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Fit to Print – Not for the first time, Andy contemplates the Middle East

July 18, 2010

… and, not for the first time, wonders what the fucking point is.

Jesus, Mohammed and Moses walk into a bar. Boom.

That’s it. Just boom.

Joris Luyendijk’s account of his years as a Dutch foreign correspondent in the Middle East was a best seller in the Netherlands. Or that’s what the blurb on my Australian edition, published by Scribe, says. I’m guessing Scribe’s edition hasn’t been a best seller. Fit to Print was Netty’s choice for the Challenge, although it fits more obviously with my looney leftie leanings. Who’s got Chomsky, Pilger, Loewenstein, Said, Fisk, Pappe on their bookshelves? Who’s subscribed to the New Internationalist for the past 15 years? Hint: it’s not Netty. Although my copy of Fisk’s The Great War for Civilisation is sitting godknowswhere at Netty’s house. I’ll never see it again and she’ll never read it. Obviously. It’s like a thousand pages.

To be fair, Fit to Print isn’t a particularly looney left type book (elements of the pro-Israeli lobby may disagree). Joris (which is how I’ll refer to him, because Luyendijk has too many letters that don’t fit together in a way English speakers find comfortable) (although that said neither does Joris, really, it’s just shorter) (are you annoyed with the brackets yet?) Joris is a well educated, highly intelligent, not especially political – as far as I can tell – guy. He seems to like a drink. Journos like a drink. Don’t trust a journo that doesn’t drink. Serious.

He seems to have gone to the Middle East with very few preconceptions, most of which turned out to be wrong. While he was there he came up with a few more ideas about the Middle East and most of those turned out to be wrong, too. Having left the Middle East a few ideas have evolved and form the backbone of this book. Two of them are 1) that dictatorship by its very nature makes proper journalism impossible. And 2) that Israel – a democracy – has a public relations behemoth at its disposal that makes proper journalism impossible.

Initially these two ideas might not seem contradictory. Re-read them and you might start to think…. Hang on, you can’t have it both ways. Think about it a bit more and you’ll realise you were right the first time. But together they point to a fairly depressing state of affairs.

Proper journalism is pretty fucking difficult anywhere on the planet these days. Public broadcasters probably have it easiest although even they have lines to toe. Proper journalism happens in the West but PR whores and political pressure and – not a subject Joris engages with specifically although it bubbles along below the surface if you’re looking for it – the pressures exerted by the owners of the mass media, who may or may not (usually may) have a political agenda but whether they have one or not by fuck want to sell advertising… All of these things make proper journalism difficult. In western democracies. So it’s no biggie that proper journalism in Middle Eastern dictatorships is nigh on impossible. And while Israel is a democracy it’s also an illegally occupying force, it’s a repellent, oppressive presence in the lives of everyday Palestinians, and on those grounds it has a PR war to win. And unless something dramatic happens (it won’t) it’s going to win that war. All the wars, probably.

That’s why, not for the first time, I wonder what the point is in contemplating the Middle East. Because unless you’re a bigot or a moron it’s not difficult to understand what needs to happen. But Israel and the US are always going to make sure what needs to happen doesn’t.

But this isn’t the place for an increasingly futile rant on the need for the recognition of the Palestinian right to identity, nationhood and… Oh yes. Being human. Just like Jews. Someone tried to argue Jews weren’t human once. What was all that about?

I really liked this book but if it had a flaw it’s something my inner Chomsky picked up on. I don’t actually have an inner Chomsky. That would be creepy and weird. But I have read Manufacturing Consent and Necessary Illusions, Chomsky’s critiques of the operations of western media. I reckon Joris is familiar with Chomsky’s arguments – sorry to be anti-Australian but I suspect most Europeans are much better read than us – and perhaps he doesn’t agree with them. That’s fine. But there may be another factor making “proper journalism” about the Middle East (and many other subjects) impossible and that is that the western media has self-imposed limits on what can and cannot be said. Chomsky (and Edward S. Herman) published Manufacturing Consent in 1988, as the Iron Wall began to crumble; the Cold War was a major influence on news coverage and even Chomsky has admitted things have improved marginally since then. They were writing mostly about US media, too, and other western countries have rather more open media conduits than Uncle Sam.

Nevertheless, the argument seems convincing to me and I’m surprised Joris doesn’t engage it. To be sure dictatorship makes journalism difficult. To be sure PR makes journalism its bitch. But the internal power structures of the media itself….? Ah. Let’s not go there.

And after all, what would I know about proper journalism?

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