The veteran BBC correspondent Martin Bell, appearing recently on a panel to discuss the future of journalism, recalled wars in Israel in 1967 and 1973, when he and his crew had been free to go wherever they dared. He made the point to show how hard it is to achieve objective coverage of Israel and Gaza today.
We salute Palestinian correspondents who have continued to operate in Gaza. They operate under conditions of great danger and with little access to functioning technology. They work at a time when access for international journalists is entirely controlled. Some foreign journalists have been escorted in by the Israeli Defence Forces. They have not been censored in what they say, but have agreed to film only what Israel allows them to. Jeremy Bowen of the BBC was clearly shocked by the destruction of buildings in the northern sector of the city. He spoke too of his frustration at spending a week outside the territory, close enough to hear the fighting but with no means of witnessing it.
If Bowen has been careful to explain the provenance of his material, social media has no such inhibitions. X – formerly Twitter – and other sites have presented more dramatic and arresting images of this conflict, most of which have not been filmed by broadcasters. The memorable material has come from the combatants themselves, some of it removed from dead bodies. Both sides see propaganda value in making video available and they are reaching eager audiences. But can we trust what we see?
Advances in technology have put high quality video in the hands of all. The internet does not play by the rules that apply to broadcasters. Hamas has learned from Isis, which sought to intimidate by recording and disseminating images of atrocity. Terrorists breaking through the fences around Gaza wore bodycams to record their murder of Israeli civilians. We saw the results not from Hamas – though the Israelis have told us many terrorists were reporting their activities to their families in real time – but after the Israel Defence Forces recovered cameras from corpses and showed expurgated footage to prove the ferocity of the attacks. They also invited journalists to view some of the grimmest evidence, images that have not made their way to a larger audience.
Israel has also shown us material from street and household CCTV that records the sudden arrival of murderers. We have watched scenes filmed by its own soldiers as they reacted to the carnage. Hamas, for its part, has responded to Israeli retaliation by distributing on social media video scenes of injured civilians, particularly children, and of damaged hospitals, and film purporting to show fighters taking on the Israeli assault forces moving into Gaza.
We know there is a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but we must rely on the evidence of aid organisations to try to get the measure of it. Hamas tells us how many people have been killed. We don’t know whether the figures are true. This difficulty in obtaining objective evidence was encapsulated in coverage of damage to the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital, claimed by Hamas to have been the result of an Israeli airstrike and to have killed hundreds of people.
Hamas got that story out fast, supported by footage of ambulances at the scene. It became the narrative, helped by the relentless demand of rolling news for instant commentary to fill airtime. No one watching television coverage that night was left in much doubt that a terrible atrocity had been committed. The BBC, blamed for supporting a Hamas narrative without evidence and to have influenced the reaction of Arab countries, conceded that it had erred in having a correspondent in the region speculate on the cause of the blast. “It is hard to see what else this could be, really, given the size of the explosion, other than an Israeli airstrike or several airstrikes,” he said.
It took hours for Israel’s alternative explanation – a failed rocket fired from Gaza – to gain traction. At which point, the sceptical turned their attention to the audio also disseminated by Israel, purporting to be a transcript of a phone conversation between two members of Hamas, discussing the true cause of the blast.
Generations of reporters have been brought up on the doctrine of speed, fighting to be first with the story. Technology has supercharged that process. Now they must learn to pause, analyse the source of their information, and avoid the rush to judgment.