Pressure group must keep up pressure

In-fighting and slow response are reducing the effectiveness of an important pressure group

By Alex Brummer, July 9, 2009

The need for scrupulous monitoring of coverage of the core Middle East conflict in the British media has been evident since the outbreak of the second Intifada in autumn 2000. But it was not until the second Israel-Lebanon war in the summer of 2006 that a group of philanthropists and like-minded young professionals decided to move into the vacuum.

The new organisation, Just Journalism, launched amid some fanfare in the spring of 2008, has sought to be different from other monitoring groups. Its aims (as recorded on JJ’s website) were to measure coverage of the Middle East in the UK media against various codes of conduct laid down by the BBC, Ofcom, the Press Complaints Commission and other bodies using meticulous research. It would be largely focused on the British media in contrast to other groups like Memri — which looks at material emanating from Arab lands — and Honest Reporting which monitors media from across the globe.

It has also organised Middle East debates at Hampstead Town Hall including one earlier this year in which this writer, JC editor Stephen Pollard and Jon Snow participated. Reports from JJ have been thorough. It regards its most recent study comparing alleged war crimes in Sri Lanka and Gaza as ground breaking.

But at times it seems slow. JJ argues that it is not there to provide “kneejerk” responses. Yet the pace with which it works on issues — such as the Amnesty International report on Gaza or the current slew of articles on settlements (in the Guardian and New Statesman to name two) — is not impressive. JJ would seem to miss an early opportunity to frame the debate by pointing out potential factual shortcomings or imbalance.

This lack of alertness potentially stems from a leadership vacuum. In its short life JJ has already disposed of two chief executives. The first, Adel Darwish, was a veteran Middle East correspondent who has worked for a number of UK papers and reported from the front line in the Middle East. He left without explanation although there were reports of heated policy differences with colleagues.

Now we learn that his successor, Elizabeth Jay, a former barrister and experienced public affairs executive with Fishburn Hedges, has also left her post. Losing two chief executives in short order looks careless.

JJ refused comment on her early departure and simply states that a powerful new member of its Advisory Board will soon be announced.

Jay’s tenure was not without controversy. A report on British media coverage of the Israeli elections produced a negative response on the Guardian’s Comment is Free website from writer Sharif Nashashibi. He accused Jay of betraying JJ’s original principles in its “selectivity, inaccuracy and exaggeration”. He disputes, for instance, a finding that the British media were too easy on Hamas after its election.

Criticism on the Guardian’s site, which frequently carries anti-Israel material, is not surprising. What is more worrying it that the writer was able to pick holes in the methodology noting that JJ’s independence looked to have been compromised by “subjective judgements”.

Objectivity always is going to be a problem in covering the Middle East and JJ has generally done a good job. But with two chief executives gone and interviews just beginning for a third it is to be hoped that its undisclosed backers do not feel they have embarked on an impossible task.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 4:40pm, July 9 2009