< Al Jazeera’s Exclusive


Friday, January 09, 2009

BOB GARFIELD: Few stories demand context as much as violence in the Middle East. For instance, it’s undeniably true to say that the Gaza War was triggered by Hamas’s rocket attacks into civilian areas in southern Israel. But it is equally true to say those rockets are in response to the crushing and often dehumanizing blockade Israel imposed on Gaza after Hamas seized power from the more moderate Fatah government. But it’s also true that Hamas is dedicated to the destruction of Israel. But it’s also true that Israel has been an occupier of Gaza for 40 years. But it’s also true that the occupation resulted from three failed Arab wars against Israel. But it’s also true that the state of Israel was imposed on native Palestinians by world powers and so on and on and on. So, how to cover the current crisis? Do you focus on Hamas’s tactics of using schools, mosques and other civilian areas to coordinate and launch attacks or do you focus on the deaths of civilians and the general devastation to Gazan society from the Israeli invasion? At Al-Jazeera English, the answer is decidedly – B. Here’s a report from correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin.

AYMAN MOHYELDIN: Since Israel’s assault on Gaza began, the United Nations has converted dozens of schools into shelters, taking in the thousands trying to escape the war. But even these schools have not been spared Israel’s war machine. On Tuesday, the Fakhora School was the third makeshift UN shelter attacked.

BOB GARFIELD: The Palestinian point of view has long been a staple of Al-Jazeera English’s coverage, as with its larger Arabic-language parent. But there is a wrinkle this time around. As one of the few news organizations inside of Gaza, Al-Jazeera English’s pictures and coverage are a major source of reporting and images for the entire world. It is, in effect, the pool reporter for everybody. Does this situation demand a different approach to reporting? Joining us now is the executive producer for news at Al-Jazeera English, Paul McKinney. Paul, welcome to OTM.

PAUL McKINNEY: Thank you very much, and thank you for having me here.

BOB GARFIELD: Let's begin with how we got there. How has it come to pass that Al-Jazeera English has unique access to this story of war?

PAUL McKINNEY: Well, we've been based in Gaza permanently since before we went on air. We launched just over two years ago. Our very first story on air in our very first program was from Gaza. Since then, we have reported consistently, almost daily, from Gaza. The humanitarian crisis has been a very big part of our reporting, but, of course, we've also reported on the political developments, both looking in detail at Fatah and Hamas and, of course, bringing a wider context with our reporting from throughout the region.

BOB GARFIELD: Now, I assumed for the purposes of the introduction here that your slant has been fundamentally sympathetic to the Palestinian populace of Gaza. Do I have that wrong?

PAUL McKINNEY: I wouldn't see it in that way at all. What we are doing is the absolute most basic form of reporting, which is telling the story that we see before us. Now, clearly in the past two weeks the most important and compelling part of this story has been the effect on the civilian population in Gaza. But we have been rolling on this 24 hours a day for the past fortnight, and that means that we're able to give a much broader context, not just talking about the humanitarian crisis but looking at the politics of this, reporting extensively from Israel across the Middle East and, indeed, from the United States, and looking at the role of the U.S. and the international community.

BOB GARFIELD: Clearly, different outlets are framing the coverage in very different ways. For example, The Jerusalem Post, which is kind of a center-right paper from Israel, has done all of its coverage under the banner “Confronting Hamas.” Al-Jazeera English is using the phrase, “War on Gaza.” Now, that obviously looks at the question from a very different perspective.

PAUL McKINNEY: We believe that that phrase provides an accurate reflection of what is happening at the moment because it is an offensive on Gaza.

BOB GARFIELD: Well, I'm sure you could get someone from the IDF to say that’s absolutely not true. It is not a war on Gaza. It is a war on Hamas.

PAUL McKINNEY: Well, sure. And, indeed, in our coverage we have consistently, daily, almost hourly, ensured that that point of view from the Israeli Army and Israel generally is given its voice. But we feel that as a summation of what is happening at the moment that is an accurate and fair title.

BOB GARFIELD: From a journalistic point of view, this is a particularly thorny story to cover because violence is being meted out by Israel and yet the culpability is not necessarily clear. Is Hamas responsible for not ceasing its rocket attacks? Is it responsible for firing from civilian areas? How do you frame that in your day-to-day coverage?

PAUL McKINNEY: Well, we report the humanitarian crisis. We report what our correspondents are seeing on the ground. But the important thing is that we give wider context by reporting on what the military and political leaders are seeing, but then attempting to cut through that spin, as it were, to put aside the propaganda. And because we are a 24-hour news channel that is concentrating so many resources on this story, I think we're able to do that in a way that is more comprehensive than certainly viewers in the United States will have seen.

BOB GARFIELD: I understand that entirely, although you would have to conclude at this stage that there is an ongoing catastrophe for the Gazans and a propaganda bonanza for Hamas just because of the nature of the images that you’re feeding. No?

PAUL McKINNEY: Yeah. I [SIGHS] – of course, we have got to be conscious of how either side are using the war for propaganda purposes, and that’s why as well as reporting the effects of shelling on either side, our job is to give detailed and extensive interviews and analyze what both sides are doing, because there’s a propaganda war on both sides.

BOB GARFIELD: Paul, thank you very much.

PAUL McKINNEY: Thank you.

BOB GARFIELD: Paul McKinney is executive producer for news at Al-Jazeera English.