Understanding the stories of others

Detail from a War memorial in Volgograd, Russia. March 2019. Photo © James Rodgers

I wrote this recently for the website Journalism Knowledge Exchange. You can read that version here. 

‘WE’RE NOT HERE TO GIVE PEOPLE A HISTORY LESSON.’ The editor’s succinct rebuke served to curb the enthusiasm of a reporter intent on telling the world about the latest international story in the greatest detail. During two decades dealing with newsrooms, I heard it several times in several places.

The sentiment is sound, of course. Even if journalism is supposed to be the first rough draft of history, the material which journalists prepare for their audiences is supposed to be something different: new, and of the moment.

Yet in an age such as our own, when history is in western European politics to a greater extent than at any time since the middle of the last century, I am going to argue that to hold that view is to risk not telling the full story.

Before becoming a lecturer in Journalism in 2010, I covered international news for twenty years. The experience of covering events that changed the world as I had known it in my childhood taught me lessons about telling the stories of people living through war and revolution: the attacks of September 11th, 2001; the collapse of the Soviet Union.

A return to Russia earlier this year to research my next book, Assignment Moscow, gave me a chance to look again at a country I had not seen for ten years. It was a strange time to be there as a Brit: relations between Russia and the west were bad enough; relations between Russia and the U.K. worse than ever they had been since the end of the Cold War.

Russia was seen as a threat. The poisoning in the English town of Salisbury of the former Russian military intelligence agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, was one especially unsettling example; persistent allegations of attempts to use social media to undermine western democracy was another.

It attached itself easily to older forms of fear of the huge country on Europe’s western edge: cold war confrontation; nineteenth century cartoons of oversized bears helping themselves to chunks of the globe.

The ‘Motherland Calls’ statue in volgograd, Russia. March 2019. © James Rodgers

Part of my trip this year took me to Volgograd. As Stalingrad, as it was known in the 1940s, it was the site of the battle which halted the German army’s attempt to conquer the Soviet Union. Soviet forces, newly energized and enthusiastic after defeating on their mighty enemy, began to turn the tide of the entire war.

The city skyline is dominated by a colossal statue of Mother Russia, a sword in her raised right hand. She looks back over her shoulder, urging her people to emerge from the places where they have taken cover, and go on the attack. The hill where she stands is the site of the decisive, final, battle for the city: 34,000 Russian dead lie buried beneath her feet.

All of this, I reflected, is relevant to explaining Russia as it is today. No, people don’t talk about the war every day any more than they do in western Europe but, boosted by official propaganda which serves as a constant reminder of Soviet sacrifice and victory, it shapes and influences Russia’s view of itself.

It also shapes the way that it sees the west. For if we have tended to see Russia as a threat (even the name, ‘the beast from the east’, given to the snowstorms in the spring of last year seemed to have a hint of Russophobia), then let us consider how the west must look when viewed from Russia.

The west may have brought new technology and new ideas to Russia. It also brought invasion and occupation from Napoleon and Hitler. More recently, it brought ideas of democracy and free markets at time when millions struggled to make ends meet. One consequence of that confrontation is that the word ‘democracy’ (‘demokratiya’ in Russian) is still sometimes subject to a pun which replaces the first two syllables with a Russian word, ‘der’mo’, meaning ‘shit’.

Reporting on Russia, as on any other country or culture, requires an understanding of that country and culture. That means an understanding of its history. In that sense, especially today, when identity more than ideology is credited with driving our politics, we do need to give our audiences a history lesson.

That lesson must explain how we understand the story of a nation, and its influence on the present. That is context, so frequently cited as an indispensable ingredient of good reporting.

The other lessons which correspondents need to heed is a lesson in listening: as you prepare your story, listen and watch carefully to the stories surrounding you. To report a story from a country, you have to understand the stories which the people there tell about themselves.

 

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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.

Reporting Russia in Revolution

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In this week’s New European, my article on how western correspondents covered the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’, as the USSR came to know the Bolsheviks’ coming to power. The first few paragraphs are reproduced below. You can read the full piece in the paper. 

We in the west have tended to look warily towards Russia: fearing and yet fascinated by the vast land lying at Europe’s eastern edge. Often, as now, we have seen it as a threat.

If in the second half of the last century, it was nuclear warheads – and they have hardly gone away – today we are more concerned with cyberattacks. In those countries bordering Russia, and formerly under its influence or control, people look nervously at the annexation of Crimea and ask if computer hacking may turn into something more menacing.

Since it enlisted General Winter to help to defeat Napoleon, through to Stalingrad when it turned the tide against Hitler, Russia has intervened at key moments to change European history. Some might add Brexit to the list, with Kremlin-backed TV channels and websites playing their part in boosting nationalist sentiment in the west.

A hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution was certainly one of those moments. The full extent of its consequences may not have been fully grasped, but its significance was well understood, and in those confused, fast-moving times, it was the job of Western authors and journalists who found themselves in the country to try to make sense of it.

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Reporting Dangerously: Journalist Killings, Intimidation and Security’

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I wrote this review for the current issue of ‘Media, War and Conflict’. It deals with an issue which is not sufficiently discussed, and certainly not sufficiently addressed: the killing of journalists. Hopefully this important book will help to change that.    

‘No story is worth a life,’ is a phrase often heard in newsrooms when the talk is of working in war zones. ‘Sadly,’ as Simon Cottle notes (p. 149) in Reporting Dangerously, news organizations are often most rigorous in implementing safety measures, ‘following the shock of losing one of their colleagues.’ In a world where war, especially in the Middle East, has come to seem like the normal state of affairs, good journalism is needed much as ever to illuminate and explain not only what is happening, but also what happened in the past to influence the present. ‘What about the Balfour Declaration?’ Any British correspondent covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely sooner or later to be chastised – or perhaps, praised – for their country’s historical role in creating the modern Middle East. This is especially in true this year which marks the centenary of that controversial note. For if history is largely absent from day-to-day political discourse in Western Europe (Ireland and Spain perhaps being among the exceptions) it is not in other regions of the world. Correspondents reporting on armed conflict commit a serious oversight if they overlook that.

The authors of Reporting Dangerously make no such mistake. This engaging volume begins with the well-documented premise that covering armed conflict is becoming more dangerous. While accepting that, methodologically, ‘There are difficulties that persist, and perhaps have increased,’ (p. 52) in compiling statistics, it offers plenty of evidence to support the argument that journalists ‘are being targeted, murdered, and intimidated more regularly and in increasing numbers.’ (p .1). In seeking to understand why, the book draws on substantial scholarship on violence and globalization from a variety of fields, especially history and sociology. Cottle is persuasive when he argues that western societies have led the way in ‘violent military conquest’ (p. 71) since the sixteenth century, but also – and here the point relates to journalism in particular – inspired ‘“modern” dynamics of increasing empathy and moral repugnance at violence’ (p. 71).

If this duality explains some of the trends which have created the ‘Violent History of the Globalised Present’ (Chapter 4), then the book advances a disturbing case that journalists themselves are no longer permitted the benefit of any doubt as to their own roles. Presenting the Kurt Schork Awards for International Journalism in 2015, the respected correspondent Peter Greste – referring to his and his Al Jazeera colleagues’ incarceration in Egypt – linked his fate to the aftermath of September 11th. Since then – when President George W. Bush warned the nations of the world, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists’ – Greste suggested it had become much harder for journalists to be seen as neutral observers. Richard Sambrook argues (p. 20) that, ‘The attitude of “you’re either with us or against us” denies the legitimacy of independent journalism.’ Greste’s ordeal is mentioned here, along with his reflection, written in his prison cell, that, ‘Never has clear-eyed, critical, sceptical journalism been more necessary.’ (p. 56).

It is to the authors’ credit that this is one of their recurring themes. Journalists may sometimes be dismayed – rightly or wrongly – about some of the conclusions drawn in scholarly studies of their activities, and production. This volume recognizes this early on, accepting that academic studies are too often guilty of ‘failing to recognise the professional motivations and practical dangers’ (p. 6) involved in today’s journalism. It is heartening to see the authors thank the journalists interviewed for the volume, ‘for their enduring commitment to this work which regularly places themselves in harm’s way’ (p. 112). It is also good to see the wide variety of cases considered. This volume does not confine itself to a consideration of international correspondents working for major news organizations such as the BBC or Al-Jazeera. It rightly recognizes and discusses the many hazards faced by journalists covering crime and drugs stories in countries such as Mexico and the Philippines.

This breadth of approach is mirrored in the backgrounds of the authors themselves, and their different experiences of scholarship and senior management in news organizations, combined with interviews with leading journalists, work well together. The different perspectives are, however, united around a recurring core argument which insists upon the importance of ‘appreciating the contribution of journalism within civil societies’– and recognizing that, ‘By seeking to report from uncivil societies, journalists act in the interests of both local citizens and the wider international community’ (p.96). It is in situations such as these that journalists face the greatest physical danger. The experience in an Iraqi minefield of the BBC’s Stuart Hughes – which led to his losing a leg, and his colleague, Kaveh Golestan, losing his life – is well documented here in first person testimony. The sense of changed circumstances which has come with the rise of Islamic State is also well communicated. The prospect of an encounter with their murderous fighters is seen as just too dangerous. ‘Forget it, I’m not interested,’ Hughes concludes of any assignment which might run that risk (p. 128).

While the physical risks are well documented here, less attention is paid to mental health. In a western world which feels increasingly willing to discuss such issues, this seems like an oversight. There are only a couple of passing references to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and apparently no space for discussion of Anthony Feinstein’s pioneering work on the mental health of journalists covering armed conflict. Although financial constraints are mentioned, they might also have merited more consideration – especially as Sambrook’s earlier work ‘Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant’ identifies this as a significant challenge to the future of international reporting. In the particular case of the present study, dwindling budgets have implications for the resources which might be allocated to safety training and equipment. This issue could perhaps be considered at greater length. It is a relatively minor issue, but a frustrating one nonetheless: editing of the section on the discussion of the differing views on violence of John Gray and Steven Pinker has permitted typographical errors in the spelling of both names – ‘Stephen’ (p. 67) and ‘Grey’ (p. 68) – to slip through.

The authors are level-headed in their conclusions, accepting (p. 202) that, ‘Zero risk in newsgathering is not attainable, and should not be pursued.’ They are right to highlight impunity as a major issue – unfortunately, absent the political will to enforce them, no amount of declarations from Journalists’ organizations, or U.N. resolutions will change this. That said, Reporting Dangerously is an important addition to any bibliography of journalism and war, and its arguments must be heeded if journalism is to be allowed to fulfil its role of informing a world whose inhabitants face countless challenges of conflict and climate change.

Reporting Dangerously: Journalist Killings, Intimidation and Security

Simon Cottle, Richard Sambrook and Nick Mosdell

(Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2016, 224 pp, ISBN 978-1-137-40672-9, Paperback) 

THE SIX DAY WAR: ISRAEL’S MASTERSTROKE OF WARTIME NEWS MANAGEMENT

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The war of 1967 was the start of the occupation which endures to this day: fortifications near Qalandia check point between the West Bank and Jerusalem, June 2014 ©James Rodgers

This article was originally published by The Conversation. You can read that version here.  

REPORTING ON THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT is the ultimate challenge in international news. It demands a thick skin. In no other field of international diplomacy are journalists’ words subjected to such scrutiny. It demands knowledge not just of history, but of vastly differing cultural, religious, and geographic perspectives. At times, it demands willingness to face danger.

All of these factors are relevant as the world marks 50 years since 1967’s Six-Day War, whose consequences continue to shape the parameters of any discussion of the conflict. As the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen put it in his book on the conflict, Six Days: “The occupation that started in 1967 has become the driving force behind the violence that Israelis and Palestinians are inflicting on each other.”

Israel’s military success in the Six-Day War redrew the borders of the Middle East – and it also set a new standard for government spin in wartime. Alongside its preparations for war, Israel ran a masterful communications campaign designed to disguise its military one. “Newspaper offices not only in Israel, but throughout the world, received pictures of Israeli troops on leave relaxing on the beaches,” remembered journalist Winston Churchill, grandson and namesake of Britain’s wartime prime minister, in the account he co-authored with his father, Randolph.

Churchill, who was reporting for the News of the World, himself played an unwitting part in the spin. Granted an interview with the Israeli cabinet’s new defence minister, Moshe Dayan, Churchill reported that:

General Dayan declared: “We don’t want anyone else to fight for us. Whatever can be done in a diplomatic way I would welcome and encourage but if fighting does come to Israel I would not like American or British boys to get killed here and I do not think we need them.

Moshe Dayan (L) in 1967. Tom Pearlman, Jr. via Wikimedia Commons

Dayan knew what he was doing: he was a military man opening a front in a media war. In his autobiography, published in the 1970s, he wrote of his meetings with journalists on the eve of war, and his hopes “that the impression might be gained that we were not about to go to war but were intent on exhausting all the diplomatic possibilities”.

The media was an indispensable part of creating that impression. Shortly after Israeli forces captured the Western Wall in Jerusalem, David Rubinger photographed three paratroopers standing before the wall’s white stones. Distributed by the Israeli Government Press Office, the picture became one of the most recognised images of the entire conflict. Rubinger died earlier this year, at the age of 92. Three years ago, I interviewed him for my own book, Headlines from the Holy Land. We met in his West Jerusalem home, which still housed the dark room where he had developed that picture.

“They had tried a trick,” he said of the Israeli government. “They sent a lot of people on leave. Units were sent on leave on Friday, and Saturday for Shabbat, which was obviously a Dayan trick.”

This ploy – exploiting the expectation that religious Israeli troops wouldn’t fight on the Sabbath – was a major success. Not many reporters seem to have fathomed what the Israelis had done until much later, although one Guardian headline – “Israelis cloak their aims” – did hint that all was not what it seemed.

Taken in

By the time victory came, Israel and the region had been transformed. Borders which exist today, albeit without international recognition, were established by force of arms. Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights were under Israeli military occupation, and remain so today.

In the process, Israel’s military also transformed its image in much of the British press. No longer the “terrorist” force of late British Mandate days, it was suddenly a respected fighting force facing down hostile neighbours. In the News of the World’s June 11 edition, the Sunday after the war, Churchill wrote of “a victory unprecedented in the history of the world”.

The Arab armies, meanwhile, were humiliated in battle – and their media strategy collapsed too. David Hirst, later an authoritative correspondent and author, was then a stringer in Beirut. In a 2014 interview he told me how, at the start of the war, “the Arabs believed what the Egyptian media was saying. And they thought that victory was on the way”. Defeat, he remembered, came as a “colossal shock”.

One of the toughest tasks facing correspondents caught up in world-changing events is judging where they might lead. As Sydney Gruson wrote in the New York Times of June 9 1967:

On one thing all Western diplomats and Israelis seem to agree: too much blood has been spilled – more perhaps than is yet realised in the great flush of victory – to expect that Israel would willingly return the frontiers to what they were before the war began on Monday.

He was right. Those frontiers remain. Soldiers and diplomats might study 1967 for strategy. Journalists at work in the fake news era should study its lessons in spin.

Journalism, terror, and trauma

MY SCHOOLDAYS WERE SPENT IN MANCHESTER. Although I have now lived away from the city for many years, I still return frequently — often to watch football. Even if they have covered conflict in many parts of the world, journalists do not become immune to witnessing the consequences of violence. Journalists are people, too. They will inevitably be affected differently by death closer to home — especially when those are the deaths of civilians, including children.

The challenges of keeping up professional standards in cases like this are many, and they are not always met. The day after this week’s attack’s I wrote a piece, ‘How should Journalists cover traumatic events?’ for Prospect.

I am also posting links to an earlier piece ‘Terror attacks put journalists’ ethics on the frontline’  I wrote for The Conversation,  and to a more detailed report ‘Fanning the Flames: Reporting on Terror in a Networked World’ by Professor Charlie Beckett from the LSE.

All of these pieces contain discussion of issues which, in today’s world, journalists must be prepared to face.

I will post the concluding extracts from my article ‘Journalism, Separation, and Independence’, on the reporting of the end of the British Mandate, in future weeks.