They Missed the Story

Ignoring the silenced millions, Western journalists got the Middle East all wrong

Middle East Screen TV

Mugged by reality: Jeremy Bowen meets Colonel Gaddafi on an escorted press tour of Tripoli last month 

The former US Ambassador to the United Nations Daniel Patrick Moynihan composed an aphorism as he watched dictatorships pile opprobrium on democracies: “The amount of violations of human rights in a country is always an inverse function of the amount of complaints about human rights violations heard from there.” Journalists, lawyers, academics and opposition politicians can investigate the injustices of democracies, and because they can investigate, injustice is kept in check. They cannot expose the greater atrocities of dictatorships because there is no freedom to report, and hence their greater crimes pass unnoticed.

I have my doubts about the universal jurisdiction of Moynihan’s Law — America was responsible for many great crimes while he was its good and faithful servant. But his insight explains why Jeremy Bowen is blinking at his cameraman in Tripoli, like some startled, uncomprehending mammal who has been shaken by the convulsions around him from a hibernation that has lasted for most of his career. 

The BBC’s Middle East editor is not the only expert whose expertise now looks spurious. The Arab uprising is annihilating the assumptions of foreign ministries, academia and human rights groups with true revolutionary élan. In journalistic language, it is showing they had committed the greatest blunder a reporter can commit: they missed the story. They thought that the problems of the Middle East were at root the fault of democratic Israel or more broadly the democratic West. They did not see and did not want to see that while Israelis are certainly the Palestinians’ problem — and vice versa — the problem of the subject millions of the Arab world was the tyranny, cruelty, corruption and inequality the Arab dictators enforced.

Put this starkly, it sounds as if the charges of double standards and anti-Semitism habitually directed at liberal Westerners are justified. But liberal prejudice — “anti-liberal prejudice” is a more accurate description — is a process as well as an ideology. Dictatorial states and movements shepherded liberal opinion into a one-way street by exploiting the logistics of news-gathering.

No news organisation in the West could base their main Middle Eastern bureau anywhere other than Israel, for the simple reason that it was the only free country with a free press, an independent judiciary and a constitution. Researchers and diplomats, as well as reporters, could phone or visit Palestinians in the occupied territories, as indeed could anyone else. Crucially, in an age dominated by images, television crews could get pictures. I am not saying that the authorities do not harass foreign or Israeli correspondents trying to report the undoubted violations of Palestinian rights, simply that they can report from Jerusalem but cannot from Damascus or Riyadh.

Even if the Baathists or Wahaabis let journalists in, they would place them under constant surveillance. Meanwhile any local invited to go on air to criticise his or her rulers would refuse because they knew that they would be running a terrible risk. Moynihan’s Law explains why you never hear a BBC or Sky anchor announce, “We are going live to hear our Saudi Arabian editor on the oppression of women in Mecca,” although if we are very lucky maybe we will soon.

At some level Westerners ought to have registered that millions of people must bite their tongues in the Middle East, and tempered their judgments accordingly. They mistook silence for compliance for a reason the late Fred Halliday, who never shirked from confronting the ugliness of the region, identified when he tried to stop his asinine colleagues at the London School of Economics endorsing the Libyan tyranny. Naturally, Saif Gaddafi could appear suave and at ease in Western circles after having unlimited amounts of stolen money lavished on his education. But, said Halliday, Westerners must realise that the function of plausible and well-groomed men from Libya, Egypt and Saudi Arabia was to impress foreigners by making “compromises with internal hardliners that serve to lessen external pressure”. Keep executions and police interrogations off YouTube and the prudent tyrant will be delighted by the readiness of Westerners to dismiss informed criticisms of his regime as neocon propaganda. 

Instead of listening to Halliday, Anthony Giddens flew to meet Gaddafi and uttered the only remark anyone is likely to remember him for. Libya’s future was as a “Norway of North Africa: prosperous, democratic and free”. How the sight of the Saharan Scandinavians slaughtering their own civilians must perplex him.

Gaddafi was hardly an exception. From the moment he took power in Syria on the sole ground that he was his father’s son, Bashir al-Assad has heard politicians insist that he is a Baathist they can do business with. Only last month, Anna Wintour, a fashion magazine editor who could be a tenured LSE professor, allowed her Vogue staff to simper that Bashir’s wife was “the most magnetic of first ladies”. For all the Western fawning, the denial of Syrian liberty continued undiminished, but it could only be brought to the world by talking to exiles or explaining the totalitarian nature of the Baath Party, neither of which would have made good television. 

Mohammed al-Jahmi, brother of the tortured Libyan dissident Fathi al-Jahmi, offered further explanation of fellow-travelling, after Human Rights Watch unctuously declared that Libya was advancing towards liberty under Gaddafi. Foreigners want access, he said, but the regime makes them wait for months for visas. When Human Rights Watch did gain entry, its emissaries were honoured guests, visiting an exotic country other journalists and campaigners could not enter. They were grateful, and psychologically dependent on their hosts. Everyone they met reinforced the regime’s message that life was good and getting better. “Somewhere along the way,” Mohammed said, “a fundamental truth gets lost: these dictators don’t change overnight.”

Logistics as much as infantile leftism produced the ideology of Middle Eastern commentary. Israel was the only story in the region journalists could cover daily. Rather than stop pretending to be omniscient and admit their limitations to the viewer, rather than show common human feeling and think of the silenced millions, journalists pretended that Israel was the region’s only story because it was the source of the region’s ills. The effect was anti-Semitic because the Jew once again was depicted as a supernatural figure with the diabolic power to create suffering on an epic scale. That narrow, prejudiced world of Middle Eastern commentary went up in flames when the Arab revolutionaries threw their first Molotovs. Whatever happens next, its loss will be no loss at all.