Letter to a New BBC Middle East Correspondent
by Hadar Sela
We do not yet know your name or when you will be arriving in Jerusalem but that does not matter. The minute you step off the plane at airport in Tel Aviv, you will encounter a junction and the path you choose then will determine what you achieve during your time here.
You have no doubt taken the mandatory Middle East module at the BBC College of Journalism and so – equipped with the “correct” terminology – you could on the one hand elect to take the route which will lead you to turn out more of the same genre of reports which generations of your predecessors have produced. That is the easy option: the narrative was already set long ago and all you have to do is to shoehorn new stories into the existing mould. Whilst there is definitely no shortage of news in this part of the world, you will be able to navigate your three or so years here with relative ease if you stick to the path which has been very well-trodden by those before you.
The question is; did you become a journalist in order to turn out pro forma articles which have in fact already been dictated by somebody else and challenge neither your own preconceived perceptions nor those of your audiences? Or did you choose your career because you wanted to tell the stories which no-one else is telling? Did you aspire to challenge accepted notions and to peel back the layers of misconception by bringing your audiences a view they have likely never seen? If that is the case, you have come to the right place, but you must take the second, more uncomfortable route which demands much more effort on your part.
Indeed, that route requires that you first of all forget what you think you know and make a conscious effort to avoid imposing your own cultural interpretations on what you see. If you can, it would be beneficial to learn at least the basics of Hebrew and Arabic because language is of course a window into culture as well as a means of communication. Most important though is to listen – and not only to the English speakers in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem or the conveniently provided English language press releases from the plethora of political NGOs just waiting to make your life easier – and get their own message amplified.
Get out of the main population centres and go and explore the other Israel which does not interest most foreign correspondents. Listen to the Israelis originally from Casablanca, Cochin or Sanaa in Yeruham, Ofakim and Hatzor HaGlilit. Hear the Druze dentist from Rameh, the Circassian nurse from Kfar Kama and her colleague the Bedouin GP from Shibli. Listen to the Likud-voting Muslim business owner from Daburiya and the married gay man from the Galilee Arab village who lives a double life which only his Jewish boss knows about. Hear the “air-raid shelter generation” kibbutzniks who spent their childhoods under the shadow of constant Syrian attacks from the Golan – and then built their own homes on the sites of those enemy bunkers after 1967. Talk to the Holocaust survivor who made the Negev desert bloom but whose grandchildren live under the pall of terrorist missiles from Gaza and the man born in a British detention camp in Cyprus to German Holocaust survivor parents turned back by the Mandate authorities. Meet the lady expelled from Hebron as a baby in 1929, the seventh generation Jerusalemite expelled from the Old City in 1948 and the evacuees from Yamit and Gush Katif. Listen to the parents trying to hold their lives together after their daughter was murdered by a terrorist suicide bomber for no other reason than the fact that she was an Israeli on a bus.
Be curious; there are thousands of stories here at every turn – but most of them will not fit into the familiar narrative you know and in order to tell them, you will have to be different and, to no small extent, brave. And if that sounds like too much of a challenge and you just want to pass your time here as uncontroversially and easily as possible whilst waiting for the next rung on the career ladder, then at least please bear in mind that you are not just any journalist – you are a BBC journalist. Hence, unlike your colleagues in the bar at the American Colony Hotel, you are committed to reporting accurately and impartially.
As the filter through which BBC produced content on the Middle East will pass in these coming years, you have the power to shape the perceptions and attitudes of audiences of the world’s biggest media organisation. That is a heavy responsibility and one which – if mishandled – can have very serious consequences. Libels such as the “massacre” in Jenin over a decade ago still abound on the internet (where whatever you too write and report will remain on permanent view), in no small part thanks to some of those who did your job before you.
Like them, you too will move on to a different assignment in a relatively short period of time, but the people affected by what you report and how you present it will remain here. What is perhaps only a passing story for a journalist already looking for the next one is someone else’s life.
This region is saturated with journalists writing nearly identical reports which conform to an unquestioned political narrative and news consumers have no use for yet more of the same. What they do need however is objective, factual, innovative reporting from people curious enough to look behind the clichés and the obvious. That is a big challenge. Whether you decide to take it on or not will depend upon the route you choose to take.