Just Make Sure You Don’t Call It the Persian Gulf!  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   December 2012/January 2013

Just Make Sure You Don’t Call It the Persian Gulf!   

There are quite a few things that are simply not mentioned in the pages of The National, a government-owned English-language daily in the United Arab Emirates. A veteran U.S. newspaper editor reflects on his adventures on the paper’s foreign desk. Tue., November 27, 2012.

By Tom OHara
Tom O’Hara (thomasohara043@gmail.com) works part time as an editor for Florida Voices, a Web site that focuses on Florida politics. Before working in Abu Dhabi, he taught journalism for two years at Ohio State University. He was the managing editor of Cleveland’s Plain Dealer from 2000 to 2007, and he worked for newspapers in Florida from 1972 to 2000.     


Madonna performed on June 3 in Abu Dhabi. More than 20,000 fans had gathered at an outdoor arena. It was nighttime, but Abu Dhabi in June is brutally hot even after the sun goes down.

The diva came onstage at 10:40 p.m. – an hour and 40 minutes late. The fans were livid and Twitter was abuzz with their complaints.

A reporter from The National, an English-language newspaper run by the government of the United Arab Emirates, covered the concert. The reporter filed her story on deadline and reported the fans' unhappiness in paragraphs three through six.

The rest of the story was straightforward and had plenty of gushing quotes from adoring fans.

Because the story was filed late, it did not go through the newspaper's meticulous censorship process. But it got a thorough edit and was posted on the Web site after the pages got off the floor.

Editor-in-Chief Hassan Fattah was furious when he read it online early the next morning.

He accused the nightside editors of "trying to fuck me" while he was out of town and unable to keep watch over the content. He ordered online editors to rearrange the story to downplay Madonna's tardiness and the fans' displeasure.

The government takes great pride in the number of celebrities it attracts to the UAE. Reporting that anything goes wrong when Tiger Woods, Tom Cruise, Roger Federer or Madonna come to town is not part of the mission.

Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan is the president of the UAE. He's not elected; he's the king. He spends a lot of money supporting The National, where I worked as an editor for two years before retiring in July.

I often fantasized that the sheikh was a big fan of quality journalism. I wondered if he cringed when he saw the saccharine local news stories. Or if he sighed in exasperation when he read stories about "bold new initiatives" by the government that he knew would never come to fruition.

When the newspaper launched in 2008, its goal was "to establish an institution on par with some of the greatest newspapers in the world," according to its Web site. Well, that hasn't happened. The mission statement should say: Don't offend the government or anyone who has a link to it.

The paper has many talented journalists from around the world, but they are stifled by government's secrecy and the paper's self-censorship.

Even the newest editors quickly learn the rules:

• Don't write a headline that contains the word "pig" (Muslims consider pigs dirty).

• Don't publish a photo that shows Bahrain's security forces firing tear gas at demonstrators (the rulers of Bahrain are related to the royals in the UAE).

• Don't run even a brief about gay rights (while there's plenty of homosexual behavior in the Middle East, you don't mention sexual preference in the paper).

The hypersensitivity caused editors to make some odd decisions.

In April, the paper ran a story about the Pulitzer Prizes along with the photo that won the Pulitzer for news. The photograph was of a small Afghan girl in a green dress standing amid the carnage of a terrorist bombing. The page editor had it as three-column display art on an inside page.

The paper's highest-ranking editors, who spent most of their working days proofing pages, deemed the photo "too gruesome" and we ran it two columns down page. If it was too gruesome, why publish it at all?

You can't blame these bosses. They're shackled with golden handcuffs. They make handsome tax-free salaries.

Fortunately, I worked on the foreign desk. The censors care mostly about local, business and feature copy. Most foreign stories pose little risk.

Once I grasped the priorities, I stopped worrying about journalism and focused on the humor. For example:

• "I would rather the readers be confused than offended." Deputy Editor Bob Cowan, August 2010.

Cowan, once a respected editor at the Telegraph in London, issued that guidance after telling an editor on the foreign desk to remove all references to religion from a fascinating story about an Iranian Shiite imam. The story made little sense without the religious details.

Cowan said that the information about Shiite beliefs would offend our mostly Sunni readers. I presume he was concerned about the Sunni readers up the company food chain who apparently scour the paper looking for anything they deem offensive.

Fattah occasionally referred to these mysterious people, who he said would regularly call and berate him. "You don't understand what I have to deal with," he once told me.

• "It's better not to try to explain." Cowan, March 2011.

He told the foreign desk that our story should not get into much detail about the UAE's decision to send warplanes to participate in maintaining the "no-fly zone" in Libya.

The West demanded that Arab nations take a role in the Libyan rebellion against Muammar Qaddafi, but Arab leaders are loath to be seen as attacking another Arab leader, even a lunatic like Qaddafi.

• "This is a godless philosophy." Cowan, July 2011.

He killed an "Ask the Expert" item about existentialism and Ramadan. Apparently, just mentioning existentialism might offend someone.

• WikiLeaks is a "journalist's story." Fattah, November 2011.

That was Fattah's justification for killing a WikiLeaks story. The leaked cables have revealed repeated efforts by Arab leaders to suppress democratic movements. They also disclose that despite their populist statements of support for the Palestinians, most Arab leaders don't like them much.

• "Something will be wrong" in a story a correspondent was writing about Jordan. Cowan, April 2012.

Cowan said he wouldn't put a story about a power struggle in Jordan on the front page because the paper's new general manager was Jordanian and he had worked for the royal family there. Cowan was sure something would be wrong in the story and he didn't want to irritate the new GM.

• "This is no time to be intellectually honest." Fattah, January 2011.

The editor shared this gem with the foreign desk after reading a story from one of our best correspondents about speculation that the revolt in Tunisia might spark other uprisings.

As we all know, the speculation was accurate as the Arab Spring spread across the region in the months that followed.

Fattah was obsessed about any story that might provoke malcontents in the UAE to rise up against the government. In May, he ordered that a story about the government fining a hotel be moved from the display position on page three and buried on page six. The hotel had been fined because a member of a band performing there had spoken to one of his friends in the audience. In the UAE, it's illegal for band members to speak to people in the audience because they might try to seduce Emirati women. Seriously.

Fattah, an Arabic-speaking American of Iraqi descent, told an editor to move the story because it might spark an Arab Spring response if the story were prominently displayed. Seriously.

The notion that an anti-government revolt would erupt in the UAE is ridiculous. While there are a few dissidents who suggest that some democracy, transparency and the rule of law might be nice, an uprising isn't going to happen there.

Most Emiratis are thrilled with their cradle-to-grave welfare. The Arab Spring thrives on poverty and there isn't any in the UAE.

The supervisory goofiness cropped up in the computer system, too. For example, you must never, ever identify the Persian Gulf as the Persian Gulf. In the Arab world, it's the Arabian Gulf. The Iranians are Persians. The Gulf Arabs despise and fear Iran. So, even though the rest of the world calls that body of water the Persian Gulf, The National does not.

Fattah apparently caught hell from his handlers when "Persian" slipped into the paper. Here is part of the resulting memo:

"Please be reminded that the term 'Persian Gulf' has massive political implications and should never appear in our copy or in our newspaper.... For safety's sake, the word Persian should not be in copy unless we are talking ancient history."

To assure that "Persian" stays out of the paper, Fattah had the computer techs program The National's automatic editing feature – a spellchecker on steroids – to eliminate the word when it crept into a story.

That was a nifty idea, but in May one of our reporters filed a story about Iran's efforts to pressure international agencies to identify the gulf as the "Persian Gulf."

I always ran the editing program before I read a story. So when I read this one, every "Persian" had been obliterated.

After a short investigation, I learned about Fattah's edict. We were given a dispensation to use "Persian Gulf" in this case.

A similar technological snafu caused us trouble in April. Our stringer in Australia wrote a story about the Indonesian government trying to legislate the length of women's skirts as part of a crackdown on porn.

The reporter put "miniskirt" in the subject line of her e-mails. She kept insisting she had sent the story but no one could find it. Eventually we discovered that someone had programmed the system to block any e-mails with "miniskirt" in the subject field.

The censorship isn't the only burden mainstream journalists must endure at the paper. The paper is basically a British publication with British spelling and style. But British ethics also rule – and they're, ah, loose, shall we say.

The most flagrant abuse is putting staff bylines on wire material. It is routine practice. For reasons I never understood, the editors seemed to believe that readers would be impressed that we had staff bylines on stories from around the world.

The practice caused The National some embarrassment when someone sent an e-mail to media blogger/aggregator Jim Romenesko with details about systemic plagiarism in the business department. Here is part of the September 2011 post.

"A Romenesko reader points out that The National has been taking other news outlets' stories and giving top credit to 'The National Staff.' At the end of the story, editors add 'with Reuters,' 'with Bloomberg News,' or whatever news outlet was plagiarized. 'The National's Business staff added nothing at all to those pieces .. they are totally copied and pasted from those wires,' says an e-mail pointing out The National's ways. 'This is unethical, shady, sloppy and simply ridiculous. But the practice is daily routine in that section.'"

There was some hubbub in the newsroom for a few days. The bosses said the stories cited in the e-mail had been "mistakenly" given National Staff credit. Fattah sent out a gang e-mail soon thereafter outlining the sourcing policies, which everyone ignored.

I know this because I did it myself several times a week. The Foreign desk would schedule a story from a stringer early in the day. The stringer would file a badly reported and poorly written story.

I was usually the late editor. About 9 or 10 p.m., the Associated Press would file its version, which was always vastly better. So, I could either give our readers the stringer's gibberish or take the top eight graphs of the AP story and plop them atop ours.

The story then would be published with the stringer's byline or a National Staff byline.

Here is the British reasoning: The paper pays for the wire service material and the editors can do damn well what they please with it. If an editor takes 15 minutes to blend some wires together or drops a feed from a stringer or even rewrites a few graphs, the story becomes a "National Staff" piece.

If you could ignore the sting of the ethical breaches, then you could just enjoy them. Here are two of my favorites:

We used Photoshop to eliminate a cigarette from the hand of Jimi Hendrix because we didn't want to be seen as promoting smoking, even though smoking is rampant in the UAE.

Also, an editor decided to use Photoshop to blur the license plates on cars parked illegally at a mosque. The photo illustrated a story about parking problems at mosques. The editor was worried that we would embarrass the rogue parkers if readers could see the plate numbers.

A designer had begun blurring the plates when an American photo editor who had protested the alteration found a picture that did not illustrate the story as well – but you couldn't see any license plate numbers.

I'm back in the States now. I'm sure the bosses are relieved.

It's tough enough for them to be constantly guessing what will offend their Emirati handlers without an old-school American editor asking them pesky questions and making wisecracks about their decisions.

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