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

This is the second part of my article about British and U.S. newpaper reporting of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. You can read Part I here, and the whole article on the website of Journalism, where it was first published  

IN HIS DIARY ENTRY of 5th April 1948, just weeks before the Mandate was to come to an end, Gurney recorded the fact that The Times was to run a piece on a new book, published by the British Government’s Stationery Office. The book included ‘admirable pictures and photographs’ of ‘the Holy City under British care.’ (Golani, 2009: 87). That ‘care’ may have been about to stop. The way in which it was to be portrayed retained great importance. Indeed, the ‘administrative, economic, even military’ aspects of the British Mandate were complemented by what were probably then cutting-edge public relations techniques. On Gurney’s staff, as Public Information Officer, was Richard ‘Dick’ Stubbs ‘previously advertising manager for Bob Martin’s condition powder’ (Golani, 2009: 200) – a preparation then, as now, designed to keep pet dogs in top shape. Even with Stubbs’ assistance, Gurney admitted, ‘It’s not easy to follow what’s going on.’ (Golani, 2009: 70) This led him to compare his own access to information with the task facing the press, in terms that suggest a degree of admiration, ‘even when you have access to all the information there is, but these fellows have to go out and get it for themselves.’ (Golani, 2009: 70). This is not within this article’s main scope, but his use of the word ‘fellows’ is interesting for what it says about gender attitudes in that milieu at that time – especially given that two of the most prominent correspondents, Board and Hollingworth, were women. Further indication of what must have been a predominantly a man’s world is found in the fact that the title of Board’s own 1937 memoir was Newsgirl in Palestine. Her choice, or that of her publisher?

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A member of the Parachute Regiment stands guard over a group of Jewish civilians who wait in line to be interrogated by British army officers and members of the Palestine Police during a sweep in Tel Aviv for members of Jewish terrorist organisations such as the Irgun. © IWM (E 31978)

 

If one can detect among the British political elite in Palestine an understanding of the importance of press coverage, and even a degree of respect, then it is not always returned. Those who had ‘to go out and get it for themselves’ could be scathing of those who did not. At one point, Gurney wrote that Duffield had complained that the assistance offered by Stubbs’ Public Information Office had made some reporters’ lives too easy (Golani, 2009: 70). Hollingworth and her colleagues – although perhaps not those whom Duffield all but accused of laziness – did want to try to find out what is going on. Throughout her career, starting with her famously (and correctly) reporting in August 1939 – when she was herself ‘only three days into [her] first journalism job’ (Garrett, 2015: 67) – German armoured divisions on the Polish border, and poised to invade, Hollingworth was one to get the story herself. In Palestine, it was the sheer difficulty of doing so which frustrated her. In her article published in The Observer on 11th April 1948, she explained why. The opening of her piece included a line, ‘It is the first time in history that shells have landed in the Holy City,’ designed, as the best reportage should be, to gain, and retain, the audience’s attention. As the piece continued, she reflected on the difficulty of establishing what was happening. Having apparently reached a dead end in her quest for ‘hard’ facts, Hollingworth turned her ire on those who, she obviously felt, should have been providing more reliable information.

The sound of gunfire was audible all over the centre of Jerusalem, and shells fell within two miles of the Dome of the Rock Mosque and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Before the shelling began, the only ‘hard’ facts of a situation which daily becomes more obscure and confused were that the Arabs this morning retook Mount Castel and that there was heavy fighting along the western approaches to Jerusalem – the only possible entry into the city for Jewish traffic.

There is no longer the slightest reliance to be placed in Jewish reports. Their Press is under strict censorship, imposed and enforced by the Jewish Agency, and its misrepresentations and distortions are reaching astonishing heights. There is indeed an atmosphere of quite unbelievable reality in the Jewish approach to the situation, which is based upon the determination to maintain at all costs the illusion that it is impossible for Jews to lose in any encounter with Arabs.

On the Arab side the Press indulges in childish boasting and highly-coloured accounts of Arab victories while what must be termed “official Arab sources” simply do not know what is happening, as their means of communication and collection and collation of data are hopelessly inadequate.

Unfortunately, the British authorities police and military, who might be expected to provide at least a check upon the prevailing exaggerations, appear usually to be in the position of having to obtain their information from the Press. They never know anything more.

Hollingworth’s piece has been quoted some length here because it illustrates at least two important points about the significance of the newspaper coverage of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. This, surely, was journalistic independence in text form. Hollingworth did not feel she owed anything to any of her potential sources. On the contrary, she felt that they were failing her, and, by extension, her readers. With the exception of their access to British officials (and Gurney’s reflection that he, unlike the journalists, had ‘access to all the information there is’ suggests that was probably of limited scope and value) the correspondents were at a distance from the people whose lives and conflicts they were covering. Perhaps one can therefore also read a degree of frustration into Hollingworth’s criticism of British officials who ‘appear usually to be in the position of having to obtain their information from the Press’. Just as they seem to be at a distance from what is going on, so are the correspondents. In the fifty or so news reports which formed the core of the research for this article, one looks in vain for any reflection of Arab or Jewish opinion other than that offered by official sources. Whatever one might think of later 20th century, and 21st century, reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as it is now more readily known (and some scholars, such as Philo and Berry (2004, 2011) have been deeply critical of it), this seems striking. The reporting at this time seems removed from the people, Jewish and Arab, of Palestine. The human interest stories of the café owner, school teacher, farmer, or casual labourer, which might today be expected to provide context, or even a superficial indication of public opinion, are absent. Where are the casual contacts – the taxi drivers, the shopkeepers, with whom western correspondents might now chat? Where are the academics, the religious leaders, from whom they might seek more nuanced understanding of, or elite opinion from within, the communities which they were covering?

Their absence might tend to support an interpretation suggesting that western reporters had, at least in part, an Orientalist approach to the story, in the sense employed by Said.  ‘Orientals were rarely seen or looked at; they were seen through, analyzed (sic) not as citizens, or even people, but as problems to be solved or – as the colonial powers openly coveted their territory – taken over.’ (1995: 207. In considering whether this was the case, it proved instructive to look at some of the work which Hollingworth in particular published on other assignments. Hollingworth’s reporting was selected because of the range of other stories which she covered during the period shortly before and after the end of the British Mandate for Palestine. Duffield, Broad, and others, such as O’Dowd Gallagher of the Daily Mail, who were also reporting from Palestine in this era, did not travel as extensively as she. This is understandable. Given the huge amount of editorial appetite for coverage of Palestine, they had little incentive to do so. Hollingworth, on the other hand, seems to have been more restless. Even a brief examination of her work for The Observer in 1948 and 1949 uncovers datelines in Greece, Egypt, and Yugoslavia. Her work from these locations displays, in addition to her versatility as a correspondent, a frequent reliance on elite sources. There is one important distinction. The sources to which Hollingworth had access in other locations seemed very well informed – at least, that is the impression given from the detail in which she is able to report either the purge of the Secret Police in Yugoslavia (Hollingworth, 1948c) or the diet of the dying Greek Prime Minister (Hollingworth, 1948d). The lack of access to detailed, reliable, information she experienced in Palestine explains the frustration she expressed in the article cited above – and also why her reporting, and that of her fellow correspondents, sometimes feels removed from the action.

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

Security, an issue which will be discussed in more detail below, may have been another factor in this sense of separation. A week after the British authorities quit Mandate Palestine, Richard Wyndham, a reporter for Kemsley newspapers, was killed in the Sheikh Jarrah district, on the approaches to the Old City of Jerusalem (Daily Express News Service, 1948). We should not forget that Board, Duffield, and Hollingworth had all personally been uncomfortably close to the bombing of the King David Hotel. Newspaper reports and newsreels which cover the immediate aftermath of the attack show that plenty of other correspondents witnessed the dead being taken from under the rubble. Hollis (2016: 10) has described the end of the Mandate as a time when the British political elite in Palestine were antagonistic to, and felt antagonized by, the peoples whom they were supposed to govern. ‘Both communities were criticised in language that patronised the Arabs and demonised the Jews, as these British servants of the empire began to realise that they themselves were increasingly the objects of hostility from both quarters.’ The reporting reflects a similar detachment, and, certainly in the case of Hollingworth, rigorously expressed disdain. So while Orientalist (in the sense employed by Said) perspectives formed part of the relationship between western reporters and the peoples whose conflict they were covering, there were additional factors: security, access, and probably language, too. Sherman’s point, cited above, about the lack of Hebrew skills among British officials presumably applied equally to western correspondents.

 

The second point about Hollingworth’s 11th April, 1948 article worthy of more detailed discussion here is the attempts which the belligerents make to mislead correspondents. Using phrases such as ‘misrepresentations and distortions’ and ‘childish boasting and highly-coloured accounts’ (Hollingworth 1948a), Hollingworth, frustrated as she was by the dearth of ‘“hard” facts’ at least made it clear to her readers that she was not taken in by the information she had been fed. Although attempts to influence coverage, especially coverage of armed conflict, are as old as war reporting itself, these attempts to mislead are especially significant given what has followed. There can be few languages which have a single word for ‘public diplomacy’ in the sense of trying to influence public opinion. Hebrew is an exception. The word hasbara defies straightforward translation, but definitely includes this concept. ‘There is no English word. It’s either public diplomacy or information, some would say indoctrination,’ is the explanation offered by Nitzan Chen, current Head of the Israeli Government Press Office (cited in Rodgers, 2015: 119). Judging from Hollingworth’s experience, this is where that ‘indoctrination’, or attempt at the same, begins to establish itself: ready to grow in scope and sophistication as the State of Israel itself develops, right up to the age of social media (see, for example, Kuntsman and Stein, 2015). Hollingworth’s experience has its counterparts in every era of the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In 1967, for example, David Hirst, the veteran Middle East correspondent who was then a young stringer based in Beirut, wrote, ‘There are two wars – the real war and propaganda war.’ (Hirst, 1967). His article went on to describe ‘fierce rhetoric pouring in’ from Arab radio stations, and ‘Arabic counterblast from Israel’ (Hirst, 1967) – the Jewish State, then not even two decades old, already adept and using the language of its foes to fight the media battle. If this process of Arab-Israeli propaganda war did not exactly begin in 1948, Hollingworth’s experience shows that it was at a highly significant point during the last days of the British Mandate – already established as one of the enduring elements of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the journalist which chronicles it.

(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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2 thoughts on “Journalism, separation, and independence: newspaper coverage of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948 — Part II

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

  2. Pingback: Journalism, separation, and independence: newspaper coverage of the end of the British Mandate for Palestine, 1948 — Final part | reportingconflict

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