April 25, 2007 | Scripps Howard News Service

Hacks or Flacks?

Journalists are often accused of bias. Rarely do journalists level that charge against themselves. But the 35,000 members of Britain's National Union of Journalists (NUJ) have done exactly that. Call them prejudiced, call them unprofessional. You can't say they aren't candid. The NUJ has declared a boycott against the usual suspect: Israel. Just say no! to Israeli oranges, lemons and melons, they demand.

The NUJ has not declared a boycott against Sudan — despite the fact that the Khartoum regime is committing genocide against black Muslims in Darfur. Nor have they called for a boycott against the Syrian and Russian regimes that regularly murder their critics; the Iranian mullahs who torture reporters; the Palestinian Authority which is complicit in the kidnapping of correspondents; or the many Middle Eastern regimes that trample human rights day in and day out. No, the NUJ targets what is indisputably the freest and most democratic country in the Middle East, the one nation in the world with neighbors so hostile they vow to wipe her off the map.

The simple explanation is anti-Israelism — the 21st century’s most fashionable form of anti-Semitism. The NUJ is not quite candid enough to say that. Instead, the union cites what it calls the “savage, pre-planned attack on Lebanon by Israel.”

You may be thinking: But didn’t last summer's conflict begin when Hezbollah fired rockets from Lebanon at villages inside Israel? Didn’t Hezbollah commandos cross the border into Israel and kill three Israeli soldiers and kidnap two more (who are to this day still in captivity, deprived of the most basic rights to which POWs are entitled)?  Weren’t those acts of war to which Israel had a right to respond?

Also, you might wonder why the NUJ is so blithely unconcerned about Hezbollah’s use of Lebanese civilians and, in some cases, entire villages, as human shields. Though there was little press coverage during last summer’s war, after the conflict U.K. Foreign Office Minister Kim Howell investigated and reported to a parliamentary committee that Hezbollah had extensively hidden caches of arms in schools and mosques, and rockets in homes and apartment blocks.

“What I saw out there begs many questions about the way we try to define what constitutes a war crime,” Howell said. “Every time the Israelis responded [to a missile attack] and smashed a building down, every picture of a burnt child and every picture of a building that had housed people [where] there was now pancake on the ground was propaganda for Hezbollah.”

Propaganda that many journalists were more than willing to distribute globally (as Marvin Kalb, a senior fellow at Harvard’s Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, documents in a recent report: “The Israeli-Hezbollah War of 2006: The Media As A Weapon in Asymmetrical Conflict“). But that’s the luxury that bias affords: You can ignore war crimes by those you favor while, deriding as “savage” attempts at self-defense by those against whom you are prejudiced.

The British journalist, Toby Harnden, who has worked in the Middle East and who opposes the NUJ action, writes in the Telegraph that the NUJ has “a childish fixation with trendy-Leftie causes,” of which anti-Israelism is merely the most pronounced.

He notes, for example, an NUJ motion that “applauds the advances made by the Venezuelan people and government in redistributing the country's wealth” since Hugo Chavez came to power and turned that country into a bastion of anti-Americanism and an ally of Iran’s rulers.

Ironically, even as the NUJ is bashing Israel, Alan Johnston, the Gaza correspondent of the BBC is being held captive (and may have been killed) by Palestinian militants. Or maybe that isn’t ironic. Johnson’s kidnapping, the abduction and forced conversions of Fox journalists Steve Centanni and Olaf Wiig, the video-taped decapitation of Daniel Pearl — these and other atrocities are intimidating a growing list of journalists.

With this as backdrop, perhaps the NUJ boycott against Israel should be seen less as bias and more as a kind of tribute — a sacrifice of journalistic integrity in the hope it may appease the editors who matter most, those who cut not with red pens but with butcher knives, those who produce not packages for the evening news but snuff videos for the Internet.

 “The use of media as a weapon [has] an effect parallel to a battle,” Hezbollah commander Nabil Qaouk has declared. Al-Qaeda's Ayman al-Zawahiri, has observed that more than half of the Islamists' war “is taking place in the battlefield of the media.”

That Britain’s National Union of Journalists has now surrendered any pretense of balance and neutrality in regard to the Arab-Israeli conflict must be a source of enormous encouragement to such men.

Clifford D. May, a former New York Times foreign correspondent, is the president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.






Hezbollah Lebanon