The perilous mix of political posturing and reporting

Brits get political

The issue of what kind of public political stance reporters should be allowed to take came to mind this weekend, thanks to a Sunday editorial in the Guardian, which lamented a call by the British University and College Union to boycott Israeli universities to protest the Israeli occupation of land formerly held by Palestinians.

This sort of one-sided thinking comes not only with auspicious timing (just before the fortieth anniversary of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War), but on the heels of the U.K.’s National Union of Journalists—which represents some 35,000 journalists in the U.K. and Ireland—calling for its own boycott of Israeli products in April, due to what it termed Israel’s “savage, pre-planned attack on Lebanon” last summer and the “slaughter of civilians in Gaza.”

College professors engaging in politics is one thing, but a journalist union taking sides in a heated political/ethnic/religious fight is quite another. The language used in the declaration is the best example of the kind of political stance that journalists—some of whom cover Israel and the Middle East—shouldn’t take. That’s not to suggest that journalists don’t or can’t have opinions. They do and they must. But those involved in daily, non-partisan reporting have to be careful about how they express those opinions. The NUJ however, blows this out of the water with its anti-Israeli motion.

Thankfully, not all U.K. journalists are on board with the proposed boycott. The Guardian called the move by the NUJ “an absurd gesture since, if implemented, it would make reporting from Jerusalem impossible. All that motion achieved was to send a signal worldwide that, collectively, British journalists take a partisan view of Middle East news.” Toby Harnden of The Telegraph asked, “So what does the NUJ motion do for its members [in the Middle East]? It helps smear them all as being biased and anti-Israel. Bravo NUJ for encouraging people to view your members as partisans in a region when charges like that can be damaging to one’s health.” He also charged the NUJ with “propagating biased assertions, endangering the safety of its members, singling Israel out for criticism above all other nations, dictating what we should write.”

The irony of the whole thing is that the very same day the NUJ criticized Israel, its international affiliate, the International Federation of Journalists, demanded that the Palestinian Authority secure the release of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston, who was kidnapped in Gaza back in March by Palestinian gunmen. The NUJ has frequently expressed “concern” and offered its “solidarity” to the effort to secure Johnston’s release, but its response has lacked anything resembling the fury it displayed at Israel.

By calling for the boycott, the NUJ exposes itself to the charge of having a political agenda unbecoming an organization of supposedly impartial journalists. The Guardian drove this point home on Sunday, writing that, “If British unions are in the business of solidarity, they might consider flinging gestures at Saudi Arabia, Iran, Syria or Egypt where journalists and academics are imprisoned and tortured for expressing dissent. But they target only Israel.”

In the end however, you have to consider the source. In April, the NUJ complained about unfair coverage of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and as NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear termed it, “expressed support for the enormous social progress in Venezuela.” One member complained that the British press is “encouraging unjustified stereotypes of the Venezuelan president as a dictator who is repressing the local media.” Sadly for the NUJ, president Chavez has just shut down a local television station whose coverage he didn’t like.

Sounds like someone’s playing to stereotype!

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.