Sherwood in Jerusalem: a six month overview

Harriet Sherwood

November 25th marked six months since Harriet Sherwood’s arrival in Jerusalem to take up her new role as the Guardian’s foreign correspondent in Israel. This presents an appropriate opportunity to review her performance so far and determine whether she has lived up to her own expectations as set out in three ‘mission statement’ articles she wrote before and after her arrival.

In an article from 2006 Sherwood, whilst filling the role of Foreign Editor at the Guardian, laid out her vision for reporting from Jerusalem, stating that

“The first thing we need to be absolutely sure of is the purpose of our news reporting from the region. Our correspondents are there to give our readers accurate information about Israel-Palestine. We are not there to bat for one side or the other, but to report on the situation on the ground as we find it.”

“We should aim for balance in our overall coverage, not in each individual story; it’s the batting average that counts.”

On June 14th 2010 Sherwood once again wrote about her aspirations; this time from the point of view of a foreign correspondent on the ground:

“…..the Guardian must be bold, distinctive, thoughtful and original as well as, of course, covering the “news”, ie reacting to events. Foreign correspondents – expensive assets – should be encouraged to spend a large proportion of their time in the field, finding things out, talking to people, reporting what they see.

They shouldn’t spend all their time covering the same ground as everyone else; and they shouldn’t be chained to their laptops, essentially rewriting news agency material.”

By September 27th 2010, Sherwood was writing about “the realities of reporting in the field”:

“And the wire services do provide comprehensive, rapidly updated and usually accurate coverage of the main news events on a given day. So a correspondent’s role is surely to go beyond that, to dig out the stories that aren’t immediate “news”, to provide context and analysis, to allow those whose voices are routinely drowned out by the big “players” to be heard.”

In order to be able to quantify Sherwood’s ‘batting average’ there is no way other than to plough through the 138 or so relevant articles she has published since her arrival in Israel both in the Guardian and its sister paper, The Observer.

I categorized them into four groups:

1)       Articles which present Israel in a balanced, realistic and objective manner.

2)      Articles which present Israel in a non-balanced, pejorative and subjective manner.

3)      Articles which present both sides of a story.

4)      Articles with a positive slant, exclusively about Palestinian-related subjects.

Excluding several articles which were not relevant to the analysis due to their subject matter, the results were as follows:

Category 1) – one article

Category 2) – 79 articles

Category 3) – 36 articles

Category 4) – 11 articles

The trend indicated by these numbers is echoed by a look at the places from which Sherwood has reported since her arrival in Israel.

  • Jerusalem
  • Haifa (only in connection to the Rachel Corrie trial)
  • Tel Aviv (in relation to the Turkel Committee investigation and one interview with Mira Awad.)
  • Jaffa (to report on ‘right wing orthodox infiltration’ into Jaffa’s property market)
  • Ashdod (to report on the Mavi Marmara flotilla)
  • Sdom (to report on environmental issues at the Dead Sea)
  • Newe Ilan  (TV studios – to report on ‘Dancing with the Stars’)
  • Ghajar
  • Luban a Sharquiya
  • Gaza City (some five reports)
  • Ramallah (some five reports)
  • Dir el Balah
  • Hebron
  • Qasar al Yahud – near Jericho
  • Johara a Deek
  • Al Araqib
  • Jenin
  • Taybeh
  • Jabalia
  • Al Aroub
  • Nuseirat
  • Beit Lahiya
  • Jabel Mukaber
  • Beit Hanina
  • Rafah
  • Al Walaja

Sherwood’s reports on Palestinian life in the region take largely two forms; either sympathetic reports of Palestinian suffering with little or no context, or ‘lifestyle’ pieces about horse riding, motor racing, hotels, cinema or a beer festival. She has written a few articles which are critical of the Hamas regime in Gaza, but no consequential analysis of the Palestinian Authority, let alone subjects such as the incitement against Jews in PA television programs, schools and mosques or the death penalty for selling land or property to Jews.

Israeli Jews are for the most part portrayed by Sherwood in one of three ways; they are either ‘settlers’, ‘ultra-Orthodox hard-liners’ or members of the military – usually those who have been involved in investigations of their conduct during service.  A recurring theme in her articles is Israeli lack of concern for the environment or animal rights. Israeli Jews portrayed in a sympathetic light are almost exclusively those who engage in anti-Israel activity such as members of ‘Breaking the Silence’ or supporters of boycotts.

On the subject of Gilad Shalit – one of prime concern to all Israelis – Sherwood has written three articles (here, here, and here) about this last summer’s march to Jerusalem organized by his family and made two other cursory mentions to his case in separate articles, but made no real attempt to examine the breach of the Geneva conventions perpetrated by Hamas throughout their holding of him without access to the Red Cross.

By contrast, Sherwood saw fit to dedicate three articles to Saber Kushour (herehere and here), reinforcing her often promoted stance of Israel as a racist and discriminatory society. Even when the eventual outcome of events shows her initial assumptions and implied message about Israeli racism to be wrong, Sherwood rarely goes back to the subject to set the record straight.

During the last six months Sherwood has made one brief mention (July 22nd) of “sporadic attacks” from the Gaza Strip on Israeli territory and on August 2nd managed to report that a rocket had fallen in Ashkelon. She did dedicate an article to the firing of missiles on the Jordanian town of Aqaba. Since Sherwood has been in Israel some 61 mortars (some containing phosphorous), 43 Kassam missiles and two Grad missiles have been fired from Gaza at the Negev region, in addition to several incidents on the border fence. She has not reported from Sderot, Ashkelon or any of the rural Negev communities targeted by Palestinian terrorists.

Sherwood has written about the proposed deportation of children of illegal foreign workers in Israel but has not addressed the subject of refugees from Darfur who have found asylum in Israel, the sanctuary given to Baha’is or several other persecuted groups of people including Palestinian homosexuals.

Also notable is the style of language employed by Sherwood in her reports. Terrorists are inevitably downgraded to “militants” – a clear judgment call which downplays the violent nature of their activities. During her extensive coverage of the ‘Mavi Marmara’ flotilla and others, participants were described as “activists”, including those who were members of the Muslim Brotherhood connected IHH.

When attempting to inject some balance into her reports, the Israeli point of view is usually prefixed by “Israel said”, “Israel claimed” or “according to Israel”; implying that statements made by Israeli sources may lack credibility or accuracy.   A term very frequently used by Sherwood when describing Israeli activity is “illegal under international law”. On no occasion has she actually backed up this claim with concrete legal evidence. Whilst frequently referring to the second Intifada in terms of a milestone for Israeli restrictions upon Palestinian movement, on no occasion has Sherwood provided her readers with an in-depth analysis of the causes of the Intifada or its effect upon the Israeli general public. It is referred to exclusively in terms of the resulting difficulties for Palestinians.

To conclude, Sherwood does not appear so far to be meeting her own standards as professed above. She is definitely “covering the same ground as everyone else” (except perhaps for her unfortunate venture into the world of battery chickens, from  which other correspondents seem to have steered clear, for obvious reasons.).  There has been nothing innovative about her reporting, which simply reinforces the jaded stereotypes about Israel and Israelis which have existed for years.

“Talking to people” and reporting on “the situation on the ground as we find it” requires an open mind, devoid of preconceptions, in order to produce reporting which stands out from that of the herd. So far, Sherwood has done little to search out the people whose “voices are routinely drowned out” in this region; instead she has stuck to the mold cast by her predecessors rather than rise to the challenges abundantly available and in doing so, has compromised her wish to supply both “accurate information” and “context”.

Let’s hope that the next six months will find Harriet Sherwood challenging not only the stereotypical preconceptions of her readers, but those in her own mind too. To do so would definitely improve her overall batting average.

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