Ten Years Since Something That Never Happened: A Learning Moment for the Guardian

Maybe Fallujah isn’t where we should be looking for a comparison.  We could just go a few miles west of Jenin to Netanya, site of the Passover eve suicide bombing that sparked the Israeli military operation.  How did The Guardian cover that massacre?  Naturally, with detailed coverage of the victims and their families, and some understandably high-strung language on the frightening, almost ritualistic aspect of a mass murder of Jews as they sit to mark a festival of deliverance from bondage.  Guardian reporters hit the pavement probing the feelings of Israelis and Jews worldwide in the face of this enormity and commentators made much of polling data showing that suicide attacks on Israeli civilians commanded large majorities of support in Arab and Muslim countries.

Of course I’m just kidding.  None of that actually happened. There was not a single opinion piece about the Passover Massacre, no leader condemning it, and in fact, not even one news article by a Guardian writer dedicated to the story.  The morning after the attack, The Guardian did lead with a story by correspondents Suzanne Goldenberg and Graham Usher about the bombing which understated its death toll by nearly half (16 as opposed to 30) and named and profiled none of the victims; most of the story dealt not with Netanya but with the Arab summit underway in Beirut.  Nearly a third of the dead in Netanya were Holocaust survivors, but it would clearly be beneath the level of a serious news article to mention such an emotive an irrelevant topic.  Well, until the very end of the article at least, which closes with an unremarked upon quote by Syrian President Bashar Assad that ‘It’s time to save the Palestinian people from the new holocaust they are living in.’  I am not making this up. Duly reported as well was that ‘Palestinian security sources said Yasser Arafat had ordered the arrest of four key militants in the West Bank.’  I hope it wasn’t too much work following those sources down!

The following day, Goldenberg (still in Beirut, but clearly clued in to all the right sources) dutifully passed on the information that the attack was just a ‘perfect pretext’ for Israel’s military offensive and described the Israeli prime minister as ‘practically gloating’ at the tolerance he could now expect to any Israeli military action.  Meanwhile Usher wrote that Israel would bury its dead, ’22 civilians and 6 settlers,’ though there is no precedent or legal basis for losing one’s non-combatant status because one is a settler.  Two of Usher’s ‘settlers,’ incidentally, did not live in settlements at all.  They were both 80-year-old men visiting relations in a settlement over the holiday who were stabbed to death on their walk to synagogue.  A third ‘settler’ was a child not old enough to have settled anywhere, who was murdered along with his parents when a Palestinian gunperson entered their home and shot everyone.  For Graham Usher, apparently, to be a Jew where Jews are unwanted is to forfeit the protections of civilians.

This was journalistic malpractice, and it’s time to come clean.

It’s not as though The Guardian’s editors don’t think the Jenin battle is a fitting hook to hang a media critique on.  In one of the more comical moments of its histrionic coverage in April 2002, The Guardian ran a piece by no less than Julian Borger (currently the diplomatic editor) under the headline ‘Muted criticism in American newspapers: Scepticism at reports of Jenin bloodbath.’  It was clearly not meant as a gentle expression of doubt about the lather whipped up by the European media.  It was, rather, for the clever readers to tsk-tsk into their tea and fill in for themselves that we all know why the American press is too scared to report an Israeli massacre.  (The less clever ones don’t need to scroll down very far into any CiF forum to have it spelled out for them explicitly.)

Once the record is cleared, The Guardian owes itself a thorough reckoning of how it got the story so wrong.  Something better than the weasely correction it buried days after running an article under the headline ‘Israel admits harvesting Palestinian organs’ back in 2009.  (Yes, two thousand and nine.  This was published in a respectable European paper in 2009.)

A possible model is New York Times’ thorough accounting in 2004 of its reporting failures in the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq War, specifically in reproducing unsubstantiated claims of WMDs in Iraq.  That happened only one year after the war; ten years on from Jenin The Guardian has done nothing, though its journalistic failings were — and you’ll have to pardon me here — every bit as repellent.