Press Gazette publishes ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’ extract


The Press Gazette has published an extract from Headlines from the Holy Land.  It is adapted from Chapter 7 ‘Social Media: A Real Battleground’.

Since the Arab uprisings of early 2011, social media have played an increasing role in the politics and conflict of the wider Middle East. That has been especially true in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood, who returned to Gaza to cover the Israeli military operation in the summer of 2014 concluded of her time on that assignment: “If you want to know what’s happening, it’s on social media first, before any other news outlet, so it’s essential to be monitoring Twitter all the time.”

This is how the journalism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has evolved: while eyewitness reporting remains of paramount importance, it is no longer sufficient just to be in one place.

With social media, and Twitter in particular, you have simultaneously to keep an eye on what is going on elsewhere too.

Social media had been a part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict since it came into being. Following Operation “Cast Lead” – an Israeli military campaign in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009 – there were reports that both the Israeli Army and Hamas’ military wing had warned those in their ranks against using social media for what doing so might give away to the enemy.

This was different.

You can read the full extract here. You can also read the introduction, and part of Chapter 1, on the publisher’s website, here.  


Headlines from the Holy Land

Part of the wall near the Qalandiya crossing point between the West Bank and Jerusalem

Part of the wall near the Qalandiya crossing point between the West Bank and Jerusalem

The challenges which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict represents for diplomats, and for the news media, are changing. Addressing them is complicated by a lack of political will, and, as always, the absence of obvious solutions. All this is made even more difficult by the fact that the attention of policy makers, correspondents, and military strategists is currently focused further east, in Syria and Iraq.

For the last two years, I have been researching different aspects of the reporting of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. My interest goes back much further than that, though. From 2002-2004, I lived and worked in the Gaza Strip as the BBC’s correspondent there.

When I was asking the questions for a daily news report, they needed to be few, and brief. Efficient newsgathering requires focus, especially in a conflict zone. With a short time to deadline, there will never be the leisure to listen to lengthy recordings – especially when they may also require translation. Even the tiniest fact of any incident of violence between Israelis and Palestinians may well become a matter of dispute. ‘I can’t think of any other situation where you have a relatively straightforward scenario and have both sides vehemently disagree with what’s going on,’ says Crispian Balmer, Reuters bureau chief in Jerusalem from August 2010 to 2014. You need sometimes to keep it simple if you are going to get it on air at all.

On the days when there was more time to talk, different patterns emerged. It was as if asking a sixth or seventh question led into a whole new area of discussion. Frequently, it seemed to me, that discussion began to focus on the land which was being fought over – the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea – as not so much an agricultural or economic commodity as a spiritual one.

One looks in largely in vain, however, for this to be addressed in the diplomacy which has sought to solve the conflict, or in the reporting which has chronicled that diplomatic activity. In the book, considering especially the text of the 2003 ‘Roadmap’ – or the ‘performance-based Roadmap to a permanent Two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,’ – to give it its official title – I argue in the book that ‘land’ in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could better be understood as ‘homeland’, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as, ‘A person’s home country or native land; the land of one’s ancestors’ – a concept which resonates right through the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There may be competing accounts of history, and competing interpretations of which law supports which claim. Yet the basis of both Israeli and Palestinian claims is the idea of the ‘land of one’s ancestors’, and this is land given by God. The Roadmap did not address this idea of land as ‘homeland’, nor as ‘holy land.’

The reasons for this are many – not least the complexity of the task, and the fact that a solution which would suit all parties on all sides does not exist. I would argue that any new diplomatic initiative must take this into account. Among my interviewees was Daniel Kurtzer, U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2001-2005. Drawing on decades of diplomatic experience, he gave the example of the former United States Secretary of State, James Baker, walking into ‘this question of territory meaning more than simply where you live or what field you cultivate.’ It is a challenge, he feels, ‘which diplomacy has not yet figured out how to integrate.’ Add to this the haunting presence of history in this region, and it is perhaps no wonder that the Roadmap also chose to sterile word ‘state’ in preference to ‘homeland’. The latter word has echoes of the Balfour Declaration, a document many Palestinians readily curse to this day – as many British correspondents may find out when they are reprimanded for their compatriot’s deeds of a century ago.

The Damascus Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem

The Damascus Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem

No one foresaw then how technology would develop, and with it, the news media. Part of my research covered the last days of the British Mandate for Palestine, and the birth of the State of Israel. Some themes are readily recognizable today. Clare Hollingworth, the pioneering female war correspondent (who has just celebrated her 104th birthday) wrote in The Observer in 1948, ‘There is no longer the slightest reliance to be placed in Jewish reports,’ and ‘On the Arab side the Press indulges in childish boasting and highly-coloured accounts of Arab victories’. Look again at some of the claims made during Israel’s military operation in Gaza last year, and you will see how apposite Hollingworth’s conclusions remain.

Alongside this, some things have changed. All the journalists and diplomats whom I interviewed agreed that the conflict had taken on a more religious character – even if some views varied on when this had started, and whether it would last. ‘I think religion does underpin everything here, and I think people of take quite a lot of comfort and relief in the idea that well, this: I’m part of this struggle that God endorses, I’m fulfilling Allah’s wish or whatever,’ as the New York Times’ Jody Rudoren puts it. Yolande Knell, a BBC correspondent in the region, sees it as a challenge for reporters coming from less devout societies. ‘Europeans, because we’ve become less religious as a continent, it’s something people tend to forget when they come here,’ she says.

For all the distractions drawing diplomatic and editorial attention to other parts of the region, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and the way it is reported – remains crucial. In the absence of a peace process, the news media – and not the negotiating table – are where the warring sides seek to influence international opinion.

Speaking at the launch of 'Headlines from the Holy Land', City University London, 15th October 2015. On the panel: Professor Rosemary Hollis (Chair); Sir Vincent Fean; Harriet Sherwood.

Speaking at the launch of ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’, City University London, 15th October 2015.
On the panel: Professor Rosemary Hollis (Chair); Sir Vincent Fean; Harriet Sherwood.


Another Russia?

Renewed tension between Russia and the West has also led to renewed interest in London, Washington, and elsewhere as to the state of the Russian opposition.

Earlier this week, The Guardian published an interesting piece by Timothy Garton Ash  which looked at Russia as a country suffering from a loss of empire. Garton Ash argued that there was also another Russia ‘represented by the murdered opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, and the people who come to lay flowers on the bridge where he was assassinated’.

Yesterday, the paper published a letter in which I argued that the state of Russia today could not be fully understood without reference to the role that NATO enlargement, in the post-Soviet era, had played in forming Russian foreign policy. You can read it on The Guardian‘s letter page, here, and the text follows below.

Timothy Garton Ash (‘There is another Russia’, Monday 20 April) makes some interesting points, but misses others. While it is true that some ‘Putin understanders’ do seek to ‘excuse all’ when looking at Russia today, there are also pitfalls in adopting the opposite approach. Nowhere does the article mention NATO expansion. One can agree or disagree as to the wisdom or otherwise of NATO’s policies in Eastern Europe since 1991. One cannot disagree that the admission of the Baltic States in particular, and earlier discussions of the possible accession of Georgia and Ukraine, have been used by Vladimir Putin’s administration to fuel his popularity.
There is another Russia today, but it is of limited significance. I was in the audience at Chatham House recently when Mikhail Khodorkovsky gave a lecture. Those of us present who lived in Russia in the 1990s saw a picture of the past rather than the future. The ‘other Russia’ had its chance then. Its day may come again, but it is not here now. Overlooking this, combined with an apparent general lack of Russia expertise (not least in language skills) is one of the reasons why the West has found itself caught on the hop over Ukraine.


The following piece appears in the current issue of the British Journalism Review. You can read it on their website here, and a version follows below. 

A SPECTRE is haunting European journalism. As the news organizations of the east of the continent, in its former Communist bloc, find their way in the new societies which have grown up since the collapse of Marxism-Leninism, and those of the west struggle with fractured audiences and dwindling resources, the former capital of the Soviet Union is now home to a new kind of journalism with global ambitions, and the resources to fund them.

In November, I visited Prague to speak at a conference on journalism in former Communist countries. The conference took place on the 25th anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s Velvet Revolution. The city still seemed to shine with pride at having thrown off the shackles of Communism. Like the rest of the European Union, this pride was tarnished here and there – uncertainties over the continent’s future direction and prospects inevitably, as elsewhere, made themselves felt. Yet there was something else, too. At the conference to, most of the discussion was nominally about countries which had successfully made the transition to new economic and social systems. Yes, some veterans of dissident journalism bemoaned the rise of tabloid culture; others expressed concern about ownership models which, they felt, favoured oligarchs. Overall, though, many of the concerns were similar to those which one might have heard raised at a conference in Western Europe: budgets, competition from the internet, and a apparent lack of desire from audiences for serious news. Among these near universal contemporary challenges, another forced its way onto the agenda: RT, as Russia Today now prefers to be known. Not nominally the subject of any of the panel discussions, it still managed to appear at most of them, like an unwelcome spirit at a séance.

Russia yesterday. Newspapers from the last year of the Soviet Union.

Russia yesterday. Newspapers from the last year of the Soviet Union

For many of the delegates: from elsewhere in the Czech Republic; from Poland; from Hungary; it must have felt like a haunting – especially for those old enough to remember when Moscow held the ultimate authority over their countries, and proved itself willing to enforce that with tanks and troops. An end to communism in those lands was also an end to something else: Russian influence. On reporting trips to Lithuania, and Poland in the 1990s, I remember struggling to communicate. A speaker neither of Lithuanian or of Polish, but of Russian, I was sensitive enough to the political situation to try English first in shops and cafes. When that did not work – English speakers in those countries were fewer then – I tried Russian. Those aged under twenty-five did not understand; those aged over twenty-five showed from their faces first that they did, and secondly that they wished they did not. In any case, they answered in their own languages which I did not understand.

Russia’s recent military confrontations with its neighbours – Georgia in 2008, Ukraine today – have dragged from the grave ghosts which many in Eastern Europe hoped had been finally laid to rest. As Moscow has responded to a changing world with a range of military and diplomatic moves – recognized by friend and foe alike as tactical successes, even if questions remain over their wisdom from a strategic point of view – it has sometimes been accused of ignoring the way the world is supposed to work in the 21st century. In another aspect, though, it has shown itself to have mastered some of the media techniques which are an integral part of contemporary international confrontation and conflict.

In this respect, Russia has come a long way in a relatively short time. Russia Today began life in the last decade. As many channels are at launch – I write as a veteran of the launches of both GMTV and BBC News 24 – it was clumsy and clunky at times. It also had a style all of its own. The presenters and reporters were either native English speakers apparently in search of a career break, or a career relaunch, or Russians who spoke very good, if accented English. Most of the latter group shared the same accent – a hint of American, a hint remaining of Russian – which tended to suggest that they were scions of that part of the Soviet establishment which had managed to continue to prosper in the new Russia. The people who proved most successful at this often had a KGB background. Still, it was nothing really to be taken seriously. As BBC Moscow correspondent at the time, I learnt from a visiting western television executive, who had had a meeting with Russia Today, that the global audience had two hotspots. These were the Palestinian Territories, and Australia. The former could perhaps be explained by the desire of some Palestinians to improve their English. The latter seemed to offer little to celebrate. A more detailed examination of the viewing figures revealed that prime time was late in the evening – in other words, once people had come home from the pub and were looking for a bit of a beery laugh.

Two years later, as Russia went to war with Georgia over the separatist Georgian territories of South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Russia Today remained in second place – even apparently in the eyes of the Kremlin. Seemingly feeling that they were losing the media battle as Georgian officials, right up to President Mikheil Saakashvili himself, made themselves available around the clock to international news channels, Moscow responded by offering to the international media interviews with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. Russia Today was not among the recipients, and was reduced to asking for a copy of the BBC’s recording for its own output.

A cameraman talks to a Russian soldier, South Ossetia, October 2008. Photo © James Rodgers

A cameraman talks to a Russian soldier, South Ossetia, October 2008. Photo © James Rodgers

These were times of transition, and there was a feeling that Russia was feeling its way. Part of their approach involved hiring western public relations companies in an effort to seek more favourable coverage. This had limited success. Russia’s military confrontation with Georgia, wherever the blame lay, was always going to be a hard sell because of the countries’ relative sizes and military strength. Lingering Cold War attitudes, added to the fact that Russia’s most powerful politician, Vladimir Putin (at the time of the war, Prime Minister rather than President, but evidently still very much the boss) had been in the KGB, meant that stereotypes emerged to stalk the news pages once more. Russia’s attempts to promote its version of events were further hampered by its own lack of understanding of the way the international – in this case, western – media functioned. In a country where cynicism had flourished after the short-lived excitement of the end of Communism, journalism had suffered too. Oligarchs’ desire to settle scores through the media outlets they had acquired, combined with the poor rates of pay offered to many reporters, meant that editorial space was often for sale. Conversations with western PRs in Moscow at the time revealed that some in the higher levels of Russian officialdom believed the same to be true of the international media – and that consequently, poor coverage in the western press just meant their media advisors were not influencing the right people in the right way. The overall effect was that Russia seemed to feel that it was being forced to take part in a game of which it did not understand the rules. It was fighting a losing battle in what was in effect a media war of necessity.

Almost six years after Russia and Georgia went to war, Moscow found itself involved once more in a former Soviet republic: Ukraine. Much had changed. The Russian military had overcome inefficiencies which the campaign in Georgia had laid bare. Huge resources had gone into fixing the shortcomings. Something similar had happened to Russia’s media, too. In fact there was almost a common approach to fighting both the military campaign, and the media one. Both involved a degree of disguise, and playing on the resulting uncertainty.

In the military campaign, troops without insignia – but resembling in every other respect Russian Army regulars – took over key sites in Crimea: the first stage in what was to be a Russian annexation (albeit one subsequently approved by a questionable referendum). As Vitaly Shevchenko of BBC Monitoring noted at the time, ‘This poses a challenge to the media covering the crisis: what do you call people who are officially not there?’[1] While members of western military intelligence presumably had no doubts, it was a headache for journalists wanting to be certain of what they were saying. Russia was in effect not only exploiting a military vulnerability, but a characteristic of the western tradition of impartial reporting, too.

Nor is this the only weak spot which Russia had found. In the same way that the Russian army was back, better resourced and in disguise, so was Kremlin-sponsored media. Somewhere along the line (you will look in vain on the Russia Today website ‘History Section’ for a date) Russia Today became the much more neutral sounding RT: the media war equivalent of going into battle without insignia. Along with its rebranding, it acquired something of which few western media organizations can boast in today’s tough climate: massive resources. Reporting in the autumn of 2014 on RT’s launch of a specific channel for the U.K., The Guardian website said that the Kremlin-backed channel’s budget for 2015 was expected to be ‘about £250m’ — an increase of ‘nearly 30% on its funding from 2014.’ The same article quoted President Putin as having urged staff to ‘break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on the global information streams’[2].

RT may still have a credibility problem – especially in the eyes of those who continue to think of it as Russia Today – but to see it purely in those terms is to miss the point. For RT’s purpose is not necessarily to see its version of events established as undisputed. Its purpose is to challenge, and to disrupt: to ‘break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly’ rather than create its own.

It has set about its task with admirable efficiency. Its posters – minus the word ‘Russia’, naturally – now adorn the corridors of the London underground. Its very watchable programming can be seen pretty much everywhere – including in Prague, as I discovered (not to my surprise) when checking the channels on the TV in the hotel where I was staying for the conference.

The transformation from clunky copy of western news channel to something slick, well-resourced, and watchable has been remarkable – even if the idea that Russia has become some kind of global defender of alternative views, and unshackled reporting, is itself suprising. The country has never scored highly in surveys of press freedom. In 2014, Reporters without Borders placed it 148th in the world[3]. Any channel really concentrating on Russia today would probably need to cover stories like that – but they would also need to reflect the fact that many in the country are full of approval for Mr Putin’s foreign policy.

RT’s approach fits well into a time when trust in politicians is low, and Western Europe looks timidly to the future unsure of what security or financial problems may lie ahead. RT is no longer an outsider in a global media game which Russia does not understand. Its days of begging from the BBC copies of news-making interviews are over. Western journalistic techniques, and western technology in the shape of social media platforms, have been copied and adapted.

That is how RT has come to haunt European journalism, especially in former Communist countries. Like any ghost, this spectre comes to unsettle, to plant doubt, to make those who see it unsure of what they think they know. RT urges its viewers to ‘question more’. It is sound advice. One question might be, ‘What does RT stand for?’

[1] Shevchenko, Vitaly (2014) ‘“Little Green Men” or “Russian Invaders”’ BBC News website. Posted 11 March 2014. Available at . Accessed 23 January 2015.

[2] Plunkett, John (2014) ‘Kremlin-backed RT to launch UK TV news channel’. The Guardian website. Posted 28 October 2014. Available at . Accessed 23 January 2015.

[3] Reporters without borders (2014) ‘World Press Freedom index’. Available at . Accessed 23 January 2015.

From perestroika to Putin: journalism in Russia

Next week sees the publication of an essay I have written on journalism in post-Soviet Russia. It will appear in a book Media Independence Working with Freedom or Working for Free? (edited by James Bennett and Niki Strange), and published by Routledge. You can find out more details from the publisher’s website, here. I gave a talk based on the essay at a conference in Prague last month. The subject of the essay is not specifically about the reporting of conflict, but, in its later stages, it does discuss the impact of the first Chechen War, which began 20 years ago this month. To give a taste of the book, I am posting here the first two paragraphs of the essay.


Independence – nezavisimost’ in Russian – was, in the dying days of the Soviet Union, a word which helped to describe some of the head-spinning changes which hastened the end of a superpower. It took its place alongside perestroika (usually translated as ‘restructuring’) and glasnost’ ‘openness’: the key words of the reforms launched by Mikhail Gorbachev after he became General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in March 1985. He was, of course, to be the last to hold that title. It disappeared in the same historical storm which swept away the USSR itself. From the wreckage of the “indestructible Union of Free Republics” , as the Soviet anthem so boldly described it, there arose fifteen new independent states. Ideas of ‘independence’, therefore, began to influence all aspects of late Soviet life, not just the political sphere. Co-operative cafés; joint ventures with companies from the capitalist world; small businesses – all began to appear where once there had only been the state-run economy. For the Russian news media, it was the biggest period of change and opportunity certainly since the advent of Soviet power, and possibly, given the speed with which it happened, since the birth of Russian journalism itself.

The purpose of this essay is to try to analyse what has followed from the opportunities of that era. Perhaps it did not seem so at the time, but, with hindsight, those hybrid forms of economic activity outlined above could almost be seen to anticipate the compromises which Russian journalists would come to make in the world which awaited them. For though this was an era when ideas of political independence took centre stage – even Russia itself, despite having been the heart of the Soviet Union considers that it too became independent at this time — this essay will seek to show that journalism’s independence (in the socio-political sense defined by James Bennett in the introduction to this volume) did not last long. I argue that developments in Russian journalism, and therefore ideas of Russian journalism’s independence, are inseparable from the political environment in which they occurred. Given that one of Russian journalism’s tasks, as in any country, has been to chronicle and reflect upon political, economic, and social change, any idea of ‘independence’ has that limitation. That being the case, this essay will try to consider the extent to which Russian journalism has been able to act independently in editorial terms, in the ‘industrial’ and ‘formal’ senses of ‘independence’ defined for the purposes of this book. What kind of angles has Russian journalism pursued, what proprietorial or political constraints has it been forced to accept?

Live on the BBC World Service

Tomorrow morning U.K. time (0630-0830gmt Saturday 1st November) I’ll be a guest on the BBC World Service’s ‘Weekend’ programme.

I’ll be talking about the week’s news around the world, and also discussing my work for my next book, ‘Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’ which is due to be published in the U.K. and the U.S.A. next year by Palgrave MacMillan.

Do listen if you can.

Dark and Dangerous Designs on World Press Freedom

This is my latest piece for the website of The Conversation. You can read it on their site here.

I have recorded a short video introduction to explain why I decided to write the piece.

You can sense the outrage across the centuries. In the first issue of his provocative newspaper The North Briton, John Wilkes championed the “liberty of the press”. It was “the terror of all bad ministers; for their dark and dangerous designs, or their weakness, inability, and duplicity, have thus been detected.”

Wilkes was writing specifically for a British audience. He could hardly have foreseen the news media of today, when his words could have been read on the other side of the world as soon as he posted them. He lived in the 18th century, an era of a different type of globalisation – one driven by ships sailing out to trade or conquer.

Imagine Wilkes were to return to earth now. Let him set aside for a moment his inevitable astonishment at how technology has transformed journalism, and continues to transform it. He would still be dismayed at how little has changed. For there are plenty of “bad ministers” with “dark and dangerous designs” in many different parts of the world.

Judging by the way things have unfolded for the news media in the last two decades especially, many governments continue to see the news media as a source of “terror” – not excluding the UK, which is slipping precipitously down the press freedom rankings.
Guilt by association

Wilkes presumably intended “terror” to mean extreme fear. In the case of Al-Jazeera’s Peter Greste, Mohamed Fahmy, and Baher Mohamed the word has, absurdly, taken on the meaning more often used since September 11 2001.

I should disclose that Peter Greste and I are former colleagues at both Reuters Television and BBC News. Our previous professional association, as much as the reports I have read of his arrest and detention, means I use the word “absurdly” advisedly.

Greste and his colleagues are on trial in Egypt charged with assisting a “terrorist organisation”. Needless to say, they deny the charges. Their trial has been adjourned until May 3 – a date which the United Nations has designated annual World Press Freedom Day.

What is ominous for the cause of press freedom in general, and for individual journalists in particular, is the way reporters are so readily associated with the policies of governments in their home countries. Journalism does not operate in a vacuum separate from politics and diplomacy; in this case, the government of Qatar, which funds Al-Jazeera, supported the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement now driven from office and declared “terrorists” by the country’s current rulers.

Meanwhile, Simon Ostrovsky, a reporter for Vice News, was detained in April by a pro-Russian militia in Ukraine. The reason, according to a report on The Guardian website was that he was “suspected of bad activities”. Thankfully, he was released, seemingly unharmed, a few days later.
Deadly decade

Ever since journalism began to take on its modern form, it has often been in conflict with political and military authorities. Yet the situation seems to have deteriorated in the past twenty years or so – the instability after the the Cold War and the wars which followed 9/11 proving especially hazardous for reporters.

A 2009 report from the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) took the title End of a Deadly Decade. The report highlighted areas which are less frequently covered in the western media: the Philippines, Somalia, and the drug wars of Mexico. All were the site of multiple media deaths, and all continue to be lethal arenas for reporters.

Governments today face the challenge of coping with a media environment which is much harder to control than in the pre-internet age. New emphasis is placed upon media messaging, especially in time of armed conflict.

As Shota Utiashvili, a Georgian Interior Ministry official, told me in an interview for the BBC after his country’s 2008 war with Russia: “In this century, and in a conflict where you have a huge power against a small state, I think that’s almost as important as the military battle,”

The point is more generally relevant. Unlike The North Briton, much of today’s journalism is available around the world, around the clock. One consequence seems to be that reporters themselves are increasingly singled out. If you can’t muzzle the medium, you can jail the journalist – or worse.

The result is that attempts to gag the news media have gone global: Egypt detains an Australian journalist working for a Qatari News Channel; pro-Russian forces detain a U.S. citizen reporting from Ukraine.

As the IFJ’s 2009 report noted:

The adoption of Resolution 1738 by the United Nations Security Council in 2006, which called for the protection of journalists in conflict zones and for proper investigation into violent attacks on media, has largely been ignored.

So while World Press Freedom Day is welcome, action would be better. Armed conflict, economic uncertainty, climate change and all the other challenges the world will face this century need to be reported. Trying to do so should not carry the risk of detention or death.