From firstname.lastname@example.org Thu Sep 6 06:49:48 2001
Date: Thu, 6 Sep 2001 02:03:55 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: Sam Kiley on why he left the Times
To: adair <email@example.com>
It all seems a bit silly, at first—two foreign-reporting grandees locking horns over just one word.
Last week The Independent’s Robert Fisk accused the BBC of
buckling to Israeli pressure to drop the use of
when referring to Israel’s policy of knocking off alleged
terrorists. Not true, blustered John Simpson, auntie’s
world affairs editor in The Sunday Telegraph.
The corporation, he insisted, had simply reaffirmed its house rules that only prominent political figures could be assassinated—though he didn’t offer an alternative term for the killing of ordinary folk. He bitterly resented Fisk’s allegation that the Beeb had been got at.
It is certainly true that the pro-Israel lobby has forced the BBC and CNN in particular to agonise over the use of loaded terms. In war, words are a weapon, we all know that. And few belligerents have been so good at hijacking language to its own cause than Israel. The Jewish State has deliberately set out to bend English to serve its own ends. It is entirely natural that it should.
Taking its prompt from its Big Brother, the USA, which coined
Orwellian terms such as
collateral damage for dead civilians,
degrading the enemy for slaughtering the oppo’,
Israel has come up with a few choice terms for oldfashioned military
The Fisk-Simpson debate, however, has reached new levels of pomposity, as each of them flourished their professional standards like peacock plumes. Not since the bitter name-calling squabble over Israel and the Palestinians between the Telegraph’s proprietor Conrad Black and Lord Gilmour in the pages of Black’s Spectator, have readers had to endure such an apparently meaningless argument.
But I have a little experience of this sort of thing and, yes, words matter. In an 11-year stint for The Thunderer, I’d lived out a childhood ambition to be its Africa correspondent, served my time in the Balkans and the Middle East, been shot, jailed, and had my ribs cracked. I’d faced (mock) execution twice and had more of a whizz-bang time than any young man could want. Then last month I threw it all in, because of the words I was asked to use, or not to use.
More than two score Palestinians have been bumped off over the past
year on suspicion that they have, or might be, planning to kill
Israelis. These operations have been described by the European Union
and Britain as
killings. Human rights groups call them murders by death squads.
The Israelis call them
targeted killings. Palestinian towns
and villages have been subjected to various forms of what we call
siege. According to the Israelis, a
breathing closure allows
some movement in and out; a
suffocating closure speaks for
itself. Children shot dead by Israeli snipers and ordinary soldiers at
riots are killed in
Both sides manipulate the use and meaning of language, of course. As
we have seen at the United Nations racism conference in Durban,
Israel’s enemies have tried to rob the words
apartheid of their real meanings by insisting
that Israel is guilty of all three.
Fortunately the USA has walked out of the conference in protest at
these grotesque libels of the Jewish State. Still, for the
Palestinians, every dead Palestinian is a
martyr on the West
Bank and in Gaza—whether they chose to die or were killed by
accident. And reporters often forget to mention that the Palestinians
are not just fighting to end the occupation of their land: most want
to destroy Israel and drive all the Jews into the sea.
Both sides seek to censor their crimes and celebrate their causes. Under intense pressure from thousands of (mostly pro-Israeli) e-mail writers, PR pros and politicians, many of these ghastly non-terms have crept into the lexicon of Middle Eastern news coverage.
But in the war of words, no newspaper has been so happy to hand the keys of the armoury over to one side than The Times, which is owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International. Murdoch is a close friend of Ariel Sharon, Israel’s prime minister.
Knowing these details, and that Murdoch has invested heavily in Israel, The Times’ foreign editor and other middle managers flew into hysterical terror every time a pro-Israel lobbying group wrote in with a quibble or complaint, and then usually took their side against their own correspondent—deleting words and phrases from the lexicon to rob its reporters of the ability to make sense of what was going on.
So, I was told, I should not refer to
Israel’s opponents, nor to
extrajudicial killings or
executions. The professional Israeli hits in which at least four
entirely innocent civilians have been killed were, if I had to write
about them at all, just
killings, or best of
targeted killings. The fact that the Jewish colonies
on the West Bank in Gaza were illegal under international law because
they violated the Geneva Convention was not disputed by my editors -
but any reference to this fact was
The leader writers, meanwhile, were happy to repeat the canard that Palestinian gunmen were using children as human shields.
One story which referred to Sharon’s
and to a Palestinian village which was
hemmed in on three sides
by settlements was ripped out of the paper altogether after the first
edition. These terms were deemed unacceptable, even though Sharon
would have sued had I called him a softie; even though the settlements
have all been built as military camps, and that the thesis of the
piece, on the eve of the Arab League summit in Jordan, was that
support for Yasser Arafat and participation in the
Intifada (another phrase The Times hated, since they thought it
romanticised the uprising) was dwindling.
No pro-Israel lobbyist ever dreamed of having such power over a great
national newspaper. They didn’t need to. Murdoch’s
executives were so scared of irritating him that, when I pulled off a
little scoop by tracking, interviewing and photographing the unit in
the Israeli army which killed Mohammed al-Durrah, the 12-year-old boy
whose death was captured on film and became the iconic image of the
conflict, I was asked to file the piece
without mentioning the dead
After that conversation, I was left wordless, so I quit.