The two faces of journalism

A deeply unsatisfying and unquestioning exhibition at Somerset House.

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Call me an idealist, but I have long harboured the belief that the role of journalism is to ask probing questions and to uncover the truth no matter the cost. To expose hypocrisy and deceit wherever it is found. What happens, then, when this hypocrisy and deceit bleeds through from the subject into the profession itself?

2011 saw mass protests, change and social upheaval across the world on an unprecedented scale. From the uprisings in the Arab world to the Occupy movement on Wall Street and the August riots on Britain's high streets, journalists and journalism have been at the heart of this change. Recording, documenting and analysing.

Or have they?

Deep in the bowels of Somerset House, a new exhibition professes to offer the public an insider's peek into the world of frontline journalism. Using an abundance of stills and flickering, ghostly footage taken from Sky News broadcasts, the exhibition charts the coverage of breaking news events in the UK and Middle East. This overload of graphic images and self-congratulatory interviews creates a neat, self-packaged and digestible version of frontline journalism that encourages none of the probing, questioning and analysing for which such journalism is renowned.

Perhaps I should not be surprised that an exhibition sponsored by Rupert Murdoch's Sky News presents such a self-consciously rosy picture of news coverage around the world (after all, Sky was arguably the only true winner in the Libyan conflict). But what strikes me most is the hypocrisy and double-standards evident in both the way the exhibition is presented, and the unquestioning approach it takes to the role of journalists on the frontline of breaking news stories.

The exhibition is divided into two sections: one side of the room documents the so-called "Arab Spring", where the perpetrators are referred to as "revolutionaries" and "rebels"; while the other side is dedicated to the London riots, whose participants are branded as "hooligans", "criminals" and "vandals".

Now, I do not question that what happened here in Britain is fundamentally different from the mostly democratic uprisings that have been taking place across the Arab world, but the lack of any comparative analysis or questioning of such superficially similar events is frankly worrying. The tacit assumption that what is happening Libya, Egypt and Syria is necessarily a Good Thing -- with no mention of the instability and chaos that has gripped these countries in the past year; or indeed the complicity of western powers in propping up those very dictators of whom we are now lauding the demise -- is telling of the preconceptions we westerners often have when commenting on events in the Middle East. Perversely, there is simultaneously no mention of the social and political conditions that may (or may not) have played a part in fuelling the resentment of Britain's rioters.

I'm not saying that the toppling of Mubarak and Ben Ali are not to be celebrated, or indeed that I condone in any way the actions of those who smashed their way through our high streets over the summer. What concerns me is that an exhibition whose self-professed aim is to offer "a unique insight into the editorial, political and human aspects of news reporting" fails to ask some of the most basic questions that all journalists reporting on breaking news stories should be asking: What is a protest, how does it start, why does it continue and who is involved?

Because it is only by asking questions that we can uncover the truth.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is a journalist and writer specialising in the Middle East and currently living and working in London.

Emanuelle Degli Esposti is the editor and founder of The Arab Review, an online journal covering arts and culture in the Arab world. She also works as a freelance journalist specialising in the politics of the Middle East.

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Boris Johnson is right about Saudi Arabia - but will he stick to his tune in Riyadh?

The Foreign Secretary went off script, but on truth. 

The difference a day makes. On Wednesday Theresa May was happily rubbing shoulders with Saudi Royalty at the Gulf Co-operation Council summit and talking about how important she thinks the relationship is.

Then on Thursday, the Guardian rained on her parade by publishing a transcript of her Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, describing the regime as a "puppeteer" for "proxy wars" while speaking at an international conference last week.

We will likely never know how she reacted when she first heard the news, but she’s unlikely to have been happy. It was definitely off-script for a UK foreign secretary. Until Johnson’s accidental outburst, the UK-Saudi relationship had been one characterised by mutual backslapping, glamorous photo-ops, major arms contracts and an unlimited well of political support.

Needless to say, the Prime Minister put him in his place as soon as possible. Within a few hours it was made clear that his words “are not the government’s views on Saudi and its role in the region". In an unequivocal statement, Downing Street stressed that Saudi is “a vital partner for the UK” and reaffirmed its support for the Saudi-led air strikes taking place in Yemen.

For over 18 months now, UK fighter jets and UK bombs have been central to the Saudi-led destruction of the poorest country in the region. Schools, hospitals and homes have been destroyed in a bombing campaign that has created a humanitarian catastrophe.

Despite the mounting death toll, the arms exports have continued unabated. Whitehall has licensed over £3.3bn worth of weapons since the intervention began last March. As I write this, the UK government is actively working with BAE Systems to secure the sale of a new generation of the same fighter jets that are being used in the bombing.

There’s nothing new about UK leaders getting close to Saudi Arabia. For decades now, governments of all political colours have worked hand-in-glove with the arms companies and Saudi authorities. Our leaders have continued to bend over backwards to support them, while turning a blind eye to the terrible human rights abuses being carried out every single day.

Over recent years we have seen Tony Blair intervening to stop an investigation into arms exports to Saudi and David Cameron flying out to Riyadh to meet with royalty. Last year saw the shocking but ultimately unsurprising revelation that UK civil servants had lobbied for Saudi Arabia to sit on the UN Human Rights Council, a move which would seem comically ironic if the consequences weren’t so serious.

The impact of the relationship hasn’t just been to boost and legitimise the Saudi dictatorship - it has also debased UK policy in the region. The end result is a hypocritical situation in which the government is rightly calling on Russian forces to stop bombing civilian areas in Aleppo, while at the same time arming and supporting Saudi Arabia while it unleashes devastation on Yemen.

It would be nice to think that Johnson’s unwitting intervention could be the start of a new stage in UK-Saudi relations; one in which the UK stops supporting dictatorships and calls them out on their appalling human rights records. Unfortunately it’s highly unlikely. Last Sunday, mere days after his now notorious speech, Johnson appeared on the Andrew Marr show and, as usual, stressed his support for his Saudi allies.

The question for Johnson is which of these seemingly diametrically opposed views does he really hold? Does he believe Saudi Arabia is a puppeteer that fights proxy wars and distorts Islam, or does he see it as one of the UK’s closest allies?

By coincidence Johnson is due to visit Riyadh this weekend. Will he be the first Foreign Secretary in decades to hold the Saudi regime accountable for its abuses, or will he cozy up to his hosts and say it was all one big misunderstanding?

If he is serious about peace and about the UK holding a positive influence on the world stage then he must stand by his words and use his power to stop the arms sales and hold the UK’s "puppeteer" ally to the same standard as other aggressors. Unfortunately, if history is anything to go by, then we shouldn’t hold our breath.

Andrew Smith is a spokesman for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.