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Guarding a Taboo

Nafeez Ahmed’s account of the sudden termination of his short-lived contract to write an environment blog for the Guardian is depressingly instructive – and accords with my own experiences as a journalist at the paper.

Ahmed is that rare breed of journalist who finds stories everyone else either misses or chooses to overlook; he regularly joins up the dots in a global system of corporate pillage. If the news business were really driven by news rather than a corporate-friendly business agenda, publications would be beating a path to his door.

Instead he has been mostly ploughing a lonely furrow as a freelance journalist, bypassing the media gatekeepers by promoting himself on social media, and placing his articles wherever a window briefly opens. His 43,000 followers on Twitter are testament to his skills as a journalist – skills, it seems, that are in short demand even at the bastions of liberal journalism.

That neglect looked like it might finally be remedied last year when the Guardian gave him a blog.

Let’s be clear: the Guardian is now a raucous market-place of opinion – its model for monetising the mostly voluntary labour of desperate journalists, writers, academics and lobby groups. The paper calls it “Comment is Free” – free for the Guardian, that is.

But it is certainly not “free” in the sense of “free expression”, as I know only too well from my many run-ins with its editors, both from my time on staff there and from my later experiences as a freelance journalist (more below). The Guardian’s website covers a spectrum of “moderate”, meaning  conventional, opinion from right to left, with a couple of genuinely progressive staff writers – currently Seumas Milne and Owen Jones – there to offer the illusion of real pluralism.

Recruiting Ahmed was therefore a risky move. He is a voice from the genuine left, and one too independent to control. The Guardian did not offer him a column, or the more interesting – and suitable – position of investigative journalist, a platform that would have given him the opportunity and resources to explore the biggest and most under-reported story of our era: the connection between corporate greed and the destruction of the life-support systems necessary for our continued existence on the planet.

Instead he got a minor leg-up: a raise out of the morass of CiF contributors to his own Guardian blog. Rather than waste inordinate time and energy on arm-twisting the Guardian’s ever-cautious editors, he was able to publish his own posts with minimal interference. And that was the beginning of his downfall.

Ignoring the real story

In July, as Israel began its massive assault on Gaza, Ahmed published a post revealing a plausible motivation – Gaza’s natural gas reserves – for Israel’s endless belligerence towards the enclave’s Hamas government. (The story had until then been confined to minor and academic publications, including my own contribution here.) Israel wanted to keep control over large gas reserves in Gaza’s waters so that it could deny Hamas a resource that would have bought it influence with other major players in the region, not least Egypt.

This story should be at the centre of the coverage of Gaza, and of criticism of the west’s interference, including by the UK’s own war criminal Tony Blair, who has conspired in the west’s plot to deny the people of Gaza their rightful bounty. But the Guardian, like other media, have ignored the story.

Interestingly, Ahmed’s article went viral, becoming the most shared of any of the paper’s stories on Operation Protective Shield. But readers appear to have had better news judgment than the Guardian’s editors. Rather than congratulate him, the Guardian effectively fired Ahmed, as he details in the link below. No one has suggested that there were errors in the story, and no correction has been appended to the article.

In axing him, the Guardian appears to have broken the terms of his contract and has failed to offer grounds for their action, apart from claiming that this story and others had strayed too far from his environment beat.

There is an obvious problem with this justification. No responsible employer sacks someone for repeated failures without first warning them at an earlier stage that they are not fulfilling the terms of their employment.

So either the Guardian has been wildly irresponsible, or – far more likely – the professed justification is nothing more than a smokescreen. After all, the idea that an environment blogger for the liberal media should not be examining the connection between control over mineral resources, which are deeply implicated in climate change, and wars, which lead to human deaths and ecological degradation, is preposterous beyond belief.

It is not that Ahmed strayed too far from his environment remit, it is that he strayed too much on to territory – that of the Israel-Palestine conflict – that the Guardian rigorously reserves for a few trusted reporters and commentators. Without knowing it, he went where only the carefully vetted are allowed to tread.

I know from my own long years of clashing with Guardian editors on this issue. Here is just one of my many experiences.

Comment is elusive

I moved to Nazareth in 2001 as a freelance journalist, after a decade of working for the Guardian and its sister publication, the Observer. I knew many people at the paper, and I had some kind of track record with them as a former staff member.

I arrived in Nazareth at an interesting time. It was the height of the second intifada, and I was the only foreign reporter in Nazareth, the capital of Israel’s large Palestinian minority. In those days, before Israel built its concrete and steel barrier, Jenin – one of the most newsworthy spots in the West Bank – was a 20-minute drive away. I have previously written about the way the paper so heavily edited an investigation I conducted into the clear-cut execution of a British citizen, Iain Hook, in Jenin’s refugee camp that it was effectively censored (see here and here).

But I also spent my early years in Nazareth desperately trying to raise any interest first at the comment section and later at Comment is Free in my contributing (free) articles on my experiences of the second intifada. Remember CiF, then as now, was a cacophony of competing opinions, many of them belonging to dubious lobbyists and interest groups.

I, on the other hand, was a former Guardian staff member now located not only in one of the world’s hot spots but offering a story no other foreign journalist was in a position to tell. At that time, CiF had several journalists in Tel Aviv detailing the experiences and traumas of Israeli Jews. But Israeli Palestinians – a fifth of Israel’s population – were entirely unrepresented in its coverage. It exasperated me that no one at CiF, including the paper’s late deputy editor Georgina Henry, seemed to think this of any consequence.

I finally broke briefly into CiF after the Lebanon war erupted in summer 2006. Pointing out that I was the only foreign journalist actually living daily under threat of Hizbullah rockets finally seemed to get the editors’ attention.

I survived at CiF for just a year, managing at great effort to publish seven stories, almost all of them after difficult battles with editors and including in one case sections censored without my permission. My time with CiF came to an end after yet another baffling exchange with Henry that I have previously documented here.

Escaping scrutiny

Why is writing about Israel so difficult at the Guardian? There are several reasons.

The first, as I have regularly observed in my blog, is related to the general structure of the corporate media system, including the Guardian. It is designed to exclude almost all deeply critical voices, those that might encourage readers to question the ideological basis of the western societies in which they live and alert them to the true role of the corporations that run those societies and their media.

Israel, as an intimate ally of the US, is therefore protected from profoundly critically scrutiny, much as the US and its western allies are. It is okay to criticise individual western policies as flawed, especially if done so respectfully, but not to suggest that the whole direction of western foreign policy is flawed, that it is intended to maintain a system of control over, and exploitation of, weaker nations. Policies can be dubious, but not our leaders’ moral character.

The problem with Israel is that its place in the global order – alongside the US – depends on it being a very sophisticated gun for hire. It keeps order and disorder in the Middle East at Washington’s behest and in return it gets to plunder the Palestinian territories and ethnically cleanse the native population. It’s a simple story but not one you can state anywhere in the mainstream because it questions not just a policy (the occupation) but Israel’s very nature and role as a colonial settler state.

Beyond this, however, special factors pertain in the Guardian’s case. As Ahmed notes, in part this is related to the Guardian’s pivotal role in bringing to fruition the ultimate colonial document, the Balfour Declaration. For this reason, the Guardian has always had a strong following among liberal Jews, and that is reflected in its selection of staff at senior ranks.

In this sense, the editorial “mood” at the Guardian resembles that of an indulgent parent towards a wayward grown-up child. Yes, Israel does some very bad things (the occupation) but, for all its faults, its heart is in the right place (as a Jewish, colonial settler state practising apartheid).

And then there is the Jonathan Freedland factor, as Ahmed also notes (including by citing some of my previous criticisms of him). One should not personalise this too much. Freedland, an extremely influential figure at the paper, is a symptom of a much wider problem with the Guardian’s coverage of Israel.

Freedland is a partisan on Israel, as am I. But I get to write a blog and occasional reports tucked away in specialist and Arab media in English. Freedland and other partisans for Israel at the paper get to reinforce and police an already highly indulgent attitude towards Israel’s character (though not the occupation) across the coverage of one of the most widely read papers in the world. Given that Israel’s character, as a colonial settler state, is the story, the Guardian effectively never presents more than a fraction of the truth about the conflict. Because it never helps us understand what drives Israeli policy, it – along with the rest of the media – never offers us any idea how the conflict might be resolved.

And this is where Ahmed tripped up. Because his piece, as the Guardian’s editors doubtless quickly realised, implicated Israel’s character rather than just its policies. It violated a Guardian taboo.

Ahmed is hoping to continue his fiercely independent reporting by creating a new model of crowdsourced journalism. I wish him every luck with his venture. Such initiatives are possibly the only hope that we can start to loosen the grip of the corporate media and awaken ourselves to many of the truths hidden in plain sight. If you wish to help Ahmed, you can find out about his new funding model here.

Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books).  His website is www.jonathan-cook.net.

 

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Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq, Iran and the Plan to Remake the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine: Israel’s Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His website is http://www.jonathan-cook.net/

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