Al Jazeera’s Simon McGregor-Wood recently spoke to LCC Journalism students about the challenges and excitements of reporting from the Middle East. BA (Hons) Journalism student Luke O’Driscoll reports.
Simon McGregor-Wood is a broadcast journalist with over 25 years experience, nine of those working as ABC News’ Middle East Correspondent, as well as the news division’s Middle East Bureau Chief.
He came to LCC to give a talk about his experiences as a foreign correspondent, the difficulty of maintaining balance and objectivity and the changing nature of reporting news from war zones.
His time in the Middle-East, where he was based in Jerusalem, was characterised by the on-going Israeli/Palestine conflict in which he witnessed many of its defining events of the past decade including: “the second intifada, the battle between Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon, the emergence of Hamas, the occasional wars with Hezbollah and the spill over effect of the US-led invasion of Iraq, the growth of Jewish settlements and the Israeli right wing and the decline of Gaza.” On top of this he also had “responsibility for covering Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.”
Simon left Israel in 2011, just before the Arab Spring, and today he works as a freelance journalist for Al-Jazeera in Europe and the Middle East with a working schedule that sounds just as hectic: “I travel widely across Europe covering breaking news and features. I spent the New Year for example in Italy covering the Greek ferry which caught fire, and I stayed there to cover the arrival of Syrian migrants. I’m currently working on a story about the fourth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution, on Thursday I’m covering a foreign office conference on extremism, and then this weekend I will be in Auschwitz to cover next week’s 70th anniversary of its liberation.”
The importance, Simon advises, of “a proper foreign assignment is a chance to get to grips with the story and to gain real understanding of your subject. It’s a chance to gain expertise, something I think it’s important for journalists to do at some point in their career.”
Whilst the appeal of being a foreign correspondent is obvious, and something he says he is a proponent of, he acknowledges the changing face of foreign affairs reportage: “Good well-paid jobs are increasingly rare in a world dominated by freelancers like me and people on short-term contracts.
“A foreign correspondent has the luxury of time. He or she must know more than his or her editor – more than the editor reads in their morning newspaper or hears on their radio bulletin in the morning. Your role is to immerse yourself in the place you’re covering. To understand the context behind the stories of the day.”
When broaching the subject of objectivity in the field he explains: “you have to be able to provide reporting that nobody else but you can provide, you must do this whilst maintaining your objectivity and balance and this is nowhere more true than in the Middle East and nowhere more true than in reporting the core of Middle East conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Possibly the most scrutinised story there is.”
The value of which, Simon notes, cannot be downplayed: “Managing your personal views on a story like this is hard but crucial!
“Where your Israeli and Palestinian colleagues may carry a natural bias you must steer a course through that and through torrents of opinion and propaganda. Personal sympathies must always be tempered by self-criticism and analysis.”
Maintaining these standards, however, is not always straightforward and there is a struggle faced by foreign correspondents: “One of the biggest challenges in the Middle East is navigating between two very well rehearsed narratives and avoiding the manipulation of both sides. There are two opposing versions of an historical dispute, two sets of people – well educated if not brainwashed into their version of the truth where even the children in Palestinian refugee camps or Jewish settlements are fluent in the discourse of their narrative.
“Furthermore help carries the risk of manipulation. Are you going to be able to get somewhere without the help of the Israeli army? What price do you pay if you accept their facilitation? How far does help corrupt your reporting?”
The showing of radical views in the Middle East is also something Simon is more than aware of: “This is also a story dominated by the extremists and too often they’re the only voices you hear. There are Israelis and Palestinians who like each other and who at least want to sit down together. And they are rarely heard. As journalists, is it our job to seek them out?”
The discourse of political language is another factor the Al Jazeera journalist believes budding foreign correspondents need to be wary of: “This is a story where even language carries the potential for bias. What do you call a settlement in occupied East Jerusalem? Do you call it Jerusalem occupied?
“Some American newspapers I have noticed have started to call East Jerusalem settlements contested neighbourhoods. What does that do? Whose interests does that serve? Whose language are you using? Are you undermining a report by politicising your language? If you refuse to use one side’s terminology does that necessarily mean you support the other side? Is there ever a perfect middle way? Is there ever a perfect word?”
This on-going self-evaluation and self-critique is something Simon refers to throughout his talk, the importance of which is made evidently clear by his experience and strength as a reporter.
“Personal sympathies must always be tempered by self-criticism and analysis. How best to develop trustworthy sources on both sides? How to avoid being tarnished with perceptions of institutional bias because you work for an American network or because you work for Al Jazeera? In the Middle East your greatest solace are the pillars of your professional standards, objectivity and balance.”
When questioned about the future for prospective foreign correspondents wishing to cover conflict in the Middle East his response is ominous: “I think one of the big problems today is that outlets, whatever their media, are in danger of exploiting young freelancers who want to get into the business, who want to go [to the Middle East]. And often you hear horrific stories of photographers who find themselves in somewhere like Syria or Lebanon or Iraq and they’re not necessarily being paid properly, they’re being paid on what they are able to provide, they don’t necessarily have the right experience, they have no backup and they are being exploited.
“While I can understand the instincts of wanting to be there, in this fractured world of young people trying to get into the business, it’s a very dangerous temptation. I think people need to be very careful. There are too many young freelancers getting killed and it’s costing the outlets practically nothing.”
He puts this largely down to the huge economic shift journalism has seen over past decade stating “the financial model of what we [journalists] do has changed beyond recognition. Twenty years ago at the BBC or ABC or ITN, if you went to cover a war, the first thing is there was a lot of experienced people who had done it before and there was the resources to do it properly, to mitigate some of the risk.”
Despite this, the longstanding journalist believes there is a future for foreign correspondents, with “foreign news [being] something I would recommend to anyone.”
Words by Luke O’Driscoll