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Cut the cliches, calls correspondent -

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Cut the cliches, calls correspondent

Eleanor Hall reported this story on Monday, September 14, 2009 12:42:00

ELEANOR HALL: Now to the Dutch journalist, whose book on the media manipulation behind much of the
West's reporting on the Middle East has become a surprise bestseller.

For five turbulent years from 1997, Joris Luyendijk was a Middle East correspondent. But he was
appointed to the influential foreign posting not so much for his journalistic experience as his
linguistic skills and that gave him an interesting perspective on the practice of foreign
reporting.

Mr Luyendijk is in Australia this week to promote the latest translation of his book, Fit to Print:
Misrepresenting the Middle East and he joined me in our Melbourne studio this morning and he does
use some coarse language.

Joris Luyendijk, you came to foreign reporting from a linguistic background and it has given you an
interesting perspective. What are you most critical of about the way that Western journalists cover
the Middle East?

JORIS LUYENDIJK: Well, I think for journalists personally, that they don't know the language. I had
this string of discoveries about how journalists really work and that made me write the book
because I realised hey there are books about just about everything in the world, politicians and
corporations and lawyers and the environment, there are no real books about how journalists work.

Only by those communications scientists but they don't know anything because they are at the
university but actual journalists who spill the beans on how we work and how little we know and how
objectivity is a myth and there is the fact that most correspondents cannot talk to the Arabs.

They talk about Arab states or police states so people are also afraid. Now if you don't know the
language you are basically blind and deaf.

ELEANOR HALL: And if you are blind and deaf, how does this mode of reporting distort the facts? How
for example should the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have been reported?

JORIS LUYENDIJK: That is a difficult question because that really depends on your political view
and that was one of the discoveries I made is that you cannot talk about a conflict like that
between Israel and Palestine without being ideological because already the word Israel is
ideological.

Some people in the Middle East say no, no it is not Israel - it is the Zionist entity or it is
occupied Palestine and then Palestinians, a lot of Israelis will tell you there is no such thing as
Palestinians. They are just Arabs. They can live in all these other Arab countries and the word
Middle East is political because a lot of Arabs they look it should be Arab world and then you
realise once you say Arab world that there is no such thing as Israel or shouldn't be.

So to think that you can be objective is really missing the central point and I think what should
journalism should start doing is to say look, you know, you can look at this conflict from this
angle, from this angle, from this angle and if you do it like this, you would realise that actually
those people from Hamas and also the far right in Israel are logical and quite sensible people who
just start from different premises and that was such a discovery for me.

ELEANOR HALL: It was very interesting at one point in your book you talk about translating the
names of newspapers. Even that makes a difference, doesn't it?

JORIS LUYENDIJK: Yeah, it does. It seems that there is no, I don't think there is a real conspiracy
to present Arabs as these sort of emotional problem-generating people but there are these things
that we could change like Al Jazeera sounds very exotic but if you say the island, Al Jazeera means
the island, it changes. Al-Alam which is the major Egyptian paper, it just means the pyramids.

A lot of these little things could be changed.

ELEANOR HALL: You talk about the Israeli PR machine in your book. Just how good is it and how does
it compare to the Palestinian approach?

JORIS LUYENDIJK: It is not as good as the American PR machine because that is brilliant but the
Israelis are very good and it is just for sale. You can just buy good PR the way Coca-Cola buys PR
or Shell buys PR and this already occurred to me the first time I went to Israel and the
Palestinian territories is that I arrived and you have to pick up a press card.

Now I went to pick up this press card at the Israeli press office and there was this fantastic
outfit with spokesmen in, and spokespersons in all languages and they would be totally trained so
they can give you a quote in 15 seconds, 30 seconds, one minute in this language, that language.

They had video tapes ready with footage from whatever was convenient for them. They could set up
appointments with experts who were all media trained.

Then I went to the Palestinian side and there was just nothing. There was a Ministry for
Information but all the employees were actually moonlighting for Western media.

ELEANOR HALL: So what difference does this make to the coverage?

JORIS LUYENDIJK: Enormous. I think my favourite anecdote was when I was, I was living in Lebanon
when I went to the Palestinian territory first and so I turned on the television in the morning and
I saw that footage that everyone knows about stone throwers and ambulances and angry beards and
Israeli soldiers and I was scared shitless, if I can use that word.

Very frightening, so I flew to Amman because you can't go straight to Israel from Lebanon and then
a taxi, eight hours, I was really, very, very, very afraid. I reread my diary entries from that
trip and it was really like a say goodbye letter to my parents

And so I finally reach Ramallah after eight hours and it is like reaching Melbourne after eight
hours. It was just, the children are walking to school and the buses are making their tours and in
the market the oranges are on sale so I got very flustered and I said Palestinians, where are the
stone throwers and they said, oh it's all easy, don't worry. You go straight and then at a crossing
to the left all the way to the municipal board, that is where the stone throwers are, after 2pm,
and they were.

The next day at 2pm both the Israeli soldiers appeared and the Palestinian stone throwers appeared
but also appeared about 100 spectators because there is unemployment in Ramallah so what do people
do, they say ah it is two o'clock, let's go watch the stone throwers.

Then there was also someone selling falafel to the spectators because the spectators were getting
hungry and they thought ah, I'd like to have a falafel.

Now just imagine that this scene has played out for many years and all the major journalists, all
those top dogs on CNN, they have been at that scene and no one thought about including the falafel
seller in the image of those stone throwers.

ELEANOR HALL: Do you think though that audiences are now getting smarter and see through the news
management approach which does apply to more than just foreign reporting of course?

JORIS LUYENDIJK: Yah, true, true, absolutely and especially the younger generation is much more
media savvy and they can decode images. They are much more aware of whether there is one camera or
there were two cameras.

But what seems to happen is that it creates information chaos and so it is not like people feel
empowered when they can see through the media but they feel apathy and that is what worries me but
yes, it is getting better.

ELEANOR HALL: We've seen for example in the Middle East there is rising influence of blogs and of
course there was Twitter during the Iran elections. Has this changed things?

JORIS LUYENDIJK: You mentioned Iran elections. It is a very interesting example. On one hand it
changed things because the monopoly of those few camera crews that monopolised the coverage of the
country because they were the only ones sending out footage. That monopoly has been broken down but
especially those demonstrations in Iran. It was like a Hollywood movie.

You know the demonstrators were the good guys, the regime was the bad guy and so the big story was,
will the good guys beat the bad guys and I think 21st-century journalism should be also about the
regime. What did the regime think that was happening and how did they see the demonstrators?

ELEANOR HALL: You write also about wanting to get the flavour of humour across the Middle East into
your stories. How often did you succeed in that?

JORIS LUYENDIJK: It is very easy. Just ask someone tell me a joke and they do. A friend of mine
just came back from Afghanistan and she had collected jokes among Afghan woman and apparently many
of these woman behind those burqas, they trade jokes about the size of the male reproductive organ
of Taliban fighters and you know what this does to your idea of those Afghan woman.

Wouldn't it be just wonderful if say on the down left corner there would be this little section
where you would get three jokes. One from Afghan, and one from Argentineans and one from say North
Koreans. It would add some sort of humanising element to news that all too often presents people as
this sort of alien species.

ELEANOR HALL: And Joris Luyendijk, how have your journalistic colleagues responded to your book?

JORIS LUYENDIJK: They have tried to drive me out. They have been really angry and I think it had to
do a little bit with that many journalists these days feel very much under siege you know with the
economic crisis and the internet and all these things.

And I think it is also because it is male dominated and the journalists are very often machos and
they like to stand there and pretend that it was wildly heroic to make it to Baghdad even though
they just hopped on the GMC vehicle with five other journalists and all they had to do was sit, get
out at the studio and climb the roof.

They'd like to pretend that it is all very heroic and then someone comes up and just says well
actually, um, it wasn't heroic at all. You just exposed a politician for what he really does. He
won't be grateful either.

ELEANOR HALL: Joris Luyendijk, thanks very much for joining us.

JORIS LUYENDIJK: Thank you.

ELEANOR HALL: And that is the very entertaining Dutch journalist Joris Luyendijk, talking about his
book, Fit to Print: Misrepresenting the Middle East and you can listen to an even longer version of
that interview on our website.