Is it possible for an authoritative news organisation to report independently from inside Gaza? The BBC’s World Editor of News, Andrew Roy, thinks so. Speaking on the BBC’s “Feedback” programme last week, he talked proudly of the work done by BBC journalists based in its Gaza City bureau, and considered that the threat that they face comes from Israeli rockets rather than intimidation by Hamas enforcers.
Gaza is very small, made hard to get into and out of by Israel but controlled internally by Hamas. Hamas is a military junta with a political wing, elected but anti-democratic. Anyone reporting from inside Gaza has to play by Hamas’s rules.
Similar conditions apply in Zimbabwe, where it is BBC policy to get round Mugabe’s restrictions by reporting not from Harare but from Johannesburg in neighbouring South Africa, and making a point of saying so in the way it prefaces its reports.
The BBC is happy however to run a bureau from Gaza City, and to carry reports without any kind of prefatory caveat. The impression this gives is that unlike Zimbabwe, news stories coming out of Gaza are the product of a transparent reporting process.
It is a false impression. Journalists with other news agencies who have tried to expose Hamas tactics are said have been bullied and had their equipment taken away by Hamas guards. When news of this does get out it is quickly retracted, presumably under pressure or in anticipation of pressure.
In the last two weeks The Wall Street Journal’s Middle East correspondent Nick Casey has removed his own tweet about Hamas’s use of the al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza as a secret base, and a report carried by the Paris-based Libération about a French correspondent who had been intimidated by Hamas was also later removed from the paper’s website.
If the BBC has ever tried to push the envelope and been rebuffed, it certainly has not reported the fact. On the evidence, its relationship with Hamas is cosy and unquestioning.
The effect of this is not just to rob the reporting process of its usual scrutiny and challenge: it is to deprive reporting of any context. The news becomes what it appears to be; there is no critical perspective. The normal multi-dimensionality of journalism is reduced to a single strand.
This is insidious but remains uncommented on. Israel has long accused Hamas of staging photo opportunities to feed the appetite of the world’s press, and Hamas has long denied such allegations. But to observe this claim and counter-claim is to miss more sinister processes of media logistics.
During the last week the Press Association fed raw footage of a Palestinian girl aged five or six looking perfectly normal when sitting alone on a chair and then suddenly slumping when picked up by an adult and taken, apparently, to an operating theatre. Was the footage genuine or fake? At least one TV producer decided not to use it because it did not look genuine enough.
“Genuine enough.” Producers demand footage that satisfies news values. The visual message has to be immediate and obvious: ambiguous imagery that needs to be explained is too time consuming.
The result is that audiences are multiply deprived of crucial but more complex messages: that any available footage may have been manufactured; that TV broadcasters know this but do not make an issue of it; that TV broadcasters want imagery that does not look manufactured, even if it is; and that the issue of news management is not a news priority and is not investigated.
In addition, there is the fact that the footage that works best is that which reinforces predetermined narratives. Given a choice of pictures, producers select what conforms to preconceptions (Israeli cruelty; Palestinian victimhood).
The end result may look like transparent reporting but it is, in fact, an unintentional avoidance of reporting. And we know why: to question Hamas officials at close quarters is dangerous, and news organisations therefore keep their star reporters at a safe distance.
The UK’s Channel Four gave its celebrity news anchor Jon Snow the luxury of travelling to Gaza to report on casualities at Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital, but it was not until he returned to London on July 30 that he dared to press Hamas’s foreign affairs spokesman Osama Hamdan about its reasons for provoking Israel into deadly retaliation.
In the same way, the BBC’s Stephen Sackur’s attempt to challenge Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, about the secreting of weapons in civilian buildings on July 25 had to be conducted not from Gaza but from Doha. No objective reporter could safely pose such questions on Hamas’s home territory.
This turns the normal rules of reporting upside down. To approach proper scrutiny, respectable journalists are having to distance themselves from the people and places that they ought to be examining at close quarters, while those of their colleagues with the privilege of being on the spot convince us—and themselves—that their compromised reports are the real thing.
The consequence of this is that no first-hand report from inside Gaza can be taken at face value, while what is said from a position of safety lacks the authority of experience. This double disadvantage should be obvious: instead, it remains largely unrecognised. Reports from Gaza continue to be taken literally, as if Gaza was just another enclave of Western liberalism, without there being any calling to account.
But there is worse: the awfulness of what Israel has been doing in Gaza has given a false legitimacy to the apparently un-nuanced “show-don’t-tell” school of reporting that is all that the media are left with. Atrocity, sadly, makes for great images, and it is enough for these to be transmitted for reporters to be misled into thinking that their moral outrage is a fair substitute for analysis. It is not.