The emails come every now and again, with the words ‘hoax’ and ‘fraud’ and ‘blood libel’ highlighted in garish colours. They filter in between the spam and the forwarded jokes and updates about the shul and business letters. They are updates about the Al-Durrah case.
Eight years ago, in September 2000, a French public TV network broadcast a report about a boy called Mohammed Al-Durrah. He was 12. The footage showed the boy and his father appearing to take shelter from crossfire behind a concrete cylinder, then apparently being hit. The voice of the French TV channel’s bureau chief in Israel, Charles Enderlin, was recorded as a voiceover telling viewers that the pair were hit by fire from the Israeli position. The footage was freely distributed to other channels worldwide, and Mohammed Al-Durrah became a vaunted symbol of Palestinian martyrdom.
A controversy subsequently erupted when commentators noticed that the raw footage showed no solid evidence that Al-Durrah was shot by Israeli rather than Palestinian bullets. Then more questions arose. Some groups questioned whether the whole report was a hoax. Various groups and individuals in France and Germany chased up investigations, and more and more holes started appearing in the story. As the investigations have proceeded, the evidence has all started pointing towards a constructed story, a journalistic hoax. It’s been a slow and complex process as the various interested parties have set about picking holes in the story and constructing theories as to the extent of the fraudulence. The “minimalist” story maintains that Al-Durrah was killed, but by Palestiniancrossfire. The “maximalist” story questions whether the child in the picture was Al-Durrah at all.
Now, I have not followed this story in great detail. From my point of view, yes, it’s tragic. A 12-year-old boy dies because some idiotic adults insist on firing bullets at each other. I don’t really care which badges they’re wearing or which flags they’re flying to justify this idiotic behaviour.
Details aside, however, what I have noticed is the facile triumphalism with which this story gets repackaged. Each development gets forwarded to inboxes of people like my parents by ardently Zionist friends who seem to be waving it around like vindication for the entire Gaza mess. Forget the Big Zionist Conspiracy, the forwarded emails seem to say, the real conspiracy is a pro-Palestinian one, and – as you can see from this case – Palestinians are big fat liars.
Well, no. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to pick out the fallacious reasoning here. Wherever there are war stories, there are journalists baying for bloody images, some less ethical than others. And in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there are raging agendas and propaganda rife on both sides.
It’s a messy business, reporting on war zones. Who are the people that do it? The people that willingly take themselves into the exploding side roads and back yards of wartorn countries, and dodge bullets and shrapnel in order to capture footage for a mostly indifferent, media-saturated audience. I’d like to believe most of them are newshounds of the old school, the slightly crazy folk who’ll risk life and limb in the pursuit of the story, who believe in journalistic integrity. Who ask questions to find out what happened, and how, not to fill in dialogue for a story they’ve already constructed.
Yes, that’s what I’d like to believe. But I know it would be childish to do so. I also suspect that a large number of journalists begin with a story in mind, and interview and film and write to fill in the dots of the frameworks they’ve already constructed. Not only that, but they have readers and viewers and channel managers who are asking for particular kinds of stories. And there are also those who know that the line between reporting and storytelling is blurry at the best of times, and that all stories are constructed one way or another.
The significance of the Al-Durrah story is not the fact it was faked. The significance is that it was exposed. The story demonstrates that there are still journalistic watchdogs out there to keep tabs on what goes into the news. All kudos to those who uncover faked stories. It can only strengthen the norms of journalistic rigour if the dubious stuff gets brought to light when it does occur. The fact that the Al-Durrah case has attracted extensive questioning and investigation surely demonstrates that you can’t just fake a story and get away with it. It might take a while, but fraudulence eventually comes to light. Or so I’d like to believe.