I used to have an angry barber. How’s that for an enticing piece of information? Anyway, every time I went to have a haircut, the man with the scissors was seething. It was the situation in Cyprus that had got him going and he was sure to tell me all about it. I was constantly reminded of Enoch Powell, who, when asked how he would like his hair cut, replied “in complete silence”.
After a few cuts my barber realised that I worked in politics and kept trying to enlist my help. But there was a problem. I am sure that on my first visit he had told me, but I remained unclear whether he was a Turkish Cypriot or a Greek one.
It was too late to ask, so I tried to pick it up from his angry diatribes. Unfortunately, my grasp of the intricacies was insufficient. All I could do was offer mumbled sympathy at what I hoped were the right places in his polemics. Eventually I found somewhere else to get a haircut.
There are few things more difficult to fathom than someone else’s passionate political dispute. For years I’ve been relating my barber story to Jewish audiences. I explain that for most people the dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians is like that between the Cypriots. It’s a complicated row between two sets of foreigners making competing claims that are hard for anyone except an expert or a participant to evaluate.
For years that didn’t matter much. A few overexcited people (mark me down as one) arguing about a country the size of a pocket handkerchief somewhere miles away. Israel, Shmisrael. Who cares?
But now things are different. A few days after 9/11 I watched a television reporter wandering through a street in the Israeli capital. He was telling viewers: “I am here in Jerusalem where it all began and where it will all have to end.” That remark, hotly though I might dispute it (9/11 did not start there and won’t end there), has become the consensus — the road to peace in the world runs through Jerusalem.
And for that reason all those obscure little arguments, all those tit-or-tat arguments between indistinguishable groups that used to seem so boring, are now of first-rate political importance. It really matters whether people understand enough to form a view of their own.
Which brings me to the BBC. Unlike a lot of columnists, I like the BBC. I think its reporting is generally excellent, its news programmes are of high quality and its foreign correspondents are usually both brave and illuminating. Although the corporation can be high-handed in dealing with complaints (the theory that if both sides complain they must be getting something right is absurd) I think its staff does genuinely wish to be politically unbiased.
If only they always knew how. For on Israel, they (not everyone, of course, but too many reporters and too often) sadly get it wrong over and over again. They mistake reporting equal numbers of deaths from both sides with giving people a complete appreciation of the arguments involved. They tell you how, when, who and how many. All this is balanced. As to why, you are often left with a very one-sided view.
Let me provide an eloquent example. One of the biggest stories in the Middle East is the civil disorder in Gaza. Last week on his website, the journalist Stephen Pollard reproduced an internal memo from the BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, to his colleagues. It contained a passage in which Bowen explains “the way that Palestinian society, which used to draw strength from resistance to the occupation, is now fragmenting.
“The reason is the death of hope, caused by a cocktail of Israel’s military activities, land expropriation and settlement building — and the financial sanctions imposed on the Hamas-led Government which are destroying Palestinian institutions that were anyway flawed and fragile.”
Now this is certainly one explanation of the reason why members of Fatah and Hamas are killing each other. No one can object that this argument is put before the BBC’s audience. But for the BBC’s Middle East editor to believe that it constitutes the sole explanation and to offer it up alone to his colleagues? Now that’s a different matter.
Here are a few alternatives to Bowen’s offering. Some of us argue that instead of the tough Israeli security measures causing Hamas and Fatah militants to kill people and each other, the killing of people by Hamas and Fatah militants causes the tough security measures. Hamas in particular is a dangerous, intolerant, murderous organisation that threatens the lives of innocent people and needs to be resisted.
And what about this? Fatah and Hamas are engaged in a power struggle and an ideological dispute. Fatah claims that its rivals have been plotting to assassinate President Mahmoud Abbas because the President supports the so-called Prisoners’ Document. This document proposes a unified resistance to Israel, but Hamas is suspicious of the terms of such unity and believes that its vague language could mean recognition of Israel.
Or this? In a superb column last week in the Financial Times, Christopher Caldwell pointed out that are there are 67 countries in the world where 15 to 29-year-olds make up more than 30 per cent of the population and 60 of them are undergoing some sort of civil war or mass killing. Gaza has just such a youth bulge. Perhaps the violence has no political cause; it is just, well, boys being boys.
I know, I know. You may regard these alternatives as absurd, even offensive. I don’t, but that’s not my point. If you want to report the Middle East in an unbiased fashion, then these arguments must be put before the BBC audience. And how can they be if the Middle East editor doesn’t even acknowledge them? People rely on the BBC. They can’t just get another hairdresser.