Something that’s come to mind in respect of the Israeli state’s Pirates of the Mediterranean performance this last week has been the issue of media. Liam has a pithy take on Israel’s hasbara maestro Mark Regev, the cause of many a broken TV screen, not least in the early hours of Monday’s news from the Freedom Flotilla as BBC News 24 seemed to have Regev and other Israeli spokespeople on a permanent loop and facing softball questioning – it took quite a while for countervailing voices to appear, and initially they were from Hamas, with everything that implies.
The other piece that caught my eye was Andy’s one on whether the BBC is institutionally biased on the Israel-Palestine question. It’s an important discussion to have, because it raises the question of how activists can use the media. This was the subject of a long ongoing conversation that both Andy and myself amongst others have been having with Madam Miaow, whose views on this issue I would give quite a lot of weight to given her chops earned by her brilliant press work for Stop the War. I take her points on board, and there are plenty of activists who could benefit from paying attention to her insights. (Especially in a situation like this, where there’s someone who has a proven ability, who has been doing work behind the scenes, and whose skills the left resolutely refuses to use.)
The reflections that follow, though, are my own responsibility though very much informed by what Anna has been saying to me. Further disclaimer: I’m not in the loop as regards Viva Palestina and don’t have inside knowledge of the media work that was actually done. Rather than casting about for blame in this instance – those who do have the inside knowledge are best placed to make any criticisms – I’m interested in what can positively be done to sharpen up our act.
Firstly: being quick off the mark. Obviously, since the Israelis attacked the flotilla, they were prepared in advance. So what? There are these wonderful things called contingency plans. So, if you know it’s possible that there might be a violent confrontation – and you can never rule out violence on the part of the IDF – you prepare for the eventuality. One thing that struck me for much of Monday was that neither the British government nor the media seemed to be aware that there were Brits on board – William Hague was talking about “if” there were Brits on board. In fact there were around thirty British citizens and another ten or so British residents, but it took a while for this to filter out.
Now, as I say, I’m not in the loop, and hadn’t been following the flotilla particularly closely, but even I knew that Kevin Ovenden was on board. (And I’m very glad he’s all right.) But this took quite some time to get into the public domain, thanks to his name being circulated on Twitter and then being picked up by the Guardian‘s live blog at 3.32pm. (Anna to the rescue again. Given the resources the organised left should have been able to bring to bear, that it should be up to an individual working on her own, without any acknowledgment from the left I should say, is outrageous.) Had I been involved, it would have seemed natural to have a list of the Brits on board, together with potted biographies and photos – just in case anything happened. It’s also good PR, because the media will always be interested in Brits in peril.
This is quite elementary. It’s understandable that TV in particular will want images – and the Israelis played up to that by videoing the assault while confiscating phones and cameras from their prisoners. You need to be able to offer the media something in return, and raising the question of “what’s happening to the Brits?” is a good one.
This leads me on to Andy’s point about BBC bias. It’s true that in certain circumstances, usually when there’s a crisis, the Beeb can be susceptible to Israeli pressure. But this isn’t constant – for instance, Jeremy Bowen’s reporting is usually very good, and the BBC does take a lot of flak from Israel and its British supporters over his work. More important, I think, is that the macro-level decisions like Mark Thompson blocking the screening of the charity appeal for Gaza are not necessarily reflected in hour-to-hour coverage, especially on an outlet like News 24 where there is an awful lot of airtime to fill. Most journalists are not all that ideological – they take news as being product – and BBC journalists in particular are hardwired to look for the other side of the argument. We’re not talking here in terms of “they have Melanie Phillips and we have Seumas Milne”, but of the jobbing journos – not the op-ed writers – whose brief is to cover the story. If you get in there quickly as representing the other side of the argument, you can make some impact.
We learned this from the experience of Stop the War, which not only had a great press officer who was damn good at spotting cracks in the system to take advantage of but managed to do what it did due to breaking with the old attitudes of the left. It’s worth remarking of StW that, despite its recent rewriting of its history, it was not founded in 2001. It was founded in the late 1990s by Paul Foot and made no impact whatsoever in the media – it was just another one of the SWP’s off-the-shelf campaigns. What changed between 2001 and 2003 was not only a heightening of the political atmosphere around Afghanistan and Iraq, but also a complete change in attitude that led to StW getting out there and becoming a live part of public debate – directly because of that sharp press work. That meant, in the first instance, an end to the defeatism that said that, since the media were biased, there was no point in even trying.
What was proved in that instance was that, if you’ve got something to say and you’re willing to put the work in, they won’t necessarily ignore you. To be honest, the impact made then put to shame all the NUJ members who are hanging around the left and who had failed to make that impact in previous years. And, and this is important, it wasn’t just a question of flair and imagination – it was a matter of doing the basics in a field that isn’t rocket science. Getting professionally composed press releases out, building up relationships with journalists and editors who’ll then know where to go for an opinion, having your list of people who can do media appearances, spotting an opportunity to grab a headline – none of this is particularly baffling, and even I can spot on these occasions what needs to be done even if I don’t have the skill set to do it myself.
So, when the flotilla was ambushed on Monday morning, it should have been clear what needed to be done. A lot of people were very angry, of course. There were the impromptu demonstrations, which were great, and lots of people were blogging and tweeting throughout the day. What I didn’t get any sense of was any coordinated media effort from our side. Not just that there was nobody appearing in the studios for interviews, but that there didn’t seem to be a concerted push to get the right talking points out. The “where’s Kevin?” line would have been a good one to take, not only because we didn’t know for some considerable time whether he was alive or dead, but also because, as I’ve said, Brits in peril abroad go to the top of the bulletin, and being at the top of the bulletin was the safest place for Kevin and the other hostages to be.
Observing from the outside, I got a strong sense of a vacuum, and a vacuum is something that can’t be afforded. You see, those of us who have some involvement in pro-Palestine activity work on the assumption that Mark Regev is telling outrageous lies, but he can be quite charming and fluent, especially if the interviewer isn’t well briefed, and is helped along by Israeli control of the footage coming from the flotilla. When you think about what the punter in the street will make of the news coverage, bear in mind that a vacuum is dangerous because bullshit will expand to fill the space available. You need people on there from the PSC or Stop the War or Viva Palestina who are briefed in advance, who can hold up under questioning and who can put the other side of the argument convincingly. Because even if the propaganda battle is unequal, you can’t use that as an excuse for not taking part in the battle. Think of the way the Tory press monstered Neil Kinnock in the 1980s – at one point Kinnock had had enough and decided to just not talk to the papers any more. Understandable on a human level, but much good did it do him.
There has to be a break from the bad old ways when things are this important – and, if comrades are going to put themselves in harm’s way, it doesn’t get much more important. The left does have a horrible track record of not only being awful in how it approaches the media; there’s also the aspect of how this fits in to bad habits in left organising. I know for certain of people who were assets to our side who were deliberately undermined for reasons of organisational rivalry or simply crabby egos; and of talented people being moved out of vital positions while being replaced by people who were blatantly unsuited for the job but had the right connections. I could go on at length, and sometimes do. If this is how the left acts internally, no wonder its external work too often looks like amateur hour.
Listen, I don’t want to be unremittingly negative about this. I think, for instance, that Viva Palestina is a brilliant initiative, and wish more people knew about it. The left is still very good at organising demos. What we need is to brush up on trying to frame the public debate – starting with disadvantages, sure, but there’s certainly plenty of talent knocking around the left if it can be properly utilised. That means two things. It means setting the egos and rivalries aside when there are important issues at stake. Regular readers will know that I’m far from uncritical of John Rees, but if John is appearing on Newsnight to discuss Gaza then I really want him to do well.
It also means building up a cadre of people who know how the media work, who can do press and who can coordinate amongst themselves. The idea of a united left press centre is far too grandiose, but certainly there should be a pool of good people doing this work, they should be expanding the pool and they should have enough lines of communication open to make sure that whoever is taking the lead (it may be, for instance, PSC or StW on something like this) takes the lead and gets backed up. Crucial to this is spreading the knowledge, which is something recognised on one level as so many left conferences have media workshops.
The late Tony Cliff used to talk about Socialist Worker being a paper with three thousand reporters. For various reasons too boring to go into, that never really transpired. But the democratisation of the media through cheap technology and the internet mean there are greater opportunities now than ever before for activism to enter into public debate. The missing link is a smart approach to the mass media, which is where most people will get their news. Is there the will, or the nous, to do something about this?
Many thanks again to Anna for her insights on this issue, as someone who can see with absolute clarity what needs to be done. The interpretation and any mistakes are of course my own.