Higgins destroys Tea Partier

Irish president goes head-to-head with conservative radio host

Back in 2010, Michael Graham, a conservative American talk show host, interviewed Michael Higgins, president of Ireland. The interview (which you can listen to here) has recently gone viral, perhaps because the President’s indictment of the American right is ever the more relevant as election day looms.

Higgins incited the showdown by saying, “they deserve our support, the people Gaza”. Predictably, this spurred Graham into Tea Party mode. The interviewer retorted:

I wanna ask, why is it that when the withdrawal occurred why is it that almost the next day rockets started pouring into Israel?

The Irish President then went on to accuse Graham of ignorance (a theme that marked pretty much all twenty minutes of the interview)

Well of course it didn't happen that way, I was in Gaza five weeks after the withdrawal. I can tell you, this is the difference, i know the kind of stuff you're on.

To which Graham, rather unaware of the ass-kicking that would ensue, semi-humourously replied:

I’m proud to say it's Guinness

And so Higgins went on:

They should patent it because it's having an effect I've never heard before. The point is, I was in Gaza. I was there with Andreas van Aaght, the former prime minister of Holland, and six others. We had our own translator, our own bus. We spent about two weeks generally in Israel and going into Gaza. And the rockets did not start immediately, not at all. You're talking about Sderot, which I also visited. And in fact for several months before the invasion of Gaza there were no rockets at all. And what people are continually saying now is that you have an equal proportion of violence between supporters of Hamas and Israel. The response of Israel, if you look at the number of Palestinians (they don't 'call themselves Palestinians' they are Palestinians), you're talking about their homeland and you're talking about the West Bank, you're talking about people. And you're right about it, the children of Abraham for example, which include the Jewish people as well, all occupied the same place. But the issue is one of respect for the rights of Palestinian people to live in peace. The particular suggestion that has been around for some time is the creation of two states. You could never have created a state in Gaza. For example, you speak about the withdrawal. The withdrawal didn't include, for example, control over the sea ports, the right to land a plane. It didn't include control over the borders. What it did was it took the road blocks out of the internal part o Gaza and it increased a great deal of security on the border. So Gaza needed to be contiguous and connected to the West Bank, you needed to give that state the right to take its decision that any other state would. And then you'd be getting somewhere.

He concludes that Graham-type ignorance is the bane of US foreign policy:

But frankly, you know what it is - I’ve listened to you very carefully - the contribution of the fundamentalist madness from the United States into the Israelis is probably one of the greatest obstacles to peace in the region.

But Graham didn’t quite get it, and insistently kept asking Higgins “why the people of Gaza” kept “firing at Israels”. Higgins dealt a low blow:

You're onto the Sarah Palin madness now.

Graham took offence, of course, and went on a rant against how the President – and Europeans more generally – are anti-Semitic Hamas supporters. Higgins reacted to the rant by elaborating on the previous ‘Palin’ jab:

Both of you have the same tactic - the tactic is to get a large crowd, whip them up, try and discover its greatest fear, work on that and feed it back, and you get a frenzy. (…) You have one of the most gifted presidents (…) you regard someone that has been a professor at Harvard as handicapped but don't find anything wrong at all with this tea party ignorance that has been brought all around the united states which is regularly insulting people who have been democratically elected.

After being accused of ignorance regarding the Tea Party, the President went on:

I lived in the Midwest, in Willie Nelson country, I was a student there at the end 60s and a professor in Illinois into the 70s. The magnificent, decent, generous people of the United States (…) the difference between them and the tiny elite that are in charge of the warmongering foreign policy of the United States is just enormous. When you go on your picnic around the country you are not representing the decent United States people who are very proud, correctly, of the president they've elected.

Graham insisted on going back to initial issue, asking Higgins about the ships that were captured en route to Gaza with “loads of weapons (…) from Iran". When pressed about which ships, exactly, the interviewer was at a loss… “From Iran”?? Higgins pounced at this:

As you get farther and farther away from the facts you'll be able to increase the number of ships. The ship that my colleagues are on is called the Rachel Corrie. Who is Rachel Corrie? Why is it called Rachel Corrie? Because Rachel Corrie was bulldosed into the ground as a peace worker. But she doesn't matter. You’re not dealing with facts.

Graham replied:

I’ll keep quoting facts and you keep quoting propaganda

This clearly ruffled Higgins’ feathers:

You're talking about ships you don't know the name of, you don't know the number of. You’re really a good student of that kind of journalism that says, 'if I can get away with it’s good, if I can work people up its even better'. This is very very dangerous stuff. For example, how can you say I am in favour of anyone murdering any Jewish people?

Graham then, reflexively, accused Higgins of anti-Semitism, who replied in equal measure:

You're doing your Sarah trick now. Sarah Palin doesn't know where Russia is and she's going to look up at the sky and say 'I’m watching them and they’re coming and threatening you and me and my tea party’s might are going to defend you all. God help America'. (…) This is called the radio of hysterical ignorance. I’ve been in Sderot and I’ve seen the rockets. (…) This is the interesting thing: there were no rockets before the Israeli invasion for nearly nine months. I can tell you the number of rockets that landed in Sderot. Why? Because I went to Sderot and talked to the mayor of Sderot. But you have the neck to say that people like me, who are willing to talk to people and are on each side building peace, are somehow in favour of people who want to murder jewish people. That is an outrageous statement. I am not anti-Semitic, I am not in favour of murder. And unlike you, I make my profession in politics. And I worked in human rights, and I condemn Hamas for rockets. None of that will mater to you. I wish you well - keep drinking Guinness and keep ranting away. But don't suggest that those of us who are working for peace in the heat of the day are somehow interested in murdering Jews.

(…) There’s a man in the United States (…), he represents fourteen Jewish organisations in New York. He organized 45 members of the House of Representatives to sign a letter condemning Barack Obama for giving Mary Robinson the medal of honour. I was debating with him on a program like this. I said to him, ‘how can you conclude that Mary Robsinson is anti-Semitic?' and he said, 'Bishop Tutu, for example, is anti-Semitic as well'. You're going down that road, and really, it is very dangerous stuff. The fact of the matter is that young people form the United States are travelling all over the world again. They’re welcome in Europe, they’re backpackers in hostels. People are talking to them, because the image of the United States  - we've got away from this warmongering - is getting better. There are many mistakes Obama is making. At least 47 million people the likes of you condemned to no health care in a country I was proud to work in. These people are going to have some healthcare.

So therefore be proud to be a decent American rather just be a wanker whipping up fear.

 

Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty
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How the Saudis are making it almost impossible to report on their war in Yemen

The conflict is not getting anything like the media attention it deserves.

This article has been co-authored by Ahmed Baider, a fixer based in Yemen's capital Sana’a, and Lizzie Porter, a freelance journalist based in Beirut who is still waiting for a chance to report from Yemen.

Ten thousand people have died. The world’s largest cholera epidemic is raging, with more than 530,000 suspected cases and 2,000 related deaths. Millions more people are starving. Yet the lack of press attention on Yemen’s conflict has led it to be described as the “forgotten war”.

The scant media coverage is not without reason, or wholly because the general public is too cold-hearted to care. It is very hard to get into Yemen. The risks for the few foreign journalists who gain access are significant. And the Saudi-led coalition waging war in the country is doing its best to make it difficult, if not impossible, to report from the area.

Working in Sana’a as a fixer for journalists since the start of the uprisings of the so-called Arab Spring in 2011 has sometimes felt like the most difficult job in the world. When a Saudi-led coalition started bombing Yemen in support of its president, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi, in March 2015, it became even harder.

With control of the airspace, last summer they closed Sana’a airport. The capital had been the main route into Yemen. Whether deliberately or coincidentally, in doing so, the coalition prevented press access.

The media blackout came to the fore last month, when the Saudi-led coalition turned away an extraordinary, non-commercial UN flight with three BBC journalists on board. The team – including experienced correspondent Orla Guerin – had all the necessary paperwork. Aviation sources told Reuters that the journalists’ presence was the reason the flight was not allowed to land.

The refusal to allow the press to enter Yemen by air forced them to find an alternative route into the country – a 13-hour sea crossing.

After the airport closure in August 2016, an immensely complex set of procedures was created for journalists travelling on the UN flights operating from Djibouti on the Horn of Africa into Sana’a. The level of paperwork required offered only a glimmer of hope that the media would be allowed to highlight the suffering in Yemen. Each journalist’s application required visas, permits, return ticket fees of $1,100 per person (later reduced to $250) and a great deal of bureaucracy.

But there were other issues, too: equipment that all journalists take with them to war zones as standard – flak jackets, helmets and satellite phones – were not allowed on the UN flights, increasing fears about operating in the country.

The new arrangement significantly increased the cost and time involved – two things that most media organisations are short of. A team of two would have to budget for several thousand dollars for a week-long reporting trip. This was limiting for even large media organisations with big budgets.

Still, the system worked. A few journalists started to come and cover the situation from the ground. Yemenis were happy to share their stories. On one assignment to villages on the west coast, people ran to talk to us and show us their malnourished children as soon as we arrived. It was obvious from the look in their eyes that they wanted to tell people what had been happening.

That changed after last October, when three or four large international media teams had reported from Yemen, broadcasting images of starving children and bombed-out homes to TVs around the world. The Saudi-led coalition began refusing to let journalists fly in with the UN. They said that the flights were for humanitarian workers only, or that the safety of journalists could not be guaranteed. Members of the press who had been preparing trips suddenly had their plans quashed. Time assigned to reporting the conflict had to be given to more accessible stories.

Over the next few months, media access was again opened up, only to be followed by U-turns and further paralysis. And when the Saudi-led coalition did grant access, it was only under certain, excruciating conditions.

As well as a press visa granted by the opposition authorities in the capital, from February this year, journalists have required a second visa granted by the Saudi-backed government in Aden.

It felt impossible. Why would they give press visas for journalists to visit opposition territory? The doubts were proved correct when trying to convince Hadi government officials to issue press access. The consular envoy in Cairo refused. A call to their team in London resulted in another “no”. 

This meant applying to the authorities in Aden for secondary visas for the tenacious journalists who hadn’t already been put off by the cost and access hurdles. One example of the petty requirements imposed was that a journalist’s visa could not be on paper: it had to be stamped into his or her passport. Of course, that added a week to the whole affair.

After months of media blockade, journalists were finally able to access Yemen again between March and May this year. At present, members of the media are officially allowed to travel on the UN flights. But how many more times journalists will be refused entry remains unknown. Not all crews will have the resources to make alternative arrangements to enter Yemen.

The New Statesman interviewed one French documentary producer who has reported from Yemen twice but who has not been able to access the country since 2015, despite multiple attempts.

Upon each refusal, the Saudi-led coalition told the journalist, “to take commercial flights – which didn’t exist…” he explained, requesting anonymity. “Saudi Arabia and its coalition are doing everything they can to discourage journalists as well as organisations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.”

He said that blocking media access was part of the Saudi-led coalition’s strategy to “bring [Yemen] to its knees in an atmosphere of silence and indifference.”

Access is not the only problem. Reporting in Yemen carries great risks. The British Foreign Office warns of a “very high threat of kidnap and unlawful detention from militia groups, armed tribes, criminals and terrorists”. It specifically mentions journalists as a group that could be targeted.

Editors are increasingly nervous about sending journalists into war zones where kidnap is a significant danger. The editorial green light for arranging assignments to Yemen is – understandably – ever harder to obtain.

Although they are willing to work with recognised press teams, the Houthis and Saleh loyalists have also been known to be suspicious of journalists.

“Even before the Saudis banned access to Yemen, it is important to remember that Yemen is one of the most difficult countries for journalists to access,” added the anonymous journalist.

The amount of press attention dedicated to Yemen simply does not reflect the extent of country’s suffering and political turmoil. Journalists’ rights groups, international organisations and governments need to step up pressure on Saudi Arabia to ease media access to the country.

The coalition last month proposed that the UN take control of Sana’a airport, which it refused. Whoever runs it, the hub must be opened, so that journalists can get in, and Yemenis desperately needing medical treatment abroad can get out.

Failing this, coupled with the extreme risks and costs of reporting, the world will never see the graves of 10,000 people. Yemenis will continue to die starving and invisible, in destroyed homes.