Reporting a Revolution: On the night of a million-strong march in Cairo.
I start with the proviso that I have not visited Egypt for many years. Like every other interested party in the world, I am following the news as it unfolds through every means possible – online coverage, television footage, friends, Youtube and Facebook. The new technology of “Speak to Tweet” is revolutionising the revolution itself. With so much information to hand, it can be difficult to know where to direct attention.
Back in Beirut
Almost five years ago, whilst in Beirut as Israel bombed it in July 2006, I was horrified at what I considered to be misleading reporting by various Western channels. The British government was sitting firmly on its American-built fence back then – refusing both to demand a stop to the bombing and refusing to evacuate its own citizens. Whilst those of us on the ground clearly could state the damage and destruction we were seeing, both Blair and some British news organisations carried a line that remained “officially neutral”, as it has remained over Israel and Palestine over the last decade, and as we are now seeing in Egypt. An unlawful invasion is an unlawful invasion. An attack is an attack. A revolution is a revolution, not a riot.
Integrity in Reportage
The criticism is not necessarily personal to a particular organisation, although it is personal to Blair. In an era of 24 hour news, channels often throw anybody with even a hint of expertise into a region exploding with news possibilities, and of course there are excellent, integral reporters amongst the bunch – Jeremy Bowen and Jon Snow, for example, know the treacheries and trickeries of Middle East politics as well as having years of experience on the ground. Both are serious credits to their respective organisations.
Presenting facts can be done as neutrally as possible in images, though the choice of images remains in order to control output or to support a thesis. In words, it automatically becomes more difficult to present information neutrally. As presenters and reporters alike choose their words – or have them chosen for them – the ‘line’ that they are taking becomes a stance. So it has been with Palestine, so it was with Lebanon and now it can be seen with some of the major Western television reporting on the Egypt crisis. Still calling the crisis “riots” for example, reveals more about the stance of the reporting organisation than the reality of hundreds of thousands of serious protests on the ground.
Neutrality or posturing?
The questions being asked by anchors and reporters over the last few days have remained remarkably close to the US and European governments’ uncomfortable silence. There appears to be an underlying and patronising assumption that Arabs are either not fit, or not entitled to run their own affairs. Is Egypt is capable of having or running a democracy is the undertone to so many of the questions posed. A prime time news anchor suggested to a Muslim Brotherhood interviewee that their support for Hamas – a democratically elected government itself, albeit one that is open to serious and considered criticism and question – was a genuine reason for Western governments to avoid legitimising any Islamic government in Egypt. When the interviewee replied that he did not consider Hamas to be a terrorist organisation since it was defending its own home territory and democratically elected, the anchor then retorted that such views were precisely why the US was so concerned.
Tony Blair, the Middle East envoy, who defied his own massive one million+ protests in London in February 2003 to send British troops to Iraq, stated yesterday that “we” had to “manage change” very carefully since “out of chaos can come something much worse”. He would not endorse the possibility of a democratically elected government if he personally did not approve of that government. Whilst it is not surprising that Western politicians are acting entirely in character with their own contradictory views on democracy where it does not suit their interests, it is extremely worrying for those views to be endorsed roundly by reporters or news channels.
Assumptions on the ground
There is remarkably little knowledge or understanding of the Muslim Brotherhood at this moment in time. Whilst the world (and not just the West) is almost certainly right to be concerned at the prospect of a new Islamist regime which could de-stabilise the region, there are simply no credible signs at this moment that such a possibility is even relatively likely. Contrary to popular suggestion, the current situation in Egypt simply does not bear proper comparison to Iran’s 1979 Revolution. There is no Khomeini figure. For now, the organisation has backed Baradei, the man Robert Fisk described this morning as a “mouse with teeth”. The protests appear squarely secular, from the outside, at least within Cairo. The crude reality is that until the US backs a successor – quite possibly Omar Suleyman who is lacking in any democratic credentials himself, and who will leave the country in the hands of the army – Mubarak will remain firmly glued to his chair. “As stubborn as a Mubarak” is my favourite Facebook quote of the day, on this day of the historic one million march through Cairo.
An agenda, a viewpoint.
True it is that Channel 4 news reports than almost two million people are estimated to be on the streets of Cairo on this historic day. Al Jazeera, with their own perspective on the Middle East, have reported there are more than one million out on the streets, whilst the BBC and CNN feel unable to assess the numbers. True it is that every news channel has its own agenda and viewpoint. True it should be, however, that the people of Egypt deserve a chance – at last – to elect the government which it feels should represent its interests. It is simply not the responsibility of the Western press, nor its politicians, to direct democracy according to its own whims. Ahmed Chalabi, Hamid Karzai, even the Shah of Iran, should speak as loud warnings to those who wish to meddle more. It is more important than ever that journalists ask the right questions, tackle inconsistent politicians and adopt a clear policy of integrity in reportage.
Pressure should be building from the West to demand that Mubarak stands down, when it is abundantly clear that its people are standing up.
February 1st 2011.