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.  


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.


‘Headlines from the Holy Land’ at the Frontline Club, London

9781137395122.EditThe Frontline Club in London hosted a Book Night to coincide with the publication of Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

I read some extracts from the book, and talked about it with club members and their guests.

Thank you to everyone who came along.

IMG_7857 [264370]IMG_7862 [264948]IMG_7865 [264966]

‘Headlines from the Holy Land’: book launch at City University London 15th October

9781137395122.EditI will be taking part in a panel discussion to coincide with the publication of my new book, and signing copies afterwards, at City University London on October 15th.

The event is free to attend, and you can sign up here

Even if relative calm has followed large-scale loss of life and destruction of property in Gaza last year, there is no effective Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The eyes of diplomats and policy makers are elsewhere in the region, drawn by the challenges and dangers of Iraq and Syria – yet the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains an issue which will one day have to be addressed. The amount of media coverage given over to Gaza last year shows that the international interest generated by ties of history, faith, and politics remains as strong as ever.

This forum will discuss the reporting of a story often seen as the ultimate challenge for a foreign correspondent, and how the relationship between journalism and diplomacy works.

On the panel:

Dr James Rodgers, Senior Lecturer in Journalism at City University London, and author of the new book Headlines from the Holy Land (which tackles some of the issues we hope to discuss).
Sir Vincent Fean, British Consul-General, Jerusalem (2010-14), now retired.
Harriet Sherwood, known for her reporting of the conflict for The Guardian

There will be a drinks reception following the Forum, and James will be signing copies of his book ‘Headlines from the Holy Land.’

A view of the barrier between Israel and the West Bank, near Qalandiya crossing point, June 2014 Picture: James Rodgers

A view of the barrier between Israel and the West Bank, near Qalandiya crossing point, June 2014
Picture: James Rodgers

Headlines from the Holy Land — telling the full story

This week’s post outlines some of the ideas in my new book, Headlines from the Holy Land. It was originally published on the website of The Conversation, and later by Newsweek, and, in India, The Scroll.

Gazans watching butchers at work, Eid Al-Adha, February 2004

Gazans watching butchers at work, Eid Al-Adha, February 2004

Blood ran in the gutters of Gaza that day and formed red puddles along the rutted roads. But it was the work of butchers, not bombs.

That year, 2004, Eid Al-Adha, the Muslim Feast of the Sacrifice, fell in early February – so the blood from the shops and slaughterhouses mingled with what was left of the winter rainwater. Residents relaxed and rejoiced as they sat down to celebrate. A day of relative calm was a relief. The second intifada, or uprising against Israel, was in its fourth year.

Just a few kilometres away – although only as the crow flies, not as a human might travel – Gaza’s Jewish settlers were about to learn of a sacrifice they would be called upon to make. Ariel Sharon, then Israel’s prime minister, surprised almost everyone by announcing that the settlers would have to to leave Gaza. They duly did – largely against their will – the following year.

After Sharon’s announcement, the settlers sought to make their case in the international news media. I was the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza then. Journalists were invited to visit places – such as the settlement of Netzarim, in the centre of the Gaza Strip – which had previously been largely off-limits. They could do so on the same day that they visited a refugee camp in Gaza. The route was necessarily the long way round: out of Gaza, and then back in again via the roads reserved for settlers, but it could be done.

A watchtower at the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, Gaza 2004

A watchtower at the Jewish settlement of Netzarim, Gaza 2004

Covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was, and is, a huge challenge for an international journalist. The demands are intense – pressure from all sides, sometimes physical danger – and the rewards not always obvious. The pressure, especially at times of intense fighting, frequently turns to abuse from audiences. This seems especially to be the case in the age of social media.

Whatever the failures of the way the conflict has been covered – both Israelis and Palestinians, and their supporters, will point to countless shortcomings – international journalists have one advantage over many others involved or interested in the conflict: they can see more of it, just like we did that day in 2004.

Where diplomats fear to tread

The separation we saw then has only increased. Where a decade ago there were still some small areas of economic cooperation – casual labourers from Gaza were allowed to enter Israel. That is no longer the case – cross from Israel onto the West Bank and a big sign in English, Arabic, and Hebrew warns Israelis that they are not permitted to pass (settlers have separate roads, which are not open to Palestinians).

The wider view is denied to diplomats as well – those whose task it is to write reports for governments seeking to solve the conflict. The United States and the European Union have designated the Palestinian group Hamas as a terrorist organisation. Their diplomats are not permitted to meet any of its representatives.

“Diplomats and politicians don’t spend much time talking to ordinary people,” Harriet Sherwood, who was The Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent for almost four years, told me during my research for my latest book, Headlines from the Holy Land. “So they were quite hungry for that information, and because I used to talk to Hamas officials and they are banned from doing that, they would say ‘who’ve you seen, what are they saying?’”

All this is further complicated by the lack of any political process. Where an upsurge of bloodshed during the second intifada might eventually lead to more talks, the same is no longer true. Instead, if the Israeli assault on Gaza last year is anything to judge by, the violence is complemented not by a political process, but by protagonists’ attempts to influence the news media.

The force of faith

There is another aspect which is changing. The Gaza where I lived and worked from 2002-2004 was run by the Palestinian Authority. Today, it is administered by Hamas, proudly Islamist. On the other side of the divide, Israel has a deputy foreign minister who reportedly uses the scriptures to argue that the West Bank belongs to Israel.

The growing role of religion presents particular difficulties for journalism, and diplomacy. The BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, himself the author of a book on the 1967 war, says: “What’s changed is that it is a religious conflict now – the growth in religious Zionism.

“There was always religious Zionism from the beginning, but it got kick-started when they had the West Bank to colonise.”

Daniel Kurtzer, who was the United States’ ambassador to Israel from 2001-2005, suggests: “Diplomacy has so far proven incapable of figuring out what to do about religion … It’s a real challenge.”

Journalism struggles with that, too. Daily news cannot be a rolling explanation of the scriptures, but the full context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be understood without taking into account the growing force of faith.

This is something which correspondents in the region will increasingly have to contend with. Both Kurtzer and Sir Jeremy Greenstock, former British ambassador to the United Nations, used the same phrase: “Two sides of the same coin,” to describe the relationship between journalism and diplomacy. The success of both relies on getting information – and making sense of it for someone else.

They both rely, too, on asking the right questions. Seeing religion as an increasingly important element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is vital for understanding its changing nature – even if it will not provide an immediate solution.

Headlines from the Holy Land now published

9781137395122.EditMy new book, Headlines from the Holy Land: reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has now been published by Palgrave MacMillan.

Here’s a brief outline

Tied by history, politics, and faith to all corners of the globe, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fascinates and infuriates people across the world. Based on new archive research and original interviews with leading correspondents and diplomats, Headlines from the Holy Land explains why this fiercely contested region exerts such a pull over reporters: those who bring the story to the world. Despite decades of diplomacy, a just and lasting end to the conflict remains as difficult as ever to achieve. Inspired by the author’s own experience as the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza from 2002-2004, and subsequent research, this book draws on the insight of those who have spent years observing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Starting from a historical perspective, it identifies the challenges the conflict presents for contemporary journalism and diplomacy, and suggests new ways of approaching them.

You can find more about it, and read the introduction and the first chapter, on the publisher’s website. You can also order copies there, or from Amazon.

There will be a launch event in London next month, and I will publish details of that here.

My thanks go to those who have read the book, and written the following:

At a time when reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is under unprecedented scrutiny, James Rodgers provides an essential and insightful historical perspective on the long “war of words” behind a major conflict of our time.
Rodgers’ book is essential reading for those seeking a greater understanding of the difficult dynamics behind reporting – and resolving conflicts.

Lyse Doucet, Chief International Correspondent, BBC News

Headlines from The Holy Land is an impressively, innovative form of history as media history, looking at one of the most complex stories of our age through the imperfect, shifting but revelatory perspectives of the many journalists who covered this often compelling tale as it unfolded, from its 1946 roots through the various wars and propaganda battles fought in the streets of Gaza or the networks of social media. James Rodgers is an insightful, empathetic and rigorous guide to how journalism struggled – often heroically – to tell one of the most brutal and difficult of international stories.

Charlie Beckett, Director, Polis, Department of Media and Communications, London School of Economics

James Rodgers is honestly direct about the challenges and pressures that makes reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unique amongst the myriad of crises faced by international journalists; something he was uniquely placed to do as the only western correspondent based in the Gaza Strip in the tumultuous years immediately after 9/11.  But what makes this book so refreshing and incisive is that this account of reporting on this most intractable yet consequential conflict is the work of someone with the benefit of having been an experienced foreign correspondent but who is now writes with the rigour of an academic’s eye on how our world is reported.  In doing so, Rodgers leaves very few stones unturned, from the war over terminology and language, to the increasing role of religion in a crisis centred on the a small area brimful of contested holy sites and he is framed it in a way that has context, careful analysis and is accessible to all those who either want to understand how this war which continues to have a major international impact is reported and to those who want to report it themselves.

Rageh Omaar, International Affairs Editor, ITV News

Reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict often generates as much controversy as the issue itself. James Rodger’s book is rare for approaching the subject of how the story has been told by Western journalists over the decades, with an open mind & an academic rigour. It combines detailed research and candid insights from many of the region’s seasoned correspondents with an accessible style that keep the pages turning. With so many thoroughly biased self-appointed media watch dogs out there it’s refreshing to read something that genuinely attempts to tackle the job of reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with intelligent thoughtfulness.

Paul Danahar, Author of ‘The New Middle East: the world after the Arab Spring’

The conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has been more intensively covered by the media, and for a longer period, than any other in recent times. In this fascinating book, James Rodgers tells us the story of the story. He shows how, as the struggle came to be as much about meaning, language, and perception as about bullets, bombs, or negotiations, reporters were under constant pressure from two sides seeking to control the narrative to their own advantage. He shows, too, how they brought their own prejudices and national viewpoints to the story, and how, nevertheless, good reporting did emerge and was, as it remains, vital in sustaining what informed public opinion there is on the dire state of affairs in the Holy Land of the title.

Martin Woollacott, commentator on international affairs and former foreign editor, The Guardian

‘An important and necessary book.’

Patrick Cockburn, The Independent

A view of the barrier between Israel and the West Bank, near Qalandiya crossing point, June 2014 Picture: James Rodgers

A view of the barrier between Israel and the West Bank, near Qalandiya crossing point, June 2014
Picture: James Rodgers

Latest on ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’

9781137395122My next book, Headlines from the Holy Land: Reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, will be published in September. My thanks goes to those journalists and academics who have read the manuscript. You can read their endorsements here, on the publisher’s website.

Please either post a comment on this site, or email me at, if you have any questions about the book.

I will be posting more details about it between now and publication.