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Palestinians Are Losing the PR War

“Your coverage of the Gaza Holocaust continues to appear biased. How can you be so cruel? don’t you have children yourselves? Why do you carry on giving the Israel officials airtime and refuse similar time to Palestine officials? What about interviewing doctors/ UN Officials/ journalists in Gaza? Why have you not tried to send someone into Gaza to see for yourselves how the children are being massacred? Show some truth. Shame on you!”

Some punter called John Hill on the Sky News website.

That sort of thing shouldn’t and normally doesn’t bother me. Detractions are taken in the same humor as praise. But it’s late at night/early in the morning and I haven’t slept well.

I donned the cap of anonymity and posted a riposte.

The reality is this. A news channel or news organization, especially one whose bread and butter is continuous rolling news, cannot afford to be “biased”. It is far to concerned with getting the raw facts of who what where when… usually before the competition. The why and how come in if there is enough time in the running order. Call it news by time code.

The airtime thing with Israeli talking heads is due to characters like Mark Regev, the Israeli Prime Minister’s spokesperson, virtually setting up camp at buildings in Jerusalem where the major news organizations have offices. When there is an Israel-related story to react to, he hops up and down the building tarting himself out to any broadcaster.

Spokespeople for the primarily Fatah government of Mahmoud Abbas are based in Ramallah. Western broadcasters don’t have offices in Ramallah (unless you want to count Al Jazeera English) due to the unbelievable amount of red tape, logistical nightmare, and expense involved with setting up an office in the West Bank which is, if you pardon the analogy, a stone’s throw away from Jerusalem.

For interviews from Ramallah, we hire a television studio. But the Palestinian Authority do not have a Mark Regev-type creature who has the freedom to slope from TV station to TV station saying, “You guys need a voice on this?”. There’s a rather large wall between Ramallah and Israel. The gaps in the wall are called checkpoints. They can take a very long time to pass through. And you need a permit to get through them. And these permits have a curfew… an inflexible curfew that will not allow you to appear live on the ten o’clock news.

Israel also has a system whereby every journalist working that patch receives text messages on their mobile phone whenever something happens. “Qassam hits Sderot. No injured”, an arrest here, a suspected terrorist there, an update on the shekel-dollar exchange rate. You can wake up in the morning to upwards of twenty unread text messages… none of which actually say anything. The Palestinian Authority has no such service. No such infrastructure for that service.
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Gaza. The western organizations that operate from within Gaza do so cautiously… especially since the Alan Johnston kidnap thing. Firms that have a permanent presence in Gaza usually have an office with its own studio. Everyone else hires studios when they’re needed. And keeps a fixer on retainer. The fixer serves as your eyes and ears… they’ll look out for stories for you and you can call them at inhospitable hours to ask them about the significance of something that is ultimately mundane. Or you ring them with something obvious like, “There are air strikes over Gaza”. They will get you guests, alert you to the latest happenings, and help your team when/if they get into “theater”.

Guests from Gaza on the phone… easy. Getting them into a television studio when you know and they know they are risking their lives by walking out into the street takes a bit more negotiation. Especially if you are trying to get members of an organization called Hamas that a country called Israel is actively targeting with heavy firepower called a missile.

When shit hits fan, Israel pulls the PR guns out of the bag along with the rest of the armaments they have. Newsdesks and producers are inundated with offers for guests, offers for comment….

Palestinian PR? We have to chase them. All the time. Messages left, few calls returned. There is no Palestinian PR machine that kicks into gear once something happens. Journalists detest PR unless it can do something useful, like make work easier for them. At heart, journalists are sloth-like creatures who like things at their fingertips. We like people ready, accessible. Now.

As for why we haven’t sent anyone into Gaza, ask Israel. Gaza is a “closed military zone”. Meaning unless you were in that walled-off strip of land before it was declared a “closed military zone”, you aren’t going in until after the next lot of invading soldiers. And nobody’s coming out either. Everyone is hanging out in the buffer zone. Or sometimes sneaks into the loading bay bit at Kerem Shalom to see the aid trickle through after the previous night’s bombardment.

Ultimately, the pictures gleaned by news agencies like Reuters or the Associated Press do a better job of explaining the reality on the ground than any commentator could. Images of children being pulled from smoking rubble are more eloquent than a man in a suit talking to another man in a suit. Video released from the cockpit of an Israeli aircraft showing people walking around the back of a flatbed truck then going fuzzy after the missile impacts…the mass of humanity and collective wailing at a funeral…kids dirtied by soot, mud and blood.
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Speaking to a doctor who works at Gaza’s Shifa hospital, he had no time to return home… and definitely no time to swan in front of a television camera. The conversations we have are stolen moments when he is moving from one ward to another or when his attempts at sleep prove fruitless. “I’ve dedicated my life to saving life. These people. All these people. They are dedicated to killing. Palestinian. Jew. Killing. Let us say we have an unsustainable relationship,” was the last conversation we had. I’ve heard nothing from him tonight. He was going to try to go home for a day.

If Hamas or the Palestinian Authority want to redress the balance on Western news and get a little bit more “face time”, please reach out to us. Return our phone calls. Keep us in the loop. Don’t depend on “friendly” Arab media stations because you have no idea how hungry we “mainstream” outlets are for you. Our numbers don’t change and our leaders rarely get assassinated. We’ll pay for the studio time because we need your voice. You pay the risk because you need your voice heard.

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This article was first published on The Comment Factory on 31 December 2008. All rights reserved.

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Smoke For Free, Die For Nothing

Publicity surrounding the link to cancer has left US tobacco firms so desperate to recruit new customers they have started giving their products away.

I was “hit up” by one of Chicago’s “cigarette fairies” – a promotional vendor who has routes throughout urban bars and clubs.

“So what brand do you smoke?” she asked. “You seen the British Camel Lights? They call them Blues because some legislation said it was deceptive to call cigarettes ‘light’.”

She scanned my passport and asks me a few vitals – name, number, address and so on.

“Why do you need my phone number?” I asked.

“Something like 2% of the people we hit up get a phone call in the year and they have a chance of winning like a carton or something,” she replied.

Her job is to collect details about smokers (what they smoke, how much and so on) and then give out two packets of Camel-branded cigarettes. For free. Cancer on the cheap.

Their performance rating is gauged on how many cigarettes they manage to hand out… and how many they convert to the cause of administering lung disease to the American population.

“We’re all over the place… all over America. It’s a sweet job,” she told me.

“I’ve got this brand called Crush – there’s a little pellet in the filter you break so you can have a menthol smoke if you want one.

“I’ve also got chewing tobacco that’s been pasteurized so you don’t have to spit it out. You can just swallow what you chew.”

Gross. “Don’t you feel a bit guilty about handing out what is essentially an addictive and unhealthy habit to people?”

“They always have a choice. And usually the choice is to take it up.”

Ever since Chicago’s smoking ban kicked in at the start of the year, cigarette companies like RJ Reynolds have had to play a devious game in order to lure in more nicotine addicts.

From handing out free cigarettes in bars and parties – usually to the hip and trendy types who dictate style – to edible chewing tobacco (“there are different strengths and flavours depending on your taste”) Camel and other cigarette brands are frantically and aggressively marketing their wares in increasingly innovative and arguably reckless ways.

There are “gift packs” that include your two packets of cigarettes, a lighter, a mint-flavoured sweet, a condom, and a moist towelette.

Having been previously exposed to chocolate-flavoured cigarettes and ones with designer packs that indicate my level of “cool”, I’ve known the dark arts of cigarette marketing.

They got me hooked at the age of 14. I’m one of those smokers who say they should quit because it’s socially acceptable to do so but never follow through because that inner teenager fears being shunned by my peers (the umbilical cord of carcinogenic chemicals notwithstanding).

RJ Reynolds, the company that oversees the Camel brand, advertise for “highly motivated and principled university graduates with strong communication skills who can build win-win relationships”.

The ideal candidate will become a “passionate tobacco expert” and a “valuable business consultant”. Essential skills include “a willingness to take responsibility, honesty, integrity (and) trustworthiness”.

RJ Reynolds offer a “comprehensive” health and welfare benefits package, a “generous” annual bonus, and a company car.

As ever, the “free choice” card is played. But the temptation can’t be negated. For the sales rep, a low-effort decently paid job with fringe benefits.

For the punter, two free packs of smokes – a saving of just over £9 – and the glee of getting something for nothing (apart from handing over your personal details).

You save a bit of money and you may get a phone call somewhere down the line.

In exchange, you hand over your personal details to a major corporation with the power to lobby governments.

So stick that in your pipe and smoke it.

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This article was originally published on Sky News Online on 14 October 2008. All rights reserved.

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