Interview by Sarah McGregor-Wood and Hillel Schenker from the PIJ

How different is working here to your previous posting in South Africa and Korea, societies that have also been divided by conflict?

My posting in South Africa was from 1989 to 1992, straddling the apartheid era, Mandela's release and the start of democratic government. Immediately after that, I was in Korea (1992 to 1995), at a time when tensions between north and south were particularly high. A lot of the problems here are similar to what I experienced there, in that this is now the crisis du jour, the one burning issue everybody wants to address.
People also draw parallels between South African apartheid and this situation - we live in the comfort of a first world existence in West Jerusalem but 20 minutes down the road we go into a potentially very dangerous environment. You have the schizophrenia of a crisis on your doorstep, then you close the door and have what passes as a normal existence.
The most striking difference is that relations between the two sides are so much more polarized than they ever were in Korea, or even between blacks and whites in South Africa. In those situations, there was always a lot of close contact, mutual understanding and friendship, even with people whose policies were very pro-apartheid. Here, there is absolutely none of that. It makes me quite pessimistic about where we'll end up. You have two sides that are inextricably linked together - culturally, geographically and in so many other ways - yet there is an absolutely tiny amount of interaction between them.

How do you compare covering events in South Africa and the situation here?

Again, there are a lot of similarities. South Africa was quite an easy conflict to cover, in that both sides gave you quite a lot of access. Here, you can easily get to the West Bank and you can relatively easily get to Gaza, so you are able to see what's happening. The Israelis pride themselves on freedom of the press and the openness with which they deal with the foreign media. That is relatively true, despite some of the difficulties we have with the authorities here. While this amount of access makes life easier, it also sets the bar that much higher. If everyone is getting to the frontline, then, in the competitive world of journalism, you have to be there all the time - which is very draining. Because the story is continually evolving, you are always on call.

With all this open access, you must also be encountering a lot of spin from both sides. How do you cope with that?

It's a good point. Of all the stories I've covered, I've never come across the levels of spin that I have here: Masters on both sides. We cope with it through the experience of years of journalism. Every time you get a statement from either side, you dissect it to see what it really means, bearing in mind what the context is. There is never a straightforward statement or action in this conflict, and I think it's very difficult for journalists coming here to be able to make the sort of editorial judgments they need initially.
In day-to-day coverage, the difficulties we have with the Palestinian side tend to be with the basic facts of a story - there is a huge element of exaggeration there. On the Israeli side, the whole publicity-PR machine is a lot more sophisticated, so you have to be able to see where the spin is leading you. But to say that there aren't elements on the Palestinian side that are just as sophisticated would be wrong.

Do you have a working relationship with Israeli and Palestinian journalists?

Yes, formally and informally. On the formal side, we employ both Palestinian and Israeli journalists here at the BBC, so we have a foot in both camps. However, we are a relatively small operation to cover the magnitude of this conflict, so we depend on our contacts in the Palestinian and Israeli press. This is not particularly different from anywhere else we might operate - the difference is that here it is absolutely vital because it can be difficult to find out what is going on at grassroots level. We couldn't operate without it.

Do you rely on translators?

Absolutely. None of the expat reporters here have any sophisticated knowledge of Hebrew or Arabic, so we depend upon local staff and translators, with all the problems that entails: are you getting an accurate translation, are you getting the whole picture? The answer is, we hope so. If anyone tried to mislead us, they could probably do it, but they would be very quickly found out and certainly wouldn't do it twice.

How much pressure do you get from the different lobby groups here and at home, and how do you deal with it?

The pressure is enormous. And not just from our audiences in the UK. Because the BBC is broadcast in Israel, the West Bank, Gaza and everywhere else, every pressure group in the world is on our case. I have never had as many e-mails as I get here. People don't just phone up to complain, they know how to get their complaint noticed in a way that means we actually have to address it, which is incredibly time-consuming.
How to deal with it? You have to have confidence in the work you do. I'm sure all international networks will say they are objective, impartial and unbiased. I have to believe in our objectivity and impartiality, because if you don't believe in the journalistic fundamentals then you don't have a leg to stand on. I have to be able to stand by every dispatch that comes out of this bureau - and to accept that people are human and they can get it wrong.

How difficult has the BBC found the restrictions imposed on international camera crews by the Israeli authorities?

We have had our difficulties with that and have been very vocal in criticizing the Israelis for not giving us the work permits we need for our crews. But because we employ both Palestinian and Israeli crews, we've probably been able to continue to work more easily than smaller operations that don't have the resources to employ a large number of cameramen. The withdrawal of this one work permit makes it impossible for them to operate. It is incumbent on bigger organizations, like the BBC, to lead the complaints against the Israeli government when they impose that sort of restriction on our work.
It has been a hassle, but I don't think it has ever affected our coverage and I don't think we've ever had a cameraman thrown out. I wish it could be resolved - we've had some positive signs recently but no permits have been issued, despite assurances to the contrary.

Do you feel there was anything suspicious about BBC World [24-hour news channel - Ed] briefly being taken off cable channels in Israel?

It was a contractual discussion, not a conspiracy. World was always available on satellite. Both sides may complain about what we say and what we do, but they are real news addicts in this part of the world and they love to hear what we are saying about them. Which in the end, is much better than complete apathy.

There were reports about a certain amount of tension between the British government and the BBC over your coverage of Iraq. Has there ever been any pressure from them over coverage here?

Firstly, there were elements within the British government who complained that we didn't take a patriotic enough stance over the Iraqi war. But nor should we - we are there to be objective, not take the British government line. There were all sorts of accusations that we were the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation. On the other hand, people would also say we were the Blair Broadcasting Corporation, so, as usual, if both sides are complaining about the coverage, we must be somewhere in the middle.
In terms of this place, we haven't had pressure from the British government, although particular lawmakers or MPs might complain about different aspects of our coverage.

What about from the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority?

(Laughs) Oh yes. We fairly regularly get an official summons from one side or the other to explain our actions. I would say the frequency is higher on the Israeli side, but that possibly is a reflection on the size and sophistication of their publicity machine. They are able to monitor every single word that we say - someone sits in the Israeli Foreign Ministry watching BBC World 24 hours a day. If they ever have an issue about a story, they have a taped transcript of what we said and they can quote it back verbatim.
They are completely open about this and even give tours of their monitoring facility. One person watches Sky News, another CNN and another the BBC [the three international 24-hour news channels broadcast in Israel]. We are very aware of the pressure.
There have been various serious complaints in the two years I have been here - over the BBC's Panorama program on Ariel Sharon's involvement in Sabra and Shatilla, our coverage of Jenin, etc - which have then made it into the Israeli press. On the Palestinian side we have had complaints that we are too pro-Israeli and we don't reflect the extent of their suffering.

What is your answer to these allegations of bias?

The simple answer is that we strive for complete impartiality and lack of bias, which means that if we do a story on refugee camps, we always try to explain why the Israelis sometimes clamp down on the camps in occupied areas. When there is a suicide bombing in Israel, we explain why someone would do that or what the Hamas angle on suicide bombings is. Sometimes the very act of mentioning the other side in that context is seen as an act of bias - they reject our attempt to show the whole picture and explain why this terrible situation exists.

How are the BBC's relations with the Israeli Government Press Office at the moment?

Not good. This is all linked, of course, with the two main issues of ID cards for our Palestinian members of staff and the need to get work permits for our foreign crews. Neither of these issues has been resolved and there is still no clear sign they are going to resolve either problem. This is a dilemma shared by all international broadcasters and we are working on it through the Foreign Press Association. Some of these issues - Palestinian journalists not being given press cards, for example - have been with us for two years now and there is no sign that it's going to change. It has not helped that certain people in the GPO have made outrageous allegations against the foreign press, and the BBC, which have absolutely no foundation in reality. I find it slightly galling that the Israeli press often likes to repeat these allegations without giving us the right to reply.

How are you dealing with the problem of journalists' safety in the light of the recent deaths of two cameramen in the Occupied Territories?

I look back at how we covered South Africa, for example, and we were out in shorts and t-shirts, no mobile phones, no back-up, walking into live fire areas and tear gas - and I can't believe that more of us weren't killed. The BBC has taken the whole safety issue fantastically seriously - flak jackets, helmets, armored vehicles. At a more invisible level, we have a huge safety infrastructure about calling in, doing safety reports, weekly safety summaries on specific areas, employing ex-SAS officers to go out with us. It's a growth industry. Unfortunately, it doesn't stop the deaths of people like James Miller [freelance journalist killed by the IDF in Gaza in May 2003]. Whether he got shot because he was working without the resources of something like the BBC, or was just unlucky - I don't know. What I do know is that the BBC and most of the other international organizations have invested a lot of time, effort and money into keeping their staff as safe as possible. I for one would never send anyone anywhere there is an obvious chance of danger.

This raises the question of what your relationship with the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) is?

On a day-to-day level, we use the IDF a lot. If we have people stuck at a military checkpoint in the West Bank, we will call a senior IDF figure in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv and they will often help resolve any problems. So at that level, we use them to our benefit. Digging more deeply into the various incidents over the past two years, the FPA is trying to bring the IDF to account for them.
That means that when there are incidents involving injury or death to journalists, a proper investigation should be carried out by the IDF, there should be follow-through, and some sort of repercussion for any member of the IDF responsible for an incident involving a journalist. The FPA has been trying hard, but has not yet succeeded in getting that sort of sense of accountability and responsibility.

What about the concept of "embedded journalism". Have you used that here?

We haven't - every so often we get offered a facility from the IDF, and we use that, but always make it clear that is what it is. The notion of embedding in any more formal way for this sort of conflict wouldn't work, basically because we have access to the front line anyway; we don't need to use the military to get us there. This was not the case in Iraq. The jury is still out on how the embedding system worked there. I was in Iraq and I think it was a qualified success. The important thing is to make sure that the context of how people are gaining this access is always explained. In general, a mixture of embedees and people with unilateral access is the way forward - you're getting access but you retain some independence.

How has the rapid development of new technologies influenced the way the media operates?

When there were no such things as mobile phones, you could go off on a story and there was very little chance you would be in contact again until you chose to present yourself in the bureau or called your news desk. So from that point of view, it was easier because there wasn't 24-hour demand. Nowadays, with satellite- and video-phones, the demands are enormous and you do a lot more volume because you're a lot more accessible. The message is a lot more immediate and arguably a lot more effective because you are in situ, rather than reflecting on events back at base. But it also gives you a much greater responsibility to get it right at the moment.

Does the idea that "if it bleeds it leads" exacerbate the conflict? What sort of impact does the media have on this situation?

It is true that "if it bleeds it leads". As we supposedly enter a stage of negotiations, I know for a fact it is going to be much more difficult to sell that to my news desks in London than an incursion or a suicide bombing. However, it is my job to convince my editors that this is important in the context of the story and that it could be a breakthrough.
This conflict gets more than its fair share of publicity - just think of the other problems in the world: Chechnya, Aceh, Sri Lanka - how much publicity do they get? Certainly as far as Chechnya is concerned, more people have been killed there, but there isn't the same number of journalists covering it. I would say that by having the oxygen of publicity here, you are also getting the resources of the world devoted to resolving this conflict. So there is a plus and a minus - simply because this conflict is on center stage, it has a much better chance of being solved.

So why does this conflict receive so much coverage?

It's a question I don't really know the answer to. First of all, there are the political lobbies in Europe and the US who have an interest in keeping the story going. But I think it is also something to do with the fact that a lot of people know an Arab or a Jew, so there is a connection for people in Europe and the US. And people here look like us. It's racist, but we care more about Jews and Arabs being shot dead than we do about Bangladeshis who drown in a flood, because that's much more remote, it's much more distant. And everyone has heard of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, etc - every story we hear as a child, Christian, Jew or Muslim, mentions them. Even people who have never been here have a connection with it that they don't have with trouble spots like Aceh or Chechnya.