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Communications in the Middle East – Peering Through the Fog

April 7, 2011

I met a guy last night who was so outraged by what he saw the as the BBC’s biased reporting  of recent events in Bahrain that he is planning to go to the United Nations in New York to protest about the Corporation’s behaviour.

Like me, he’s of the old school that believes that an international news organisation trusted around the world has the responsibility- if it is to maintain its reputation – to report current events as impartially as is practical. And that means, in the case of Bahrain, verifying stories rather than reporting heresay, and balancing coverage with the views both of the opposition and the government.

In an ideal world, he must surely be right. And it’s quite possible that the BBC didn’t distinguish itself in Bahrain. But let’s think for a moment about the whole issue of communications in times of conflict and crisis, and particularly about the battle for hearts and minds in what one day historians might refer to as the Arab Spring.

And if we’re looking at communications, we need to consider the positions of all the interested stakeholders: international media, local media, governments, opposition movements, and finally ourselves, the consumers of an incessant stream of news and opinion.

Since we started with the alleged failings of the Beeb, let’s look first at the international media.

Since Tunisia, the Middle East and North Africa have turned into a bit of a circuit. Armies of reporters and analysts alighted first on Tunisia, moved on to Egypt and descended on Bahrain. Some made side trips to Jordan and Yemen. Today, the news roadshow is camped in Libya, with expeditionary forces in Syria and still in Yemen. In London, Doha and Atlanta we have a host of commentators ready to say their tuppenceworth either at the studies or from their perches in other metropolitan centres.

The individual reporter is involved in a personal war. Looking to reach the scene of some demonstration or outbreak of violence before the newshounds of the other networks and newspapers. Critics would say: looking for blood. Some have a reputation to make. Some are pretty pedestrian (memo to self: one of these days write a list of the top ten clichés of TV journalism. For example, use of the word “they” in the first sentence of a report – as in: solemn voice to camera – “they came in their thousands….”). Others are what you would call “doyens” – John Simpson, Jeremy Bowen and so forth.

In a major crisis, no single reporter provides the whole story. One might report from Benghazi or Misrata. Another might be in Tripoli waiting for Gaddafi to gargle “Al Qaeda – it is Al Qaeda!”, explaining to the world how Osama’s boys have cunningly drugged the masses with mind-bending drugs in their coffee. It’s then up to the team at home to determine what stories to run, and which talking heads to wheel in for comment.

If you’re a lone reporter – competing with a bunch of other lone reporters, some with big egos and ambitions to match – what do you go for first? You discover that there’s major action to cover – possibly bodies, wounded and eye-witnesses to interview – do you go to the scene, gather what you can and stream your story back to the studio before anyone else can send their version? Or do you wait to hear the other side of the story – perhaps from a policeman who helped to clear the Pearl Roundabout, or one of Gaddafi’s people who has been lobbing shells into Misrata? Well, the chances are that the policeman won’t talk to you, and the Libyan soldier will be too busy lobbing more shells, unless he’s been vaporised by an NATO air strike.

So you go with the story at hand. And yes, you might get it wrong. You might misinterpret what a witness has told you, or take false logic leaps on the basis of what you are seeing. And if you do, your words hang round your neck for eternity. But remember that in the heat of the moment the participants themselves don’t always have a clear view of what’s going on. It’s often not until many hours later that you get to talk to an “official government spokesman” who will give you the government’s version of events.

And yes, you might stray beyond the bounds of impartiality. Not everyone has the ability of Kate Adie and John Simpson to let the pictures and unassailable facts speak for themselves. Reporters are human too, and if confronted by scenes of cruelty and horror, it’s hard for them not to let their personal feelings seep into their reporting. And there have been some reporters in recent months who have led their audiences to conclusions not supported by verifiable facts, and influenced by their obvious emotions in covering the story.

So is it fair to accuse the international media of impartiality? Possibly. But remember that they are reporting a story that unfolds. Potted opinions from all sides are not available in a neat package at a single point in time. I think that you can only take a view on impartiality if you look at coverage over days rather than hours. So it’s easy for me to look at a five-minute piece to camera and say “that’s outrageous”.  But if I then watch a stream of reports over a couple of days that present only one side of the story, then I’m entitled to question the agenda or professionalism of the news service.

What of the local media?

Well, the main difference from the international media is that local papers are typically owned by local people. Local editors and reporters can’t simply strike their tents and head off to the next battlefield or square. They have to live with the consequences of what they publish. The suspension in Bahrain of Al Wasat newspaper, followed by the sacking of the editorial team for alleged fabrication of stories, is a telling reminder of that.

The owners of local newspapers often have specific political agendas. They will rarely let the editorial team get on with the job. So a reporter will be told what to report, and an editor will run the story – sometimes with gritted teeth. Nothing unusual in this. Big ticket newspapers in the West have always had interfering proprietors. William Randolph Hearst, Lord Beaverbrook and the odious Robert Maxwell particularly come to mind.

But the big papers have to be subtle – they have to hide the level of interference by their proprietors for fear of alienating their huge readerships. Smaller papers are much more often the playthings of proprietors who don’t really care if their readers know they are being led. In fact some are more than happy for their names to appear under a leader – something that you wouldn’t see Rupert Murdoch doing.

Local newspapers in the Middle East often have a fine line to tread – as the Al Wasat experience shows. Most governments claim not to censor their local independent media. Yet the editors themselves are aware of a red line, and many make strenuous efforts to stay some yards away from it. A recent piece in mideastposts.com describes a good example of their timidity in the UAE. Editors and columnists who stray beyond the line find themselves removed with little notice. And many governments have laws that they pull out of their back pockets if they feel that a little punitive action is called for.

Moving on to governments.

How do they communicate in times of crisis? Not always very well. Most Middle Eastern governments do not have the smooth communications machines that the likes of Barack Obama and David Campbell have at their disposal. And unlike Obama and Cameron, most leaders – especially the hereditary ones – did not arrive in their positions because of their ability to communicate with their people. Some are good communicators. Others less so.

In this region, most information ministries prefer to communicate with the masses through stilted and interminable press releases, rich in polysyllables and dripping with nuances and implications. National TV is hardly more impressive. I wrote a piece about this a few weeks ago. When a crisis erupts, government media, by silence or obfuscation, will often reflect the shock and paralysis that afflicts the entire government. Their instinct is to say nothing beyond the formulaic until someone tells them what to say. And often, they will be serving more than one master. If one master falls out with another in the stress of the emergency, you might see completely different messages from one day to the next. Confusing, especially if you, the interested observer, are trying to make sense of what is going on.

Eventually, as the whole quantum of the emergency becomes known, governments do tend to get their acts together. They will appoint a loyalist like Moussa Ibrahim in Libya, who is capable of eloquently declaring that black is white, or perhaps a lower-key spokesperson who manages to get the official message across with some credibility.

If they are serving eccentric masters like Gaddafi, their task is not easy, especially when the leader pops up like a jack-in-a-box and blows away the communications strategy with an intemperate rant. And they will complain that nobody is listening to their side of the story. Sometimes they will be right. When Gaddafi blamed the uprising on Al Qaeda, there was much derision in the West. Less so today as it becomes evident that the jihadis have seeded themselves into the rebel front lines. But Gaddafi’s case wasn’t helped by theories about magic mushrooms in the coffee of the entire population of  Benghazi.

Let’s now turn to the opposition, the protesters or the rebels.

For most of them, a communications strategy is the last thing on their minds at the outset. To have a strategy, you need an organisation. Although there may have been organisations at the heart of some of the initial protests, those that existed at the start will have been swept along by the enthusiasm of the thousands  on which they depended to establish critical mass. Some will have ended up sidelined, only to regain some measure of control as events moved on.

But popular protests feed on media exposure. So by and large, their way of communicating their message has been via the international media, via Facebook and Twitter, not through a series of convoluted press releases. So the emphasis is on doing what you have to in order to make the headlines, to populate YouTube, to convince your fellow citizens and the world of the justice of your cause.

Only when things start going their way does any form of concerted communications policy emerge. At the Pearl Roundabout, for example, which I visited a week before its clearance, I was struck by how organised the tented village had become. Among the many semi-permanent fixtures, there was a media tent.

Protesters and rebels have a twin challenge when communicating. First they need to get “the street” on their side. And then they need to sway international opinion. The importance of the latter is exemplified in Libya by the success of the rebels and expatriate lobbyists in persuading governments, and ultimately the UN, to impose a no-fly zone.

But sometimes they are not aware that they need to use different language to persuade different constituencies. To get the street onside, emotional language, especially the use of words that have resonance in Arabic, can do the trick.

However, if they are looking to convince Western politicians and public opinion, they perhaps need a different approach. For example, if they use the word “martyr”, a substantial part of an audience in the United States or Britain will immediately turn off. Many Westerners will equate the term with suicide bombers, and will dub the writer or speaker a fanatic. Likewise, using colourful terms like “thugs” to describe the other side, and “kidnap” instead of arrest might convince some, but definitely not others.

A better strategy is to use language that an international audience would expect to hear from their own “serious” media– impassioned perhaps, but logical, fact-based and without cultural references likely to alienate potential supporters and influencers.

Finally, what about you and me – the average consumers of news?

From childhood most of us have been targets of persuasion – and, some would say – of manipulation. Parents, politicians, peers, priests, imams, teachers, employers and advertisers. We have spent our lives directly or indirectly being told what to think and do by any number of people and organisations. From that daily dose of persuasion and influence we emerge as adults with opinions. Some come from our own experience. Others are cultural defaults that we never stop to challenge.

That’s not to say that we don’t change our minds about things over time – of course we do. For most of us, the influences that have shaped our opinions have been benevolent, or at least neutral. But in every society there is the potential for malevolence – temporary or sustained – to take hold. We only have to look at the well-oiled communications machine of Dr Josef Goebbels and his fellow Nazis to see how a nation can enter a state of temporary insanity through the encouragement of relentless and malevolent communications.

So it’s no bad thing for us to get into the habit of questioning, just like my acquaintance who has mounted his campaign against the BBC. To look at news stories and think about what motivates the authors – where the stories come from, and whether you accept them at face value.

For many of us, Arab or non-Arab, this is a given. But in the Middle East, the constant refrain is that educational systems do not encourage critical thinking.

And as we are bombarded with news and opinions from so many sources – far more than previous generations – finding our way through the fog demands more critical thinking skills than ever before.

We could, of course, just accept what we’re told, go with the flow, and hope for a quiet life.

I know what I prefer, but it sure is hard work sometimes.

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