Robert Fisk explains that “It is the job of journalists to be impartial on the side of those who suffer most” in an excellent discussion of media coverage of the Gaza conflict on the World Service (Jan 7).
Below there follows a transcript of Fisk’s remarks on Israeli censorship, journalistic impartiality and Middle East history, which includes the following key observation:
“When we are reporting a football match in the UK we can give equal time to both sides or a public enquiry into new motorway. But the Middle East is not a football match.”
You can listen to the full programme on the World Service website. Or you can cut and paste into your browser this link to the podcast: http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/worldservice/whys/whys_20090106-2005a.mp3
Other journalists involved in the programme were Gil Hoffman, chief political correspondent and analyst at The Jerusalem Post, Greg Philo, research director of Glasgow University Media Unit, author of Bad News from Israel, and Jasim Azawi, presenter, Al-Jazeera.
Presenter: How do you get to the truth during a war? How do you tell the difference between facts and lies? Did Israel break the ceasefire or did Hamas? Do the Israelis target civilians or does Hamas use human shields? With both sides accusing the other of propaganda and spin, we’ve assembled a cast of respected correspondents to talk to you about how they go about trying to blow away the fog of war.
…Robert Fisk, I was reading your piece in the Independent today, could you tell listeners your impressions of coverage of the conflict so far?
Fisk: The identifying mark of it is that the Israelis have prevented western correspondents from going into Gaza to witness with their own eyes what they are doing and what Hamas is doing. This has presented the world with a very one-sided picture in which the suffering of the Palestinians is not told through Western eyes and the suffering of Israelis is.
What is interesting, and I think what indeed may be a worthwhile by-product of this effective censorship by the Israelis, not allowing Western correspondents into Gaza, is that we are hearing the voices of Palestinians themselves unhindered by what I think is often the false balance of western media reporting in which they speak directly to their audience of their own experiences under fire, just as of course the Israelis can speak directly the Palestinians are doing so, and doing so without the presence of a western journalist to guide them or guard them or intervene if they say something which the western journalist doesn’t like.
And in this sense we may be seeing through censorship by the Israelis – which is a big mistake, and I gather quite a lot of Israelis think it think it’s a mistake as well. We may be seeing the beginning of something fruitful in journalism where the people who actually do the suffering on every side will be able to tell their own story, not though our filtering lens.
Fisk: Can I come in here for a second? If the western journalists were in Gaza they would be able to talk not to the man the street but to the man and the woman and the child in the hospital. And we can’t do that, none of us can. And that is the problem.
It’s not that the images are a distortion – the images are real. The distortion is when we’re told afterwards that the Palestinians deserve it or indeed that the Palestinians had it coming to them because Hamas was using them, Hamas was in the school.
I’ve been reporting the Middle East for 32 years. We had this in ‘82. We were told in 1996 after the Qana massacre by Israeli artillery that the 106 civilians got killed because Hezbollah gunmen were among them in the refugee centre in the UN base. It was totally untrue. And I actually predicted in the paper this morning that we’d hear that Hamas was in the school. And sure enough, here we are again.
I think what we need is a much freer voice, not among the Palestinians but in Israel. One of the things I keep pointing out, and I think my colleague in the Jerusalem Post will agree, is that you have some fine correspondents who are Israelis. Amira Hass [Haaretz], who I admit is a friend of mine, Gideon Levi [Haaretz], whom I haven’t met, who is a brilliant journalist. I wish we were covering their stories, running their reports in our papers, because they are certainly more courageous than our journalists.
Presenter: This is not a balanced conflict when you look at the death toll on either side. So can we be balanced in our reporting?
Fisk: I think it’s a bigger picture than this. We aren’t talking about balance between casualties. When we’re talking about 20 Israelis dead in 10 years, as I said in my piece in the Independent this morning that is a very grim figure. But when we are talking about 600 Palestinians dead in 9 days this is grotesque, not just disproportionate.
I think it is the job of journalists to be impartial on the side of those who suffer most.
I was present on the same street when a Palestinian suicide bomber walked into a Sbarro pizzeria in Jerusalem August 2000. When I got to the scene there was a woman with a chair-leg through her, a child with no eyes, Israelis of course in West Jerusalem. I wrote about the victims and the survivors. I did not give equal time, I did not give balance to the article by giving 50% of my report to the spokesman for Islamic Jihad.
When I was in the Sabra and Shatila camps in Beirut September 1982 where Israel’s militia allies from Lebanon, the Falange, had gone into the camp and murdered and massacred and eviscerated and raped women for two days while the Israelis watched, as we learned from the Israeli report the Kahan commission report the following year, I did not give equal time to the IDF spokesman, I concentrated on the victims and the survivors. That is what our job is to do.
When we are reporting a football match in the UK we can give equal time to both sides or a public enquiry into new motorway. But the Middle East is not a football match, it is a massive tragedy of blood, sorry and revenge. And we need to reflect that
We also need to look at history. Not enough journalists in my view take history books into war. Nobody has – I know our paper has but I haven’t seen any other paper explain it – have asked: why are all these Palestinians in Gaza? Many of them, their families, 93% I gather, actually come originally from that part of Palestine that became Israel. In other words these missiles that have been falling from Hamas are landing on land that before 1948 belonged legally to the families who are now in Gaza. That is an ironic situation that in any war we would be pointing out. In the Balkans that would be paragraph two.
Presenter. The problem is that people just don’t agree on the history in this conflict
Fisk: A lot of Israelis and a lot of Arabs do now agree on the history. Things have changed since the old days when the story was that all the Arabs left Palestine because they were ordered to leave while the Arab armies drove the Israelis into the sea. They were not ordered to leave by radio stations on the Arab side. If you read Benny Morris, if you read Ari Shlaim – there’s a wonderful article in today’s Guardian – who lays this all out, you’ll find that Israeli historians today, many of them, and Arab historians and British historians are actually coming together to see a common picture. I think that’s one of the few hopes in the Middle East at the moment, that the story is coming together. It’s not necessarily a different history any more.
Greg Philo also pointed out in the discussion that if a state limits of coverage in the way that Israel has it is a form of censorship. All organisations should say this. It should be labelled as censorship. It needs to be made an issue in the news.
Second, there needs to be a rigorous policy of making both sides heard. In Bad News From Israel we found that the Palestinian view was not being put. It has the effect of creating an environment in which Israeli perspective dominates. So if Israel says we invaded because of the rockets, we need to hear the Palestinian view that the rockets are being fired because of the humanitarian crisis that has been created here.