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Israel seeks airwave supremacy

By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

Israel has been aiming for total air supremacy in more than one way in Gaza - it wants to dominate the airwaves of the news organisations with its own narrative.

An Israeli military policeman orders journalists to move location on the Israeli side of the Erez border crossing  - 8/1/2009
The Israeli military has exercised tight control over international media

To that end it has prevented foreign correspondents from entering Gaza - so too, for its own reasons, has Egypt from its border with Gaza.

The Israeli military and the government press office have got round a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court that a pool, or controlled group, of media be allowed in by saying that it is too dangerous.

Israel did give a cameraman brief access with an Israeli patrol and that has been all. Instead, the Israelis have been providing their own video, much of it taken from aircraft.

Coverage of events inside Gaza therefore has come from locally-based journalists and from bloggers. The BBC has its own Gaza-based producers and the Qatar-owned TV channel al-Jazeera has an English-speaking correspondent as well.

This reporting has had a considerable impact. The pictures of dead and wounded civilians have increasingly dominated coverage.

'Managing information space'

Foreign correspondents have been stuck on the border watching the smoke rise on the horizon. They are also subject to the normal Israeli censorship, which tends to concentrate on preventing the exposure of forthcoming operations.

Video grab of the BBC's Katya Adler reporting live from the Israeli-Gaza border - 9/1/2009
Journalists are barred from entering Gaza, and so report from the border

"The exclusion of foreign correspondents is a very important part of the Israeli plans," said Robert Fox, defence correspondent of the London Evening Standard, who covered the Falklands War in 1982 for the BBC.

"It was one of the main lessons they drew from the war in Lebanon in 2006. They want to 'manage the information space', as happened in other wars, including the Falklands.

"However, because of the media inside Gaza and the internet, events have shown that while you can to an extent manage the narrative, you cannot control the whole space. This has become a problem for the Israelis, largely because of the pictures of dead children.

"Total exclusion of the media is impossible."

'Embeds'

In other recent wars, notably the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the device of the "embedded" journalist has been used. Reporters and camera crews are assigned to a unit and have to stay with it.

The benefit for the media is that they get some access to the action. The drawback is that they cannot move about on their own and can become sympathetic with the unit they are with, which is just fine for the military, of course.

Like Israel in Gaza, the British military controlled access to the Falklands, though some intrepid Argentine journalists did fly in on a Hercules, proving that the British task force had not closed the airfield.

The BBC's Brian Barron interviewing Vietnamese soldier, Vietnam 1974
The Vietnam War was a high-water mark for press mobility in a war zone

Only British correspondents were allowed with the Royal Navy; they were subject to military discipline and censorship and had to wear a uniform.

Once on the islands they had more freedom to move around than modern "embeds" do and Robert Fox and Max Hastings were able to walk across the front line on their own as the Argentines surrendered.

In military think tanks, the Falklands War is regarded as the ideal media operation. The military had control, imposed censorship at will and there was no practical way round the restrictions, although the BBC did have an idea early on to hire its own trawler.

'Golden age'

Military planners subsequently noted with quiet approval that reports from the Falklands could take longer to reach London than despatches from the Crimean War in the 1850s.

The Crimean War was the start of what Phillip Knightley, in his classic book on war reporting, The First Casualty, called the "golden age", when correspondents had free access to the battlefield. That all ended with World War I.

The despatches from William Howard Russell for The Times influenced government policy in the Crimea. Afterwards, officialdom typically regretted the freedom he had been given.

His reports also earned for Russell himself what Knightley calls the "gesture every war correspondent dreams of " - the money he had loaned the paper as his advance expenses were written off without receipts and he was told that he could start "with what tradesmen call a clean slate".

US soldiers in Iraq - 10/12/2008
The Iraq war saw journalists forced to "embed" with combat units

During World War II, the media was seen as part of the war effort. However, even during the fighting, some reporters had doubts about the silence they kept concerning some operations.

Frank Gillard of the BBC spoke in later years of the "shame and disgrace" he felt at reporting only the actions of the air force during the Dieppe operation, ignoring the huge losses on the beaches.

There was a brief episode during the Korean War when Gen Douglas MacArthur let war correspondents make their own judgments about what to report. That did not last for long.

Vietnam gave the media considerable freedom, though they could operate in the South only with the Americans or South Vietnamese. They could move around and often hitched rides on helicopters. This was an environment which suited the freewheeling journalism of the day, exemplified by Michael Kerr's book, Dispatches.

In the Balkans, too, the media could move around if they were prepared to take the risks (and risks are taken into much greater consideration these days by news managements than they used to be).

The Israeli handling of Gaza will no doubt be the subject of much analysis in conferences and theses for a long time to come.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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