Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Digital Broadcast | On Lebanon | TV3 New Zealand, Coverage Balanced and Fair

At Digital Broadcast Vendor News, we keenly follow digital television broadcasters news coverage in times of crisis. We came across this fascinating insight as to how television news in New Zealand reported from the Lebanon recently.

The following interview was conducted by "Tumeke!", an amazing New Zealand blog.

The revealing interview is with television journalist, Mike McRoberts of the commercial television network, TV3 New Zealand based in Auckland. The TV network is owned by Canada's Canwest Group of Winnipeg.

To guide you through this interview, [Digital Broadcast Vendor News] has added brief television terms, as necessary as an explanation to those not familiar with New Zealand TV. They are in stylised brackets (in parenthesis).


While TVNZ’s coverage [digital national TV broadcaster, Television New Zealand] of the Lebanon war left much to be desired – much praise was heaped on TV3’s Mike McRoberts coverage. Tumeke interviewed Mike on the difficulties as a Journalist to cover a story like this, professionally and personally.

The Q & A:

TUMEKE: Mike, your coverage of the recent Lebanon war for TV3 News impressed many - how difficult was the situation in Lebanon while you were there compared with other stories you have covered as a journalist?

MIKE: Hi Bomber [Tumeke's nickname], thank you for those comments. The difficulties in covering the war in Lebanon were many and varied. Firstly just getting there was a bit of a mission. Beirut's airport was one of the first "infrastructure" targets to be attacked which meant we had to travel through Syria to get into Lebanon, and Syria is not the friendliest place in the world when it comes to foreign journalists.

Beirut was still coming under daily air strikes, although the majority of those were in the Hezbollah controlled southern suburbs, so moving around the city wasn't too bad. Travelling to Southern Lebanon was a different story. What should have been an hour's drive was closer to four hours as all of the main roads had suffered heavy bombing. Also because of the threat of air strikes our time filming and reporting on the ground there was limited, before we'd have to turn around and make the journey back to Beirut. At that stage there were no live [radio and TV] broadcasting points in Southern Lebanon.

Still we felt it important to get down and see what was happening for ourselves. I guess the greatest difficulty in reporting conflict is accuracy. When you can report what you have seen or interview actual witnesses it makes all the difference. The other major difficulty is balance; while all of my reporting was based in Lebanon, what TV3 did differently this time was have me present all our Middle East coverage as a package from Beirut, including the stories filed from Israel.

TUMEKE: Let's talk about the difficulties of balance [equal broadcasting emphasis to both sides]. I noted some observers saying that Israel was extremely good at spinning their side of the story where as Hezbollah were ‘clumsy’ with western media. As a journalist, how do you tell the story and how do you manage to cover a story with such entrenched positions?

MIKE: Israel is very proactive with the media, I covered the Israeli withdrawal of Israeli settlers from Gaza this time last year and I'm still being spammed on a daily basis by various Jewish lobby groups. As you correctly point out Hezbollah don't have that same relationship with western media. That meant if you wanted their side of the story, or even to put the most basic questions to them you had to go looking for them, and that of course raised a number so safety and security issues. One of the things I was most happy about our coverage was that we did get to speak with representatives of Hezbollah, twice through our own endeavours by working contacts and persevering - and another time when we were detained by local Hezbollah in the Bekka Valley.

Actually it was when we were held by them for an hour and a half that I learnt the most about Hezbollah. While I never felt our lives were in danger it wasn't great not having any control over the situation. We were taken in a vehicle to a mechanic's garage where our car and belongings were searched thoroughly. They also went through our passports and were in phone communication with someone else. I was concerned because all our cash - about 5 thousand dollars - was inside my bag. When they handed it back the leader was insistent that I check my bag and sure enough all the cash was still there. He looked at me and said - we are not criminals.

The thing that stands out for me about Hezbollah was how quickly the rest of the country supported them after the civilian killings in Qana. That to me was a turning point in the war and probably the end of any hopes Israel had of squashing Hezbollah.

TUMEKE: I watched you meet a Lebanese civilian who hugged you and thanked you for providing the western media coverage that he hoped would end the bombing. His house was battered and the remaining houses on what was left of his street were also damaged. You could see the legitimate fear in his face and the real anxiety he was going through- how are you able to cover a story like this which was very one sided in terms of loss of life and destruction of property and not get angry

MIKE: Good question, of course you get angry - you are a human being first and a journalist second. But as a journalist you have to check yourself and scrutinize your work, otherwise it's too easy to become a target and have your work discredited by those who oppose what you're saying. I think it raises another issue that I've always considered when it comes to reporting events like these.

People always talk about objectivity in reporting but how can you be objective when you see destruction and civilian loss of life on the scale we've just witnessed. I think it's more important to strive to be fair in your reporting. I go back to Qana ...ok we've got the pictures of dead women and children being pulled out of the bombed basement of a three story residential home.

The Israeli Defence Force claimed that the home had been a base for Hezbollah rockets and fighters - a claim I included in our [TV3 news report] story ...but I also interviewed on the scene an investigator for Human Rights Watch who said categorically that there was no evidence of any military (Hezbollah) presence in what was left of the home. It's worth pointing out that three days later after being challenged by the Israeli newspaper Haaretz the IDF admitted there wasn't any evidence to back their claim.

TUMEKE: As a journalist - where do you draw the line in terms of personal safety to get the story? Did you ever fear for your life? How does that stress effect your work and the working relationships of your news team?

MIKE: You can't do the job without putting yourself at risk. But in saying that you always try and minimise that risk. Information is key, this usually means talking to lots of people like other journalists or military and UN contacts. You gather as much intelligence about a situation as you can and use that information to determine whether you go to a certain area or take a particular road. There is something to be said for safety in numbers. When we set up our first meeting with Hezbollah at their stronghold in Southern Beirut, we did so with the BBC and CBC from Canada.

Of course we also travel with flak jackets and helmets, although I wonder sometimes about how effective they really are. They did prove handy in Southern Lebanon as a kind of uniform. Local residents and Hezbollah recognised the navy blue jackets as being media.

The worst fear I've ever felt was covering the Iraq elections last year. I guess because there are so many things that can go wrong, from kidnappings to road side bombs and it all seems so random. On that occasion every time we travelled the roads we did so "low key" or undercover with armed Iraqi guards. At the time I remember thinking that the Iraq elections were the most covered and yet not covered elections the world had ever seen. There were areas as a journalist you would just not go to.

Danger does make for a stressful working environment. You need to completely trust the people you are working with, often you are watching out for each other. You also need to be totally confident in their abilities - there's no going back for a "take 2".

I have a great [television] cameraman by the name of "Dutchie" who has been with me through the Afghanistan conflict, Iraq, Gaza, the Solomon Islands and now Lebanon. You may remember some [television] footage which has featured prominently on TV3 over the years of me stuck in a riot in the Afghanistan/ Pakistan border town of Peshawar in 2001. As the Pakistani military start firing from behind me I crouch and turn and get the hell out of there. What people often overlook is that the shot (the camera shot) never moves ....that's Dutchie.

In Lebanon I also had an excellent [TV]producer. Jon Stephenson is a freelance journalist and probably this country's foremost foreign affairs reporter. Jon and I have worked together now in Iraq, Gaza and Lebanon. Having a second journalist on the ground with you, particularly as experienced as Jon, is a huge asset and really adds to the story telling and coverage.

All of us now have some experience of reporting in areas of conflict and that certainly helps, I think it's very much a case of "the more you do it the better you get".

TUMEKE: Hezbollah were demonized by some sectors of the media. You meet Hezbollah fighters and you must have heard the long standing complaints of the Lebanese people – how is it that we in the West have so little understanding for the motivations of Hezbollah? Few in the West would have even heard of the Shebaa Farms dispute or even be aware of the thousands of Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners held by Israel, many for little reason other than being Muslim males. How much of this ignorance should be shouldered by the mainstream media?

MIKE: Without a doubt some of that "ignorance" should be shouldered by mainstream media, but I think the viewing public also have a role here. Having an understanding or even an appreciation of what a conflict is all about can only come from sustained coverage of that situation. Why does it take a war for that to happen? But that situation is not the sole domain of foreign stories - look at what happened with the funeral of the Maori Queen recently. How many people knew what the Kingitanga movement was about until mainstream media covered her tangi?

I was talking to a group of student journalists recently, many of whom were interested in foreign affairs and foreign correspondent work. I had to tell them that if they were planning on working for mainstream media in New Zealand there was virtually no chance of them becoming foreign correspondents. It costs a lot of money to cover foreign affairs and editors and executive producers will tell you the expense outweighs the public interest.

I always tell any groups that I speak to now that if they like the stuff they see me or another reporter doing overseas then ring and tell TV3News. That sort of direct public feedback really helps.

One of the most satisfying things for me during the war in Lebanon is that our [TV3] coverage directly translated into stronger viewer numbers [TV audience]. People tuned in to see what was going on. That's the first time that I can remember that we've had a noticeable increase in ratings like that - and I'm happy to say it will also make it that much easier to get a "green light" next time something comes up.

The other avenue for information of course is independent documentaries which are becoming a real option for journalists who want to tell a story but who can't get mainstream media interested.

TUMEKE: What was your response to the UN announcement of Israel using cluster bombs purposely at the end of the conflict on civilian areas – do actions like that simply deepen the resentment of the Lebanese people, does it only serve to recruit for Hezbollah?

MIKE: Yes I think so. I was hoping to do a 60 Minutes story on the cluster bombs but we got side tracked and ended up covering Olaf Wiig's release from kidnappers in Gaza instead. A contact I have in the United Nations based in Southern Lebanon told me the use of cluster bombs so close to the end of the conflict and in residential areas was "criminal", and when I was in Israel a week ago the very questions you're asking were being put to the IDF.

The same UN contact told me 14 civilians had been killed by the cluster bombs and dozens more injured. They have located more than 300 cluster bomb sites and he said "we've only scratched the surface".

I guess to balance that you would say Hezbollah too is guilty of war crimes. During the war they packed many of their rockets with ball bearings with the intention of injuring or killing as many people as possible. The difference of course is that a month later when you stand on a ball bearing it doesn't blow your leg off.

TUMEKE: Final question Mike, President Bush links the war on Terrorism with the conflict in Lebanon – did the Hezbollah you encountered appear nationalist fighters or internationalist Jihadists? And what was your response to Seymore Hershe’s claim in the New Yorker that there was premeditation for a military over reaction by Israel planned months before?

MIKE: I think President George W Bush would link his country's domestic health care issues to The War on Terror if he thought he could get away with it. Does anyone take anything he says seriously anymore? He seems to have conveniently forgotten that Hezbollah or the resistance was created as a direct result of Israel invading Lebanon in 1982.

I know that in 2002 the Washington Post [newspaper] ran an article claiming that Hezbollah and al Qaeda were increasingly forging links and sharing in explosives training and weapons smuggling among other things. This had come from a former US soldier who pleaded guilty to conspiring to bomb the US embassies in Africa. But this link has always been denied by Hezbollah. That theory also overlooks the obvious - that Hezbollah are Shiite and al Qaeda Sunni.

I think both the US and Israel have strong motives for putting the two groups together, it also means of course that Syria and Iran get dragged into the same equation. Which is another point Semour Hershe was making in the same article in the New Yorker.

There was certainly plenty of talk about the war having been premiditated, or at least Israel's military response to the kidnapping of two of their soldiers. But there hasn't been any hard evidence yet.


Originally published in the New Zealand blog, "Tumeke!" whose author is currently in trouble with the New Zealand authorities for being too outspoken.

Note: TV3 as a national terrestrial television network covers both islands that make up New Zealand.

TV3's Mike McRoberts is a well respected New Zealand TV correspondent.

Digital Broadcast Vendor News decided to include this item to help readers in the Arab Diaspora have a better understanding of how television broadcasters in countries like New Zealand try to convey a balanced truth in TV news broadcasts, especially from the Middle East.

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