The fix­ers be­hind the TV pic­tures

The Jewish Chronicle - - COMMENT - Jenni Frazer

AMONG THE tor­rent of words gen­er­ated by the lat­est Gaza con­flict there have been, in­evitably, at­tacks on the BBC for its cov­er­age. Ac­cu­sa­tions of bias, JC read­ers may be sur­prised to learn, come as fre­quently from sup­port­ers of the Pales­tinian cause as from those on the pro-Is­rael side, and, in­deed, the Ra­dio 4 re­sponse pro­gramme, Feed­back, has de­voted much at­ten­tion to the is­sue in two suc­ces­sive weeks.

It seems to me, as some­one who has worked in the re­gion, that a good deal of the crit­i­cism of the BBC — and, in­deed, of many of the for­eign re­porters who have risked their lives to re­port from Gaza — is not just mis­placed, but ig­no­rant.

Work­ing in a war zone is ab­so­lutely ter­ri­fy­ing. Split-sec­ond de­ci­sions have to be taken about where you stand, how you dress, de­ci­sions which can, lit­er­ally, mean the dif­fer­ence be­tween life and death.

The BBC runs cour­ses for war re­porters which in­clude in­struc­tions on the kind of equip­ment they should carry and wear, but even wear­ing a Kevlar vest with Press sten­cilled on the front and back is no guar­an­tee of the reporter’s safety.

I re­mem­ber a heated de­bate in ad­vance of go­ing into south Le­banon – with an Is­raeli army con­voy – as to whether the re­porters should wear white hel­mets in ad­di­tion to the re­in­forced vests. “Don’t wear hel­mets”, we were told by a vet­eran jour­nal­ist, “it sin­gles you out much more eas­ily for snipers.” Oh, lovely, I thought, as I quiv­ered in my Marks & Spencer flat­ties, sweat­ing co­pi­ously un­der the phe­nom­e­nally heavy Kevlar.

Watch­ing ex­tremely ex­pe­ri­enced re­porters such as the BBC’s Lyse Doucet and Orla Guerin do­ing their ut­most to present a bal­anced pic­ture, I know that be­hind ev­ery such front-of-cam­era person is the lo­cal fixer.

When I was based in Jerusalem and trav­elled reg­u­larly to Gaza, I, like ev­ery other for­eign jour­nal­ist, re­lied on a lo­cal fixer. Mo­hammed would meet my col­league and me at the Erez check­point and we would scram­ble out of our nice clean Is­raeli car, with its yel­low regis­tra­tion plates, into his bat­tered and beaten-up Pales­tinian blue-plated heap.

More of­ten than not the doors didn’t open prop­erly and the win­dows were cracked. The ex­haust smoked hideously and Mo­hammed drove over the pot­holed Gaza streets as though he were a stand-in for a For­mula One driver.

Nor­mally we called Mo­hammed ahead of our vis­its from Jerusalem and he would ar­range peo­ple for us to in­ter­view in Gaza City.

But we were al­ways cog­nisant of an un­pleas­ant truth: Mo­hammed had to re­main in Gaza once we had re­turned to air-con­di­tioned Is­raeli democ­racy.

Mo­hammed, who I knew was a keen Fatah sup­porter and loathed Ha­mas, had to live in Gaza and deal with the con­se­quences of what the for­eign re­porters said and did. His sis­ter, he told me once, had been at­tacked by Ha­mas bully-boys for walk­ing about wear­ing Western clothes.

He him­self was ter­ri­fied of the lo­cal Ha­mas head hon­cho and an in­ter­view he set up for us with him con­cluded with a white-faced Mo­hammed sink­ing ever lower in his chair as the in­ter­view with the Western re­porters pro­ceeded. And this took place in the days of “peace” in the af­ter­math of the Oslo Ac­cords.

Now fast-for­ward 20 years and mul­ti­ply Mo­hammed’s sit­u­a­tion by a fright­en­ing fac­tor of Ha­mas in con­trol of Gaza. The fix­ers are more than ever in thrall to the rul­ing au­thor­ity and when the for­eign re­porters dis­ap­pear, to­day’s Mo­hammeds have much more to worry about than mine did in my day.

It’s not so sim­ple for a reporter to per­suade a fixer to set up an in­ter­view with a Ha­mas leader — not least be­cause so many who are pulling the strings are sit­ting in com­par­a­tive com­fort in Doha or else­where in the Arab world, not in Gaza.

It’s not so sim­ple and cut-and-dried for a reporter to say that Ha­mas mil­i­tants have been spot­ted un­der the Shifa Hos­pi­tal or in the lees of the UN schools – although some brave re­porters have done so.

In the ab­sence of Is­raeli re­porters in Gaza, the for­eign cor­re­spon­dents have to rely on what they can see. So-called “show and tell “re­port­ing is not sat­is­fac­tory by any means, but it’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand that the meth­ods re­porters might use in other cir­cum­stances are not so eas­ily avail­able to them in the chaos of Gaza.

No broad­caster will ever get it 100 per cent right and cer­tainly the BBC is un­likely to re­main im­mune from al­le­ga­tions of bias in this most volatile of con­flicts. But its re­porters are re­ally coura­geous and are do­ing their best, I be­lieve.

All these arm­chair crit­ics who blast the BBC for not break­ing a story and “out­ing” Ha­mas tac­tics have never worked in a war zone.

I hope they never have to.

‘Hel­mets will sin­gle you out for the snipers’

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