media criticism

Alex Gibney’s documentary about Wikileaks and Assange could have been a fascinating study of the moral quandaries faced by whistleblowers in the age of the surveillance super-state. How is it possible to remain transparent, open, honest — even sane — when your every move is being watched? Instead Gibney indulges in easy character assassination.

Carl Bernstein, of All the President’s Men fame, has a revealing commentary in the Guardian today, though revealing not entirely in a way he appears to understand. Bernstein highlights a story first disclosed earlier this month in the Washington Post by his former journalistic partner Bob Woodward that media mogul Rupert Murdoch tried to “buy the US presidency”.

There could be no better proof of the revolution – care of the internet – occurring in the accessibility of information and informed commentary than the reaction of our mainstream, corporate media. For the first time, Western publics – or at least those who can afford a computer – have a way to bypass the gatekeepers of our democracies. The media – at least the supposedly leftwing component of it – should be cheering on this revolution, if not directly enabling it. And yet, mostly they are trying to co-opt, tame or subvert it.

Last week the Guardian, Britain’s main liberal newspaper, ran an exclusive report on the belated confessions of an Iraqi exile, Rafeed al-Janabi, codenamed “Curveball” by the CIA. Eight years ago, Janabi played a key behind-the-scenes role — if an inadvertent one — in making possible the US invasion of Iraq. His testimony bolstered claims by the Bush administration that Iraq’s president, Saddam Hussein, had developed an advanced programme producing weapons of mass destruction.

Publish it not

1 November 2010

Israel needs to maintain its credibility in the U.S. because that is the source of its strength. It depends on billions of dollars in aid and military hardware, almost blanket political support from Congress, the White House’s veto of critical resolutions at the United Nations, and Washington’s role as a dishonest broker in the peace process. For that reason Israel makes significant efforts to put pressure on journalists. It also targets their news editors “back home” because they make appointments to the region, set the tone of the coverage, approve or veto story ideas, and edit and package the reports coming in from the field.

The ostracism of Helen Thomas, the doyenne of the White House press corps, over her comment that Jews should “get the hell out of Palestine” and “go home” to Poland, Germany, America and elsewhere is revealing in several ways. In spite of an apology, the 89-year-old has been summarily retired by the Hearst newspaper group, dropped by her agent, spurned by the White House, and denounced by long-time friends and colleagues.

It is quite astounding that Israel has been able to create over the past 12 hours a news blackout, just as it did with its attack on Gaza 18 months ago, into which our main media organisations have willingly allowed Israeli spokespeople to step in unchallenged. If we needed any evidence of the degree to which Western TV journalists are simply stenographers to power, the BBC, CNN and others are amply proving it. Mark Regev, Israel’s propagandist-in-chief, has the airwaves largely to himself.

A recent assignment of mine covering Israel’s presumed links to the assassination of Hamas leader Mahmoud al-Mabhouh provoked some more thoughts about the New York Times reporter Ethan Bronner. He is the Jerusalem bureau chief who has been at the centre of a controversy since it was revealed last month that his son is serving in the Israeli army. Despite mounting pressure to replace Bronner, the NYT’s editors have so far refused to consider that he might be facing a conflict of interest or that it would be wiser to post him elsewhere.

What needs emphasising is that Palestinians working for the Western media do not have anywhere near the same standing, or influence, as reporters like the New York Times’ Ethan Bronner or his Jewish-Israeli colleague in Jerusalem, Isabel Kershner. Palestinian reporters have no meaningful control over the news agenda of the media outlet that employs them. That agenda is set either by the imported star reporter or by the editors far away in the head offices.

With the internet’s rapid growth and an associated flourishing of alternative journalism, the traditional disseminators of information to western audiences – our print and broadcast media – have come under scrutiny as never before. There is a growing sentiment, particularly on the left but also to be found elsewhere, that mainstream journalism is failing us, even if a variety of reasons are proposed for this failure.

Liberal journalists in our mainstream media are always outraged at any suggestion that their reports or views are in any way influenced by the threat of retaliation from powerful interests. Students of the media are taught that in Western democracies journalists on serious newspapers seek the truth and, except in the case of the odd bad apple, refuse to submit to intimidation. Israel offers a particularly interesting test case in this regard.

The hyperventilating by Israel’s leaders over a story published in a Swedish newspaper last month suggesting that the Israeli army assisted in organ theft from Palestinians has distracted attention from the disturbing allegations made by Palestinian families that were the basis of the article’s central claim. The families’ fears that relatives had body parts removed during unauthorized autopsies performed in Israel have been overshadowed by accusations of a “blood libel” directed against the reporter, Donald Bostrom, and the Aftonbladet newspaper.

Talks between Barack Obama and the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships over the past fortnight have unleashed a flood of media interest in the settlements Israel has been constructing on Palestinian territory for more than four decades. The US president’s message is unambiguous: the continuing growth of the settlements makes impossible the establishment of a Palestinian state, and therefore peace between Israelis and Palestinians. It is one he is expected to repeat when he addresses the Muslim world from Cairo tomorrow.

This week the death toll in Gaza passed the 1,000 mark, after nearly three weeks of Israeli air and ground attacks. But surprisingly, no one has reported an even more appalling statistic: that there are some 1.5 million injured Palestinians in Gaza. How is is possible that such an astounding figure could have passed the world’s media by? The reason apparently is that they have been relying on the highly unreliable statistics provided by official Palestinian sources.

The thermal imaging footage shot from an Israeli drone hovering over Gaza shows eight Palestinian militants loading rockets on to a lorry. Within seconds, the drone’s sights are locked on to the vehicle and it and the ghostlike figures nearby are incinerated in a missile blast. Or so tens of thousands of visitors to YouTube have been led to believe. The clip was one of several uploaded by the Israeli army last week. A subsequent investigation, however, suggests the rockets were in fact gas canisters and that the supposed militants were civilians moving welding equipment.

Like many British journalists, my ambition was to reach the national media. I had been working for several years at the Echo, learning my craft, proving I was a professional, slowly moving up the hierarchy in terms of promotion but not much in terms of responsibility. I seemed to have a hit a glass ceiling, and I had a vague sense of why. A damning criticism I have often heard in newsrooms was that someone is not a “team player”. Nobody said this to my face at the Echo but I had no doubt that it was a suspicion held by the senior staff. I thought of them as cowardly, failing in their role as watchdogs of power. Maybe my contempt showed a little.

The propaganda machine

20 August 2007

It is an honour of a kind, I suppose, to briefly have the most active thread on the CiF site. But not much of one when 95 per cent of the posts rarely rose above the level of vitriolic name-calling. The posters probably know that by now I am immune to playground taunts of “scum” and “Nazi”, but the abuse, I suspect, is meant more as a warning to others who might criticise Israel. Keep quiet — or else.

Until recently liberal Europeans were keen to distance themselves, at least officially, from the ideological excesses of the current American administration. They argued that the neo-conservative enthusiasm for the “war on terror” — and its underpinning ideology of “a clash of civilisations” — did not fit with Europe’s painful recent experiences of world wars and the dismantling of its colonial outposts around the globe. But there is every sign that the public dissociation is coming to a very rapid end. The language and assumptions of the “clash scaremongers” is permeating European thought, including the reasoning of its liberal classes, just as surely as it once did about the Cold War.

I note with dismay the correspondence provoked by my commentary last week (“Nonviolent protest offers little hope for Palestinians”). My critics fall into two camps. The first accuses me of excusing or justifying violent Palestinian attacks on Israelis. This is a gross misrepresentation. I simply explained why Arun Gandhi’s message of nonviolence is likely to fall on stony ground in the occupied territories. Sadly, the suicide bombing in Beersheba on the day my commentary was published appears to confirm my point.