This week I was on the Politics.co.uk podcast with Ian Dunt and Jamie Bartlett. We discussed Russia, big data, journalism and their roles in international politics and conflict. We started all the way back in the 1990s, hence the ageing pictures of Pravda, above. You can listen here.
I reviewed Donald Macintyre’s new book, Gaza: Preparing for Dawn for The Conversation. You can read the original version here, and the full text below.
A PLACE OF SPACIOUS DIMENSIONS, and large population, with fine bazaars. It contains numerous mosques, and there is no wall around it.
To the modern reader, this is perhaps one of the more striking descriptions the medieval Moroccan traveller, Ibn Battutah, offered of the places he visited. Not because it contains anything shocking, but because of the town it portrays: Gaza.
For the city, and the war-torn strip of coastal land with which it shares a name, are today defined principally by the walls around it. Gaza has been held under siege for the best part of the last decade, since Hamas came to power in the territory.
Recent political developments, in the form of a unity government, mean that there may be more future movement through the southern border, with Egypt. Still, Gaza remains fenced in to the north and east by the Israeli Army, which vastly outguns any enemies it has in the territory. To the west lies the Mediterranean. Some shores of that sea are famous for tourism; stretches of its eastern edge are more readily associated with armed conflict, human suffering and wasted potential. Gaza definitely falls, along with Syria, into the latter category.
Without the beaches, life in Gaza would surely be immeasurably worse. The currents there make swimming hazardous; winter storms can be surprisingly violent. Yet the sky and the waves offer some relief in the form of light and air to a place where life can seem suffocating.
Flared, and died
As Donald Macintyre observes in his important new book, Gaza: Preparing for Dawn, the sea might also offer economic salvation. The discovery offshore of a gas field, Gaza Marine – estimated to hold a trillion cubic feet of natural gas – promised the solution to many of Gaza’s economic and energy woes.
Perhaps predictably, politics and conflict have conspired to stop that happening. Gaza Marine remains unexploited. Like the “telegenic background of a huge gas flame shooting into the air” – against which Macintyre describes the late Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, announcing unfulfilled plans to draw the wealth from beneath the waves – it has flared, and died.
It was into that sea that I watched for the final time a bright orange sun set in the spring of 2004. Since 2002, I had been the BBC’s correspondent in Gaza. At the time, I was the only international journalist permanently based in the territory. The kidnapping of my successor, Alan Johnston, in 2007 just as he was due to finish his posting, means that while correspondents continue to visit, they do not live there.
Johnston’s experience reporting “the descent into anarchy of which he himself was now a victim” (as Macintyre puts it) was a journalistic challenge which Johnston took on admirably. His fate – thankfully he was released after 16 weeks – ensures, however, that managing editors have since been rightly nervous about basing their journalists in Gaza ever since.
Watching the sunset that evening, I reflected on another theme which Macintyre rightly raises. I knew I was leaving. I knew I had always been there only as long as I felt like being there. With the exception of days when fighting made it too dangerous to approach the border crossing – and there were a few – I was free to come and go as I wished.
The people among whom I was living were not. Macintyre makes this point, in all its complexity, not only in the book’s shortest chapter – “They will always miss home” – but throughout. It is a complex point because while Gazans long for the opportunities which life outside can bring: study, work, and, in the case of a would-be Olympian, sport – they do not want to abandon their home.
To do so might make them feel that they were turning their backs on their people, and leaving them to their suffering. Gazans with jobs or university places outside are sometimes nervous about returning home for visits. A deterioration in the conflict could leave them trapped and, in consequence, unemployed. Some just leave for good, but the “unresolvable contradiction”, as Macintyre succinctly puts it, remains: “Gaza as a prison to escape from, but also forever home.”
It is in telling these individual stories that Macintyre really excels. Many journalists have been fascinated by Gaza on short visits; few have bothered to try so hard to understand the story beyond the bloodshed. Macintyre’s meetings with the jeans and juice manufacturers; the music students; and that marathon runner bring the people of Gaza to life in a way that daily news reporting rarely can.
Their deaths are recorded too, of course – and, even to news audiences grimly accustomed to reading about violent deaths in the Middle East, some will shock. The Gazan mother who keeps Israeli soldiers waiting at the door – only to open it just as they have decided to blow it apart with explosives – is one that is hard to forget.
All the individual stories are in turn directed by the larger political ones. Macintyre proves himself a well-informed chronicler of the intra-Palestinian conflict: principally between Fatah and Hamas, but also between the latter and newer Islamist rivals. Gaza: Preparing for Dawn also offers wise analysis of the conflict with Israel – and international attempts to address it.
Lest we forget
Macintyre is perceptive about the gap between what even the most senior diplomats say in public, and what they seem really to think. John Kerry, the last US secretary of state to try, and fail, to solve the conflict, is reported here as saying ironically of an Israeli bombardment that killed 55 civilians in six hours, “That’s a hell of a pinpoint operation”.
Diplomatic dispatches I saw when researching my last book, Headlines from the Holy Land accused Israel of “taking measures that would not be acceptable in most societies in the 21st century”. Such phrases rarely grace the more mealy-mouthed official statements. They are all the more revealing when they come to light.
Because for now, for the people of Gaza, there is little prospect of change. As 2018 approaches, one is reminded of the UN report of 2012 which asked whether the territory would be liveable in 2020. Despite that, there is no meaningful diplomatic process which might end Gaza’s misery. John Kerry failed. President Trump has shown little personal interest. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has been touted as a possible player – but there are no signs of concrete progress so far.
Israel’s approach of recent years has concentrated on “mowing the grass” – a phrase designed to explain the policy of launching military operations every so often to strike at armed Palestinian groups. The euphemism also ignores the fact that the majority of deaths in major operations are civilian ones. As Macintyre points out, even if leaflets are dropped telling civilians to leave, they don’t instruct them “where to find safety after fleeing their homes”.
Journalists covering conflict will sometimes agonise over whether their work makes a difference. If airtime and column inches alone could bring peace, then the sheer scale of coverage would have guaranteed a settlement long ago. It cannot, of course – but books such as Gaza: Preparing for Dawn do a vital job in reminding the world what goes on there. One day that knowledge may just be part of a solution.
I am very pleased to say that my book Headlines from the Holy Land is soon to be out in paperback. Thank you to everyone who has read it so far. You can see more on the publisher’s website, here, and reviews are below.
“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, UK
“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 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 small area brimful of contested holy sites and he has 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 and 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 freshening 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
In this week’s New European, my article on how western correspondents covered the ‘Great October Socialist Revolution’, as the USSR came to know the Bolsheviks’ coming to power. The first few paragraphs are reproduced below. You can read the full piece in the paper.
We in the west have tended to look warily towards Russia: fearing and yet fascinated by the vast land lying at Europe’s eastern edge. Often, as now, we have seen it as a threat.
If in the second half of the last century, it was nuclear warheads – and they have hardly gone away – today we are more concerned with cyberattacks. In those countries bordering Russia, and formerly under its influence or control, people look nervously at the annexation of Crimea and ask if computer hacking may turn into something more menacing.
Since it enlisted General Winter to help to defeat Napoleon, through to Stalingrad when it turned the tide against Hitler, Russia has intervened at key moments to change European history. Some might add Brexit to the list, with Kremlin-backed TV channels and websites playing their part in boosting nationalist sentiment in the west.
A hundred years ago, the Russian Revolution was certainly one of those moments. The full extent of its consequences may not have been fully grasped, but its significance was well understood, and in those confused, fast-moving times, it was the job of Western authors and journalists who found themselves in the country to try to make sense of it.
I wrote this review for the current issue of ‘Media, War and Conflict’. It deals with an issue which is not sufficiently discussed, and certainly not sufficiently addressed: the killing of journalists. Hopefully this important book will help to change that.
‘No story is worth a life,’ is a phrase often heard in newsrooms when the talk is of working in war zones. ‘Sadly,’ as Simon Cottle notes (p. 149) in Reporting Dangerously, news organizations are often most rigorous in implementing safety measures, ‘following the shock of losing one of their colleagues.’ In a world where war, especially in the Middle East, has come to seem like the normal state of affairs, good journalism is needed much as ever to illuminate and explain not only what is happening, but also what happened in the past to influence the present. ‘What about the Balfour Declaration?’ Any British correspondent covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely sooner or later to be chastised – or perhaps, praised – for their country’s historical role in creating the modern Middle East. This is especially in true this year which marks the centenary of that controversial note. For if history is largely absent from day-to-day political discourse in Western Europe (Ireland and Spain perhaps being among the exceptions) it is not in other regions of the world. Correspondents reporting on armed conflict commit a serious oversight if they overlook that.
The authors of Reporting Dangerously make no such mistake. This engaging volume begins with the well-documented premise that covering armed conflict is becoming more dangerous. While accepting that, methodologically, ‘There are difficulties that persist, and perhaps have increased,’ (p. 52) in compiling statistics, it offers plenty of evidence to support the argument that journalists ‘are being targeted, murdered, and intimidated more regularly and in increasing numbers.’ (p .1). In seeking to understand why, the book draws on substantial scholarship on violence and globalization from a variety of fields, especially history and sociology. Cottle is persuasive when he argues that western societies have led the way in ‘violent military conquest’ (p. 71) since the sixteenth century, but also – and here the point relates to journalism in particular – inspired ‘“modern” dynamics of increasing empathy and moral repugnance at violence’ (p. 71).
If this duality explains some of the trends which have created the ‘Violent History of the Globalised Present’ (Chapter 4), then the book advances a disturbing case that journalists themselves are no longer permitted the benefit of any doubt as to their own roles. Presenting the Kurt Schork Awards for International Journalism in 2015, the respected correspondent Peter Greste – referring to his and his Al Jazeera colleagues’ incarceration in Egypt – linked his fate to the aftermath of September 11th. Since then – when President George W. Bush warned the nations of the world, ‘Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists’ – Greste suggested it had become much harder for journalists to be seen as neutral observers. Richard Sambrook argues (p. 20) that, ‘The attitude of “you’re either with us or against us” denies the legitimacy of independent journalism.’ Greste’s ordeal is mentioned here, along with his reflection, written in his prison cell, that, ‘Never has clear-eyed, critical, sceptical journalism been more necessary.’ (p. 56).
It is to the authors’ credit that this is one of their recurring themes. Journalists may sometimes be dismayed – rightly or wrongly – about some of the conclusions drawn in scholarly studies of their activities, and production. This volume recognizes this early on, accepting that academic studies are too often guilty of ‘failing to recognise the professional motivations and practical dangers’ (p. 6) involved in today’s journalism. It is heartening to see the authors thank the journalists interviewed for the volume, ‘for their enduring commitment to this work which regularly places themselves in harm’s way’ (p. 112). It is also good to see the wide variety of cases considered. This volume does not confine itself to a consideration of international correspondents working for major news organizations such as the BBC or Al-Jazeera. It rightly recognizes and discusses the many hazards faced by journalists covering crime and drugs stories in countries such as Mexico and the Philippines.
This breadth of approach is mirrored in the backgrounds of the authors themselves, and their different experiences of scholarship and senior management in news organizations, combined with interviews with leading journalists, work well together. The different perspectives are, however, united around a recurring core argument which insists upon the importance of ‘appreciating the contribution of journalism within civil societies’– and recognizing that, ‘By seeking to report from uncivil societies, journalists act in the interests of both local citizens and the wider international community’ (p.96). It is in situations such as these that journalists face the greatest physical danger. The experience in an Iraqi minefield of the BBC’s Stuart Hughes – which led to his losing a leg, and his colleague, Kaveh Golestan, losing his life – is well documented here in first person testimony. The sense of changed circumstances which has come with the rise of Islamic State is also well communicated. The prospect of an encounter with their murderous fighters is seen as just too dangerous. ‘Forget it, I’m not interested,’ Hughes concludes of any assignment which might run that risk (p. 128).
While the physical risks are well documented here, less attention is paid to mental health. In a western world which feels increasingly willing to discuss such issues, this seems like an oversight. There are only a couple of passing references to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and apparently no space for discussion of Anthony Feinstein’s pioneering work on the mental health of journalists covering armed conflict. Although financial constraints are mentioned, they might also have merited more consideration – especially as Sambrook’s earlier work ‘Are Foreign Correspondents Redundant’ identifies this as a significant challenge to the future of international reporting. In the particular case of the present study, dwindling budgets have implications for the resources which might be allocated to safety training and equipment. This issue could perhaps be considered at greater length. It is a relatively minor issue, but a frustrating one nonetheless: editing of the section on the discussion of the differing views on violence of John Gray and Steven Pinker has permitted typographical errors in the spelling of both names – ‘Stephen’ (p. 67) and ‘Grey’ (p. 68) – to slip through.
The authors are level-headed in their conclusions, accepting (p. 202) that, ‘Zero risk in newsgathering is not attainable, and should not be pursued.’ They are right to highlight impunity as a major issue – unfortunately, absent the political will to enforce them, no amount of declarations from Journalists’ organizations, or U.N. resolutions will change this. That said, Reporting Dangerously is an important addition to any bibliography of journalism and war, and its arguments must be heeded if journalism is to be allowed to fulfil its role of informing a world whose inhabitants face countless challenges of conflict and climate change.
Reporting Dangerously: Journalist Killings, Intimidation and Security
Simon Cottle, Richard Sambrook and Nick Mosdell
(Palgrave MacMillan, London, 2016, 224 pp, ISBN 978-1-137-40672-9, Paperback)
This is the final 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, Part II here, Part III here, and the whole article on the website of Journalism, where it was first published. This part deals with the way that correspondents covered the conclusion of a troubled period of British imperial history.
Days of change, transition, and reflection
By the time of the massacre at Deir Yassin, the British Mandate had only a few weeks to run. The words attributed to the ‘Irgun Commander’ at the press conference following the killings show that Jewish militant groups were already forming strategy based on what they might be able to achieve ‘after the British withdrawal’. When that came, the British newspapers provided coverage which combined various elements of patriotic pride. These ranged from justification of British control of Palestine, and a cataloguing of achievements, to concern for the future. On the morning of May 14th 1948, the Daily Mirror’s story was headlined ‘Palestine – last appeal as we quit’ (Daily Mirror, 1948). Under the crossheading ‘Underdeveloped’, the paper reported that
When British rule began, says the Colonial Office, Palestine was primitive and underdeveloped.
The population of 750, 000 were disease-ridden and poor. But new methods of farming were introduced, medical services provided, roads and railways built, water supplies improved, malaria wiped out. (Daily Mirror, 1948)
Given that the British departure was to herald Palestine’s descent to an even greater intensity of armed conflict, there was a motive to seek out the positive, the achievements. The British investment in terms of blood and treasure had, after all, been significant – and many of those directly involved, or their families, would have been reading the Mirror and other papers. As the story points out in the next paragraph, ‘We had 84, 000 troops in Palestine.’ (Daily Mirror, 1948a). The number is astonishing, especially when the current strength of the British Army is considered for comparison.[i] Little wonder, then, that Palestine was such a story. If there was any sense of weariness, failure, or futility, the British Newspapers were generally keen to keep a lid on it. The coverage of the very end of the Mandate tended to focus instead on the disorder which followed. In the Daily Mirror of May 15th, ‘The Jews claimed to have won control of Jerusalem after house-to-house fighting.’ (Daily Mirror, 1948b). On the coast, Eric Grey reported for the Daily Express on an Egyptian air-raid, apparently aimed indiscriminately at civilians, part of the assault by Arab armies which meant that, ‘Israel was thus born in the midst of war.’ (Shlaim, 2000: 34).
Egyptian spitfires dive-bombed a bus station in the heart of Tel-Aviv at the rush hour this evening. Forty-one people including children were killed, and more than 60 wounded.
I watched two planes come in from the sea and circle at 10,000 feet.
Then with a three-minute interval between them, they dived to 500 feet, dropped four small bombs – and started machine-gunning. Their green markings could be seen.
Those three minutes saved many lives: they gave hundreds of people a chance to take cover.
Two bombs dropped near a long queue waiting for suburban buses. One fell right on the station building.
Several buses were shattered, and the road was strewn with dead and wounded.
Until tonight the raids have not been taken seriously. The city thought it was a joke when four Jewish girls captured an Egyptian pilot shot down this morning. (Grey, 1948)
Alongside this kind of coverage – these dramatic accounts of armed conflict, albeit with the moment of levity, when the inhabitants of Tel Aviv thought the air raids ‘a joke’ – another theme is also present: that of a sense of an end of a chapter of British imperial history. In the Daily Express on May 15th, Sydney Smith encapsulates this moment and the conflict which erupts in its wake. He describes British officials taking their leave, ‘the Union Jack was hauled down at Government House and a Red Cross flag took its place. Hardly had they left when the Arabs and Jews resumed their battle for Jerusalem.’ (Smith, 1948). Compare this account of a battle with the apparently calm and dignified surroundings into which the same flag arrived in London only a few hours later (brought by plane, ahead of many officials, who made the journey by sea)
The weather-beaten, sun-dried Union Jack which was lowered for the last time from British Headquarters in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem early yesterday was carried in the airways terminal building at Victoria, S.W. at 12.45 am today.
The flag, symbol of the end of the British mandate, was tucked under the arm of Mr Maurice Dornan, Under-Secretary for Administration in Palestine.
With the last party of officials to leave Jerusalem – led by sir Henry Gurney, Chief Secretary – they had just flown to England.
The Daily Mail reporter in Haifa cabling last night said that as General Sir Alan Cunningham, last High Commissioner, left Jerusalem a solitary piper played on the roof of Government House.
Sir Alan flew to Haifa then drove to the port through heavily guarded streets.
Sir Alan stepped into a naval barge, saluted and sped to the cruiser Euryalus, while two flights of Spitfires dipped low over the water. (Daily Mail, 1948).
The Daily Mirror added more detail, again designed to emphasize the sense of imperial history. The paper reported that Mr Maurice Dorman, the official who carried the flag on arrival in London, had ‘climbed on to the tower (i.e. of the King David Hotel) and hauled down the flag.’ The report added, ‘Sir Henry Gurney said “The withdrawal from Jerusalem was done in an orderly and proud manner”’. (Daily Mirror, 1948b).
What followed was neither orderly, nor something of which to be proud.
The British were supposed to bear responsibility for preserving law and order until midnight, May 14, 1948; on several occasions they defended Jewish settlements and neighborhoods (sic), among them the Jewish Quarter in the Old City of Jerusalem. They did not, however, attempt to prevent the advance of the Haganah or the flight and expulsion of the Arabs. (Segev, 2000: 512)
‘The flight and expulsion of the Arabs,’ is still, almost seven decades later, one of the issues which enrages Palestinians, and to which no just or lasting solution has been found. As Said argued in an essay first published in Western Newspapers in 1998 (on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Mandate, and the coming into being of the State of Israel), ‘What makes it especially galling for Palestinians is that they have been forced to watch the transformation of their own homeland into a Western state, one of whose express purposes is to provide for Jews and not for non-Jews.’ (Said, 2000: 268). If the way in which the Mandate ended, or even the fact that it existed at all, is rarely discussed in Britain now, it is not forgotten in the region. If they did not know that, correspondents travelling there to report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are often reminded. The experience of Channel 4 News’ Paul Mason, in the summer of 2014, was fairly typical: ‘As a Brit in Gaza, “it’s all your fault”, is a line I’ve heard a lot,’ (Mason, 2014). The end of the Mandate was reported extensively at the time it happened; remembered by journalists in this decade only in blog entries, rather than in mainstream news outlets. The correspondents who covered the end of the Mandate cannot be blamed for the relative obscurity of an era which helped to shape the modern Middle East. For they did manage, within the restraints placed upon them both by discourse and physical danger, to convey a sense of what was happening; of the longer term trends in the region. For that reason, their work merits re-reading today – especially as the greatest challenges they identify remain unsolved.
Decrying the departure from Jerusalem of Cable and Wireless (the company whose communications she used to send her stories) Hollingworth concluded ‘an important British interest has been needlessly sacrificed. There is little doubt that the Jewish State will build itself up commercially at considerable speed and provide the United States with a firm foothold in the Middle East.’ (Hollingworth, 1948b). Once again, Hollingworth knew what she was talking about – not only observant but prescient: foreseeing Washington’s rise to become the dominant outside power in the region for the remainder of the 20th century. Had there a prize for journalism on the end of the Mandate, though, it should probably have gone to the Manchester Guardian’s editorial dated 15th May 1948. Interested readers may wish to seek it out in its entirety, but one extract will suffice to show how succinctly it diagnosed the condition in which Britain was leaving Palestine
The promise to favour “the establishment in Palestine of a National Home for the Jewish people” without prejudice to “the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine” led us straight to the terrible conflict which is now being settled by the blood of Jews and Arabs. (Manchester Guardian, 1948).
[i] A British Government website in October 2014 gave the number of personnel in the British Army as 89,200. Please see https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/373115/af-quarterly_personnel_report_oct14.pdf . Accessed 27 February 2017.
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This is the third 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, Part II here, and the whole article on the website of Journalism, where it was first published. This part deals with the way that the massacre at Deir Yassin in April 1948 was reported differently by British and U.S. newspapers, and why.
DISTANCE, DISCOURSE, AND DANGER
The coverage of the massacre at Deir Yassin on April 9 1948 – a month before the Mandate came to an end – is significant for what it tells us about Jewish armed groups’ attempts to restrict and shape international reporting, and the kind of reporting which resulted. In recent decades, the State of Israel and the Israeli Army have been in charge of issuing, through the Government Press Office (GPO), journalist accreditation, and controlling access based upon whether or not the journalist in question holds a GPO card. In the conflict in Gaza in 2008-9, known as ‘Operation Cast Lead’, the Israeli Authorities actually banned international journalists from entering Gaza for the duration of their campaign in the territory. The decision was reversed after the Foreign Press Association, which represents journalists employed by international news organizations to report from Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, successfully took the government to court. (FPA News, 2009). It is understandable that the Israeli Authorities might wish to keep international correspondents away. The British Mandate authorities had closer contact with British members of the international press corps than is the case today with the Israeli government and correspondents from outside the country. That does not mean that the correspondents of the Mandate era enjoyed unrestricted access, or that they universally shared the political and military authorities’ outlook – consider Hollingworth’s questioning of their competence; Duffield’s frustration at what he saw as the easy life the Public Information Office afforded to his competitors. Gurney’s reflections on the press seem to mirror those of military men in difficult situations throughout modern history: an annoying necessity whose needs must be considered. By the final weeks of the Mandate, however, British authority in Palestine had dwindled to an extent that being a British correspondent, or being accredited to the Public Information Office, was not sufficient to grant reporters the kind of access which they needed to do their job.
The massacre at the village of Deir Yassin is a case in point. The killing there of some 250 villagers (Khalidi, 1992: 290) on April 9 1948 was described by Gurney in his diary as ‘one of the worst things the Irgun and Stern[i] have done’ (Golani, 2009: 111). Even Harry Levin, a journalist working then for the illegal radio station run by the Haganah (a Jewish military organization set up during the Mandate era[ii]) seems to have been horrified by what he heard. ‘Last night Etzel[iii] captured Deir Yassin. Appalling accounts are circulating of their indiscriminate killing of men, women, and children. The entire purpose of the operation is questionable.’ (Levin: 1997: 57). Gurney himself is in the dark as to the details of what has happened. The British correspondents are, too. The Times correspondent, Gurney writes, is unable to reach Deir Yassin, ‘stopped by the Haganah’ (Golani, 2009: 111). Further, remarkable, indication of the conditions under which British correspondents were working appeared in the next day’s edition of The Times. Not only had the paper’s correspondent been prevented from reaching Deir Yassin. Two paragraphs of a Reuters despatch carried in the paper on April 10th reported that Irgun and Stern leaders had actually organized a news conference ‘outside Jerusalem’ the night before – a news conference at which they ‘claimed they had killed 200 Arabs – half of whom were women and children’ (Reuters, 1948). However, ‘Only American and Jewish correspondents were admitted to the Press conference, the British being banned as “untrustworthy”.’ (Reuters, 1948). The reasons why the British journalists are seen in this way are not given, but it might be reasonable to assume that those giving the news conference feared being identified, and subsequently arrested – and that they did not ‘trust’ British correspondents to deliver the kind of coverage they sought. The Reuters despatch suggests a great deal of confidence, an air even of being untouchable, on the part of the ‘Irgun Commander’. The fact that the commander is quoted as saying that ‘the main Jewish assault on Arab-held territory would not begin until after the British withdrawal’ (Reuters, 1948) makes clear that the Irgun feel free to say what they like without fear of British reprisal. With the Mandate so clearly on its last legs, the days when ‘much of the terrorist campaign’ needed to be ‘directed at the British media’ (Zadka, 1995: 178) were over. A reading of the New York Times’ report, however, suggests that there may still have been an element of security consciousness, too.
The report, by Dana Adams Schmidt, appeared in the New York Times on 10th April 1948, under the headline, ‘200 Arabs killed, Stronghold Taken’. The massacre is infamous to this day for the number of civilians killed. It is also a turning point in the history of Jewish Militant groups’ involvement in the conflict of the late Mandate era. As Schmidt wrote, ‘This engagement marked the formal entry of the Irgunists and Sternists into the battle against the Arabs. Previously both groups had concentrated against the British.’ (Adams Schmidt, 1948). The most telling paragraphs from the point of view of the access afforded to Adams Schmidt and others appear lower down the piece, under the crosshead ‘Victors Describe Battle’
The Irgunists and Sternists escorted a party of United States correspondents to a house at Givat Shaul, near Deir Yasin (sic), tonight and offered them tea and cookies and amplified details of the operation.
The spokesman said that the village had become a concentration point for Arabs, including Syrian and Iraqi (sic), planning to attack the western suburbs of Jerusalem. If, as he expected, the Haganah took over occupation of the village, it would help to cover the convoy route from the coast.
The spokesman said he regretted the casualties among the women and children at Deir Yasin but asserted that they were inevitable because every house had to be reduced by force. Ten houses were blown up. At others the attackers blew open the doors and threw in hand grenades.
One hundred men in four groups attacked a 4:30 o’clock in the morning, the spokesman said. The Irgunists wore uniforms of a secret design and they used automatic weapons and rifles. (Adams Schmidt, 1948).
The perpetrators of the killings at Deir Yassin did keep some details to themselves: their identities, for one. These were not for publication. Throughout Adams Schmidt’s report, he refers to the speaker as ‘the spokesman’. No name or description appears. Adams Schmidt’s report, based on access denied to his British counterparts, is a kind of masterpiece of extreme journalistic objectivity. As such, it serves to highlight what can go wrong when correspondents adhere so strictly to such an approach. It excludes any reflection, or speculation, upon the suffering endured by the inhabitants of the village as their attackers fell upon them. While the headline writers have picked out the death toll, Adams Schmidt’s report saves it for the end of the first paragraph, which concludes ‘the Jews killed more than 200 Arabs, half of them women and children.’ (Adams Schmidt, 1948). To be fair to Adams Schmidt, it is impossible to know at this distance whether the number of dead was placed at the end of the paragraph by editors in New York, perhaps on the grounds that the figure appeared prominently in the headline. The matter-of-fact tone of the rest of his report suggests that he may genuinely not have considered it the top line of the story. The word of ‘the spokesman’ is taken at face value. Nothing in the report suggests that Adams Schmidt or his colleagues challenged the spokesman, or asked for an explanation. Nor is the fact that the attack began at ‘4.30 o’clock in the morning’ (Adams Schmidt, 1948) commented upon. It may help to explain why only ‘some’ of the ‘women and children’ who were told to ‘take refuge in the caves’ (presumably adjacent to the village) apparently did so.
Adams Schmidt’s report is memorable for the fact that it brought news of the massacre to a wider audience. Its indifference to the fate of those killed, and its readiness to convey unchallenged the spokesman’s words as he seeks to justify the deaths of civilians, make it stand out in another way, too – even decades later. No attempt is made to put a human face on those killed. Throughout, they are simply ‘Arabs’ or, as Said (1995: 207) might have seen it, ‘Orientals [….] seen through, analyzed not as citizens, or even people.’ In common with the British correspondents, Adams Schmidt may have found it impossible to get to Deir Yassin itself (although his reporting from around the time of the massacre does not mention any attempt to do so), but he did at least have access to sources in the way that the British correspondents obviously did not. He, along with his American colleagues, was trusted by the Jewish militant groups to the extent that they shared information with them, albeit apparently on entirely their own terms. In terms of the close relationship between Israel and the United States which was to follow later in the 20th century, and into our own, it is interesting to note the Jewish militant groups’ attempts, even on the eve of Israeli statehood, to favour American correspondents with privileged access.
Given the Jewish militant groups’ antagonistic approach to the British press, it seems less surprising that the correspondents seem at a distance from those they are covering. They lack contacts in the circles which would help them to understand in more detail what is happening. In this case they are distanced from the peoples of Palestine not because of an Orientalist barrier. They are distanced because, whatever efforts they might make to try to find out what is happening, physical obstacles are put in their way.
That is not to say such barriers of discourse did not exist in the coverage at the time. At the end of the previous year, 1947, when the timescale for British withdrawal from Palestine was first being outlined – ‘Large-scale evacuation of British troops and officials from Palestine will begin early in January,’ (Daily Mirror, 1947), as the Mirror put it in early December of that year – the British correspondents’ distance from the story seems more marked. Writing in the Daily Express a couple of days later, Eric Grey gave an account of unrest in Jerusalem
British troops barricaded the King David Hotel: the civil and military headquarters. Arab youths fought it out with Palestine Police who used armoured cars to bar them from the Jewish quarters.
Then 200 Jewish youths carrying cudgels marched out, looking for trouble. Police reinforcements were called to keep the rival mobs apart. (Grey, 1947).
Grey’s story was datelined ‘Jerusalem’, but the source of his information is not clear. His reference to British troops barricading the King David Hotel (despite the bombing of the year before, the building did remain the British ‘civil and military headquarters’ right up until the end of the Mandate) suggests that he may have been there, or at least seen the troops protecting the hotel. The lack of descriptive detail of the barricade; the ‘Arab youths’; or the ‘Jewish youths’ however, suggests that Grey may have been elsewhere, and based his story based on official statements. That lack of detail in this incident, as in Deir Yassin, suggests a combination of factors shaping the reporting.
Whatever the shortcomings of the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in this century, it is very difficult to imagine that were a massacre of this scale to take place today, there would not be at least some attempt to find survivors, or relatives of those killed, to put a human face on such a horrific story. Criticizing T. E. Lawrence (often known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’) for the way he describes the Arabs among whom he lives and alongside whom he fights, Said writes
We are to assume that if an Arab feels joy, if he is sad at the death of his child or parent, if he has a sense of the injustices of political tyranny, then those experiences are necessarily subordinate to the sheer, unadorned, and persistent fact of being an Arab (1995: 230) (Italics in original).
Said was not writing about the way British correspondents covered the people among whom they were staying, but his words here, especially those about being ‘sad at the death of his child or his parent’, seem apt – as do his words on the work of Gertrude Bell ‘about life in Damascus’ (Said, 1995: 229). Said suggests that Bell’s words ‘wipe out any trace of individual Arabs with narratable life stories.’ (Said, 1995: 229). The same could be said of some of the reporting of the end of the British Mandate.
[i] The Stern Gang was a splinter group from the Irgun (Irgun Zvai Leumi) dedicated to violence as a means of achieving Jewish statehood
[ii] For details of its founding, see Segev (2000: 209)
[iii] The Hebrew initials of the Irgun (see Segev: 2000: 384)
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.