Tom Gross has assembled a fascinating dossier well worthy of consideration and comment. First, Bret Stevens in the Wall Street Journal comments on the BBC’s attitude towards its reporter Alan Johnston:
THE BBC HELD HOSTAGE IN GAZA
A Reporter’s Fate
The BBC held hostage in Gaza
By Bret Stephens
The Wall Street Journal
May 22, 2007
Dozens of hostages were released in Gaza over the weekend, in the wake of a truce called between the warring factions of Hamas and Fatah. The BBC’s Alan Johnston, now in his 11th week of captivity, was not among them.
I last saw Mr. Johnston in January 2005, the day before Mahmoud Abbas was elected to succeed Yasser Arafat as president of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Johnston was by then the only Western correspondent living and working full time in Gaza, although the Strip was still considered a safe destination for day-tripping foreign journalists. He kindly lent me his office to interview Sami Abu Zuhri, a Hamas spokesman, and asked whether I was still editing the Jerusalem Post. He seemed genuinely oblivious to the notion that my by-then former association with an Israeli newspaper was not the sort of information I wanted broadcast to a roomful of Palestinian stringers.
Or, he wanted to decenter Stevens. Can he be that much of a fool?
January 2005 was also the last time one could feel remotely optimistic about an independent Palestinian future. Mr. Abbas had campaigned for office promising “clean legal institutions so we can be considered a civilized society.” He won by an overwhelming margin in an election Hamas refused to contest. There had been a sharp decline in Israeli-Palestinian violence, thanks mainly to Israeli counterterrorism measures and the security fence. A Benetton outlet had opened in Ramallah, signaling better times ahead.
In other words, either Abbas is also deluded, or he’s a demopath who knows how to play on Westerner’s desire to believe that there is a “vibrant Palestinian civil society” just waiting to emerge. But in Gaza things were different, however, and Mr. Johnston was prescient in reporting on the potential for internecine strife: “This internal conflict between police and the militants cannot happen,” one of his stories quotes a Palestinian police chief as saying. “It is forbidden. We are a single nation.” Yet in 2005 more Palestinians were killed by other Palestinians than by Israelis. It got worse in 2006, following Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and Hamas’s victory in parliamentary elections. “The occupation was not as bad as the lawlessness and corruption that we are facing now,” Palestinian editor Hafiz Barghouti admitted to Mr. Johnston in a widely cited remark.
When Mr. Johnston was kidnapped by persons unknown on March 12 – apparently dragged at gunpoint from his car while on his way home – he became at least the 23rd Western journalist to have been held hostage in Gaza. In most cases the kidnappings rarely lasted more than a day. Yet in August FOXNews’s Steve Centanni and cameraman Olaf Wiig were held for two weeks, physically abused and forced to convert to Islam. Plainly matters were getting progressively worse for foreigners. So why did the BBC keep Mr. Johnston in place?
One answer is journalistic fidelity. Mr. Johnston had been the BBC’s man in Kabul during the Taliban era; he was used to hard places. His dispatches about the travails of ordinary Gazans brimmed with humane sympathy. And any news organization would prefer to have its own reporter on the scene than to rely on stringers.
Yet the BBC also seemed to operate in the Palestinian Authority with a sense of political impunity. Palestinian Information Minister Mustafa Barghouti described Mr. Johnston as someone who “has done a lot for our cause” – not the sort of endorsement one imagines the BBC welcoming from an equivalent figure on the Israeli side. Other BBC correspondents were notorious for making their politics known to their viewers: Barbara Plett confessed to breaking into tears when Arafat was airlifted to a Parisian hospital in October 2004; Orla Guerin treated Israel’s capture of a living, wired teenage suicide bomber that March as nothing more than a PR stunt – “a picture that Israel wants the world to see.”
And, one might add, not one she’d be likely to let the world see, were it up to her.
Though doubtlessly sincere, these views also conferred institutional advantages for the BBC in terms of access and protection, one reason why the broadcaster might have felt relatively comfortable posting Mr. Johnston in a place no other news agency dared to go.
This is stated perhaps a bit too subtly. This is the core of journalism in honor-shame cultures where how you make the people appear in the eyes of others is more important than anything to do with accuracy or truth. Only when you show them they way they want, are you, as a journalist, going to get anyting remotely resembling cooperation. And if you show them negatively, then you can expect reprisals, as Stephens notes.
By contrast, reporters who displeased Palestinian authorities could be made to pay a price. In one notorious case in October 2000, Italian reporter Riccardo Cristiano of RAI published a letter in a Palestinian newspaper insisting he had not been the one who had broadcast images of two Israeli soldiers being lynched in Ramallah. “We respect the journalistic regulations of the Palestinian Authority,” he wrote, blaming rival Mediaset for the transgression. I had a similar experience when I quoted a Palestinian journalist describing as “riff-raff” those of his neighbors celebrating the attacks of Sept. 11. Within a day, the journalist was chided and threatened by Palestinian officials for having spoken to me. They were keeping close tabs.
Cristiano’s letter is worth citing full because not only its content but its cloying tone are so revealing:
Special Clarification by the Italian Representative of RAI, the Official Italian Television Station
My dear friends in Palestine. We congratulate you and think that it is our duty to put you in the picture (of the events) of what happened on October 12 in Ramallah. One of the private Italian television stations which competes with us (and not the official Italian television station RAI) filmed the events; that station filmed the events. Afterwards Israeli Television broadcast the pictures, as taken from one of the Italian stations, and thus the public impression was created as if we (RAI) took these pictures.
We emphasize to all of you that the events did not happen this way, because we always respect (will continue to respect) the journalistic procedures with the Palestinian Authority for (journalistic) work in Palestine and we are credible in our precise work.
We thank you for your trust, and you can be sure that this is not our way of acting. We do not (will not) do such a thing.
Please accept our dear blessings.
Representative of RAI in the Palestinian Authority
(the official Italian station)
Nothing better illustrates the (normally) unspoken rules that dominate PA coverage. Indeed, the obsequiousness was so out of place for a Western news media outfit that the other news agencies distanced themselves, and even the normally very cautious Israelis disciplined the station for its breach of professional standards.
The power of this combination of access journalism and intimidation underlies the whole tissue of misrepresentation that plagues our understanding of what’s going on in this conflict.
Still, whatever the benefits of staying on the right side of the Palestinian powers-that-be, they have begun to wane. For years, the BBC had invariably covered Palestinian affairs within the context of Israel’s occupation – the core truth from which all manifestations of conflict supposedly derived.
In other words, they framed all their coverage in the paradigm of something ranging from the Politically Correct to the Post-Colonial. Viewers did not have access to any alternative framework.
Developments within Gaza following Israel’s withdrawal showed the hollowness of that analysis. Domestic Palestinian politics, it turned out, were shot through with their own discontents, contradictions and divisions, not just between Hamas and Fatah but between scores of clans, gangs, factions and personalities. Opposition to Israel helped in some ways to mute this reality, but it could not suppress it.
In other words, to those paying attention, the withdrawal from Gaza could (and should) have operated as a wake-up call (as if 2000 were not enough). The PCP did not explain what was going on… unless, of course, one resorted more and more to the view that Israel’s behavior continued to control Palestinians, so that they had no choice but to kill each other (and innocent civilians including children). Essentially this reflects a profoundly corrupted view of the Palestinians in which they have no agency… they can only act as a reaction.
This is the situation – not a new one, but one the foreign media had for years mostly ignored – in which the drama of Mr. Johnston’s captivity is playing out. Initial reports suggested he had been kidnapped by the so-called Popular Resistance Committee; later an al Qaeda affiliate called the Army of Islam claimed to have killed him. More recently, evidence has come to light suggesting he’s alive and being held by a criminal gang based in the southern town of Rafah. The British government is reportedly in talks with a radical Islamist cleric in their custody, Abu Qatada, whose release the Army of Islam has demanded for Mr. Johnston’s freedom. What the British will do, and what effect that might have, remains to be seen.
For now, one can only pray for Mr. Johnston’s safe release. Later, the BBC might ask itself whether its own failures of prudence and judgment put its reporter’s life in jeopardy. The BBC’s Paul Adams has said of his colleague that it was “his job to bring us day after day reports of the Palestinian predicament.” For that act of solidarity one hopes a terrible price will not be paid.
Again, Stephens is being understated. He’s saying that the BBC, assuming that because Johnston was so pro-Palestinian, they didn’t have to worry about him, and because they believed Johnston’s own reporting — that the Israelis are the source of all woes and evil — they never thought that the culture of violence that chased away any “even-handed” reporters who were not fully pro-Palestinian, would hurt their man.
Stephens’s view, however, is widely accepted among reporters covering the Middle East, including myself. It is common knowledge that Johnston, who was abducted in Gaza on March 12, was one of the most pro-Palestinian reporters in the region. However, sources tell me that some in Hamas may have felt that his reporting had become too pro-Fatah, which is one possible factor in his abduction by a Hamas-connected group, and also a possible reason why (despite the BBC’s repeated claims that the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority is doing everything in its power to secure Johnston’s release) in fact the Palestinian Authority has been doing next to nothing to help release the kidnapped BBC man.
In other words, the BBC didn’t and still doesn’t understand how bad it is in Gaza, and how little — ultimately — their avowed embrace of the Palestinian cause is worth when the Israeli scapegoat disappears and the pervasive violence of the culture shines through. Johnston is pro-Palestinian for “progressive” reasons. He believes the Palestinian police chief who says:
“This internal conflict between police and the militants cannot happen,” one of his stories quotes a Palestinian police chief as saying. “It is forbidden. We are a single nation.”
And when that violence happens, he can no longer combine his ideological commitments with the demands of reporting from civil-war Gaza, where no one who speaks publicly is safe from someone’s anger.
Writing on the BBC website’s editors’ blog, the BBC head of newsgathering, Fran Unsworth objected to Stephen’s analysis.
“A SCURRILOUS PIECE OF JOURNALISM”
Weighing the risks
By Fran Unsworth
BBC editors’ blog
May 27, 2007
A scurrilous piece of journalism appeared in the Wall Street Journal this week regarding Alan Johnston’s kidnapping. An article by Bret Stephens criticises BBC management for our failures of “prudence and judgment which put our reporter, Alan Johnston’s life in jeopardy.” Fair enough. It is not as though all of us responsible for Alan’s safety have not asked ourselves the same question many times over the course of the past 11 weeks.
But the article goes on to propose that our reasons for this complacency were as a result of our institutional pro-Palestinian views which meant we felt able to operate in the Palestinian authority with “political impunity”. He would appear to be suggesting that Alan was a Palestinian sympathiser and therefore we felt he would be protected by that. The author throws in the few other BBC correspondent names to stack up his case – saying Barbara Plett and Orla Guerin had also made their views known to the public.
He alleges we believed this stance gave us “institutional advantages in terms of access and protection” and that is why “we felt comfortable posting Alan in a place no other news agency dared to go”.
Aside from the lack of sympathy shown by the Wall Street Journal, who must have asked themselves a few questions over the appalling tragedy of Daniel Pearl, it also happens to be totally unfounded. I would have thought the writer would have attempted to establish some facts before committing to the page. Had he put a call into the BBC he might have discovered that we had been by no means complacent about Alan’s safety.
Alan was highly alert to the possibility of kidnap. He had come out of Gaza on several occasions in the months before he was taken; we had drawn up plans to avoid it happening and even a plan of what we would do if it should. He had spent the previous three years in Gaza during which time the security situation had progressively deteriorated. He had been due to come out two weeks before he was kidnapped, and the BBC was assessing whether Gaza was safe enough for western journalists in the immediate future.
Obviously none of this prevented the desperate situation in which Alan is now in. We, as his managers, have repeatedly asked ourselves what more we could and should have done to protect him, including the issue of whether he should have been there at all. But we do think very carefully about putting our staff into dangerous parts of the world and take every measure we can to minimise the risks. We continually talk to our correspondents on the ground, as we did with Alan, about how to do this. However, newsgathering is not, and can never be, an entirely risk free business.http://www.tomgrossmedia.com/BBC.htm
So far this sounds a lot like Katha Pollitt defending feminists. “We did so do a lot.” That’s not the point. The point is that a) the best thing you can do for a reporter who lives in an area where violence and intimidation are rife is to make sure he doesn’t offend the locals. The fact that long after everyone else go the hell out of there, Johnston was still there, and there because he was so pro-Palestinian.
But I am surprised that one of the US’s leading newspapers with a great tradition appears to think that a desire to provide first hand reporting for our audiences, on a key news story of major significance, was an enterprise to be regarded as foolish and complacent, rather than what journalism is supposed to be for.
Wow. Talk about “not getting it.” The point is not the value of “on the ground reporting…” but the value of on-the-ground reporting that is fatally compromised by the pervasive need to curry favor in order to avoid getting killed — like CNN in Iraq. Maybe the BBC should send in reporters who are not identified as journalists, who report anonymously so they can’t get hit up, who get out fast so they can’t be systematically shaped into a propagandist.
Note that the BBC editor never questions the claim that Johnston — and the BBC — are biased, and decidely pro-Palestinian. Indeed they paid good money to quash a report documenting their anti-Israel bias. It’s as if the part of modern journalism that has to do with accurate, fair, multi-dimensional, independent, got lost in the need for color, human interest and advocacy. Maybe that’s not what the world needs to inform it intelligently about “a key news story of major significance.”
Gross finds the BBC’s nasty swipe at the WSJ over Daniel Pearl “a cheap shot.” And it is. Pearl was the first journalist to be kidnapped and executed on video, an explicitly anti-semitic act — Pearl was executed because he was Jewish — that no one except the most astute observers of the HJP would have detected. Johnston was the last hold-out of the journalists who continued to think that if they were sufficiently obsequious to local demands, they would survive. And now, with this whimper, the lights go out on even the semblance of independent journalism in Gaza.