Journalism, separation, and independence: newspaper coverage of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948

For the first time, I am publishing some of my academic writing on this site. This entry is the abstract, or summary, of the article, followed by the first part of the article itself. It was published online last month by ‘Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism’ ahead of future print publication. The article builds on my research for my 2015 book Headlines from the Holy Land.

Abstract: This article examines the reporting of the end in 1948 of the British Mandate for Palestine, in both British Newspapers, and the New York Times. The research is focused on 50 news items from the last weeks of the Mandate, especially on or around 14th May 1948. The article seeks to explore the relationship between correspondents, the British Authorities, and the people then living in Palestine. The article will argue that, despite various factors which might have influenced their work, the correspondents still struggled for, and achieved, a degree of independence in their reporting. In addition to these more overt influences, the article will also discuss whether correspondents may have been influenced by a broader mindset prevalent at the time in the society from which they came. In doing so, it will employ Edward Said’s work on Orientalism, especially where Orientalism, ‘connotes the high-handed executive attitude of nineteenth-century, and early-twentieth-century European colonialism.’ (Said, 1995: 2). The coverage reveals much about the way that Britain’s role in Palestine was portrayed to newspaper audiences at a time when Britain’s influence in the wider region was in decline. In conclusion, the article argues that, for all journalism’s association with political elites, the best reporting from that time provided its audience with valuable insight into the likely consequences of the end of the Mandate – insight which remains valuable today: especially in a year, 2017, which will see both the centenary and the 50th anniversary of, respectively, Balfour Declaration and the Six Day War.

 

A CENTURY AFTER THE BALFOUR DECLARATION, and half a century after the Six Day War, history continues to have great influence over the narratives of conflict in the Middle East. As Ilan Pappe wrote of his experience of teaching a class, at Haifa University, which included Palestinian and Jewish students, ‘both groups regard history as just another prism through which to view present rather than past reality’ (2006: 1).  Outside the region, news reporting contributes to much of western understanding of the conflict – although the historical role which Britain in particular played in the region features less frequently in public discussion. This article will argue that news reporting of the end of the British Mandate is a valuable source for understanding the relationship between correspondents and Colonial power then, and, that despite both the pressures placed upon them, and their close relationship with the Colonial authorities, journalists achieved a degree of independence in their reporting. In doing so, the article will also seek to determine the nature and extent of that independence.

THE BRITISH MANDATE IN PALESTINE 1917-1948 (E 31973) Blowing up the King David Hotel, Jerusalem 22 July 1946: People run for cover as the King David Hotel, Jerusalem blows up. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205196554

By late 1947, Palestine was becoming increasingly ungovernable. Thirty years had passed since General Allenby took possession of Jerusalem from retreating Ottoman forces, an episode of British colonial history captured for global distribution using the latest technology: film (Colonial Film, 1917). Humbled, even as a conquering imperial hero, by the sanctity of the city, Allenby famously dismounted and entered on foot (Mansfield, 1992: 159). Three decades later, at the end of a period during which, ‘The purpose of the Mandate was never entirely clear to those serving in Palestine,’ (Shepherd, 1999: 5), British authority in Palestine was coming to an end. The final days of the Mandate were the subject of unusually extensive media scrutiny. In his diary, the last Chief Secretary of the Mandatory Government, Sir Henry Gurney, noted that there were ‘120 Palestine newspapers’ and ‘about 70 foreign correspondents who send out a continual stream of facts or misstatements, according to whom they get it from.’ (Golani, 2009: 70). This ‘continual stream’ seems to have been a consequence of the fact that Mandate affairs were followed closely far beyond the borders of Palestine. ‘Perennially the focus of Parliamentary questions, journalistic scrutiny, often partisan international attention from press and politicians, the Mandate was never a quiet backwater, much to the chagrin of local officials.’ (Sherman, 1997: 32). Dealing with propaganda was part of the job of Mandate officials. They also faced impossible competing demands from Palestine’s Jewish and Arab populations, and daily personal danger. Gurney’s predecessor, Sir John Shaw, had left Palestine in 1946, ‘unable to continue in office because he was under certain threat of assassination.’ (Golani, 2009: 4).

The corridor used by the bombers (picture from 2014) © James Rodgers

Shaw’s departure followed the bombing in July 1946 of a wing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, which then served as headquarters for the Mandate authorities. Ninety-one people were killed in the explosion (Shepherd, 1992: 225). Peter Duffield, then correspondent for The Daily Express, was in another part of the King David when the bombers – Jewish fighters seeking to drive the British from Palestine, and hasten the creation of a Jewish State – hit their target. His account of the attack was carried in the next day’s newspaper, along with material – relating to a meeting in Shaw’s office – which had obviously been prepared before the explosion. Duffield picked out one detail which seemed to sum up the conflict. ‘That Palestine scene – with its fierce hatreds, its distortions and mutilations of the truth – is visible in Shaw’s wastepaper basket. Into it each day, after perusal, go thousands of words of propaganda, pleading, demands and threats.’ (Duffield, 1946). The extent and efficacy of this ‘perusal’ is perhaps questionable. As Sherman has pointed out (1997: 27), ‘Since few British officials knew Hebrew, the complex political and ideological controversies that agitated the Jewish community, reflected in lively press and public debate, were unknown to all but a few’. In terms of communication with the peoples of Palestine, in fact, it has been argued that the British Mandate authorities spoke more than they listened. ‘A discourse appealing to the desirability of uplifting social evolution via the technology of benevolent colonial rule and industrial capitalism was deployed mercilessly and aggressively.’ (Ghandour, 2010: 3).

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The corridor used by the bombers of the King David Hotel (picture from 2014) © James Rodgers

The present article considers some 50 news and other items from newspapers published on or around May 14th 1948. The Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Daily Express, and The Observer were the main British newspapers selected, partly because their use of bylines – not then a universal convention – allowed the work of individual correspondents, especially Clare Hollingworth, to be followed. The Manchester Guardian and The Times were also considered, although are cited less here principally because their lack of bylines meant journalists’ work could not be traced in the same way. The New York Times was selected for its long tradition of international reporting in order to provide contrasting perspectives – not only politically, but also, as will be demonstrated, because its correspondents enjoyed better access than their British counterparts.

The correspondents’ world: colonialism, and Orientalism?

Like journalists in any age, the correspondents in Palestine then were surrounded by factors which were potential influences on their reporting. The wider global political situation is significant. This was the period immediately following the Second World War, during which ‘political leaders were gratified by how uncomplainingly editors, reporters and film-makers lent their talents to the war effort’ (Caruthers, 2011: 90), and when ‘BBC Staff felt themselves to be in the front line,’ (Briggs, 1985: 194). Given their proximity to the colonial elite – one thing which comes through the coverage of the bombing of the King David Hotel is the number of reporters, in addition to Duffield, who were themselves nearly killed or injured – the correspondents shared some of the dangers which officials faced, and so may have come to share their viewpoints. Views of the inhabitants of the Holy Land then were not necessarily antagonistic, but nor were they always realistic. ‘Upon the Arabs of Palestine […] the British tended to project expectations and feelings absorbed largely from a romantic literary tradition of Orientalism,’ wrote Sherman (1997: 25).  Certainly, his Mandate Days: British Lives in Palestine 1918-48 provides plenty of material to support his statement. Yet the Orientalism of the Mandate was more than that ‘romantic literary tradition’. In as much as they thought of it at all, the correspondents then would have understood Orientalism to signify, in addition to that artistic and literary genre, ‘the scholarly study of the languages and cultures of ‘the Orient’: a geographically nebulous region comprising North Africa and the present-day Middle East, ranging through South Asia and extending as far east as Japan.’ (Teo, 2013: 2). Today, any assessment of the word must include discussion of Edward Said’s Orientalism: Western Conceptions of the Orient (1978), and later writings – especially such characterizations as, ‘What we must reckon with is a long and slow process of appropriation by which Europe, or the European awareness of the Orient, transformed itself from being textual and contemplative into being administrative, economic, and even military.’ (1995:  210). The British Mandate for Palestine was obviously one of the latter cases. The correspondents were naturally expected to follow the activities of the political and military leadership of the Mandate. In other words, they and their reporting were part of the ‘administrative, economic, even military’ construct which was the British Mandate for Palestine. Orientalism, therefore, provides in some respects a useful way of characterizing the body of British correspondents’ work in Palestine in this period. However, it is not a complete explanation. To this theoretical approach must be added a recognition of practical factors: particularly language barriers, and physical ones of access. Nor were these factors for British reporters alone. They may have been allowed into Irgun news conferences from which British correspondents were banned, but life was not all easy for correspondents from the United States either. A footnote to a Daily Express article from the time reported, ‘Transjordan has warned the U.S. government that no visas will be given to American correspondents because it cannot be responsible for their safety.’ (Footnote to Grey,1947).

The day after the bombing of the King David, Barbara Board, of the Daily Mirror, told readers of the way a military policeman at the hotel entrance had thrown her to the ground and  shielded her with his body. (Board, 1946). The correspondents were there too when British soldiers dug through the rubble in search of survivors, and dead. ‘In broad daylight, dozens of Jews, Arabs, and Britishers, were murdered in cold blood by the notorious Jewish terrorist organization, Irgun Zvai Leumi’ ran the commentary on a contemporary newsreel. (Imperial War Museum Films, 1946). Having themselves been in personal danger, the journalists may well have been more likely to identify with the colonial officials who were the target of the attack. Another correspondent, Clare Hollingworth, could not overcome her anger even decades later. One of the group behind the bombing, Menachem Begin, was a future Israeli Prime Minister. ‘When Begin rose to power in the late 1970s I often found myself in his presence. But I never greeted him. I would not shake a hand with so much blood on it,’ she wrote in a later memoir (1990: 141). Such a response is understandable, given the danger in which Hollingworth had found herself. It also casts doubt on the efficacy of part of the Irgun’s strategy, given that, ‘Much of the terrorist campaign of the Irgun was directed at the British media. Begin himself recognised the importance of that factor in the various meetings of the High Command.’ (Zadka, 1995: 178). In the King David attack, ‘the terrorist campaign’ seems, if anything, to have driven the British press into the arms of the Mandate authorities: in Board’s case, literally so.

The importance of the press

Yet there were divisions between the political elite and the correspondents. Close as they may have been in outlook, and in physical location, the journalists were also kept at a distance – even as their potential power was understood.

(To be continued)

I will publish the full references with a future extract. In the meantime, please feel free to comment here; email me at reportingconflict.com; Tweet @jmacrodgers. If you have read Headlines from the Holy Land, thank you — and please do consider writing a review on Amazon.

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One thought on “Journalism, separation, and independence: newspaper coverage of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948

  1. Pingback: Journalism, separation, and independence: newspaper coverage of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948 — Part II | reportingconflict

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