Roll up, roll up, behold dead Palestinians
The emotionally manipulative coverage of the Gaza conflict has taken the journalism of attachment to a new low.
‘Stop the carnage: Egypt PM weeps for Palestinian boy killed in airstrike and calls for truce.’ Beneath the UK Daily Mirror‘s barking, imperatival headline is a picture of a doctor carrying the small, lifeless body of a young Palestinian boy. The handwringing, heartwrenching imagery doesn’t stop there. In another picture, breaking up the minimal text, we see the Egyptian prime minister Hisham Kandil actually cradling another dead Palestinian boy. The subtitle runs: ‘With tears streaming from his eyes, Egypt’s prime minister Hisham Kandil called for an end to Israel’s “aggression”.’
This isn’t an isolated example of emotionally manipulative journalism, where making the reader or viewer feel a certain way about a conflict is more important than allowing them to understand it. In the case of the latest Israel-Gaza conflagration, it has been the norm.
Whether reportage or commentary – and the line has long since blurred – images, both visual and verbal, stand in for objectivity and analysis. Above one broadsheet tirade against a cartoonishly belligerent Israel, the reader confronts an image of a Palestinian child asleep in a truck, with nothing to keep him company but his family’s few remaining possessions. Elsewhere, a latest update on the situation in Gaza features a picture of a crying woman with a young girl staring emptily but accusingly into the camera. And it is almost always a child that is featured and foregrounded in these images. After all, what better captures the perceived vulnerability and incapacity of the Palestinians than a suffering, wronged child? And what better casts the messy, very adult politics of the conflict into patronising relief than the viewpoint of the child? From the infant perspective, the fighting, the politicking and all the other stuff which might have once interested the reporter just seems absurd, silly.
The type or image of the media outlet doesn’t matter. The coverage remains steadfastly averse to venturing forth cold, objective analysis. One BBC news report begins with scenes of devastation in Gaza city, complete with billowing smoke and unidentifiable wreckage. ‘Another overnight attack in Gaza’, runs the portentous commentary. ‘One of the biggest so far. The main civilian administration compound flattened in an Israeli airstrike.’ The voice is passive, the clauses almost verbless. This is not simply a problem of style; the fragmenting grammar reveals how unwilling a reporter is to present us with an understanding of what is going on, of who is doing what to whom. Instead, we are given nothing more than sombre, determinedly moving description, not narration.
Even the Stop the War coalition, which has long espoused support for Palestinians, seems to have given up on offering an explanation as to why people should demonstrate in support of those in Gaza. Instead, as the blurb to last Saturday’s demo put it: ‘Gaza is one of the most densely populated places in the world, with 1.7million people packed into a strip of land at its narrowest barely six miles wide. It is facing a barbaric onslaught by the world’s fourth most powerful military.’ Understanding the Palestinians’ cause, such as it might be, has been replaced by a demand that we feel their pain.
What characterises the coverage of the Gaza crisis is its sheer immediacy. An image of a dead child, a verbless description of war’s horror, a picture of suffering – this is the stuff of the Gaza crisis for viewers and readers in the West. And it is deeply problematic. Not just because it simplifies a complex situation, but because the immediacy of the reporting and the opinion-spinning leaves little room to think, to reflect, to position yourself intellectually in relation to what is happening. The critical distance established by traditional journalism, with its emphasis on a factual narrative, is absent. Instead, it looks as if everything is being given to us without mediation; what we’re getting, it seems, is just the raw, brutal truth of people suffering. Such an approach is manipulative. Because at the same time as the absence of a critical, journalistic distance discourages reflection, it simultaneously encourages emotional identification. And with that the demand that we in the West do something grows in force.
Writing in the Guardian, Giles Fraser unwittingly admits to the effect of this type of reporting: ‘[The pictures of dead children] arrived before me on the same screen that I had previously been writing a letter and playing a silly computer game. My initial reactions were as much physical as emotional. It was as if I didn’t know how to process the emotional charge that spiked through my body… So Giles. What are you doing about all of this? That is what these photographs say to me.’
It is a telling admission. Fraser experiences the images as a call to arms, but on what is this call based? Political solidarity? A commitment to the self-determination of oppressed peoples? Good old fashioned anti-imperialism? No, it’s based on emotional identification and fuelled by something distinctly narcissistic. That is, without the distance that understanding brings, the suffering of the Palestinians becomes my suffering. Over there, in the blood and rubble of Gaza, Fraser sees himself.
In conversation with spiked editor Brendan O’Neill, the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis captured well the admixture of emotionalism and narcissism encouraged by the formal immediacy of much of contemporary journalism: ‘We’ve created a journalism that feeds contemporary emotionalism brilliantly. The Orla Guerins, the poetic Fergal Keanes – they feed it with these cubist blips of description. Dark. Dangerous. The horror. It’s very much of its time, of its emotional time. But by doing this, we are amplifying and increasing people’s emotional sense that everything happens inside their heads. We are contributing to a feeling of being trapped in our heads and our emotions and a feeling of disconnection from a more political, physical world.’
This, the journalism of attachment, the journalism in which subjective feeling becomes objective fact, reaches its apogee in the actions of BBC war reporter Jon Donnison. Seeing that someone called Hazem Balousha had posted a picture of an injured child with the words ‘Pain in #Gaza’ on Twitter, Donnison could not resist and retweeted it, with the words ‘Heartbreaking’. Which it was. But what it was not was a picture of an injured girl from Gaza. The picture was actually of an injured girl from the conflict in Syria.
The lesson is clear. When emoting and feeling become the substance of journalism, then facts, and the truth, suffer.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.