Monday 17 December 2012

Whose side are they on?

An article from May 2011 on the blog of the BBC's College of Journalism by Stuart Hughes, BBC World Affairs producer, entitled Whose side are we on?, examines the thorny old question of impartiality. The article is linked to from the main page of the College's section on the topic and is well worth a read.

Talking specifically about the 'Arab Spring', Stuart uses his piece to advance the point of view of those who believe that impartiality doesn't mean that reporters must always refrain from taking sides:

Esra Dogramaci from Al Jazeera explained that she and her colleagues were seeking to "amplify" the conversation taking place in the social media sphere. Al Jazeera, she said, was seeking to give a "voice to the voiceless" by distributing Flip video cameras to members of the audience and by educating people about how to use social media.
As protestors demand change and topple regimes across the Middle East and North Africa, Esra Dogramaci aligned Al Jazeera very clearly with those taking to the streets in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere.
"If you're asking what side Al Jazeera is on... it's on the side of the people," she said.
Of course, the belief that journalists should not always sit on the fence isn't new. Martin Bell advocated the need for a "journalism of attachment" with a moral obligation to distinguish between "good" and "evil". But if we choose to take the side of "the people" are we journalists, activists or both? 
Al Jazeera is an interesting choice of news organisation and I think that Stuart might have been somewhat naive in taking Esra's line (however sincerely she meant it) at face value. 

Reading beyond the BBC, it appears that the Qatari-based-and-backed station's standpoint - as stated by Esra Dogramaci - was and is remarkably close to that of its own government (which it is not known for criticising). Qatar was highly active in the 'Arab Spring', helping  overthrow Colonel Gaddafi, for example, and is now engaged in the attempted overthrow of Bashar al-Assad of Syria. It is also opening bankrolling the various Muslim Brotherhood-related forces now dominating much of the political landscape in the Middle East, including the terrorist organisation Hamas in Gaza. If you are asking what side Qatar is's on the side of the people too. Well, OK, it actually seems to be on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood, but Muslim Brotherhood...the people...same difference in their eyes, it appears. The Muslim Brotherhood dissolved itself in Qatar years ago, claiming the government there is just fine, and there are said to be all manner of ties between Qatar and prominent figures in various Muslim Brotherhood-style movements - and between Al Jazeera and prominent figures in various Muslim Brotherhood-style movements. 

Whether Stuart Hughes is or isn't himself advocating the correctness of 'taking the people's side' in the 'Arab Spring,' it certainly felt to many of us (on what might be called the Arabspringosceptic side of the argument) that his organisation, the BBC, most assuredly was also 'taking the people's side' during the 'Arab Spring'; indeed, some would argue that it is still doing so, especially with regards to the civil war in Syria. The BBC's coverage of the Tahrir Square protests at the time of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak seemed to some of us to be little short of enthusiastic. The Muslim Brotherhood and, especially, their kindred spirits in the likes of Tunisia were repeatedly described as 'moderate'. Ah, bliss it was to be alive and in Cairo at that time, eh?! (Please read this article by the BBC's online Middle East editor Tarik Kafala for a flavour of the reporting back then). 

Were the BBC adopting the journalism of attachment, behaving like activists, taking the side of "the people" during the 'Arab Spring'? Did they regard the toppled Western-backed autocrats as the "evil" against whom "good" people were fighting? Were they, as a result, failing to see what they should have seen - seeing, hearing and speaking no evil about the Muslim Brotherhood? It certainly seemed like that to me at the time. And it still does. 

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