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Press: An explosion, a news report, and an apology

27 October 2023

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I SEEM to have no power over what the British, Israeli, or United States governments decide, and no access to the information that they have. So, unlike everyone else in the papers or on social media, I don’t feel that it’s worthwhile offering them my advice.

I do know something about how journalism works. And it’s worth asking how so many people got the hospital bombing wrong. Anyone reading The Guardian, The New York Times, or watching the BBC immediately after it happened would have supposed that the blast at the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza (News, Comment, 20 October) was the result of a deliberate Israeli bomb. Israeli denials were swift, and, once daylight came the next morning, it became pretty clear that this was not what had happened. A Palestinian rocket, intended to kill Israeli civilians, had failed in flight and killed innocent Palestinians instead. Nor had 500 people died, although the death toll was high: between 100 and 300, US intelligence reckons.

Most of the early takes have now disappeared from the web, but The New York Times, at least, produced a public apology. The paper went on to say that the website version was rewritten within two hours. Of course, that is far too late. The first takes are what everyone remembers, and what’s left is a general sense — not entirely undeserved — that the Israeli air force is bombing innocents.

The underlying problem is that we make sense of news reports in the same way as fiction writers are meant to operate: we create vivid characters and let them work out their destinies.

For almost everyone outside the far Left, the character of Hamas is that of brutal terrorists. To reinforce this, the Israeli government is now showing journalists the most harrowing videos possible of the atrocities of Hamas.

No one who has seen them will ever suppose that Hamas or their supporters are the good guys, even if they are friends of Jeremy Corbyn.

The problem for Israel is that this is not enough. That Hamas are bad guys is not enough to make Israel the good guys. That the Israelis did not, in fact, bomb the hospital does nothing to weaken the belief that they might have done, and that only considerations of military advantage would have stopped them.

It does not matter that the Syrian air force kills civilians with even less discrimination, or that the Saudis have inflicted on Yemen a blockade as well as an aerial bombardment for years now, and no one has complained. Those governments are not living characters in the Western public imagination. Their stories impel no one into action.

 

ONE place to retreat from all this horror is into a fantasy world where all conflicts become problems that can be solved if only everyone were like us. A letter in The New Statesman from a happily named Mr Bishop concludes on this pious note: “The hope, for many, is that the possibility of peace in the long term rests on the premise of less religion (secular constitutions) and more women involved in the development of two nation-states living side by side.”

When you consider that the most powerful secular woman in the Middle East since the foundation of Israel has been Golda Meir, who denied that Palestinians existed at all, and said “We hate the Arabs not because they kill our children but because they force us to kill their children,” this looks a little unhinged.

Alongside all this horror, most of the world goes on as if nothing were happening, just as in the poem where, offstage, “The torturer’s horse scratches his innocent behind on a tree.”

 

FROM Korea, the Financial Times gave a plug to a Chat-GPT-based service, “WeBible”, which is being used by about 50,000 people. The paper reported deadpan that the company behind it “changed the name of its app from Ask Jesus to Meadow after it realised some users regarded the chatbot’s answers as the word of God”.

Just for the hell of it, I asked Chat-GPT to summarise Matthew 5-7, and got back this: “In this passage, Jesus teaches that a good tree produces good fruit, while a corrupt tree produces evil fruit. He also emphasizes that those who do the will of his Father in heaven will enter the kingdom of heaven, while those who work iniquity will be rejected. Jesus then uses a parable to illustrate the importance of hearing and doing his words, comparing those who do so to a wise man who builds his house on a rock, and those who do not to a foolish man who builds his house on sand. The passage concludes with the people being astonished at Jesus’ teachings, as he spoke with authority unlike the Scribes.”

 

ELSEWHERE, Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah, sometime Reith Lecturer and one of the pre-eminent contemporary ethicists, addressed the problem what you owe a stranger when your dog has impregnated theirs in a public park. Can you be asked to pay for a canine abortion?

Such are the real preoccupations of New York Times subscribers.

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