Context is King

WHERE DO YOU START? Over the last few days, trying to explain the significance of the U.K.’s decision to reopen its Embassy in Iran, news organizations have been dusting down the history books. You have to go back more than half a century to understand why relations between London and Tehran have been so sour for so much of the recent past.

It was only last year, after six decades had passed, that the CIA admitted its involvement in the 1953 coup which overthrew Iran’s democratically elected Prime Minister. Britain was involved too — concerned about plans to nationalize the oil company which sent petrol and profits westwards. ITV News’ Tom Bradby pointed this out in the piece he posted yesterday — an example of the kind of contextual reporting without which any understanding of the present can only be limited.

So how much do journalists need to tell their audiences? It’s a question I have been thinking about as I work on my next book, Headlines from the Holy Land, on the reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

If you leave out all the historical detail from a story which has been shaped by past events, you are not telling people what they need to know. If you spend all your time recounting a potted view of history, you say nothing new to those who do already know.


At an interview panel over a decade ago for a correspondent’s job in the Middle East, I was asked to explain the significance of the Balfour Declaration — the note cited so often as the cornerstone of British Imperial support for the eventual founding of the State of Israel.

A good question for a journalist hoping to work in the region? It turned out that way when, a few months later, an elderly refugee in the Gaza Strip chastised me for coming from the country which he saw as responsible for the situation in which he found himself decades later.

The Damascus Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem -- how much history do you need to explain what's happening there today?

The Damascus Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem — how much history do you need to explain what’s happening there today?

The centenary of the First World War has led to many commentators suggesting that today’s conflicts in the Middle East have their roots in the Sykes-Picot agreement that carved up the Ottoman Empire. My post earlier this year from Jerusalem reflected on British involvement in the region, then and afterwards.

Some go back much further. In their book on the 1967 Arab-Israeli War (rushed out later the same year) Randolph and Winston Churchill (the son and grandson of the wartime British Prime Minister) go back much further, incorporating Biblical stories alongside much later history as they set the scene for the Six Day War.

It’s not just there. How could you understand Yugoslavia in the 1990s without knowing what had happened there in the Second World War? How can you understand what’s happening in Ukraine now without knowing something not only of the chaos which followed the collapse of Soviet Communism in 1991, but also Russian Imperial History?

I remember a wise news editor offering the view that, ‘We’re not here to give the audience a history lesson.’ Sometimes, though, as well as telling them what’s just happened, we need to tell them how we got there. Especially on sensitive and controversial issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, background knowledge gives reporters the resources they need to challenge their critics.

It’s not just for audiences, either. As I remember from the man in the ruins of his refugee camp in Gaza that day, journalists need to be credible to their contributors in order to gain their trust. You need to know what you’re talking about — and you need to know what they’re talking about.


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