The Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood and the art of media manipulation

Chapter eight of journalist Stephanie Gutmann’s excellent book ‘The Other War – Israelis, Palestinians and the Struggle for Media Supremacy’ is entitled ‘Fixing the News’ and in it she describes the phenomena of the Palestinian ‘fixer’ – translator, driver, guide, facilitator and often initiator and director of news stories.

“Foreign reporters I met generally scoffed when I asked them whether they thought their dependence on a pro with a political agenda could affect their copy. Not at all, they would answer. This is a purely practical matter, they would say. We must employ Palestinians as escorts in the territories because we must have translators and the Israeli government forbids Israelis from going into the territories.”

Journalists of course employ fixers all over the world, but in this region they have a particular significance because, as Gutmann points out:

“..unofficially, a Palestinian fixer was a kind of tithe to the community. It was understood that Palestinian fixers had special connections to, say, Hamas chieftains, though nobody questioned too much how far these connections extended or what one must do to keep them in good order.”

In Gaza in particular, the fixer also acts as a kind of body-guard or guarantee against kidnapping and their price is accordingly higher than in other areas. The journalists go where they are taken by the fixer and see and hear what the fixer wants them to observe. In some cases it is the fixer who contacts the journalist with a potential story rather than the other way round which, when one comprehends the level of seriousness appropriated to media management on the Palestinian side of the conflict, is not surprising. The fixers are usually well-educated, media-savvy and have often attended training programmes run by Palestinian NGOs such as PASSIA.

Last weekend Harriet Sherwood visited the olive harvest in Luban a-Sharqiya. Did she go alone and talk to the people there by herself? One very much doubts it, particularly as there appear to have been other journalists there at the same time; Ma’an news agency has a story from the same village on the same day, featuring some of the same unsubstantiated claims as Sherwood proffers in her article and pictures of the trees supposedly damaged by Jewish residents of the region.

“But Awase found that someone had got there before them and had chopped down the trees, leaving stumps in the ground and branches scattered about the plot. The family blame hardline Jewish settlers from the nearby Eli settlement.”

Did Sherwood contact anyone in Eli and ask for their reaction or allow them the right of reply? Of course not: she simply published the unproven accusations and thereby libeled the people of that village without any proof of their involvement.  She quotes some of the most partisan NGOs in the region on the subject including ‘Rabbis for Human Rights’.

“In recent weeks, there have been numerous reports of trees being stripped of their fruit overnight. Rabbis for Human Rights claimed that the olives from about 600 trees near the settlement of Havat Gilad were stolen before their Palestinian owners could harvest them. Police confirmed they were investigating the alleged theft.”

Now this claim deserves some closer scrutiny. First, let me assure Harriet Sherwood and the Rabbis that one cannot pick olives at night unless one employs some sort of significant lighting system which would surely draw immediate attention, particularly as in such terrain one would probably need a generator. It took my family five working days to harvest our three olive trees (there’s a very good crop this year) and we got around 200 kilos of fruit from them. In other words, in order to harvest 600 trees one would require around one thousand working days. Let’s be generous for a moment and take into account that my sons are not professional olive pickers and so may well be a bit slow, and reduce that number by half. That’s still 500 working days – in daylight conditions. So if this were to be done overnight, one would have to bring 500 workers. Not only is that a lot of noise and a transport logistic nightmare, but the village of Havat Gilad implicated by Sherwood above has a mere 22 families living in it. One could, of course, opt for quiPreviewcker mechanised picking instead of the traditional method, but that too would create an awful lot of noise not exactly in keeping with a covert overnight operation. Then there’s transport; 600 trees should yield around 40 tons of olives. Each of the plastic containers used to collect the harvest holds just short of half a ton – that’s 80 containers. A big lorry can carry around 20 containers, so one would need at least four of them to remove the olives from the site.

Of course there are instances of despicable violence and destruction of property does occur, but were Sherwood to have investigated the subject more adequately, she would have discovered two all-important points. One is that one cannot take all that one is told at face value – even when the raconteur is a member of ‘Rabbis for Human Rights’- as this incident reported in Ha’aretz shows.

“Near Har Bracha, a verbal confrontation erupted yesterday between Jewish farmer Erez Ben Sa’adon and Rabbi Arik Ascherman, the head of Rabbis for Human Rights. Ascherman claimed Ben Sa’adon was harvesting olives that belonged to Palestinians from nearby Karyut. Ben Sa’adon, whose nearby vineyard had been destroyed by unidentified parties the previous night, said he had leased that plot for the past 12 years and the olives were his. Civil Administration officials were called to resolve the dispute, and they summoned the mayor of Karyut – who admitted that the trees belonged to Ben Sa’adon.”

Secondly, destruction is not confined to one sector of the population only.

“Thus far, some 500 Palestinian trees and 100 Jewish trees have been vandalized.”

But naturally, Sherwood’s fixer would not take her to meet Jewish farmers who have had their crops destroyed or tell her about incidents in previous years in which some Palestinians have tried to claim compensation for olive trees supposedly vandalized by settlers when in fact the damage was self-inflicted.

For some reason, olive trees, and particularly uprooted ones, seem to get the Guardianistas’ going like few other subjects can. They have been manipulated into becoming a symbol of the Palestinian ties to the land, so when Jews uproot olive trees it is seen as a metaphor for the alleged wish to uproot the Palestinian people. Sherwood’s fixer knows that and plays to his audience accordingly. Sherwood knows that too and plays to hers.  And the besmirched residents of places such as Eli or Havat Gilad will never get the chance to recount their side of the story on the Guardian’s pages.  There’s a broader symbolism at work there too.

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