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.

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The correspondents’ world: colonialism, and Orientalism?

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

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

The importance of the press

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

(To be continued)

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

The cabinet’s clumsy diplomacy — and Britain’s place in the modern world

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I wrote last week for The New European on the way that Britain’s confrontational political culture does not necessarily travel well — with consequences for the coming Brexit negotiations. There’s an extract here.

I was in Aarhus for a meeting of the Erasmus Journalism programme on which I teach. As a former correspondent who has always loved travel and languages, there was plenty to interest me: discussion of how we can make the programme work better across different countries, observation of differences of culture and interpretation.

Yet these are things we have come to value less in the UK. Yes, there is the talk of a ‘truly global Britain’, but this is an empty phrase. It is thrown around too frequently by people who too often say ‘we’ve been fine on our own before, and we will be again’. They are often thinking of Britain’s imperial past. A common failing of the Brexiteer is to fail to understand Britain’s place in the modern world.

David Davis has some Ministerial experience in the Foreign Office, but that was more than 20 years ago. His recent meetings with EU officials did not give the impression he had the necessary relationships for smooth negotiations. Liam Fox’s most prominent international connections were with the Atlantic Bridge – a link to Tea Party activists. None of their biographies lists a foreign language among their skills. Any good will which Boris Johnson may have built up in that respect by speaking in French last summer has been more than outweighed since by less diplomatic interventions on prosecco trade wars and WW2 punishment beatings.

The Brexiteers are acting as if they are masters of their own destiny, using that imagined power to wield their weapons of political confrontation abroad. Our political culture does not necessarily travel well. Prime Minister’s questions may make for great TV, but the way our MPs taunt each other like football hooligans – remember the old point about two swords’ length between the benches in parliament – reflects an underlying aggression which may not deliver the best results across the channel and beyond.

You can read the rest of the article in the March 10-16 edition of ‘The New European’.

A Trump victory: Russia’s revenge?

WRITE ABOUT TODAY. People will be asking you about this in 25 years time,’ I suggested on Wednesday to some of my MA International Journalism students at City, University of London. They were exhausted, having worked through the night to produce excellent coverage of the potentially world-changing events across the Atlantic. Some, themselves from the United States, had the experience of watching from afar as journalists something which will undoubtedly affect them as citizens.

Two issues among the many which will now be discussed are the effect Mr Trump’s victory will have on U.S. foreign policy, and what his win means for those established media organizations who failed to foresee it, and who cannot expect favourable treatment, even in terms of access, from the incoming President.

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The Soviet Foreign Ministry building in Moscow, June 1991. © James Rodgers

My world — and that of my generation — changed with the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the USSR. The latter was my first foreign assignment as a journalist. This week I have written two pieces for The Conversation reflecting on Russia’s role in the world today: both in terms of politics and media.

In one,  I argue that Mr Trump’s victory is also a victory for Russia’s opposition to western, liberal, values — an enmity which has its roots in the end of the Cold War. In the other, I contend that Russia Today, or ‘RT’ as it now prefers to be known, is a successful part of Russia’s drive to regain some of the prestige and influence it lost with the collapse of Communism. Its success is a challenge to western ideas journalism as an impartial fourth estate — at a time when that kind of journalism is under unprecedented pressure.

To see what a divisive issue Russia remains, you have only to look at the comments

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Copies of the Communist Party newspaper, ‘Pravda’, from the last summer of the Soviet Union

Blowing up the mandate: Jerusalem 1946

It shocked and shook the base of what was then the greatest external power in the Middle East: the British Empire. Seventy years on, the bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem still has many lessons for journalists and diplomats working in the region. My piece in the current edition of the British Journalism Review, explains why.  There’s an extract here.     

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The aftermath of the bombing of the King David Hotel, July 1946

IT IS AN INCIDENT RARELY RECALLED TODAY. Yet if you know where to look on a wall in West Jerusalem, you will find an account that still seeks to shift blame from those who carried it out: terrorists then, heroes later – heroes who had fought valiantly to establish a state. As anyone who has covered the Israeli-Palestinian conflict knows, history dominates contemporary politics in a way it no longer does in western Europe. Any British correspondent setting out to work in Gaza or on the West Bank might well find themselves asked to explain, or apologise for, the Balfour Declaration – so they had better know at least a little of what it was.

Their counterparts based in Jerusalem on July 22, 1946 certainly would have done. They were reporting from the Holy Land’s holiest city in the last years of the British Mandate for Palestine. The League of Nations had looked to the British empire to govern this contested corner of what had been the Ottoman empire. The task was not only thankless, but ill-defined, and, in its later stages, extremely dangerous. At lunchtime on that hot summer day, bombs went off in the basement of the King David Hotel, the headquarters of the British military and administrative authorities in Palestine. A whole corner of the hotel was immediately destroyed; dozens of dead buried in the ruins. Newsreel footage from the time – and now held in the Imperial War Museum archive – shows British servicemen searching the rubble in the aftermath of the attack. “Words cannot express the stark tragedy of this ghastly incident,” says the voiceover.

You can read the full piece here , and a fuller account of the reporting of the bombing and its aftermath in my latest book, Headlines from the Holy Land . IMG_1092

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

 

‘Headlines from the Holy Land’ at Waterstones, Chiswick

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On Wednesday 8th June, I gave a talk at Waterstones in Chiswick, west London.

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Thanks very much to everyone who came along, and to Joe Scott from Waterstones who chaired the discussion about Headlines from the Holy Land.

The book’s publisher, Palgrave, have included it in a new timeline of key moments for journalism in the Middle East.

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The changing challenges of covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

This piece discusses some of the ideas in my new book ‘Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’. It was originally published on the website of the New Statesman

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

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

Throughout the centuries, Jerusalem’s Old City has drawn pilgrims, tourists, and conquerors. This week it has been the focus of renewed media attention after a series of violent incidents. For those ties of history, politics, and faith which link it to the rest of the world have also made it a magnet for reporters: some admired, more abused or admonished.

Last summer, Israel’s international image took a beating. Some two thousand Palestinians – the overwhelming majority of them civilians, according to the United Nations – were killed during the Israeli Army’s operation in Gaza. Israeli casualties – at more than 70, almost all of them military personnel – had been far higher than in other incursions into Gaza in recent years.

As the dust settled above the flattened buildings, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a news conference specifically aimed at the foreign press.

It was aimed at them in that they were both the audience, and the target. Mr Netanyahu said, ‘I expect, now that the members of the press are leaving Gaza, or some of them are leaving Gaza, and are no longer subjected to Hamas restrictions and intimidations, I expect we’ll see even more documentation of Hamas terrorists hiding behind the civilian population, exploiting civilian targets.’

The Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz challenged Mr Netanyahu’s claim in a story headlined, ‘Foreign Press: Hamas Didn’t Censor Us in Gaza, They Were Nowhere to Be Found’. Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor echoed this when we spoke for my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. ‘They’re all hiding,’ he remembered of his experience of Hamas during that that conflict. ‘They had a spokesman who hung out at Shifa hospital. And he was very much a spokesman. He didn’t tell us what to do.’

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been covered by countless words and hours of airtime. It has also exhausted extensive diplomatic resources seeking to solve it. The diplomatic desert seems almost to have led to a situation where PR is a substitute for policy. Take Mr Netanyahu’s attempts, above, to rubbish reporting. Earlier this year, the Israeli Foreign Ministry posted, and later removed, a cartoon sneering at, and patronizing, the foreign press. Why bother with politics, when you can poke fun?

The politics, though, are changing – and with them, the diplomatic challenge.

Religion is playing a growing role. Daniel Kurtzer was United States ambassador to Tel Aviv 2001-2005. He was also there as a diplomat in the 1980s. Then, he remembers ‘a fostering of the idea of Islamism as an antidote to nationalism. The natural consequence of that was and has been the growth of religious feelings, so certainly on the Palestinian side that’s the case, but it’s even now grown on the Israeli side.’ He concludes, ‘I haven’t seen any success yet in integrating this move towards religion into the diplomacy of trying to resolve the conflict. It’s a real challenge.’

It is a challenge for correspondents, too – and their efforts are rarely admired. Shortly before the bloodshed in Gaza began, the Head of Israel’s Government Press office, Nitzan Chen, shared with me his opinion of foreign correspondents in Israel, ‘Like the Israeli journalists, they are cynical, critical. I don’t want to make generalizations because some people are very professional and very unique, see the facts before they write the story. But the majority are lazy.’

Anyone covering the conflict needs a thick skin, and sometimes more. In addition to the risks involved in covering all armed conflict, conversations with Palestinian journalists will often quickly uncover stories of harassment and threats of violence from armed groups.

The brevity of daily news stories means they rarely have room for discussion of religion, or competing historical narratives. Yet, for all its shortcomings, real and imagined, the journalism of the Israeli-Palestinian is most people’s only source of information about a conflict which has connections to so many parts of the world. If it were not important, presumably the protagonists would not waste time criticizing it.