Israel and Hamas' Prisoner Exchange - What's in a Name?

19/10/2011 23:56 BST | Updated 19/12/2011 10:12 GMT

In TV newsrooms across the world yesterday producers were hurriedly ascribing 'slugs' (short working titles given to news stories for ease of reference) to the story that captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit had been exchanged for 477 Palestinian prisoners.

ISRAEL. PALESTINE. HAMAS. PRISONER EXCHANGE. Any of these key words might have been chosen in bulletin running orders as the story's title. But my money's on SHALIT coming up most often.

Of course it makes sense in straitened nomenclature to use the most recognisable word associated with a story - in this case the name of the one Israeli captive - rather than, say, the region or one of the 1,027 Palestinian prisoners eventually to be released by Israel. But this choice of one word represents the different ways in which the same events are reported by different news channels and, by extension, different people.

Were I only to watch CNN, I might be forgiven for feeling estranged from the Palestinian perspective. Almost all the news packages on the channel seemed to come from Israel or west Jerusalem, creating a visual understanding of Israel's plight as it welcomed home the 25-year-old soldier who they felt could have been any Israeli's son.

Reporter Frederik Pleitgen did his piece to camera near the Shalit's home in Mitzpe Hila and interviewed only Israelis. Matthew Chance in Gaza and Kevin Flower in Jerusalem allowed just one Palestinian voice in each of their reports. Chance's was a militant while Flower's was revealingly denied an aston. Hardly the spread of voices required to form an educated judgment. The most interesting CNN coverage was on Becky Anderson's Connect The World the night before the exchange, when she interviewed an Israeli student and a Palestinian peace activist via video link in the studio. Hearing two young people from either side discussing the deal, even in superficial terms, felt more immediate than the voices of any amount of American reporters in Israel.

Al Jazeera English is normally accused of going the other way, and it is true that there was certainly no shortage of Palestinian voices on the channel. A spokesperson from the Gaza Prisoner's Association waxed lyrical in one of Nicole Johnston's packages about the homecoming of Palestinian "heroes". She also interviewed Ahmed Sedat of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Abu Ibrahim from the Popular Resistance Committee and heard from a masked member of Hamas. Alongside these voices were those of Gaza residents and the family of one freed prisoner from the West Bank who were relocating to be with him in "exile" in Gaza. Al Jazeera's use of the word "exile" to describe the Israeli condition of release of 40 of yesterday's prisoners is as loaded as CNN's use of the word "terrorist" to describe some of the Palestinian prisoners.

However, if discrete reports failed to give a plurality of voices, Al Jazeera's overall coverage is avoiding the narrowness of CNN's by coming from so many different areas of the region. Omar al Saleh was in Doha as the first prisoners arrived there, Cal Perry was in Jerusalem as Galid Shalit arrived home, Nicole Johnston was in Gaza, and Charles Stratford was near Ramallah as those Palestinian prisoners allowed home arrived. Moreover, Al Jazeera seems to be the only channel not treating this story as finished already. The coverage continues on TV and online as the ripples from this historical negotiation continue to be felt throughout the region.

The BBC, bound by its Trust to be impartial in its reporting, took a completely different - and rather esoteric - angle. It focussed more on Shalit's Nile TV interview with Egyptian reporter Shahira Amin than on the consequences for Israel, Hamas and Palestine of the prisoner exchange. This might be explained by its conspicuous absence of reporters in the region. As with much of the Arab Spring, the BBC has had to struggle with one or two reporters covering an area that has seen more than its fair share of breaking news. Jeremy Bowen's package relied on footage he could voice over and one piece to camera, while Rupert Wingfield-Hayes managed to be in central Israel. But there was an absence of colour to BBC reporting, that could only be achieved by having reporters throughout the region.

So how can one channel fully and accurately report an event like that of yesterday? In the case of Israel - Palestine (and now Hamas), it probably can't. The Israel - Palestine conflict is so imbued with emotion that it is almost impossible to find anyone to comment on it impartially.

And even if one can, how can a three minute TV news package fill its audience in on 63 years of historical context?

I don't know yet what the BBC or CNN slugs were, but in case you were wondering, the Al Jazeera one was PRISONER SWAP DEAL.