IN 1984 I filed a report to ABC News on Israeli death squads in south Lebanon that was never broadcast. My camera crew and I had spent a week travelling the roads of south Lebanon in the tracks of plainclothes assassins whom United Nations soldiers and officials, charity workers, villagers and guerrillas all claimed were locating and shooting individual Lebanese men. We reached one village after a squad had left and we found the bodies of three young men who had been executed. Their relations, who were in mourning, told us that the Israelis had gone to the houses of the men and taken them to a wall, where we filmed the bullet holes and blood. The units’ modus operandi was to seize a Lebanese-owned car, with Lebanese number plates, at a checkpoint and borrow it for the day.
The fact of an assassination programme by a state whose armed forces received vast American aid was news, yet it never made the news, although no one at ABC News at the time criticised the piece or questioned its accuracy.
At the time, however, I was able to write about it – in the Spectator . When I moved to Lebanon in 1983, the Spectator ‘s editor, Alexander Chancellor, asked me to write occasional pieces for the magazine. It was the best thing that could have happened to me. Without the Spectator as an outlet for stories that were either too complex to be compressed into a two-minute television spot or too sensitive for broadcast in America, my time in Lebanon would have been much more frustrating. For that alone, I am indebted to the Spectator ‘s three great editors during that period, Chancellor, Charles Moore and Dominic Lawson.
In 1986, Hizbollah guerrillas captured some Israeli soldiers. The Israelis cordoned off whole areas of south Lebanon and threatened to shoot Juan Carlos Gumucio of the Associated Press and me as we entered the village of Tibnin. At a local hospital nearby, young men told us how the Israelis had taken them into Tibnin’s school and tortured them. They described in detail, on camera, how IDF soldiers had beaten them with legs broken off chairs and tables. The marks from the jagged edges of the legs were visible on their heads and abdomens. They alleged that the Israelis had used electricity as well, placing wires on their bodies, including their genitals, from the overhead electric lights in the classroom. A few hours later, the Israelis left Tibnin and we found the classroom. It was exactly as the young men had described it – broken table legs drenched in blood, wires attached to the overhead light dangling down to the floor, blood everywhere. We filmed the scene.
ABC News did not broadcast that story either, but the Spectator published it. (Most of these stories are republished in my collected essays, Money for Old Rope, Picador.) As recently as 3 March this year, the Spectator published what I have written about Israel. (In the diary, I quoted an Israeli professor who had misunderstood a question about executions in the occupied territories, showing that he approved killing by Israelis but not by the Palestinian Authority. I also wrote that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who meets President George Bush on Tuesday, should be aware that, if there are any survivors of the massacres at Qibya in 1953 or Sabra and Shatila in 1982 in the US, he could be prosecuted under the Alien Torts Act.)
No one edited out my words, and, so far as I know, no readers complained. Yet that was the issue on which the Spectator ‘s proprietor, Conrad Black, vented his spleen against his ‘High Life’ columnist, Taki Theodoracopulos, for criticising the recently pardoned American fugitive Marc Rich, Bill Clinton and Israel’s role in Rich’s pardon. Black’s contention that Taki’s reflections were ‘almost worthy of Goebbels or the authors of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ would lead one to suspect he has read neither. (On Friday, Black’s Israeli paper, the English language Jerusalem Post, disclosed that Prime Minister Ehud Barak’s records showed he had telephoned President Clinton three times on Rich’s behalf, not once, as he had claimed.)
A former Spectator proprietor and editor, Ian Gilmour, wrote to the Spectator (10 March) to defend the BBC, Independent, Guardian and Evening Standard against Conrad Black’s accusation that they were ‘rabidly anti-Israel’. Black responded in the subsequent issue by calling him ‘little better than a common-or-garden Jew-baiter masquerading as a champion of the Palestinian “underdog”‘. ‘Almost worthy’ and ‘little better’ are cop-outs: is Black calling Taki another Goebbels and Lord Gilmour a ‘Jew-baiter’? If so, it is contemptible and sends a message to his writers that they should pull their punches when they describe Israeli armed action against Palestinians or, even, coverage of the latest US State Department report on human rights’ allegations about Israeli torture, land seizure, collective punishment and economic strangulation.
William Dalrymple wrote to the Spectator last week complaining that Black’s self-exposure as one intolerant of critical reporting of Israeli behaviour and policy meant that Telegraph and Spectator readers who want ‘balanced reporting from the Middle East must now, sadly, turn elsewhere’. Piers Paul Read and A.N. Wilson signed the letter, as I did in an early draft. (I’ve been travelling in France and Switzerland, much of the time out of communication. The letter had to be submitted early, because Conrad Black wanted to read it and respond.)
I told the editor, Boris Johnson, that I did not approve a few minor points in the letter. He said he would either take them out ‘if he could’ or take my name off. In the event, Black insisted a mistake be left in, so Johnson removed my name. However, while disagreeing that the Black-owned Middle East Report is anywhere near as good as the Hebrew daily Ha’aretz, I support the letter’s contention that a newspaper proprietor has to make his editors and correspondents understand they will enjoy his support when they write the truth about any event.
I, for one, would miss having the Spectator as my publication of last resort.