The Six Day War and the changing face of journalism: The view from Australia
Jun 6, 2013 | Ahron Shapiro
The recent passing of the Associated Press‘ acclaimed journalist Hal McClure at the age of 92 coincides closely with the event that brought him his greatest fame – his coverage of the 1967 Six Day War, which began 46 years ago yesterday.
His passing is yet another reminder of a bygone era when a journalist took pride in reporting the news, rather than acting as a partisan advocate for or against the newsmakers themselves.
For the third time in 20 years, war broke out today in the Middle East between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Gunfire sounded in Israel and in three of its Arab neighbors – Egypt, Jordan and Syria.
The Arabs, sworn to destroy Israel, were battling the Jewish state’s forces on two fronts, at Egypt’s Sinai frontier and on the Syria and Jordan borders.
So began McClure’s story – which was chosen as the lead story in innumerable newspapers around the world, including the Age here in Australia.
McClure’s story, which ran to a length of approximately 1200 words in most editions, is remarkable for its concise clarity and its neutral, fact-based reporting style.
However, for all of its merits, McClure’s dispatch was not unique. The UPI‘s Walter Logan penned an equally impressive report, suggesting, again, that what has really changed over the years are not only the journalists, but journalism itself – more on that a little later.
First, though, the anniversary of the Six Day War offers an opportunity to review some of the coverage of the war at the time in two of Australia’s leading newspapers – the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age.
Looking back on these stories – today available only for those determined enough to retrieve them from microfilm – one is struck by a number of universal truths about the Six Day War that were understood by the local editorial boards and correspondents of the day that have been lost entirely in modern-day reporting on the war.
- The context behind the war
Egyptian leader Gamal Nasser had blockaded the Straits of Tiran on May 23 – an act of war in itself and a violation of international law. It also violated international guarantees Israel received in exchange for withdrawing from Sinai in 1956. This Egyptian aggression was also seriously hampering Israel’s ability to import oil. Nasser had also been beating the drum of war, ordering UN peacekeepers out of the Sinai and steadily building up 100,000 troops and hundreds of tanks on Israel’s border. (Downplaying Israeli concerns, then-Australian prime minister Harold Holt called Nasser’s threats to destroy Israel as mere “huffing and puffing”.) Israel had yielded to Western requests for restraint as it tried to get Nasser to end the blockade through diplomatic pressure. A US plan to break the blockade with an international flotilla had ended up dead in the water, so to speak. Meanwhile, Nasser was not budging and Western powers were giving no indication that they were willing to push Nasser harder.
As the Age‘s UN correspondent Roy Macartney reported on June 7:
Israel gave the big powers seven days then struck. It did not want to become another Czechoslovakia – victim of the appeasement of the 1930s.
This was the consensus of Western diplomats at the United Nations today.
Israel had good grounds for misgivings, they pointed out. The United Nations Security Council, after a week’s debate, could not even agree upon a resolution calling on both sides to “exercise restraint.”
The promise that maritime powers would keep open the Gulf of Aqaba also seemed in jeopardy.
On Sunday the New York Times reported “the impression in American quarters was that privately the British were wavering – as were many of the other maritime powers – as to how far they would go.”
“Israel obviously sees this as a pragmatic problem of national survival,” said one UN diplomat. “It could be killed by polemics.”
“U.S. problem eased by Israeli success”, US correspondent Roy Macartney, Age, 7/6/67
The context for the war was clearly understood by the editorialists of the day, as demonstrated by the Age‘s editorial on June 6:
“Whichever nation struck the first blow, it was inevitable that President Nasser’s insolent decision to blockade the Gulf of Aqaba and cut off Israel’s oil supplies would lead to conflict unless it was quickly broken…
Israel is now faced by what it what it has always tried to avoid: a clash with all its Arab neighbors.”
“Needless war”, Editorial, Age, 6/6/67
- The war placed into the geopolitical context
Editorials in both Sydney and Melbourne looked beyond Israel and the Arab countries and discussed the bigger players behind the war – in particular the Soviet military backing of countries like Egypt, which had prompted countries like Britain, France and the US to tacitly support Israel as a counterweight to the USSR even if they publicly vowed neutrality. Vietnam and the Cuban Missile Crisis were not far from anyone’s minds.
As the Sydney Morning Herald editorialised on June 5:
It now looks more as if the Soviet Government has been digesting the lessons of Cuba and the Congo and deciding instead to exert its power and influence closer to its own frontiers – in the Middle East. No one knows yet how far the Middle East crisis has been engineered by the Soviet Union, but certainly it has emerged as a much stronger force there.
“A weight in the balance of world power, Supplemental editorial, SMH, 5/6/67
and again on June 7:
Russia has now openly aligned herself with the Arab States. Britain and the United States, wisely and properly, have been at pains to proclaim their neutrality – although this attitude will be sorely strained by President Nasser’s rash closing of the Suez Canal – but in Arab eyes and in Soviet eyes they are branded as supporters of Israel. The importance of the charge by the Egyptian Supreme Command that American and British planes supported the Israelis is not its patent falsehood but the fact that such a charge is credible to the Arabs. It also clearly represents a desperate Egyptian attempt to force Russia to intervene. As far as the people of the Middle East are concerned, the lines are drawn – Russia supports the Arabs and the Western Powers support Israel.
“The Moscow line”, Editorial, SMH, 7/6/67
and in the Age as well.
If Moscow continues to pour arms into the Arab countries the Johnsonian doctrine of maintaining the status quo may lead America into counter-measures. The Big Two would then be engaged in escalating the war in the Middle East, as they have been doing in Vietnam.
That way madness lies. The odds have no doubt been carefully calculated in Tel Aviv as they are bring calculated in Moscow. A war of attrition could make the Middle East another laboratory for proving military weapons and a potential source of international conflict.
“Diplomatic disarray”, Editorial, Age, 7/6/67
The Soviet Union’s key role as military enablers for countries like Egypt and Syria – giving the combined Arab forces a quantitative edge in every side-by-side comparison with the Israel Defence Forces leading up to the war – shatters the narrative favoured today by many in the Palestinian camp that suggests that the 1967 war was intended to be the fulfilment of some kind of Zionist “expansionist” plan.
If any country appeared to be looking to expand its influence in 1967, it was clearly the USSR, at the expense of British, French and US interests in the Middle East. This was clearly understood by Australian analysts at the time, such as the Age‘s Roy Macartney in the article referenced earlier. Similarly, the SMH‘s London correspondent T.S. Monks painted a picture of Britain and the US as reluctant bedfellows of Israel, more due to realpolitik concerns vis-à-vis the USSR’s ambitions than anything else – openly neutral and loathe to be put in a situation where they would have to consider intervention to prevent a massacre of Jews in Israel, if the war swung Nasser’s way.
Britain’s position now is that it is not taking sides but is fervently seeking a peaceful solution.
Cabinet Ministers are avoiding comment on what Britain’s stand would be in the case of intervention by the United States and the Soviet Union, but responsible observers are putting their views on the position bluntly.
“The Times” in a leading article today states: “There are no circumstances in which a total Arab victory could be allowed without the Western Powers being forced to intervene.
“This is, therefore, a war in which the Arab Powers cannot be finally allowed to win, without involving major Powers from outside the Middle East.”
“Possible Arab victory worries Britain”, T.S. Monks, SMH, 7/6/67
- Israel’s vulnerabilities on the eve of the war
Local coverage of the Six Day War included sober analysis of the strategic vulnerabilities facing Israel on the eve of the war. Guest defence analyst Tom Pocock of the UK’s Evening Standard wrote for the Sydney Morning Herald on June 7:
QUESTION: Where is Israel most vulnerable?
ANSWER: Immediately to air attack on towns, industry and stockpiles, notably of oil.
No Israeli town is more than five minutes’ flying time from an Arab airfield and, as bombers approaching from Egyptian bases over flat desert can fly beneath Israeli radar, little warning can be expected.
Civil defence drill is good, but there is the danger that the Egyptians might risk the use of poison gas, against which the Israelis would have no defence.
Long term, Israel is vulnerable to naval blockade. The Israeli Army is almost certainly strong enough to hold off Arab assaults almost indefinitely – provided it can count on a steady flow of arms, ammunition, fuel, food and volunteers from outside. While a limited amount could be flown into the country, the bulk would have to come through Haifa, which is obviously vulnerable to bombing and mining. In addition, the Israeli Navy (two destroyers, one frigate and four submarines and some patrol craft) is in no position to challenge the Russian-equipped Egyptian navy, which includes nine submarines.
“Which side is the more vulnerable”, Tom Pocock, SMH, 7/6/67
Meanwhile, Pocock’s counterpart at the UK’s Daily Express, Chapman Pincher, wrote about Israel’s deficiencies in strategic depth and room for a tactical withdrawal.
Though reports from the battlefronts conflict, it seems that, in spite of having to fight on all fronts, the Israeli commanders have been able to put into action plans carefully worked out over 10 years.
Because of the exceptional vulnerability of Israel to air attack – the country is only 15 miles wide in places – the plans were based on blitzkrieg tactics to gain quick air superiority.
Pincher added that one of Israel’s biggest strength is the fact that they are highly motivated, fighting a defensive war for their very existence.
The outcome of this war will hinge largely on morale and, in spite of Arab cries of “Holy War,” I believe the Israelis have big advantages here. They will die where they stand, because they have nowhere to run. They are defending a fertile land won from the desert, where, for the first time for many of them, they have a life of dignity.
“Blitzkrieg plan”, SMH, 7/6/67
Both Sydney and Melbourne papers included background articles on the Arab-Israeli conflict and the immediate escalation to war, obliterating what has today become a common fallacy that the root problems of the conflict began with the 1967 war and peace could somehow be achieved overnight by a full withdrawal of Israeli military and civilian presence from the West Bank.
As the SMH wrote:
The modern story of the age-old efforts of the Jewish people to return to their Biblical homeland, dating back to 1,200 years before Christ, begins with the Balfour declaration of November 2, 1917 – half a century ago.
Then British Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour, supported the establishment of a national home for the Jews in Palestine after World War I.
In their bitter fight for an independent nationality the Jews first waged an underground war to end the British mandate. This went on while thousands of Jews, persecuted in Europe during and after the Hitler regime tried to reach their historic homeland.
When the republic of Israel was declared on May 14, 1948, then U.S. President, Mr. Truman recognised it within hours. Stalin’s Russia was not far behind.
Arab countries invaded Israel immediately in a desperate attempt to crush the infant State.
“Jewish battle for a home”, no byline, SMH, 6/6/67
As the war pressed on, the Sydney and Melbourne papers’ tone began to sharply diverge. While the SMH led on June 9 with a wire story on the predicament of the Egyptian army – now transformed into underdogs (“Trapped Arabs hit back in desperate last stand”, 9/6/67), the Age presented a decidedly different narrative, leading with a news analysis by New York Times correspondent James Reston focusing on the reaction inside Israel to their miraculous victory. “3,000,000 took on 40,000,000 and tore them to bits”, read the overline under the masthead.
The military victory of Israel, startling in its speed and efficiency, is not as impressive as the spirit that produced it in this moment of her history.
With the Old City of Jerusalem back in their control, the Israelis are not only a nation but a family. No doubt they will go back to squabbling later on, as all families do, but for these few days they have given the world a glimpse of what can be done by an intelligent and courageous people with a common purpose.
The Jews have not suffered for nothing. If there is any consolation for their centuries of agony, it was apparent in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem this week. These people have acted as if the life of the nation was everything and their personal lives were incidental.
“And so they went to war”, James Reston, SMH, 9/6/67
In the last days of the war and in the aftermath, the Age continued an editorial line generally supportive of Israel, with the understanding that Israel would try to use its territorial gains from the war as a bargaining chip for peace agreements. The editorial also highlighted the fact that Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries were understood by everyone to be nothing more than “arbitrary partition lines” rigged up out of the 1949 armistice. In recent times, of course, this fact has been routinely disregarded by journalists, diplomats and politicians when they speak of “1967 borders” (implying legal boundaries, separating Israel and “Palestinian land”).
For the third time in 19 years the Israelis have proved that they can confront and destroy any hostile grouping of Arab powers in the Middle East. Acting without any aiding or abetting from the West, and with a clear-cut case for national survival, they have side-tracked the dubious arguments of the debating chamber and the lobbies, and in four days have established a new balance of power. The balance has been tipped in their favor by one of the most brilliant military campaigns in history, but being practical people they know that this is only the first step. In the long run their precarious existence as a nation must be confirmed by the kind of international agreement which converted a British mandate into an independent State.
Now they will have to come back to the international bazaar and face the horse traders. They will certainly insist on holding two of their military gains: guaranteed control of the Straits of Tiran which are the passage of their major oil supplies, and access to the old city of Jerusalem, which to the Jew is what Mecca is to the Moslem. They may also hold out for modifications of the arbitrary partition lines rigged up after the fighting in 1948, which left the Gaza strip in Egyptian hands as “a dagger pointing at Tel Aviv,” and some strategic adjustment of the Jordanian frontier which pinches in the Jerusalem salient and almost cuts the country in halves.
“Problems of peace”, Editorial, Age, 10/6/67
This conceptual visualisation of a peace process of sorts – more like a land-for-non-belligerence deal brokered by international mediation – could be found in other commentary of the day, such as by the Age‘s former foreign correspondent Bruce Grant.
The question which must now arise is whether Israel has established by its own authority a balance in the Middle East without the supervision of the world powers or the intervention of the United Nations. It is hard to believe that such idea could be the case… it would be more reasonable to assume that the present victory, decisive as it has been in the precise way it has nominated Israel’s interest in the right to survive without denying the rights of its neighbors, is merely an opportunity for the interested powers to assert now their responsibility for peace and stability in the Middle East.
“Israel is a modern Sparta”, Bruce Grant, Age, 10/6/67
To this, the Age‘s European correspondent Claude Forell, in surveying the new landscape of the Middle East, was confident Israel was ready to end the conflict, but questioned whether the Arabs were prepared to do so.
When all the fighting is over, as it soon must be, Israel will have: Vindicated its right to exist unmolested as an independent Jewish State; altered the balance of power in the entire Middle East; toppled Colonel Nasser, if not from the presidency of the United Arab Republic, then certainly from his dominating leadership of Arab aspirations; put in doubt the future of the brave and youthful King Hussein of Jordan; shown up again the inherent weakness of the United Nations as a peace-keeping instrument; inflicted a humiliating blow on Soviet influence in the Middle East; exposed the shameful shilly-shallying of the Western powers which, for all their high-minded declarations, quickly put self-interest over principle when the storm gathered. One does not need to be an ardent Zionist to be relieved that Israel has won a short, swift victory. If they had not, could the Western powers have continued to stand aloof?…
The Israelis seem ready to forgive their Arab neighbours if they will agree to let them live in peace. But can the Arabs ever forget this, their third defeat at the hands of their bitterest enemies? Will they bide their time for future revenge and in the meantime vent their frustration on attacking the economic interests of the Western powers? Israel has won the war. She now faces the harder, longer struggle to win the peace.
“Now: winning the peace”, Claude Forell, Age, 10/6/67
Back at the Sydney Morning Herald, however, the editorial line was more heavy-handed and far less supportive of Israel’s actions. Initially, the paper had called for a return to the status quo before the blockade, with the only stipulation that UN peacekeepers should become an immovable barrier for Nasser in the future.
However, by June 10, the paper went further. In an editorial ironically titled “Never again”, the editors rejected Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban’s calls for direct negotiations with its neighbours, instead pushing for an imposed solution by the world’s superpowers – more of a permanent disengagement outcome than a peace – and an internationalised Jerusalem.
The peace is likely to be harder fought than the war. The first thing to be said is that it is not something to be left to the combatants. In international terms they have proved themselves completely irresponsible, indifferent to the wider consequences of their selfish policies and chillingly ready to put world peace at risk in the pursuit of national aims.
The Great Powers who were almost dragged by the heels in to this wretched affair, and who have lost because of it the remaining substance of an East-West detente which sustained the hopes of millions, have an interest and a duty to ensure that such a situation can never arise again. In plain terms this means that the peace settlement in the Middle East is too important to be left to the “direct negotiations between Israel and the Arab States” sought by Israel’s Foreign Minister…
Jerusalem is a special problem. The existing situation, in which the frontier between Israel and Jordan runs through the heart of the Holy City, is unreal and unrealistic. But this is no reason why a city as sacred to Moslems and Christians as to Jews should be allowed to remain in Israeli hands as a spoil of armed conquest. Here the solution surely lies in the internationalization of Jerusalem under the aegis of the United Nations, with free access allowed to all and sovereignty to none.
Jerusalem, indeed, might well be the seat of a United Nations authority, responsible only to the Security Council and removable only by the Security Council, charged with keeping the peace along Israel’s borders.
“Never again”, Editorial, SMH, 10/6/67
However, not all editorialising was negative in Sydney, for the Sunday Sun-Herald’s anonymous commentator, the “Onlooker”, would not be denied the final word.
All the “huffing and puffing” was done by Nasser and the motley Arab allies he had lined up, united only by their common hatred of Israel.
Harold Holt’s woeful estimate might have proved correct, for the time being, if the Israelis had been content to wait while the ring tightened around them.
They weren’t. They struck out, in self-preservation, and who can blame them?
Technically, the firer of the first shots is the aggressor. There is little doubt that Israel fired them.
But this was no “cowardly, treacherous aggression,” as the Arab countries branded it. They had encircled the Israeli State, with the avowed intention of destroying it; moved their forces into position; closed Israel’s southern outlet to the sea; ordered the U.N. peace-keeping force out of the way.
The squeeze was on; they were set for war. What they were not prepared for was the seizure of the initiative by the intended victim. The Israeli offensive caught them off-balance, with most of their planes on the ground; and in a few hours Israel had won command of the air, in a few days a series of crushing victories on land. An astounding feat of arms.
For Egypt last week’s debacle was worse than the-rout of 1956. For Nasser it was even more humiliating. Not again in his time will Israel’s right to survive be challenged.
“Candid comment”, Onlooker, Sun-Herald, 11/6/67
Finally, where was Australia in all this? With Prime Minister Harold Holt abroad in Canada, Australian government statements of the period through acting prime minister John McEwen’s and other ministers were very guarded.
There have been few Ministerial definitions of where Australia stands in policy on the Middle East.
This is the sequence of recent Australian policy statements on the Middle East:
The Prime Minister, Mr. Holt, was reported from Washington last Friday as having told President Johnson that the crisis was “mainly a lot of huffing and puffing.”
The same night, Cabinet held an emergency meeting in Canberra, but the only statement was one in which Mr. McEwen said Australia would join with others in every attempt to prevent tensions developing into conflict and supported the principle of freedom of passage over mercantile sea lanes.
War broke out on Monday morning. No definition of Australian policy came until Tuesday evening, when Mr. McEwen deplored the failure of the Security Council to act before hostilities broke out.
He offered Australia’s good offices, where they could be of use, and said Australia looked to the Security Council to end the fighting.
“Continual review by Australia”, Canberra correspondent, SMH, 9/6/67
Looking back, looking forward
Forty-six years have passed since the Six Day War, and again, looking back at the media coverage of the event, one cannot escape the visibly changing nature of journalists and journalism since that time, away from the reporters traditional role as a chronicler of events to an interpreter of events, deliberately blurring the line between commentary and news.
One must therefore be given pause by a “retweet” last month by Fairfax Middle East Correspondent Ruth Pollard in her twitter feed of Jonathan Stray’s recent article for Harvard University’s Neiman Journalism Lab titled “Objectivity”.
If I had only one short sentence to describe it, I’d say that journalism is factual reports of current events. At least, that’s what I used to say, and I think it’s what most people imagine journalism is. But reports of events have been a shrinking part of American journalism for more than 100 years, as stories have shifted from facts to interpretation.
Interpretation: analysis, explanation, context, or “in-depth” reporting. Journalists are increasingly in the business of supplying meaning and narrative. It no longer makes sense to say that the press only publishes facts.
New research shows this change very clearly. In 1955, stories about events outnumbered other types of front page stories nearly 9 to 1. Now, about half of all stories are something else: a report that tries to explain why, not just what.
Journalism’s shift has created the situation that exists today that makes news a far more subjective product than existed in 1967.