Tuesday, February 06, 2007

I'm Behind The Times

An article yesterday in the Times about the ETA prisoner Iñaki de Juana Chaos and his hunger strike has attracted massive publicity in Spain. The paper published a photograph of the prisoner taken in the hospital where he is currently being held, and published his written answers to a set of interview questions. The publication of the photo is one cause of the controversy provoked by the article, and an investigation has been opened into how the image was obtained.

The Times Online site was relaunched yesterday and seems to have experienced some teething problems as a result. This situation was probably not helped by the appearance of hordes of angry Spaniards seeking to tell the English speaking world how bad De Juana Chaos is, and protesting above all because the article describes ETA as a “Basque separatist group”, instead of describing them as terrorists. This is an issue that has surfaced quite frequently on web pages I have seen in the last few weeks, and I think the position someone takes on it depends on the concept they have of what constitutes good journalism.

I think there are very good, legitimate reasons for using the terminology of the Times article. When I first arrived in Spain I was a bit shocked by the way in which journalists in the press or television routinely referred to ETA as the “banda terrorista”. It surprised me, not because I believe that ETA isn’t a terrorist organisation, but just because I was not used to journalists describing them in this way. I don’t remember the television or press back in the UK always describing the IRA in this way as a terrorist group, and it’s not necessarily something I want my sources of information about the world to be doing. I tend to take the position that I am capable of reaching my own conclusions on the issue.

It is of course quite possible for a group like ETA to be separatist and terrorist at the same time, the two things are not incompatible. The former is descriptive of the objectives of the group, and the latter of the methods they use to try and achieve those objectives. Like it or not, “terrorist” is a subjective, judgemental term. It is a cliché to say that one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter, but the cliché is to some extent a reflection of reality. The issue is always better illustrated by taking examples from far away, two that spring to mind easily are the FARC in Colombia, and Hamas in Palestine. For some people both of these are terrorist organisations, while others think neither of them are. The question is whether it helps our understanding of the issues for journalists to use it as a description.

The reason why ETA gets referred to as a separatist organisation by foreign journalists is not because those journalists are sympathetic to the organisation; it is simply an attempt to find a more neutral non-judgemental way of describing them. When you are writing about events for the benefit of people who may not be very knowledgeable on the topic, you have to devote more effort to descriptive explanation. This is something that distinguishes a lot of journalism about international affairs from that concerning domestic affairs where readers are more familiar with the subject matter. To me, the job of the journalist is not to impose an acceptable vocabulary or judgemental vision except in cases where it is clear that is a comment piece.

Now I may think that the Partido Popular is a cynical, hypocritical bunch of political bandits – readers of this blog should be aware by now that this is in fact my view. That does not mean that I want the newspaper I buy every morning to tell me that they are cynical, hypocritical bandits. It’s the same with ETA and terrorism. Without exaggerating things too much, there is a bit of a cultural difference here between Spain and the UK. In Spain there occasionally seems to be a stronger belief that reality can be reshaped simply by imposing a different vocabulary to describe it. Couple this with a shorter tradition of independent journalism, almost non-existent in television, and you easily reach a situation where journalism becomes more about reinforcing prejudices or points of view than about an attempt to describe events and inform.

The Times has never been my favourite British newspaper, and I've liked it even less since it became part of Rupert Murdoch’s empire. But Thomas Catan's article was good journalism, he has done what journalists are supposed to do; bringing a story to their readers and doing so in a non-judgemental way. People who like their newspaper to be a fact free opinion sheet can buy La Razon, or those with a taste for more inventive journalism can buy El Mundo. It’s ironic that at a time when bloggers are so frequently slated by professional journalists because of a supposed lack of standards, that so many of these professionals fail to defend basic principles of their trade. I don’t know whether another Murdoch employee, José Maria Aznar, has complained about the publication of the article; if he has I can only express the hope that his influence does not yet stretch very far in the company.


Evaristo said...

This is a very controversial topic and, although I don't fully agree with it, I like the way you've expressed your point of view. I had never thought about it from that perspective.

I copypaste it in my blog ;)


Graeme said...

It is indeed controversial, and I find it a bit odd to be supporting The Times - it's not something I'm used to doing, and I'll try not to make a habit of it. Evaristo, if you feel at some point like expressing your disagreement in more detail then I will happily reciprocate with space in my blog for your response.

Tom said...

You're absolutely right: the term 'terrorist' is hopelessly subjective, and beyond just the traditional 'one man's freedom fighter...' argument.

I've made an attempt at analysing the term itself at some length on my blog. My conclusion is that the term cannot be deemed to have any meaningful definition which fails to include the actions of units of the US, UK and various other governments.

Graeme said...

Well yes, there is a quote somewhere from Brendan Behan which says something about governments (specifically the British one) who regard bombs as being perfectly acceptable provided that they are very large and are dropped from planes. In this particular case the issue seems to be that many Spanish people believe those who do not use the word terrorist to describe ETA are sympathising with them - something which I don't think is the case at all.