The fixers behind the TV pictures
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’