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. 


Reflections on 2016, and 1991: two revolutionary years


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

‘DO YOU KNOW WHAT THE USSR WAS?’ asked the Ukrainian I had got talking to in London.

The USSR was many things to me — although I think it has taken a quarter of a century for me fully to understand something of what it was to others.

‘Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive/ But to be young was very heaven!’ wrote Wordsworth in ‘The French Revolution as It Appeared to Enthusiasts at Its Commencement’. That is how it felt to me to be in Moscow in 1991. I was in my 20s, and on my first foreign assignment as a TV producer, for the Visnews agency.

Russia’s post-Soviet revolution was ‘at its commencement’. For someone of my generation, who had spent their teenage years worrying whether the acceleration of the nuclear arms race in Europe was going to lead to conflict, the end of the Cold War between East and West was indeed blissful. The excitement of being on assignment in Moscow as a young journalist ‘was very heaven’. The world as I had known it all my life was changing forever, and I was there to see it.

What I — and the other young western journalists I met, and who were in some cases to become lifelong friends — saw that summer seemed good. Especially in the Soviet capital, we saw a population enthusiastic for change — brave enough, when the time came, to stand with sticks against tanks to defend it. They faced down a coup attempt by hardliners in August 1991 . Later that year, and 25 years ago this month, the Soviet Union formally ceased to exist. Back in London, I was in the newsroom on Christmas Day when Mikhail Gorbachev went on air in Moscow to resign, and the red flag was lowered from the Kremlin.


The Kremlin, summer 1991, with the Red flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics flying. © James Rodgers

For some Cold Warriors in the west, that was victory. For one prominent American academic, this was — absurdly, it is now clear — the ‘end of history’. For those of us who spend a lot of time reporting from Russia in the 1990s, it came to be something else: the beginning of an age of great hardship, uncertainty, and humiliation for millions of people in Russia, and other parts of the former USSR.

‘We keep on failing to understand the nature of the trauma that hit all Russians in 1991,’ Sir Rodric Braithwaite, the last British Ambassador to the USSR, told an audience at Chatham House 20 years later. Policy makers did not understand well the possible political consequences of that trauma either — at least until it was too late.

For it was in those days that the wrath of post-Soviet Russia was being nursed. It came to adulthood in the annexation of Ukraine, and, on the wider global stage, in the Middle East. The end of history mindset seemed to have prevailed among policy makers, too — again until it was too late. When relations with Russia turned bad, there were not enough people who understood why. ‘What’s really lacking in all these theatres is sufficient people who are deep experts on the language and the region to actually produce the options to ministers,’ complained Rory Stewart, then Chair of the House of Commons Defence Select Committee, in a 2014 interview with Prospect Magazine , as Russia cemented its hold over Ukraine.

Experts: in 2014, a senior Conservative politician said they were lacking; in 2016, another, Michael Gove, said Britain had ‘had enough’ of them.

Many disagreed — but enough were persuaded to accept the case made by Mr Gove and his fellow ‘Leave’ campaign leaders that Britain should leave the European Union.

That is one of the ways in which 2016 has helped me understand 1991. Now, in middle age, I have a perspective on how it must have felt for Russians in their 40s and 50s to see their country go to hell, taking with it all they had known.

This year, it has been the turn of my country to have a revolution — for that is what ‘Brexit’ is — and head off in an unknown direction. Not even those who most fervently sought this turn of events can claim that it has been adequately prepared for.

As a foreign correspondent in the 1990s and 2000s, I saw other people’s political systems fall apart. Both in the former USSR, and in the Middle East, this led on occasion to wars which cost countless thousands of lives. There is no prospect now of war in Western Europe, although that was the way we chose for centuries to settle our disputes. It is not simply coincidence that the era of the European Union has also been an age of peace.

The signs of other times are still there to see. As a frequent visitor to both Scotland and Denmark, my seaside walks lead me past Second World War fortifications scarring the beaches on the North Sea coast.


World War Two defences on the coast of East Lothian, Scotland, October 2016 ©James Rodgers

Will Europe ever be as divided again in my lifetime? As Christopher Clark wrote in the introduction to his excellent 2014 book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe went to War in 1914, ‘what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity.’ He continued, ‘Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces.’

That’s why we need good journalism. Those of us western journalists who lived in Russia in the 1990s understood very well the reasons for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power (I wrote about this at greater length in a recent piece for The Conversation).

So, yes, I did know the USSR. A quarter of a century later, I know this, too: like the USSR,  nothing lasts forever. Blissful dawns do not necessarily lead to sunny afternoons, or peaceful evenings. The demagogues who have tasted victory in 2016’s tumult would do well to remember that.






Why covering other people’s wars made me value the EU

For this week’s The New European, I have written a piece on how reporting on armed conflict in other parts of the world made me grateful for the peace which has prevailed in Western Europe during my lifetime. You can read the first two paragaphs below, and the full story in the newspaper, on sale here .


IN A LITTLE OVER 24 HOURS, THE CITY CENTRE TURNED INTO A WAR ZONE. That Saturday lunchtime, a demonstration turned violent. By Sunday evening, there was a gun battle as rebels tried to take control of the TV station. By Monday morning, tanks shelled the parliament building.

It was October 1993. Russia was a discontented country. The massive economic shock which had come from the collapse two years earlier of the Soviet Union had left millions of losers. The political transformation had only been partial. President Boris Yeltsin was left with a parliament elected in Communist times, and containing many Communist MP’s. Wanting both to shore up their own positions, and to oppose Mr Yeltsin’s reforms, they defied the president. Political tension led to an explosion of bloodletting.


Tanks on a bridge over the Moskva River, central Moscow, 4 October 1993 ©James Rodgers

Iraq: Chilcot’s lesson for reporting war

WE HAVE BEEN TOLD MANY BIG LIES. In my generation’s 1970s childhood the British Army and Government lied about the way that unarmed demonstrators had been shot dead in Londonderry. At the same time, several of those we watched on children’s TV then were child sex abusers.

Perhaps the greatest and most costly lie we were told was the basis for the invasion of Iraq. In my thirties then, and based in the Middle East as a correspondent for the BBC, I went twice to cover the aftermath of the invasion. I was in Baghdad in December 2003 when Saddam Hussein was captured. I wrote at length about that experience in my first book, Reporting Conflict. The story was hugely exciting to cover, and yet I left Iraq with the grimmest sense that the occupation was not going to end well.


U.S. forces guard a road near where Saddam Hussein was captured. Iraq, December 2003. Photo: James Rodgers

The night after Saddam Hussein’s capture had been announced — with the cocky ‘Ladies and Gentlemen, we got him!’ headline from Paul Bremer — I was sleeping on the marble floor of one of the former dictator’s palaces. His residence in Tikrit — loyal heartland where he had hidden, and finally been betrayed — was then the headquarters of an infantry division of the United States army.

No one seemed really to have any idea about what was going on, or how long this might last — but the amount of matériel I was able to see, even then as the winter night fell, was striking for the millions it must have cost to put it all there. The soldier who drove me from the gate to the area where we were to edit our TV material just wanted to know if he could go home soon. The officer I had to talk to wanted to know if I wanted some Starbucks Christmas coffee. He didn’t know whether his telephone could make a call to London.

People — whether Iraqi, Palestinian, or European — do not like living under occupation. They will eventually take up arms. This might sound obvious, but it was just one of the many things which the invaders then failed to take into account.

It is often said the Britain has no history of fascism or communism because its people mistrust big, abstract, political concepts. That may be so. If it is, this was a huge exception.

For this invasion was a big lie based on big ideas: that liberal capitalist democracy would inevitably prevail, and quickly, once the tyrant was done down. The zeal and certainty with which this belief was advanced were more reminiscent of the Bolsheviks than western democratic presidents and prime ministers.

Correspondents covering the invasion and occupation produced some excellent work which explained what was happening. Journalism as a whole did less well: failing to question sufficiently the reasons — especially weapons of mass destruction — which were given for starting the war. More rigorous questioning might have exposed the fact that these claims were baseless.

The New York Times  was among those news organizations who admitted to wishing that it ‘had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.’ At least it had the courage to own up. There were plenty of others who should have done so, too.

Now the story is back in the spotlight. Nothing can be done to make up for the tens of thousands of deaths which resulted from this irresponsible military adventure. Sir John Chilcot, leading the U.K.’s enquiry into the war, has told the BBC ‘The main expectation that I have is that it will not be possible in future to engage in a military or indeed a diplomatic endeavour on such a scale and of such gravity without really careful challenge analysis and assessment and collective political judgement being applied to it.’

If there is any lesson to be learnt, it is surely this: ‘challenge, analysis, and assessment’.

This applies obviously to leaders and policy makers. It also applies to editors and correspondents who should always question what they are told, however well a spin doctor presents it.

If it is the case, as Stanley Baldwin said of early 20th century press barons, that the news media aims at having ‘power without responsbility’, then this power can, sometimes at least, be used effectively. This is true more than ever when it is a matter of life and tens of thousands of deaths.


The author in a village north of Baghdad, Iraq December 2003



The break up of a union: news and history


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

CONFLICTS AROUND HE WORLD are daily stirred by the hand of history. How can you understand the Middle East today, or Yugoslavia in the 1990s, without knowing at least something of what had passed in those places in the preceding century?

Political discussion in western Europe is largely free of that. There are exceptions, of course: Ireland is one; recent discussions of how Spain should remember, or not, its civil war of the 1930s may become another. In Britain in recent years, mass public discussion of history and its relevance today has tended to focus on victories, however costly, in the two world wars of the last century, and on landmark moments of the reign of Queen Elizabeth II.

That has changed during the campaign leading up to the referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union. There has been debate over whether or not the E.U. has kept the peace in western Europe since 1945. The views of the wartime Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, have also been used to back both sides. One BBC story even went back as far as the Duke of Wellington — victory over Napoleon — to guess what Great Britons of the past might have thought.

War was one part of European life and history which Churchill and Wellington both knew well. This is an experience which today’s leaders largely lack: perhaps a partial explanation for the eagerness of Messrs Bush and Blair to launch the invasions they did in the first decade of this century.

As I noted in my previous post, I was there a quarter of a century ago when the USSR fell apart. In the years which followed, there was great hardship for millions of people. There were predictions of civil war. Russia avoided that — although, in the decade which followed the collapse of communism, there was fighting in the streets of Moscow, in 1993, and tens of thousands (perhaps as many as a hundred thousand or more — no one has ever come up with a reliable count) of people were killed in separatist conflicts in Chechnya  .


Troops in Russia’s ‘anti-terrorist’ campaign, Chechnya, Summer 2000

Yugoslavia was another matter. The breakup of that union did lead to civil war; a refugee crisis; and a challenge to Europe’s security systems which they were unable to meet without the assistance of the United States.

No one in this referendum campaign has gone so far as to predict war if the U.K. decides to leave, although the Prime Minister, David Cameron, came close when he asked, ‘Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt? Is that a risk worth taking?’

Responding to a dangerous and terrifying world 

We cannot be sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured. As Christopher Clark persuasively put it in the introduction to The Sleepwalkers, his recent book on the causes of the First World War, ‘what must strike any twenty-first-century reader who follows the course of the summer crisis of 1914 is its raw modernity.’ Clark continues, ‘Since the end of the Cold War, a system of global bipolar stability has made way for a more complex and unpredictable array of forces, including declining empires and rising powers – a state of affairs that invites comparison with the Europe of 1914.’

The European Union is not the Soviet Union — although some ‘leave’ campaigners might enjoy trying to make the comparison. Nor is it Yugoslavia. Yet the consequences of any massive political change can be catastrophic — especially when they are not addressed by good leadership. Chechnya is a case in point. The Russian Defence Minister, Pavel Grachev, was remembered even in his obituary for having boasted that the separatists could be sorted out in a couple of hours. Fifteen years after the military campaign was launched, the then President, Dmitry Medvedev, described the region as Russia’s biggest domestic problem.

In the Middle East and the former Soviet Union, I covered some of the bloody conflicts which followed the Cold War. In that world, the one in which we live today, all that is necessary is a lack of foresight, and a refusal to learn from the past, in order for disaster to strike. The ‘unpredictable array of forces’ will do the rest.

International journalists often have an insight which politicians lack.  We talk to people, not just to other politicians. We also know that, while today’s world can be a dangerous and terrifying place, we cannot cut ourselves off from it any more than we can stop it raining in London in June (given some of their claims, it is almost surprising that neither side in the referendum has promised better weather).

That is one reason why I will definitely be voting for the U.K to remain a member of the European Union. There are many others. I believe that we in Britain should better direct all the energy which has gone into an increasingly poisonous referendum campaign into making the E.U. work better. I have been privileged — if that is the right word — to witness the wars of others as an observer who could usually leave if I wanted to. The conflicts I covered had an element of evil, of course, but also large measures of folly and irresponsibility. Both are better avoided. Leaving he E.U. risks doing quite the opposite.








Terrorism, and Journalism

Following the attacks on Brussels last week, I wrote a piece about the challenges for journalists covering events such as those, and the importance of their not being forced to take sides. It was published first on The Conversation , and later on the website of the Ethical Journalism Network . The EJN post also includes video of a recent interview I did with them. The full text of the piece follows below.


Everyone along the street seemed to be watching the same thing. The evenings were still light and curtains were not yet drawn, so people’s TV sets were visible through their ground-floor windows. All the screens showed the burning Twin Towers. This mass consumption of the same news – as happened on September 11, 2001 – is rarer now. The ever-multiplying number of media platforms continues to fracture the attention of their audiences.

Back then, I was on my way back to my flat in Brussels to pack for a flight across the Atlantic. Two days later, I was able to fly to Montreal and travel from there to Manhattan to cover the aftermath of the attacks. It was while I was there that George W Bush warned the nations of the world: “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.”

This remark may not have been aimed at journalists in particular. The best reporting, however, often leaves room for a degree of interpretation – “with us, or against us” does not. One of journalism’s roles in a democracy is to speak the truth to power, not simply accept power’s rules.

I was reminded of this when I heard the experienced foreign correspondent Peter Greste reflect on the 400 days he had spent in jail in Egypt after being arrested there on trumped-up charges. Speaking last October, as he presented the Kurt Schork awards in International Journalism at Reuters, he said:

You know generally when you push the boundary. You know generally when you work when you’ve done something that might upset somebody – someone in government, some administration some way so I was completely taken aback because we hadn’t done anything that was pushing any boundaries.

Greste linked his fate to the way that the world had changed for journalists since September 11. Increasingly, they were not seen as neutral observers – and, as a consequence, were not treated as such.

Mobilising opinion

Journalists have greater responsibilities in time of war or national crisis than at any other. Their role is vitally important to voters’ understanding of what their leaders propose to do in their name. The world since September 11 2001 seems to have seen a growing effort in time and money from governments keener than ever to get their side of the story across. The controls placed on reporting in Iraq – for example, “embedding” journalists with troops – during the 2003 invasion and beyond were a reflection of this. The idea that “TV lost the Vietnam war” – wrongheaded though it may be – retains an enduring power.

Russia’s massive deployment of media resources to mobilise supportive opinion of its policies in Ukraine and Syria is just one example. In that case, many Russian journalists have appeared willing to support their country’s foreign policy. Given the overwhelmingly patriotic tone of contemporary Russian coverage of international affairs, that may be the only option for anyone wanting airtime.

Yet what of other cases? How well are audiences served by a one-sided view of events? The answer is not at all well, as The New York Times acknowledged when admitting that coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war “was not as rigorous as it should have been”. The New York Times was not the only guilty party. At least they decided to admit their failings.

Journalism has risen to unprecedented challenges with varying success. Some of The New York Times’s reporting of the occupation of Iraq and the insurgency which followed was truly outstanding. Yet western journalists covering the “War on Terror” in its various forms have found themselves tested.

Centre of conflict

The attacks on Brussels on March 22 were a reminder of why this is. Journalists find themselves at the centre of events as never before. The bombers struck at soft targets to inspire fear. That fear spread as the coverage continued. Without the coverage – or at least if there had been less of it – would the attackers’ aim have been frustrated? Perhaps so. But even if the authorities had requested that, it would have been wrong to agree.

As Greste noted, journalists find themselves at the centre of conflict as never before. Not just war, but political battles, and “anti-terrorist operations”. They are targets. Islamic State beheads them. Others seek to co-opt them.

Ethical dilemmas emerge. In July 2005, I was among the BBC editors who agreed to a reporting blackout as police closed in on the suspects in a series of failed suicide bombings. The idea was that live TV coverage might have tipped off the wanted men. Was it right to do the authorities’ bidding?

There are more questions. How seriously should editors take warnings from anonymous “security sources” about threats? Is this important public safety information, or spin aimed at securing extra funding?

What about stories affecting journalists themselves? As a correspondent based in Brussels, I passed through Zaventem airport countless times. How to keep out of reports the thought “that could have been me”?

The rise of Islamic state, just as much as Tuesday’s attacks, show the value of good journalism. The former by its initial absence from the news – hence the surprise which accompanied the group’s territorial gains in Iraq and Syria – the latter by telling people about the world they live in. Few did, or could, report the rise of Islamic State. Its seizure of territory, and oil fields, came as a shock.

Ideally, journalists would do their jobs without having to take sides – although some would still choose to do so, as we saw by the shabby attempts by controversialist Brexiteer columnists to make a political point out of the Brussels bombs.

In a world where, despite its complexity, journalists are under pressure to be with us or against us, their craft cannot function properly – and that is a loss for all of us.