Misled by elites? Not every journalist

This is the first part of an essay which I wrote for the current issue of the ‘British Journalism Review’. Based on my experiences reporting from Russia in the 1990s, and partly as a response to concerns raised by Channel 4’s Jon Snow in his 2017 McTaggart Lecture it argues that not all journalists are too close to political elites — especially foreign correspondents in countries where the elites don’t want to to talk to them. That gives them insights often denied to their better connected counterparts.

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Restoration work on a church in Rostov Veliky, northern Russia, June 2008. Photo: James Rodgers

THE MISSED AND MISUNDERSTOOD STORIES of Brexit, and Donald Trump’s triumph in the US presidential election – as well as political correspondents’ failure to predict Theresa May losing her parliamentary majority last year – have all led to soul-searching about whether journalists are too close to the elite. In his MacTaggart Lecture at last year’s Edinburgh Television Festival, Jon Snow described his own background and said: “We are comfortably with the elite, with little awareness, contact, or connection with those not of the elite.”

Foreign correspondents often come into closer contact with those “not of the elite”. While the political upper class may want to talk to foreign media to get their international message across, these are more likely to be rare, set-piece events. In consequence, reporters overseas seek out other stories – those of the ordinary people who will more readily speak to them. Ryszard Kapuscinski was famous for this approach. It was also one often followed by western reporters in Russia in the early post-Soviet era.

It may seem strange, in this era of confrontation between the UK and Russia, to write this, but I have Vladimir Putin to thank for the experience which has led me to develop the argument I am going to put forward here. For it was during his own formative years as a politician – Russia’s troubled 1990s – that we western journalists based in Russia were left largely to our own devices. Senior politicians did occasionally give interviews, but the often chaotic world of Boris Yeltsin’s administration meant that they had plenty of their own worries to deal with.

This was when a large part of the political elite were keen to show that they were breaking from the Soviet past, promoting a western-style idea of a free press, a “fourth estate” permitted to speak truth to power. Russian journalists enjoyed then freedoms unknown before or since. We did, too.

The restrictions on travel which had been part of the Soviet police state were mostly gone. Travelling close to military installations without permission was an exception, as I discovered in 2009 when the FSB arrested my colleagues and me for visiting some glasshouses which happened to be about 20km from a naval dockyard.

Kept at a distance from the Kremlin’s innermost power struggles – as foreigners generally have been throughout Russian history (remember Churchill’s “Kremlin political intrigues are comparable to a bulldog fight under a rug. An outsider only hears the growling, and when he sees the bones fly out from beneath it is obvious who won”) – and allowed to explore the biggest country on earth, we had the chance to learn more than other generations of western journalists covering Russia. Going somewhere that your news organisation has never been before is always a help pitching a story, and travel – thanks to the troubled rouble – could be incredibly cheap. The weak currency did throw up some absurdities. One flight from St Petersburg to Moscow is memorable because the sandwiches in the airport café cost almost the same as the plane tickets.

With air travel literally as cheap as chips, and Russia’s overnight trains even cheaper, we took advantage. There was then a huge appetite for learning about Russia, with which we were enjoying much better relations. That has changed since. As I write this in late March, the talk – following the poisoning in Salisbury of the Russian former double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter – turns to tension between Moscow and London. The foreign ministry spokeswoman in Moscow has warned that British journalists will be expelled from Russia should RT (the Kremlin-backed channel formerly known as Russia Today) be closed down in the UK.

It was different then. In the late 1990s, colleagues and I travelled to Siberia to do a story on forest fires; to the far north east, above the Arctic circle, where blocks of flats, abandoned after their residents’ jobs went with the collapse of the planned economy, were being buried by massive snowdrifts. With Allan Little, I produced for the BBC’s Newsnight a lengthy report on how people of the southern Russian town of Rostov-on-Don coped with an economy that had largely ceased to function: workers at one of Russia’s biggest agricultural machinery factories got jars of gherkins instead of wages.

On that first trip to Siberia we also interviewed a coming strongman in Russian politics, the Afghan war veteran Alexander Lebed, then governor of Krasnoyarsk. He later died in a helicopter crash, but his growing popularity provided a clue to the direction Russia might later take. The consequence of these trips was that we saw how the country was changing.

It was not changing in the way that many people in the west hoped.

You can read the full article in the current issue of the British Journalism Review

 

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Russia and information wars

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

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.

Why the world should still care: two books on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

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The Damascus Gate into the Old City of Jerusalem

The books reviewed here are Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 by Ian Black (Allen Lane) and Being Palestinian: Personal Reflections on Palestinian Identity in the Diaspora edited by Yasir Suleiman (Edinburgh University Press).

THERE ARE MANY CHALLENGES to writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not least the fact that it is almost impossible to commit to paper anything which will not draw criticism. Israelis and Palestinians alike are convinced that they are treated unfairly by the international news media. Journalists, they say, are ignorant. They are biased. They do not know their history.

Therein lies one of the challenges for correspondents. For it is not history which they need to know so much as histories. The few hundred words or brief couple of minutes usually afforded to them in news reporting is barely sufficient. That is one reason why many reporters decide to write something much more substantial.

Ian Black’s new book Enemies and Neighbours: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel, 1917-2017 may well be criticized in some quarters — that goes with taking up the task of writing about Israel-Palestine — but it certainly will not be on the grounds that he does not know his history. There is much here for the new reader seeking to understand the complexities of this conflict, and for those seeking deeper analysis.

All in all, this is an outstanding account of a century during which the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean has consumed more political, diplomatic, and editorial resources than might have been though possible for such a small part of the world.

In an age when politicians in long-established democracies are joining authoritarian leaders to gang up on journalists, it is good to see Black making the case for good reporting. ‘Journalism,’ he argues, ‘remains an indispensable ‘first draft of history’ that can sometimes turn out to be impressively close to later, more polished versions.’ He readily recognizes its value to him personally, too. ‘Arguably I learned as much reporting from the streets of Nablus and Gaza during the first intifada as from poring over declassified files or old newspapers.’

There are regrettably few international journalists who speak Hebrew or Arabic. Black speaks both, giving him a rare insight. Understanding language is not just about knowing the ‘who-what-when-where-why-how’ of journalism. It is the key to culture, and, in the case of Israel-Palestine, the history which makes up identity.

It is here that Black has really succeeded in enlightening his readers on the real challenge facing any diplomat who might try to restart the peace process which as failed so many times. Israelis and Palestinians are not only unable to agree on what should happen. They are unable to agree on what has already happened.

‘These master-narratives,’ Black writes, ‘are not so much competing as diametrically opposed — and utterly irreconcilable: justice and triumph for the Zionist cause meant injustice, defeat, exile and humiliation for Palestinians.’

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An alley in the Yibna area of the Rafah refugee camp, October 2003. Photo by the author

These are the recurrent themes of Being Palestinian: Personal Reflections on Palestinian Identity in the Diaspora. A sense of loss casts a shadow across the hundred or so individually authored short chapters which go to make up the volume.

That loss has become a defining national characteristic, and one which no nation would covet. The humiliation which Black identifies is, for the authors here, not only public and political, but deeply personal. Ibtisam Barakat tells of a father whom the 1967 war left ‘afraid that he could neither protect nor provide for us’ — so they leave, a further displacement.

When I lived in Gaza during the second intifada as the BBC’s correspondent from 2002-2004, there were still plenty among the older generation who remembered — perhaps only as infants — their homes in Mandate Palestine. Their numbers get fewer year after year. For the contributors in the book — most of them in the UK, the USA, or Canada — the separation is even greater. ‘El-blaad (the homeland) is just another way of saying remember,‘ writes Hala Alyan from Manhattan.

Others seem almost unnerved by the power and potential of such recollections, and whether they can endure. From Scotland, Mohammad Issa writes, ‘if truth be told, I fear that if I visit Palestine my childhood memories may be crushed under the harsh reality of life under military occupation.’ These memories are so precious that they must not be put at risk.

They are all that the authors have. Nadia Yaqub appears to question her own Palestinian identity solely because, having lived in the USA, and in the expatriate community in Beirut, she has not shared the experiences of dispossession and military occupation.  She therefore feels ‘hesitation to claim a Palestinian identity’. It is as if that identity can only be gained through suffering.   

This book will reward any reader who decides to choose a chapter at random, or read every single account. These are the kind of illuminating personal histories for which daily journalism only rarely has the space, and yet they are engaging and a vital aid to understanding the complexities of the conflict.

Perhaps because the editor is an academic, the contributors largely are, too. This may be something of a missed opportunity. I remember fondly a Gazan friend telling me that on a trip to Blackpool in the north of England he had met a Palestinian who owned a takeaway. Some of those kind of stories would fit well here, too.

At the start of a year which will see the 70th anniversary of the State of Israel, and of the nakba (catastrophe) as the Palestinians see the same event, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not draw the same urgent attention which so often it has. Last week, pointing out the relatively quiet 50th anniversary last year of the 1967 war, and the generally muted reaction to President Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, the Haaretz columnist Anshel Pfeffer persuasively argued, ‘The world just doesn’t care that much anymore.’

Perhaps so — for now, at least. Yet books like these remind us how very much that slice of land means to the people who live there, the people who want to live there, and millions of others around the world who hold the land to be holy, and care very much.

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

Last month, I joined the regular hosts of the TLV1 podcast to interview Ian Black at City University, London. You can listen to the recording here .

 

 

 

 

BOOK REVIEW: ‘Reporting Dangerously: Journalist Killings, Intimidation and Security’

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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) 

The election wot ‘The Sun’ never won

 

The influence of the media tycoon, Rupert Murdoch, on British politics is a subject discussed at every UK General election. Earlier this month, when the Conservative Party failed to win a parliamentary majority despite his newspapers’ support, I wrote a piece for The Conversation, arguing that the result marked an important moment in British press history. Here are the first couple of paragraphs; a link to the full story follows below.

Britain’s tabloid press is by turns rude, cruel, and funny. To politicians, it is often all three. As voters in the UK went to the polls on June 8, the newsstands offered strong support for Theresa May – and a picture of Jeremy Corbyn in a dustbin.

The prime minister’s political opponents took to social media during the campaign, urging young people to vote. The fact plenty of them seem to have done so may prove to be a factor in the shock result. If so, those social media messages are likely to have been a much greater influence than the slogans and insults of a printed press. Young people tend to read newspapers much less than their elders do.

Failure to understand the nature of change in business or politics leads to defeat, perhaps disaster.

You can read the rest of the article here.

Theresa May’s Putin-style media tactics

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THIS WEEK’S ‘NEW EUROPEAN’ newspaper carries my article on how the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, seems to be borrowing media tactics from President Putin of Russia.

‘Threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials,’ she warned a fortnight after calling deciding to go to the country. ‘All of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election.’

The Prime Minister’s borrowing the policies of those her predecessor derided as ‘fruitcakes, loonies, and closet racists’ is one thing – but surely not their admiration for President Putin too?

Consider, though, Mr Putin’s words concerning Russia’s election cycle….

You can read the full article in the June 2nd — June 10th edition of ‘The New European’.

FACING THE FACTS: REPORTING WITH RESTRICTIONS

Reuters’ Editor-in-Chief’s message to staff, ‘Covering Trump the Reuters Way’, raised  plenty of questions about how journalists should work with the new U.S. administration. I took on some of them for a piece this week on The Conversation

IT WAS HIGH SUMMER ON THE EDGE OF SIBERIA and suddenly there came the hardest question of a tough assignment. I had travelled to Yekaterinburg for a story about the spread of HIV. The city’s location made it a crossroads for the trade in many goods, including heroin. As a result, HIV infection rates were rising frighteningly rapidly among drug users. The trip involved encounters with sources, many of whom were distressed – some of whom who were frankly scary. But it was questions from the journalism students who were with us that really stumped me.

The questions – including the size of my salary – were largely predictable. One was not: “What do you do when the governor does not like a story you have written?”

The obvious answer from a Western reporter might have been something about the noble notion of the fourth estate speaking the truth to power. But I knew that such an answer would not work in the lawless Russia of the post-Soviet era. Journalists – especially those who uncovered incompetence or corruption among the powerful – could find themselves in serious, even mortal, danger. So I offered a reply which blended the ideal with a more realistic point

You can read the rest of the piece here