This time of year is always a period of personal retrospection for me, ending in trips down memory lane. It was, for example, when I became a cub reporter back in the seventies with high ideals and a determination to change the world through my stories.
Already inspired by Washington Post investigative journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward who broke the Watergate political scandal which led in August 1974 to the resignation of US President Richard Nixon, I’d previously been fired up by Seymour Hersh’s dramatic 1969 exposure of the My Lai Massacre in Vietnam. Two days after the Hersh exclusive, around 250,000 Americans gathered around the Washington Monument to demand an end to the Vietnam War. A rally had been planned anyway, but I doubt it would have had the same impact if not fuelled by Hersh’s powerful words. That was the sort of journalism which inspired me.
However, my lofty ambitions were soon knocked out of me as I signed up for a training apprenticeship with the Durham Advertiser Series and went to work at its ramshackle branch offices in Stanley and Consett. The grim reality of covering agricultural shows (“Best of breed in cows and sheep” a speciality); reporting the non-events at the Women’s Institutes, when it really was all Jam and Jerusalem; and taking the names of mourners at the funerals of local dignitaries, were the order of the day.
A little later I moved to regional morning newspapers and my ambitions were reignited by another journalist, Robert Fisk, whose reporting on the massacres of Palestinian refugees at Sabra and Shatila were so powerful that they made me weep. The 1982 atrocity in which up to 3,500 people were slaughtered by Phalange Christian militiamen under the watchful eyes of the Israeli military still haunts Fisk today.
By then my name was regularly on front pages with national newspapers following up my stories and, almost inevitably, Fleet Street beckoned. I ignored the call for a while and pursued a series of major exclusives, including the first Western interview with Ahmed Jibril, the founder and leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine – General Command (PFLP-GC). This was picked up by other newspapers, something that simply would not happen in today’s anti-Palestinian climate.
Then, in the late 80s, I was handed an intelligence story which saw the Northern Echo publish photo montages of IRA suspects after I’d been handed the largest dossier of images of terror suspects during the so-called Troubles. Not only was the IRA irritated by my story, but so too were the British intelligence services and, despite being threatened with prison during police interviews, I never named my source.
A few years later I was the first journalist to do an in-depth interview with Ian Davison, a Geordie carpenter who was serving a life sentence in Cyprus for the killing of three Mossad agents in Larnaca. He had been a member of the elite PLO unit known as Force 17 when he and two Palestinians killed the Israeli spies on board a yacht in the Cypriot port. The incident triggered a chain of events, including Israel’s bombing of the PLO headquarters in Tunis, which killed scores of civilians.
Times have changed, though, and it is becoming more and more difficult to break news in the mainstream media on this sort of scale. Embarrassing the Establishment or promoting an ounce of sympathy about the Palestinian cause or the anti-war movement is virtually impossible to do today.
The great investigative journalist John Pilger wrote recently about how independent journalists like Hersh have been driven from the “mainstream”. It was disappointing that he did not make a special reference to Palestine because quite a few journalists have found themselves out in the cold after striving to bring the daily injustices of Palestine to the fore.
As far as the mainstream media is concerned anyone who shows any degree of sympathy towards the Palestinian cause is decried as anti-Semitic or demonised, and usually both. I’m speaking from personal experience; every story I’ve ever written on Palestine is met with threats, accusations that I am an anti-Semite and worse. If you don’t believe me, read the abusive comments which will follow this article or check out my previous work for MEMO.
The influence of media moguls with vested interests in the status quo and ties to the Establishment, and the editors they appoint, is all-pervasive. I will never forget how my personal account post-Jenin massacre in April 2002 was spiked by the Sunday Express. It was dumped unceremoniously in favour of a shocking piece written by the late Labour peer and former MP Greville Janner.
The West Bank city of Jenin, a name now synonymous with heroic resistance, was under siege and there were several reports of an Israeli military-led massacre. I was one of the first journalists to get inside within hours of the siege being lifted; to this day, I am haunted by what I saw. I simply cannot mention Jenin without tears coming to my eyes.
The stench of death left me gagging as Palestinians recovered the bodies of their loved ones from the rubble where their homes once stood. Around 50 people were missing and 25 of those had been buried alive as Israelis used their tanks to crush the buildings. I saw one widow whose hands were shredded and bloodied as she dug desperately through the concrete, stones and crushed mortar to try to find the body of her wheelchair-bound uncle. “We had less than two minutes’ notice to get out and he didn’t make it,” she cried.
Not one home had escaped the onslaught as F16 fighter jets and Apache attack helicopters sent their hellfire missiles and shells into the residential area. A man called Marwan told me how he watched the lifeblood of his wife ebb agonisingly from her body after shrapnel from one of the shells tore through the kitchen window and sliced her jugular vein as she peeled vegetables in her kitchen. Israeli soldiers refused to let him carry her to a nearby hospital for help while medics were held back and were refused permission to enter.
Amidst all of this carnage, some Palestinian women told me, Israeli soldiers stole their jewellery. Others told how they were used as human shields while the soldiers went about their dirty work. I walked around the town with a delegation of Labour MPs and saw the evidence with my own eyes. The world knew that something horrific had happened in Jenin but few were allowed in to give an eyewitness account.
In the meantime, friends and allies of the Zionist state were scrambled to Jerusalem to carry out some damage limitation. Among them was Lord Janner, a leading light in Westminster’s pro-Israel lobby, and Colin Powell, the then US Secretary of State. Powell gave a press conference in the luxurious King David Hotel in Jerusalem and told the media that he had seen no evidence of a massacre in Jenin. This was the same man who in December 1968 said that there was no evidence of a massacre at My Lai in South Vietnam.
Powell “saw no evidence” because he never left the hotel, and I have often wondered, as I wrote in an earl MEMO article, if Janner ever did. If he didn’t, then he lied to his House of Lords colleagues about going to Jenin; if he did go and saw what I saw, then he lied about there being no massacre. He claimed that he did not find “evidence of allegations of disproportionate force.” Either way, his lordship lied, but it his story that made the front page of the Sunday Express instead of mine.
I realised then that telling the truth to those in power, or even attempting to get it into the mainstream media, was a one-sided battle. Thankfully, I think the public is waking up to the fact and this is reflected in tumbling newspaper circulations giving way to online news outlets, some of which are good while others are woefully inadequate; yet more are mere propaganda.
“By Yvonne Ridley” may not be seen these days in the mainstream media, but I’m certainly not out in the cold. Thanks to social networks and excellent online media outlets such as MEMO, I now have a global following. I’m not one to boast, but there are some mainstream media which would be delighted to have as many hits on their sites as I do.
With all of this happening, I am watching with growing interest the outcome of probably the most seismic story I ever broke, involving the biggest intelligence leak suffered by the US long before WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and whistle-blower Edward Snowden’s names came to our attention. Back in 2003, I was handed an intelligence communication which came from a contact within Britain’s GCHQ spy agency in Cheltenham. The contents were mind-blowing and contained an order from America’s National Security Agency (NSA) to British intelligence to spy on the UN Security Council. I knew that if my name was linked to the story the Blairites planted in newspaper offices — yes, it’s true — would do their best to kill the story; a few individuals did indeed try to stop my exclusive. One individual now working for the BBC metaphorically jumped up and down on my reputation and character to discredit the story.
Initially, I tried to get the story placed in the anti-war Daily Mirror under then editor Piers Morgan, but it was swatted away, so I contacted a former colleague at the Observer, the only other anti-war newspaper in Fleet Street, and handed him the document. Apparently there are now plans for a movie, so it seems likely that the story will be told on the silver screen focussing on the heroic GCHQ whistle-blowers who helped me.
The Observer eventually published the story on 2 March 2003 and, as I predicted, it caused an international storm and was followed up by every single newspaper chain in the world. Being so close to the anti-war movement, I sacrificed the chance of having my byline under the story because I knew there would be plenty of others who would try to discredit both it and me. This was not about me; it was a genuine attempt to stop the war in Iraq and it took a lot of courage to hand that original source document to me.
The important thing is that the story did get out, but it was not enough to stop an illegal invasion which is still having dire consequences in the Middle East today. The good news is that the mainstream media is losing its grip and influence in the world, but the need for journalists of integrity is more important now than ever before, as the evidence of injustice around the world grows daily, especially in occupied Palestine. As John Pilger said in his ground-breaking documentary, “Palestine is still the issue” and we should definitely read all about it, but that is unlikely to happen in the mainstream media.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.