Monday, June 18, 2007 (All day)

The International Media Council of the Next Century Foundation together with the International Communications Forum held a lively one day conference on the 18th of June entitled THE MIDDLE EAST AND THE MEDIA.

The conference, attended by over a hundred people, brought together a range of luminaries, commentators, opinion makers, and movers and shakers involved in Middle East and the media. Participants including editors, broadcasters, journalists of various stripes, religious leaders from the three great faiths, diplomats, activists, academics and many others.

The day was divided into sessions on a number of topical issues relating to Islamophobia, anti-Semitism and responsible coverage of regional conflicts. While the conference successfully created a space for convivial conversation, the sessions, as one might expect, also drew out energetic debates with participants expressing impassioned opinions.

The issue of the National Union of Journalists’ recent decision to support Palestinians living under occupation by calling for a boycott against Israel found unexpected consensus among conference participants. While some argued that this was inappropriate and others that it was counterproductive, supporters and critics of Israel alike agreed that journalists shouldn’t take collective public stands of this kind.

There were also especially dynamic debates in two sessions with Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips, whose strident views always provoke animated reactions. In a session on BBC coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict, Ms. Phillips alleged that the Corporation has an institutional anti-Israeli bias. Her claims prompted active audience participation with many, including Chris Doyle of the Council for Arab-British Understanding, arguing that her case depends on the very same selective sampling of which she accuses the BBC. Ms. Phillips also participated on a panel discussing Islamophobia, which she has been accused of promoting.

Another highlight of the day was a forceful exchange between two Iranians discussing ‘Xenophobia in Iran and Scaremongering in the West’. Amir Abbas Fakhravar of the Iranian Freedom Institute was fiercely critical of the Iranian ‘dictatorial regime’, including what he argued was its hateful portrayal of outsiders and Israel. He welcomed strong international action to overthrow it. Mohammad Kamali, chair of the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran, disputed the accuracy of these claims and warned that foreign intervention would find vociferous resistance from across Iranian society, regardless people’s own attitude towards the government.

But the conference did more than prompt spirited debates or explore questions of balance and bias, editorial ethics and the repercussions of reporting on explosive issues. As veteran publisher William Porter put it, ‘A major preoccupation of the conference was to turn fear into hope’, an aspiration which we hope, in some small measure, to have achieved.