THE SIX DAY WAR: ISRAEL’S MASTERSTROKE OF WARTIME NEWS MANAGEMENT

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The war of 1967 was the start of the occupation which endures to this day: fortifications near Qalandia check point between the West Bank and Jerusalem, June 2014 ©James Rodgers

This article was originally published by The Conversation. You can read that version here.  

REPORTING ON THE ISRAELI-PALESTINIAN CONFLICT is the ultimate challenge in international news. It demands a thick skin. In no other field of international diplomacy are journalists’ words subjected to such scrutiny. It demands knowledge not just of history, but of vastly differing cultural, religious, and geographic perspectives. At times, it demands willingness to face danger.

All of these factors are relevant as the world marks 50 years since 1967’s Six-Day War, whose consequences continue to shape the parameters of any discussion of the conflict. As the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen put it in his book on the conflict, Six Days: “The occupation that started in 1967 has become the driving force behind the violence that Israelis and Palestinians are inflicting on each other.”

Israel’s military success in the Six-Day War redrew the borders of the Middle East – and it also set a new standard for government spin in wartime. Alongside its preparations for war, Israel ran a masterful communications campaign designed to disguise its military one. “Newspaper offices not only in Israel, but throughout the world, received pictures of Israeli troops on leave relaxing on the beaches,” remembered journalist Winston Churchill, grandson and namesake of Britain’s wartime prime minister, in the account he co-authored with his father, Randolph.

Churchill, who was reporting for the News of the World, himself played an unwitting part in the spin. Granted an interview with the Israeli cabinet’s new defence minister, Moshe Dayan, Churchill reported that:

General Dayan declared: “We don’t want anyone else to fight for us. Whatever can be done in a diplomatic way I would welcome and encourage but if fighting does come to Israel I would not like American or British boys to get killed here and I do not think we need them.

Moshe Dayan (L) in 1967. Tom Pearlman, Jr. via Wikimedia Commons

Dayan knew what he was doing: he was a military man opening a front in a media war. In his autobiography, published in the 1970s, he wrote of his meetings with journalists on the eve of war, and his hopes “that the impression might be gained that we were not about to go to war but were intent on exhausting all the diplomatic possibilities”.

The media was an indispensable part of creating that impression. Shortly after Israeli forces captured the Western Wall in Jerusalem, David Rubinger photographed three paratroopers standing before the wall’s white stones. Distributed by the Israeli Government Press Office, the picture became one of the most recognised images of the entire conflict. Rubinger died earlier this year, at the age of 92. Three years ago, I interviewed him for my own book, Headlines from the Holy Land. We met in his West Jerusalem home, which still housed the dark room where he had developed that picture.

“They had tried a trick,” he said of the Israeli government. “They sent a lot of people on leave. Units were sent on leave on Friday, and Saturday for Shabbat, which was obviously a Dayan trick.”

This ploy – exploiting the expectation that religious Israeli troops wouldn’t fight on the Sabbath – was a major success. Not many reporters seem to have fathomed what the Israelis had done until much later, although one Guardian headline – “Israelis cloak their aims” – did hint that all was not what it seemed.

Taken in

By the time victory came, Israel and the region had been transformed. Borders which exist today, albeit without international recognition, were established by force of arms. Gaza, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights were under Israeli military occupation, and remain so today.

In the process, Israel’s military also transformed its image in much of the British press. No longer the “terrorist” force of late British Mandate days, it was suddenly a respected fighting force facing down hostile neighbours. In the News of the World’s June 11 edition, the Sunday after the war, Churchill wrote of “a victory unprecedented in the history of the world”.

The Arab armies, meanwhile, were humiliated in battle – and their media strategy collapsed too. David Hirst, later an authoritative correspondent and author, was then a stringer in Beirut. In a 2014 interview he told me how, at the start of the war, “the Arabs believed what the Egyptian media was saying. And they thought that victory was on the way”. Defeat, he remembered, came as a “colossal shock”.

One of the toughest tasks facing correspondents caught up in world-changing events is judging where they might lead. As Sydney Gruson wrote in the New York Times of June 9 1967:

On one thing all Western diplomats and Israelis seem to agree: too much blood has been spilled – more perhaps than is yet realised in the great flush of victory – to expect that Israel would willingly return the frontiers to what they were before the war began on Monday.

He was right. Those frontiers remain. Soldiers and diplomats might study 1967 for strategy. Journalists at work in the fake news era should study its lessons in spin.

Journalism, 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.

‘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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Press Gazette publishes ‘Headlines from the Holy Land’ extract

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was different.

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

 

Headlines from the Holy Land 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

Headlines from the Holy Land — update March 2015

I have finished the manuscript for my next book, Headlines from the Holy Land. The book is due to be published later this year by Palgrave Macmillan. I will post details here once they become available.

In the meantime, I was a guest this weekend on the BBC World Service’s Weekend programme. I discussed — among many other things — Russia, the Middle East, and even how Pacific oysters got to the North Sea. You can listen here http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02l1yz9 .