The first thing I did after I started working as a staff reporter at the London-based Jewish Chronicle was to join the National Union of Journalists. Those dependable union reps, I was told, would safeguard my every interest.
Holding on to that belief has become rather hard, now that the organization I had considered my ally in the effort to uphold informed and intelligent discussion in British society has taken its place at the front of the slogan-yelling, Israel-hating mob.
Earlier this month the National Union of Journalists voted to boycott Israeli goods. Some 40,000 journalists, including those on all the United Kingdom’s leading publications and channels, are meant to abide by the ban. The union is also committed to pressuring for “a boycott of Israeli goods similar to those boycotts in the struggles against apartheid South Africa, led by trade unions… to demand sanctions to be imposed on Israel by the British government and the United Nations.”
Already a range of unions, representing all sorts of trades and professions, have sacrificed nuance for the sake of cheap polemics. It seemed we had reached rock bottom when unions of teachers and academics, the people responsible for the education of our society, jumped on the bandwagon. But the tirade against accuracy has reached new levels if we journalists — the people who control the flow of information — are joining in.
The advancement by the National Union of Journalists of this black-and-white understanding of the Middle East conflict — this absurd notion that Israel is the absolute baddy of the Middle East and the Palestinians the fair innocents — is especially obtuse at a time when one of our own, the BBC’s Alan Johnston, is being held hostage by a Palestinian group.
I was inspired toward a career in the media by the notion, gleaned in no small part from union publicity, that if the entire world were to be swayed by misinformation, Britain’s journalists would to the very last steadfastly uphold the precedence of facts over prejudice.
I grew up in a home where BBC radio was switched on after Shabbat and stayed on until Friday afternoon. These journalists, my parents explained as we listened, had long offered a lifeline of information via the World Service to people in controlled regimes who had no other media except one-sided propaganda. To judge by the National Union of Journalists boycott, today’s British journalists are more interested in disseminating their own biased views than in serving as their antidote.
The British media is a precarious place. We journalists are constantly battling with bosses over pay and conditions. Generally speaking, you have to be mad not to be in the union. But surely it is equally mad to give money and allegiance to an organization that is now publicly committed to lambasting Israel, a country to which I have ties of faith, culture and family.
British Jewish journalists like myself now find ourselves in a rather awkward position. If we remain in the union, we will be called traitors by our communities. If we quit the union, we will be labeled scabs by our union colleagues, as well as leave ourselves without workplace protections.
Whatever choices we make, our ability — and that of other fair-minded reporters — to push for fair coverage of the Middle East is irreparably damaged. The might of the National Union of Journalists, which should be reserved for work-related matters like fair pay, now sanctions a particular “truth” about the Middle East.
Loyal members will feel an obligation to promote this truth through any means at their disposal, including the editorial process. To interfere with this will be to question your solidarity to the union.
Newsrooms may well cease to be places where competing truths are considered and navigated with the aim of providing balanced information to the public, and become places where a single union-approved truth will be propagated. The ultimate losers in such an outcome, of course, are the readers, listeners and viewers of the British media.
As a group of prominent London Jews recently pointed out in a letter to the BBC, this boycott calls into doubt the ability of “journalists who are also [National Union of Journalists] members to report accurately and impartially on matters relating to Israel and the Middle East.”
In fact, the Middle East is just the tip of the iceberg. If the community of British journalists can be bought so cheaply by the lure of fitting in with the latest prejudiced fad, who can trust what they have to say about the rest of the world?
Nathan Jeffay is a regular contributor and former staff writer at the London-based Jewish Chronicle.