SYMPTOMS AND CAUSES

COMMENTARY ARCHIVES, 21 January 2009

by Jake Lynch

One of my students is establishing herself as a freelance journalist in Sydney and helping to pay the bills by filling in, now and again, with shifts on the switchboard at one of the main television channels here. Since Israel’s assault on Gaza began, she relates, “the phones have been hot during the news with a wide and varied cross-section of reactions”. On the bus on the way home, she got chatting to a journalist from the newsroom, who complained: “It’s like people don’t understand what news is. We only have a specific amount of time to work with. We can really only report what has happened, not the entire context of the Middle East”.

It’s a familiar dilemma. In the discussion on the bus, the student says, she found a sympathetic response to her insistence that “small amounts of context” must be possible, even in the most breathless breaking news report, and it’s the art of incorporating such elements that is one of the key skills for the peace journalist. It’s easier in print, since you can write things in a newspaper that don’t have to have pictures to cover them. Jerusalem-based correspondents for the Reuters News Agency used to make a habit of including as little as a single line, to the effect that “the Palestinians have been resisting Israel’s military occupation of their territory since 1967”.

What’s the point? The point is, what kind of a thing the conflict is, that is being reported on. Over and above the nature of the context, is the proposition that conflict is something which necessarily has context. I taught the first ever peace journalism course in a university, here in Sydney, beginning in October, 2000, days after the outbreak of what became known as the ‘Al-Aqsa Intifada’. Back then, it was common currency among reporters from international media to attribute the conflict to “ancient hatreds” between Arabs and Jews, as if the violence had simply come welling up from within. Later, the surface narratives of news rendered journalism about conflict susceptible to the key ideological statements of the “war on terrorism”, notably the Richard Perle doctrine: “We must decontextualise terror… any attempt to discuss the roots of terrorism is an attempt to justify it. It simply needs to be fought and destroyed”.

It was a signal that, if any news organization were to delve into the context of political violence, in search of explanation, they could expect political ‘flak’ – one of the five filters, proposed by Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky in their ‘propaganda model’, which keep the content of news congenial to powerful interests who are equipped to take their complaints above and beyond the phone lines to company switchboards.

To hold this line has always required considerable sleight-of-hand, however. In December, 2001, shortly after the ‘9/11’ attacks, three respected institutions – the Pew Research Centre, Princeton Survey Research Associates and the International Herald Tribune newspaper – joined forces to conduct an interesting poll. They identified 275 people of influence in politics, media, business and culture, in a total of 24 countries, asking them whether they believed their compatriots saw the attacks as something America had brought upon itself – a response, in other words, to its foreign, military and economic policies and their perceived effect on people’s lives. This view – the ‘context perspective’ – was shared by large majorities in the Middle East, narrower majorities elsewhere, and 58% overall. The opposite view, what we may call the ‘Perle perspective’, was in a minority everywhere except in the United States.

If we accept that acts of political violence are indissociable from context, that they can be explained, if not excused, by people’s experience of identifiable factors in everyday life, then it makes sense to talk about responses other than fighting and destroying. Indeed, months later, in March, 2002, leaders of 50 poor countries gathered in Monterrey, Mexico, to press for greater collective action to meet the Millennium Development Goals, set by the UN to halve global poverty by 2015, and speakers lined up to link this project directly to the threat of ‘terrorism’.

“In the wake of September 11, we will forcefully demand that development, peace and security are inseparable”, declared UN General Assembly president Han Seung-soo. “To speak of development is to speak also of a strong and determined fight against terrorism”, the conference heard, from then Peruvian president Alejandro Toledo. The quots are taken from a report of the event by the Associated Press news agency, which opened with a line of context: “Leaders of poor nations warned their rich counterparts that if they want a world free of terrorism, they will need to pay for it”.

Now, such formulations beg more questions than they answer, and there is a strong case for arguing that people who carry out acts of violence such as those called ‘terrorism’ are responding to injustice and inequality, rather than poverty in and of itself. That, in turn, affects what kind of development is necessary to forestall it. But it shows that, from the first, the ‘war on terrorism’ flew in the face of basic and globally shared understandings of the way the world works, among both public opinion and political opinion. Washington’s demand that we decontextualise terror, collapsing the distinction between understanding and justifying, failed to dislodge these fundamental insights.

Signs have emerged recently that the plight of Gaza has taken these strains to breaking point. The UK believed it had achieved a consensus on the UN Security Council for its motion calling for an immediate ceasefire. US diplomats had been approached, listened to, their concerns met and worked into the text with an adroitness typical of British drafting at its best. But all that work went for nothing when the White House performed a last-minute volte-face, the lines from Washington to New York turned white-hot, and the US vote was cast to abstain, instead. Israel had obtained the key signal it needed, to carry on pounding regardless.

In fury – or as near as the UK Foreign Office gets to fury – journalists in London were alerted to a speech by the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, announcing that the “war on terrorism” had been a mistake. It had implied an erroneous belief, he went on, that “the correct response to the terrorist threat was primarily a military one – to track down and kill a hardcore of extremists”. Instead, the remedy was to insist on the rule of law, not to “subordinate” it, a reference to Guantanamo Bay but one that could also apply to Israel in its dealings with the Palestinians.

The rockets fired out of Gaza are indiscriminate weapons, and when they kill or injure people, that’s a war crime. And any state has the right to self-defence, under the UN Charter. But the exercise of that right has to be proportionate and discriminatory, and it is clear to the world at large that this has not been the case.

Those rockets, moreover, need to be seen as a symptom, not a cause in their own right. In reality, the whole experience of the Palestinian people has amounted to a denial of human rights and human needs: latterly, in Gaza, the need for access to food and basic medical supplies, but in general, the need to assert their own identity and to have it accepted by others.

They attempt to run their own affairs, building a seaport and airport for Gaza as well as the Palestinian Broadcasting Service, and all are destroyed. Sonja Karkar, a redoubtable campaigner based in Melbourne, who runs Women for Palestine and Australians for Palestine, comments: “Conservatively, Israel’s destruction of infrastructure has been estimated at $3.5 billion, whilst lost potential income for the Palestinian economy has
been estimated at around $6.4 billion; the total loss far exceeding the overall international assistance received by the Palestinian people from 1994 to 1999”.

The Palestinians elect a government committed to a peace process, and are rewarded with a doubling of the illegal settler population on their land. They elect to government a party from outside the peace process, and the results of the election are instantly suborned by the ‘international community’, met with a US-sponsored coup attempt, a military blockade and a suspension of international aid. That government agrees a ceasefire, there is then an unprovoked Israeli military strike on Gaza, a volley of answering rocket fire and the present all-out assault.

These are the essential elements of context for any news organization reporting on Gaza – not to be included, in full, in every report, but to be made accessible to readers, listeners and viewers over time. It takes a deliberate creative strategy, acknowledging that, under the pressure the television journalist complained about, in the conversation with my student, such aspects are always likely to drop off the edge; so, be on the lookout for opportunities to put them back in.

Michael Schudson said: “The media are formally disconnected from other ruling agencies because they must attend as much to their own legitimation as to the legitimation of the capitalist system as a whole”. In other words, journalism cannot afford to be seen by its public to be more credulous or less well-informed than they are. When even the UK Foreign Secretary is prepared to disavow the “war on terrorism”, the time is well overdue for that small amount of context to be put back in.

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