by Channel 4’s Jon Snow in his 2017 McTaggart Lecture it argues that not all journalists are too close to political elites — especially foreign correspondents in countries where the elites don’t want to to talk to them. That gives them insights often denied to their better connected counterparts.

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Restoration work on a church in Rostov Veliky, northern Russia, June 2008. Photo: James Rodgers

THE MISSED AND MISUNDERSTOOD STORIES of Brexit, and Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election – as well as political correspondents’ failure to predict Theresa May losing her parliamentary majority last year – have all led to soul-searching about whether journalists are too close to the elite. In his MacTaggart Lecture at last year’s Edinburgh Television Festival, Jon Snow described his own background and said: “We are comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact, or connection with those not of the elite.”

Foreign correspondents often come into closer contact with those “not of the elite”. While the political upper class may want to talk to foreign media to get their international message across, these are more likely to be rare, set-piece events. In consequence, reporters overseas seek out other stories – those of the ordinary people who will more readily speak to them. Ryszard Kapuscinski was famous for this approach. It was also one often followed by western reporters in Russia in the early post-Soviet era.

It may seem strange, in this era of confrontation between the UK and Russia, to write this, but I have Vladimir Putin to thank for the experience which has led me to develop the argument I am going to put forward here. For it was during his own formative years as a politician – Russia’s troubled 1990s – that we western journalists based in Russia were left largely to our own devices. Senior politicians did occasionally give interviews, but the often chaotic world of Boris Yeltsin’s administration meant that they had plenty of their own worries to deal with.

This was when a large part of the political elite were keen to show that they were breaking from the Soviet past, promoting a western-style idea of a free press, a “fourth estate” permitted to speak truth to power. Russian journalists enjoyed then freedoms unknown before or since. We did, too.

The restrictions on travel which had been part of the Soviet police state were mostly gone. Travelling close to military installations without permission was an exception, as I discovered in 2009 when the FSB arrested my colleagues and me for visiting some glasshouses which happened to be about 20km from a naval dockyard.

Kept at a distance from the Kremlin’s innermost power struggles – as foreigners generally have been throughout Russian history (remember Churchill’s “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won”) – and allowed to explore the biggest country on earth, we had the chance to learn more than other generations of western journalists covering Russia. Going somewhere that your news organisation has never been before is always a help pitching a story, and travel – thanks to the troubled rouble – could be incredibly cheap. The weak currency did throw up some absurdities. One flight from St Petersburg to Moscow is memorable because the sandwiches in the airport café cost almost the same as the plane tickets.

With air travel literally as cheap as chips, and Russia’s overnight trains even cheaper, we took advantage. There was then a huge appetite for learning about Russia, with which we were enjoying much better relations. That has changed since. As I write this in late March, the talk – following the poisoning in Salisbury of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter – turns to tension between Moscow and London. The foreign ministry spokeswoman in Moscow has warned that British journalists will be expelled from Russia should RT (the Kremlin-backed channel formerly known as Russia Today) be closed down in the UK.

It was different then. In the late 1990s, colleagues and I travelled to Siberia to do a story on forest fires; to the far north east, above the Arctic circle, where blocks of flats, abandoned after their residents’ jobs went with the collapse of the planned economy, were being buried by massive snowdrifts. With Allan Little, I produced for the BBC’s Newsnight a lengthy report on how people of the southern Russian town of Rostov-on-Don coped with an economy that had largely ceased to function: workers at one of Russia’s biggest agricultural machinery factories got jars of gherkins instead of wages.

On that first trip to Siberia we also interviewed a coming strongman in Russian politics, the Afghan war veteran Alexander Lebed, then governor of Krasnoyarsk. He later died in a helicopter crash, but his growing popularity provided a clue to the direction Russia might later take. The consequence of these trips was that we saw how the country was changing.

It was not changing in the way that many people in the west hoped.

You can read the full article in the current issue of the British Journalism Review

 

Blocking out the light: plans in Israel to keep soldiers off camera

This latest post agrues against plans in Israel to ban the filming or photographing of soldiers. It was originally published on The Conversation. You can read that version here, and the full text follows below. 

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The ruins of a house destroyed during an Israeli Army operation, Rafah, Southern Gaza Strip, October 2003

That evening, the sun sank swiftly. The tank which blocked our way was briefly silhouetted by the last sharp rays, before it disappeared into the gloom. It was still there, but the detail of track and gun turret could no longer be seen. Eventually, whoever was giving the orders decided we could go. The material we had filmed would not make it onto that night’s news.

It was October 2003. I was working as a BBC correspondent in the Gaza Strip. I was trying to return from Rafah, at the territory’s southern edge, to my office in Gaza City. A major Israeli military operation, code named “Root Canal”, was underway. The army strictly controlled access to the area. My colleagues and I had got into Rafah without too much trouble, but had waited several hours to get out. By the time we did, our material was late.

That hardly bothered the soldiers who held us up. They weren’t wondering which bulletins we were missing. They probably weren’t too bothered that they were stopping us getting our report out, either. Israeli army operations in Gaza often involve civilian deaths. In such a densely populated strip of land, where the people are not permitted to leave, it can hardly be otherwise.

Operation Root Canal was targeting tunnels running under Gaza’s border with Egypt. That day, we had heard the stories of Rafah residents whose houses had been destroyed because they were suspected of concealing tunnel entrances, or of being used as firing positions – or just because they were unlucky enough to be too close to Israeli army posts, at a time when the Israeli army were going on the offensive against armed Palestinian groups.

Whatever the reasons given for the operation, the consequences for local residents would not exactly look good on the international news. No army wants that kind of publicity.

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Part of the wall near the Qalandiya crossing point between the West Bank and Jerusalem

Now, apparently troubled by recent incidents of soldiers caught on camera breaking the law – Israeli soldier Elor Azaria’s shooting to death a wounded, prone, Palestinian attacker being perhaps the highest profile example – one Israeli politician wants to place strict legal limits on the filming and photographing of soldiers.

Robert Ilatov is a member of parliament for the right-wing nationalist party Yisrael Beitenu (which translates as “Israel, our home”). His plan has already been criticised by journalists’ organisations: “It constitutes a serious breach of the freedom of the press, as it precisely criminalises the work of journalists”, in the view of the International Federation of Journalists.

The Israeli–Palestinian conflict has been the focus of extensive international reporting since the middle of the last century. “Every single word is scrutinised”, said Crispian Balmer, then Jerusalem bureau chief for Reuters, of the challenges of covering the conflict, in an interview for my book Headlines from the Holy Land.

The bloodshed in Syria may have drawn media and diplomatic resources away from Israel, Gaza and the West Bank in recent years. But the Israeli army’s killing of Palestinian protesters at the Gaza border fence last month shows that the conflict can still grab the world’s attention. Even in our image-saturated world, pictures seem to retain a particular power – easily shared as they are on social media. This power is presumably what concerns Ilatov.

The opposition to his plans is not confined to international organisations. Israel’s leading liberal newspaper, Ha’aretz, has condemned the bill as “dangerous”, noting that “anyone who breaks the law is subject to five years in prison”. Yet censorship on reporting the activities of armies is nothing new. Its rules are often characterised by vagueness.

British correspondents during World War I were forbidden to publish any, “false statements or utterances ‘likely to cause disaffection to His Majesty’,” as Susan Carruthers put it in her book The Media at War. The bill before the Israeli parliament echoes that lack of clarity, warning civillians and journalists alike against “undermining the morale of Israel’s soldiers and residents”.

Although they are rarely required to conform to it, any international journalist granted an Israeli Government Press Card has to agree to “accept the censorship declaration”. This new legislation would be more extensive, covering not just the foreign media, but anyone at all.

“Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience”, wrote Susan Sontag in Regarding the Pain of Others. Social media have given us the chance to see ever more of our world. As with all new media, governments and armies seek to influence the messages they bring.

Today, leaders of the world’s most powerful countries feel at liberty to sneer at any journalists who question them. Adding extra layers of censorship to that scorn will hardly help audiences to understand this complex and unstable age. Besides, legislation has limited power to stop what technology has started. While military victories may enhance a country’s reputation, the manner in which they are achieved may also tarnish it. Criminalizing journalism definitely does.

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My second book on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’ was published in 2015, and reissued in paperback in 2017

Russia and information wars

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Copies of the Communist Party newspaper, ‘Pravda’, from the last summer of the Soviet Union

This week I was on the Politics.co.uk podcast with Ian Dunt and Jamie Bartlett. We discussed Russia, big data, journalism and their roles in international politics and conflict. We started all the way back in the 1990s, hence the ageing pictures of Pravda, above. You can listen here.

Hello Lenin: Review of ‘Why the Russian Revolution Matters’, a documentary by WORLDwrite

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A monument to Vladimir Lenin, USSR, 1991 ©James Rodgers

HE SAW NO CONTRADICTION — even in the Moscow of the 1990s, where an especially uncaring form of capitalism was steadily sweeping away former certainties — in being a Communist, and a dollar millionaire. My interlocutor was a well-heeled member of the Russian parliament.  His argument — that capitalism had borrowed from communism to create welfare states earlier in the 20th century, and now communism was borrowing in reverse — might not convince any serious socialist, but it has stayed with me for what it said about the time.

If it is true — and the countless books and TV programmes of the past couple of years suggest the opposite — that, as one of the contributors to Why the Russian Revolution Matters says, the events in Russia in 1917 are ‘largely forgotten or ignored’ — then there are plenty of reasons why they should not be forgotten, and that is the case that the film makers put forward.

As Eric Hobsbawm pointed out in The Age of Extremes, ‘A mere thirty to forty years after Lenin’s arrival at the Finland Station in Petrograd, one third of humanity found itself living under regimes directly derived from the ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’.

That alone is reason enough for us to understand why the Russian Revolution matters: it shaped the last century, and therefore our own. It may not always have rushed ahead with the head-spinning excitement of John Reed’s story as he described those ‘Ten Days’, but the way it evolved influenced human thought and history like nothing else throughout the 1900s.

The film makers set themselves the considerable challenge of re-telling this story for an audience which may not be as familiar with it as those of us who were born during the Cold War. Even then, the version which we received was necessarily influenced by the global politics of the age; the view handed down to you dependent on which side of the confrontation between capitalism and socialism you were on when you received it.

The producers of Why the Russian Revolution Matters consider the significance of the world-changing events of 1917 from the point of view of politics; culture; and society. As my own current research is focused on the way that western journalists report Russia (my next book, Assignment Moscow, is due to be completed next year) I was pleased to see journalists such as John Reed and Louise Bryant mentioned, too.

There is a wide range of contributors, and the producers deserve credit for what must have been a daunting task of gathering and editing material. That said, some of those who do contribute might be considered enthusiasts for, rather than experts on, the events of 1917.

It might also have been better — given the case that is made for the global significance of Russia’s revolutionary year — to have had a more diverse range of interviewees. These are overwhelmingly middle-aged or elderly white men — with female contributors appearing only later on. Discussion of the relevance of Lenin’s ideas to 20th century South Africa, and recognition of women workers’ role in the February revolution are examples of broadening of the film’s focus which work well.

What also works well is the film’s core argument: that this really matters today. The west has always struggled to understand the resentment Russia felt throughout the last century at attempts by Britain and others to crush the revolution by sending troops.

In his 2005 book, On My Country and the World, the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, wrote of his belief that ‘nothing [had] been forgotten’ since that time when western powers planned that ‘Russia not be regarded as a unitary state.’ This view shaped the Soviet Union’s attitude to the west, and arguably does that of Mr Putin’s administration, too.

That surely is why the subject this film addresses does matter: a century may have passed, but our world today might be very different had events in Russia in 1917 not unfolded as they did.

 

 

Why the world should still care: two books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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The Damascus Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem

The books reviewed here are Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 by Ian Black (Allen Lane) and Being Palestinian: Personal Reflections on Palestinian Identity in the Diaspora edited by Yasir Suleiman (Edinburgh University Press).

THERE ARE MANY CHALLENGES to writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not least the fact that it is almost impossible to commit to paper anything which will not draw criticism. Israelis and Palestinians alike are convinced that they are treated unfairly by the international news media. Journalists, they say, are ignorant. They are biased. They do not know their history.

Therein lies one of the challenges for correspondents. For it is not history which they need to know so much as histories. The few hundred words or brief couple of minutes usually afforded to them in news reporting is barely sufficient. That is one reason why many reporters decide to write something much more substantial.

Ian Black’s new book Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 may well be criticized in some quarters — that goes with taking up the task of writing about Israel-Palestine — but it certainly will not be on the grounds that he does not know his history. There is much here for the new reader seeking to understand the complexities of this conflict, and for those seeking deeper analysis.

All in all, this is an outstanding account of a century during which the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean has consumed more political, diplomatic, and editorial resources than might have been though possible for such a small part of the world.

In an age when politicians in long-established democracies are joining authoritarian leaders to gang up on journalists, it is good to see Black making the case for good reporting. ‘Journalism,’ he argues, ‘remains an indispensable ‘first draft of history’ that can sometimes turn out to be impressively close to later, more polished versions.’ He readily recognizes its value to him personally, too. ‘Arguably I learned as much reporting from the streets of Nablus and Gaza during the first intifada as from poring over declassified files or old newspapers.’

There are regrettably few international journalists who speak Hebrew or Arabic. Black speaks both, giving him a rare insight. Understanding language is not just about knowing the ‘who-what-when-where-why-how’ of journalism. It is the key to culture, and, in the case of Israel-Palestine, the history which makes up identity.

It is here that Black has really succeeded in enlightening his readers on the real challenge facing any diplomat who might try to restart the peace process which as failed so many times. Israelis and Palestinians are not only unable to agree on what should happen. They are unable to agree on what has already happened.

‘These master-narratives,’ Black writes, ‘are not so much competing as diametrically opposed — and utterly irreconcilable: justice and triumph for the Zionist cause meant injustice, defeat, exile and humiliation for Palestinians.’

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An alley in the Yibna area of the Rafah refugee camp, October 2003. Photo by the author

These are the recurrent themes of Being Palestinian: Personal Reflections on Palestinian Identity in the Diaspora. A sense of loss casts a shadow across the hundred or so individually authored short chapters which go to make up the volume.

That loss has become a defining national characteristic, and one which no nation would covet. The humiliation which Black identifies is, for the authors here, not only public and political, but deeply personal. Ibtisam Barakat tells of a father whom the 1967 war left ‘afraid that he could neither protect nor provide for us’ — so they leave, a further displacement.

When I lived in Gaza during the second intifada as the BBC’s correspondent from 2002-2004, there were still plenty among the older generation who remembered — perhaps only as infants — their homes in Mandate Palestine. Their numbers get fewer year after year. For the contributors in the book — most of them in the UK, the USA, or Canada — the separation is even greater. ‘El-blaad (the homeland) is just another way of saying remember,‘ writes Hala Alyan from Manhattan.

Others seem almost unnerved by the power and potential of such recollections, and whether they can endure. From Scotland, Mohammad Issa writes, ‘if truth be told, I fear that if I visit Palestine my childhood memories may be crushed under the harsh reality of life under military occupation.’ These memories are so precious that they must not be put at risk.

They are all that the authors have. Nadia Yaqub appears to question her own Palestinian identity solely because, having lived in the USA, and in the expatriate community in Beirut, she has not shared the experiences of dispossession and military occupation.  She therefore feels ‘hesitation to claim a Palestinian identity’. It is as if that identity can only be gained through suffering.   

This book will reward any reader who decides to choose a chapter at random, or read every single account. These are the kind of illuminating personal histories for which daily journalism only rarely has the space, and yet they are engaging and a vital aid to understanding the complexities of the conflict.

Perhaps because the editor is an academic, the contributors largely are, too. This may be something of a missed opportunity. I remember fondly a Gazan friend telling me that on a trip to Blackpool in the north of England he had met a Palestinian who owned a takeaway. Some of those kind of stories would fit well here, too.

At the start of a year which will see the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, and of the nakba (catastrophe) as the Palestinians see the same event, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not draw the same urgent attention which so often it has. Last week, pointing out the relatively quiet 50th anniversary last year of the 1967 war, and the generally muted reaction to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer persuasively argued, ‘The world just doesn’t care that much anymore.’

Perhaps so — for now, at least. Yet books like these remind us how very much that slice of land means to the people who live there, the people who want to live there, and millions of others around the world who hold the land to be holy, and care very much.

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A view of part of the Old City of Jerusalem from the nearby hills

Last month, I joined the regular hosts of the TLV1 podcast to interview Ian Black at City University, London. You can listen to the recording here .