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Critiquing the media’s approach to the Israel-Palestine conflict: “MEMO to the Editor” book launch

In a room adorned somewhat appropriately with black and white war photography the Senior Editor of Middle East Monitor, Ibrahim Hewitt, launched his book “MEMO to the Editor” at the Frontline Club on Wednesday evening. The premise for the book is that too many journalists present inaccurate or incomplete information about the Palestine-Israel conflict. Citing as an example the New York Times, Hewitt pointed out that it routinely described Hamas as the group which “seized power” in Gaza when, in reality, it won a democratic election fairly and squarely. What did he do about this? He wrote letters; loads of them, and still does.

His book is a collection of letters written to the editors of major newspapers in Britain and the US which illustrate in their own way how coverage of the struggle can be distorted by individual journalists’ accuracy, or lack thereof, and personal agendas. They present, he said, a snapshot of the major arguments over this contentious issue. Are they effective? “Perhaps I can take credit, in my own mind at least, for changing at least one Jerusalem correspondent’s view of what happened in Gaza in 2007,” he suggests, adding that the journalist in question started to mention the election and subsequent coup attempt which saw Hamas end up ejecting Fatah from Gaza.

Hewitt was clear that he doesn’t necessarily want to see a pro-Palestine media, simply one that is “balanced”. He laments the fact that the letters covered the period from December 2009 to December 2011 but the issues have not gone away; indeed, he recalled to the packed audience that the issues are largely the same as they were when he first visited Palestine in 1988. “The main difference is that then we were talking about the occupation being in place for 40 years and now it is 65 years,” he said. “The ethnic cleansing which started in 1948 is still going on.”

It is important, he believes, for the media to be aware that people are watching what it presents as “the facts”. Responses from journalists suggest that his letters may not all be published – very few are – but they are forwarded to the journalists whose work he critiques.

Chaired by the entertaining Mark McDonald, a human rights barrister and director and principle founder of the London Innocence Project, the book launch saw Ibrahim Hewitt joined by former BBC Middle East Correspondent Tim Llewellyn and foreign leader writer for the Guardian, David Hearst. McDonald suggested that “if you take a balanced view of an unbalanced situation, you get a distorted picture” regarding the mainstream media’s insistence on impartial reporting.

Turning to Llewellyn he asked if he believed that his ex-employer the BBC was biased when it comes to Palestine-Israel. Llewellyn didn’t hesitate: “Yes; absolutely; no question about it.” Yet caveats haven’t always been inserted into news reports as frequently as they are now. He recounted the time that he reported that the Israeli army had fired into a mosque, something that he actually witnessed. Afterwards, his editor asked him to insert the routine Israeli denial into the piece; he refused. He pointed out, however, that when the public want to see “dynamite” it is difficult to report from the war front in a balanced, impartial way. Context is often, agreed the speakers, the casualty.

David Hearst pointed out the difficulties of publishing articles regarding the Palestine-Israel conflict, as “each and every blow of this battle sparks a war of words”. He said that he personally had felt the pressure and knew that when publishing a piece “you are made aware immediately that you are doing the equivalent of kicking a wasp’s nest. And what you’ve got to do is steel yourself and say right, I’m going to get stung here but it’s worth it. You’ve got to do it as your duty as a journalist.”

Summing up, Ibrahim Hewitt thanked the audience for an engaging discussion and reiterated his desire for people to read his book of letters so that he can educate and inform and urged everyone to write letters themselves. “After all,” he concluded, “if we can change just one journalist’s prejudices for the better, it will all have been worthwhile.”

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