Last month, Media Lens examined an Independent interview with Tony Blair, “the international community’s Middle East envoy”. The interview was by Donald Macintyre, the paper’s Jerusalem correspondent. (‘Tony Blair: Former PM urges Israel to ease Gaza blockade’, Independent, 4 June 2010; http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/tony -blair-former-pm-urges-israel-to-ease-gaza-blockade-1991105.html)
We wrote in our alert:
“The whole tone of the Independent interview was uncritical and respectful; a bland and meek summation of the sincere and well-intentioned thoughts of a man with the blood of untold numbers of victims on his hands: men, women and children in Iraq, Afghanistan, the former Yugoslavia and, indeed, in Palestine itself.”
We noted that the piece gave no hint that the West and, in particular, the United States, has been full tilt behind the Israelis in crushing the lives and aspirations of the Palestinians. We suggested to Macintyre that, in echoing Blair’s rhetoric without challenge, he had “ignored the consistent and massive military, financial and diplomatic support given to Israel during its increasing strangulation of Gaza – the US, the UK and its allies are deeply complicit in this terrible crime.”
Macintyre dismissed our response as being “full of misleading assumptions about journalism in general and mine in particular.” We invited him to enlighten us further, but received no reply. Three weeks later he had still not responded again, despite a gentle emailed nudge. It was only once our alert went out on 20 July, and many readers challenged him, that Macintyre felt moved to write directly to us:
“Since I have in the last 24 hours had a lengthy series of emails from your supporters urging me to reply to the prominent attack on me on the Media Lens website, I assume that you will now publish the attached response in full.” (Email from Donald Macintyre, 21 July, 2010).
Like other mainstream journalists, Macintyre prefers not to notice the fact that many of the emails sent to him (and also copied to us) were not from “supporters” – they were from people interested to see how his arguments stacked up against ours so that they could make their minds up for themselves.
We will discuss Macintyre’s email below – we have also published it in our forum.
Challenging Power = “Polemical Argument”
In his response, Macintyre emphasised that the Blair interview was given “similar prominence” to an interview in Gaza with the Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar. (Donald Macintyre, ‘Iranian ships could join wave of flotillas to Gaza, says Hamas chief’, Independent, 28 June, 2010;http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/ iranian-ships-could-join-wave-of-flotillas-to-gaza-says-hamas-chief-2012259.html)
The Hamas interview was offered by Macintyre as an example indicating his balanced approach in interviews:
“In both cases I extracted what news I could on a story which was dynamic on several fronts, including the diplomatic… A parallel is actually afforded by the news interview with Dr Zahar. I also did not seek to engage him in print in a forensic debate on various remarks he made, including his assertion which I reported in some detail, that Israel and not Hamas had obstructed a prisoner exchange for Sgt Shalit. The reason was that I considered my job, as in the case of Blair, was to report his views, in the context of a fast moving story, without them being swallowed up, in a relatively short interview, by polemical argument with the reporter.”
The “parallel” is utterly bogus. Blair had been the British prime minister and bears responsibility for some of the greatest crimes in recent history. He is now a leading representative of an “international community” that is facilitating the destruction of the Palestinian people. In an interview with New Left Project, Norman Finkelstein, a leading commentator on the Israel-Palestine conflict, compared the assault on the Palestinians to the European genocide of Native Americans:
“I’ve found from my own work that actually the comparison with the dispossession of the Native Americans in North America works pretty well. Some years ago I sat down and started to read about what happened to the Cherokee Indians in the United States, and if you follow the steps in their dispossession, and then overlay the Israel-Palestine conflict, the correspondence and correlation is pretty impressive.” (http://www.newleftproject.org/index.php/site/ article_comments/god_helps_those_who_help_ themselves_-_an_interview_with_norman_Finkelstein/)
As British citizens, we, Macintyre included, all bear responsibility for Blair’s actions – our moral accountability is a very clear and obvious factor demanding that we hold Blair to account as far as we are able. Macintyre, by contrast, is in +no+ way responsible for the actions of the leader of a Palestinian government elected by Palestinians. The moral priority could hardly be clearer, and yet mainstream journalists act as though the priorities should be reversed – official enemies are typically subjected to fierce challenge, whereas ’our’ leaders and their allies are treated as revered statespersons to be received with polite deference and easy questions.
Macintyre wrote that he “considered [it] my job” to report Blair’s “views, in the context of a fast moving story, without them being swallowed up, in a relatively short interview, by polemical argument with the reporter.”
So the fundamental journalistic task of holding power to account is reduced to “polemical argument” for which there is no space, while acting as a faithful stenographer of high-level distortions is humbly doing “my job”. The ethical implications are breathtakingly miserable. In reality, journalists just about +never+ manage to find the time or space to seriously challenge Western leaders. It seems to be seen as impolite, as almost a slur on the democratic process.
Macintyre asserted that in writing up his Blair interview:
“My office judged that a relatively strong statement by the Quartet’s senior diplomat [Blair] on the need to lift the blockade in the wake of the killing of nine Turks aboard the Mavi Marmara, was of interest to readers.”
But according to Macintyre’s own article, Blair had +not+ called for an unequivocal lifting of the blockade, only for an “easing” of the “counterproductive” blockade which might end up “alienating” young people in Gaza: a polite way to describe the daily torture of 1.5 million Palestinians.
Macintyre went on to proclaim his own bona fides in reporting Palestine honestly and fairly:
“As it happens, I do not think that any Western correspondent has done more than I have, reporting on the ground since the beginning of the Israeli imposed siege in 2007, to draw attention to the deeply adverse effects of the blockade on the civilian population of Gaza. (If you doubt this I will furnish you a list of the relevant links.)”
It is true that Macintyre has drawn attention to the adverse effects of the blockade on Gaza. But that is irrelevant to the challenge we made, which was that he had failed to fully report Western complicity in Israel’s crushing of Palestinian lives – a crucial fact. Nor are we interested in celebrating whether Macintyre might be among the least biased of Western correspondents, an inglorious rabble with few honourable exceptions.
As we pointed out in our previous alert, Blair, with Macintyre’s collusion, was at pains to depict Hamas as “the extremists” who needed to be “isolate[d]”. As we noted, the idea that the Israeli government, and their ‘militant’ supporters in Washington, London and other Western capitals, might be deemed the real extremists is unthinkable.
Macintyre’s interview with Blair had indeed, as we mentioned in our alert, “ignored the consistent and massive military, financial and diplomatic support given to Israel during its increasing strangulation of Gaza – the US, the UK and its allies are deeply complicit in this terrible crime”.
“I would draw your attention to a 2000 word article written by me the day after the flotilla raid which focuses on international complicity with the siege. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/ world/middle-east/its-up-to-us-to-lift -the-blockade-1988693.html”
But throughout this piece, Macintyre portrays the Western powers as mere bystanders “wringing their hands” afflicted by “passivity” and even “paralysis”, guilty only of “woeful inaction” in the face of Israel’s steely refusal to lift its boot off the throat of the Palestinian people. Our point is that Israel is fully and massively armed to the tune of $3 billion annually, and diplomatically protected, by the United States with the support of Britain and other allies.
The thrust of Macintyre’s long piece was to back calls for a UN “maritime relief operation” for Gaza that “would go a long way to redeeming the West’s woeful inaction”. As discussed, in reality it is the West‘s +action+ not its “woeful inaction“ that is so appalling. Surely a relief operation would not exhaust the West’s moral courage, Macintyre added. “After all, the three dominant values which have permeated Western thinking over the last half century have been enterprise, freedom and democracy.” People on the business end of these “dominant values” – the West’s countless victims in the bloodbaths of Central America, Vietnam, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world – point to other priorities.
In similar vein, Macintyre made a cryptic reference in his article to the “tragically abortive peace talks at Camp David in 2000”. This “tragic” episode is “Israel’s most important contemporary myth”, John Pilger writes. The myth states that Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians the return of “90 per cent” of the Occupied Territories and that Yasser Arafat turned him down. Arafat’s alleged rejection of this “unprecedented act of generosity”, to quote the myth once again, became the launch pad for renewed abuse of the Palestinians, including the building of an apartheid wall.
Pilger writes of the peace talks in 2000:
“There was no ’90 per cent’ offer. At Camp David, Barak promised a token military withdrawal from no more than 12 per cent of the Occupied Territories. He also made it clear that Israel had no intention of giving back any part of Greater Jerusalem, which covers some of the best Palestinian land and is the administrative and cultural heart of Palestine. Most of the illegal settlements, which controlled 42 per cent of the West Bank and Gaza, would stay, leaving the Palestinians with fragments of their original homeland, or 15 per cent of pre-Israel Palestine.” (John Pilger, Freedom Next Time, Bantam Press, London, 2006, pp. 107-108)
“In practice,” wrote Barak’s chief negotiator at Camp David, Shlomo Ben-Ami, before taking up his negotiator’s role, “the Oslo agreements were founded on a neo-colonialist basis, on a life of dependence of one on the other forever.” (Quoted, Pilger, ibid.)
A Reporter “Surprised” By “Offended” Readers
Macintyre seems aggrieved that readers wrote to him at all:
“Finally I note that a number of Media Lens supporters who have now written to me to complain about the article say they have hitherto been Independent readers. I am a little surprised, if they are so interested in Middle East affairs, that they have found themslves offended by the article only after publication of the Media Lens report. I am unclear why they did not react at the time. Indeed I am unaware of a single complaint about the piece before your denunciation.”
This is a standard refrain we have seen over the years. We are rabble-rousers needlessly stirring up public dissatisfaction where none previously existed. In reality, a constant theme in the emails we receive from readers is a feeling of relief that our work “not only helped clarify and strengthen my own intuitions, but perhaps more importantly than this, helped me to feel less alone outside the current of much contemporary discourse”. If Macintyre’s argument ever did wash, it certainly won’t wash now. Readers may not have responded to Macintyre’s piece prior to our alert, but these days we are often beaten to the e-punch by determined, fast-acting netizens writing to journalists. This is a daily occurrence on our message board.
Does Macintyre really believe that our readers respond robotically to journalists without judging the arguments for themselves? Is it really lamentable for members of the public to take action in response to biased journalism when emboldened by the realisation that they are not alone in their concerns?
The reader can judge whether our challenge of Donald Macintyre was “full of misleading assumptions” and our analysis simply a “denunciation”. Shouldn’t media professionals welcome rational and polite challenges from the public?
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Donald Macintyre, Jerusalem correspondent, The Independent
Email: [email protected]
Katherine Butler, foreign editor, The Independent
Email: [email protected]