Jobs @ MG
When journalists forget that murder is murder
By Robert Fisk
|'It's not the words
Israelis and Palestinians use about each other that concern me. It's our
submission to them'
What on earth has happened to our reporting of the Middle East? George
Orwell would have loved a Reuter's dispatch from the West Bank city of
Hebron last Wednesday. "Undercover Israeli soldiers," the
world's most famous news agency reported, "shot dead a member of
Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction yesterday in what Palestinians called an
assassination." The key phrase, of course, was "what
Palestinians called an assassination". Any sane reader would conclude
immediately that Imad Abu Sneiheh, who was shot in the head, chest,
stomach and legs by 10 bullets fired by Israeli "agents" had
been murdered, let alone assassinated. But no. Reuters, like all the big
agencies and television companies reporting the tragedy of the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict, no longer calls murder by its real name.
Back in the days of apartheid, no one minced their words when South
African death squads gunned down militant opponents. They talked about
murder and assassination. They still do when Latin American killers murder
their political opponents. I've yet to find a newspaper which shrinks from
reporting the "murder" – or at the least
"assassination" – of IRA or UDA gangsters in Belfast. But not
when the Israelis do the murdering. For when Israelis kill, they do not
murder or assassinate, according to Reuters or CNN or the most recent
convert to this flabby journalism, the BBC. Israelis perpetrate something
which is only "called" an "assassination" by
Palestinians. When Israelis are involved, our moral compass our ability to
report the truth dries up.
Over the years, even CNN began to realise that "terrorist" used
about only one set of antagonists was racist as well as biased. When a
television reporter used this word about the Palestinian who so wickedly
bombed the Jerusalem pizzeria last week, he was roundly attacked by one of
his colleagues for falling below journalistic standards. Rightly so. But
in reality our reporting is getting worse, not better.
Editors around the world are requesting their journalists to be ever
softer, ever more mealy mouthed in their reporting of any incident which
might upset Israel. Which is why, of course, Israelis are so often
reported as being killed by Palestinians while Palestinians, some as young
as 10, are killed in "clashes" – "clashes" coming
across as a form of natural disaster like an earthquake or a flood, a
tragedy without a culprit.
One sure way of spotting Israel's responsibility for a killing is the word
"crossfire". Mohamed el-Dura, the little Palestinian boy shot
dead by Israeli troops in Gaza last year, became an iconic symbol of the
Palestinian "intifada". Journalists investigating the boy's
death, including The Independent's Jerusalem, correspondent were in no
doubt that the bullets which hit him were Israeli (albeit that the
soldiers involved may not have seen him). Yet after a bogus Israeli
military inquiry denounced in the Knesset by an Israeli member of
parliament, all the major Western picture agencies placed captions on the
photo for future subscribers. Yes, you've guessed it, the captions said he
was killed in "crossfire".
Wars have always produced their verbal trickeries, their antiseptic
phrases and hygienic metaphors, from "collateral damage" to
"degrading the enemy". The Palestinian-Israeli conflict has
produced a unique crop. The Israeli siege of a city has become a
"closure", the legal border between Israel and the occupied
territories has become the "seam line", collaborators for the
Israelis are "co-operators", Israeli-occupied land has become
"disputed", Jewish settlements built illegally on Arab land have
become "neighourhoods" – nice, folksy places which are
invariably attacked by Palestinian "militants".
And when suicide bombers strike "terrorists" to the Israelis, of
course the Palestinians call them "martyrs". Oddest of all is
Israel's creepy expression for its own extrajudicial murders:
"targeted killings". If a dark humour exists in any of this
dangerous nonsense, I must admit that Israel has found a real cracker in
its expression for Palestinians who blow themselves to bits while making
bombs: they die, so the Israelis say, from "work accidents".
But it's not the words Israelis and Palestinians use about each other that
concern me. It's our journalistic submission to these words. Just over a
week ago, I wrote in The Independent that the BBC had bowed to Israeli
diplomatic pressure to drop the word "assassination" for the
murder of Palestinians in favour of Israel's own weird expression,
"targeted killings". I was subsequently taken to task by Malcolm
Downing, the BBC assignments editor who decreed this new usage. I was
one-sided, biased and misleading, he said; the BBC merely regarded
"assassination" as a word that should apply to
"high-ranking political or religious figures".
But the most important aspect of Mr Downing's reply was his total failure
to make any reference to the point of my article the BBC's specific
recommended choice of words for Israel's murders: "targeted
attacks". The BBC didn't invent that phrase. The Israelis did.
I don't for a moment believe Mr Downing realises what he did. His
colleagues regard him as a professional friend. But he has to realise that
by telling his reporters to use "targeted killings", he is
perpetrating not only a journalistic error but a factual inaccuracy. So
far, 17 totally innocent civilians including two small children have been
killed in Israel's state-sponsored assassinations. So the killings are at
the least very badly targeted indeed. And I can't help recalling that when
the BBC's own Jill Dando was so cruelly shot dead on her doorstep, there
was no doubt that she was killed by a man who had deliberately
"targeted" her. But that's not what the BBC said. They called it
murder. And it was.
Within the past week, CNN, the news agencies and the BBC have all been
chipping away at the truth once more. When the Jewish settlement at Gilo
was attacked by Palestinian gunmen at Beit Jalla, it once more became a
"Jewish neighbourhood" on "disputed" land even though
the land, far from being in "dispute", legally belongs to the
Palestinian people of Beit Jalla ("Gilo" being the Hebrew for
"Jalla"). But viewers and readers were not told of this.
When the next state-sponsored assassination of a Palestinian Hamas member
took place, a television journalist – BBC this time – was reduced to
telling us that his killing was "regarded by the Israelis as a
targeted killing but which the Palestinians regard as an
assassination". You could see the problem. Deeply troubled by the
Israeli version, the BBC man had to "balance" it with the
Palestinian version, like a sports reporter unwilling to blame either side
for a foul.
So just watch out for the following key words about the Middle East in
television reporting over the next few days: "targeted
killings", "neighbourhood", "disputed",
"terrorist", "clash" and "crossfire". Then
ask yourself why they are being used. I'm all for truth about both sides.
I'm all for using the word "terrorism" providing it's used about
both sides' terrorists. I'm sick of hearing Palestinians talking about men
who blow kids to bits as "martyrs". Murder is murder is murder.
But where the lives of men and women are concerned, must we be treated by
television and agency reporters to a commentary on the level of a football
The above article appeared in the London Independent (18