Can Peace work? Can the media help? And what's it go to do with me anyway?
By Annabel McGoldrick
Peace Journalist

Can Peace work?

Well I must believe the answer is yes otherwise I would not have asked the question!

As the author of a book called, Peace Journalism, I know what an uphill struggle it is to persuade people to take the subject seriously - basically because most people don't really understand what peace is. They misunderstand peace as something that is passive, inactive, almost lying down to let people walk all over you, or waving flowers and saying, "peace man!"

We need to rehabilitate and reclaim the word peace - and each play our part in building it.

To me, peace is the cutting edge of change, it's exciting, creative, a totally new way of looking at things. Welcome to the dynamic field of conflict transformation - a transformation that takes place from the personal to the political - and begins inside the heart of each of us.

This is the thrust of my book Peace Journalism (2005), that journalists do not understand the fields of peace research and conflict analysis and so unwittingly fuel further violence.

Taking that a step further, perhaps politicians, too, fail to understand peace and how to get there; is this why 50 % of countries emerging from war fall back into violence?

"The short answer is that unless peace is established at the grassroots level, unless the tiresome, difficult, unglamorous work of re-building people's lives has been done, unless people are in the mood to live with their neighbours, no amount of coercion or shuttle diplomacy at the top will produce a lasting peace."*

The other point to make is - where will the creative ideas come from? Rarely from political leaders. Remember Einstein's comment? "No problem can be solved with the same consciousness that created it. We must learn to see the world anew." Think outside the box, in other words.

So, Principle One: lasting peace is built between people on the ground, not simply by politicians signing agreements.

You see this can throw up the most exciting - even 'sexy' - kinds of stories; stories of survivors meeting their killers and forgiving them; an English woman who meets the Irish man who blew up her father; Palestinian parents who have lost children working with Israeli parents who have lost children in the fighting; the brother of a suicide bomber who decides to work for peace at the grassroots of his community. Cutting-edge stories about enduring human courage.

Principle Two: there are always more than two parties to a conflict.

Once you recognise that there are always people at the grassroots building peace it means you move away from the idea that there are two big enemies fighting - the picture is no longer black versus white. After all even Hollywood had three parties, the good the bad and the ugly!

Can the media help?

Now think back over news stories about conflict that you have either read in the paper or watched on television and you realise what a misrepresentation of violence and conflict you receive.

First of all there are very seldom any more than two parties and we are very often led - or left - to conclude that there is no-one working for peace.

And that leads me to make two propositions:

First there is some connection been patterns of reporting and the influence of news on what happens next - on people's actions and motivations in a conflict. That brings the journalist an inescapable responsibility.

Secondly - the insights of conflict analysis offer journalists a toolbox they can use to take on that responsibility for themselves and perhaps even become better journalists in the process.

Now in the few minutes it's taken you to read this article you've learnt the first two important principles, that there are always more than two parties and there is always someone working for peace.

First let's consider the number of parties - or the shape of a conflict.

What happens if there are only two parties?
If it's 'us' against Saddam Hussein; or 'you're with us or you're with the terrorists'.
This is where war correspondents could be likened to sports correspondents.
What keeps us watching a sports game?
It is the compelling idea that one of these teams is destined to win and the other to lose. Defeat is unthinkable so we expect them to try harder to win.
The ultimate in that basic pattern is the tug of war - a metre gained by one requires the other to lose a metre. The classic zero-sum game.

So thinking of a conflict as a tug of war contains a built-in incentive to escalation - trying harder to avoid defeat.

If we are going to escalate a conflict we may need to justify it and justification often takes the form of claims that the other side is not merely our enemy but can be portrayed as an evil 'Other'. The more evil we can make him, the more justification we can find for stepping up our efforts to win.

So there is a big question for journalists as to whether they want to be responsible for escalating conflicts by taking on and amplifying war propaganda about terrorists or the axis of evil. By portraying a conflict as consisting of only two parties they are playing that game whether they like it or not.

How does it work - how does the journalism make a difference here?

Journalists often tell themselves they 'just report the facts' but today we live in a media-savvy world where we often find that facts are created in order to be reported.

Both George Bush and Tony Blair start talking about the dangers of a nuclear threat from Iran in order to prepare us for the prospect of violence. There's a story here about Iran arming Iraqi insurgents; another story there about Iran researching nuclear fuel or Iran's leader saying Israel must be wiped from the map. All miss out crucial elements necessary to understand them in context. A drip-drip of propaganda that creates an enemy, 'evil' or 'mad'.

George W Bush talked us into war against the 'axis of evil' to ensure what Karl Rove called a 'positive issue environment' for the Republican Party, to give America something to talk about besides an economy heading south and waves of corporate malfeasance washing around the pillars of the White House.

A media strategy can only be based on the media's previous behaviour. Sources for stories draw on the way previous stories have been reported, in devising and calibrating their media strategies and feeding them into their calculations, words and deeds. So the facts of tomorrow follow on to a certain extent from the reporting of today. In the book we call this the Feedback Loop.

It makes sense for journalists who intend to cover conflicts to ask themselves how their reporting may influence the motivations and behaviour of those involved. If they are, whether they like it or not, incentivising further facts to be created, what kind of facts are they - a violent response?

To avoid that, they can benefit from harnessing the insights of conflict analysis.
For example in the case of Israel and the Palestinians the significant numbers of individuals and groups on both sides who oppose the occupation, oppose the so called 'security fence' and are working instead to overcome suspicion and mistrust and forge partnerships for peace. This is what my film News from the Holy Land is all about, the schools project where Palestinian and Israeli children discuss their own part in the conflict; the Parent's Circle - Palestinians and Israelis who have lost children who work together to prevent more killing; Israeli refuseniks - the soldiers who refuse to do military service in the occupied territories, and the peace worker whose brother was a suicide bomber who decides to tread a different path.

These people are building peace from the ground, in contrast with for example the Oslo process - an ill-fated attempt to impose it from above. Its worth noting that while all the journalists covered the elite political machinations of Oslo most ignored the crucial fact that during the period covered by the Accords, Israeli settlements doubled in size. So far from looking through rose-tinted spectacles - peace journalism believes in openness and accuracy.

The grassroots peace actions are worth reporting if for no other reason because they represent the stirrings of change. To report them is, inescapably, to amplify them; but to ignore them is, equally inescapably, to collude in concealing and smothering them.

They offer a good way to break up this model of two great monoliths trapped in a tug of war. And, in terms of global public opinion, they are very much part of the mainstream; it is the Israeli government, and proponents of its illegal occupation of Palestinian territory, who are in the minority. We should hear about these grassroots peacemakers much more than we do.

The challenge is to help readers and audiences to understand how things are changing on the ground and how that will affect what happens next.

To do that we do need to acquire a new way of thinking.
Perhaps it is a bit like the new way of thinking we have all had to embrace to live and work in the age of information technology.

I haven't said anything about the commercialisation of news and the fact that some of the world's biggest companies are now in the media but, just as corporations were challenged about the environmental impact of their activities, so journalists now stand to be challenged about the impact of their activities in a world disfigured by violent conflicts.

What's it got to do with me anyway?

So this is where you come in. How do we get the media we want, that we need to heal the planet and not what the market currently supplies?

* Raise through praise
Write, telephone, and compliment the stories you like, those that contain elements of Peace Journalism, tell the news editor why you like it and that you'd like to see more.

* Complain
Speak out about what you don't like. Especially if you think it is contributing to escalating violence.

* Prizes
Can your group or club give a prize to the best example of Peace Journalism on your campus; in your village; town; city or country? Mediawatch Surabaya in Indonesia set up such an award. And the UN Association in Australia have been handing them out for over 20 years.

* Demonstrate
Big demonstrations really do get publicity and prove what a constituency for peace there is. The huge global demonstrations of February 2003 maybe did not prevent the invasion but they changed the political landscape forever. Plus they got onto every front page around the world, except in Japan, I am reliably informed.

* University syllabuses
Can you get Peace Journalism set as a course book in your University? Can you lobby for Peace Journalism to be set as a module in a range of courses from conflict and peace studies; journalism; communications; international relations; sociology; cultural studies; critical theory? Email me I have a paper detailing the Theoretical Underpinnings of Peace Journalism. This essay offers a critical mapping of the subject to help tutors of different disciplines see how Peace Journalism intersects with key concepts of their own subject area.

* Training courses
Organise for local journalists in your area to receive Peace Journalism training. This has already happened in places like Indonesia; the Philippines; Nepal; Israel & Palestine; Norway; USA; Hungary; Armenia and Georgia.

* Professional dialogues
Journalists can be a sensitive bunch and often benefit from a dialogue among themselves. It's amazing how many of them personally disagree with the kind of stories they are required to produce by their new organisations once you get them talking.

* Monitoring
What is needed is accurate information about how biased, misinformed and dangerous the media can be in terms of escalating violence. Email me for some Peace Journalism monitoring criteria then you have concrete evidence to challenge the media on. Sometimes it is enough to just count how many times the same military spokesman appears on a programme over a set period of time, when no other voice is heard.

* Indy Media
Independent media is proving to be a great challenge to the mainstream - I do not see it as an 'alternative'. Blogs have had a great impact in getting many journalists on their toes. I think indy media is especially important in places where the state controls the media.

* Become a source
Can you provide the information for journalists as an expert? Are you in contact with grassroots peace groups in a conflict zone? Journalists are always very keen to hear from people on the frontline and sometimes they just have not made the contacts yet, you could be really useful here.

* Research
Other times it's about being creative - designing a simple questionnaire about the prospects for war or what people might be prepared to do for peace. Journalists like concrete information. A public opinion survey demonstrating that 60% of Israelis are in favour of dismantling the settlements in order to create peace could provide a great story and one that's not often told.

So we all have to play our part in bringing about change. After all it was only a few decades ago that people thought environmentalism was a dirty word - now we have no doubts about global warming and the need for us each to be responsible about our impact on the environment. And now that's so 'sexy' that Hollywood has made the first major motion picture to be climate neutral. Syriana the political thriller about the oil industry has been made by offsetting 100% of carbon dioxide emissions generated by the production during filming!

Wow - in 20 years time perhaps we'll be glued to our i-pods watching real live peace building interventions in Africa, the Middle East and America even?

Good luck, remember in the words of Margaret Mead: "Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed it's the only things that ever has."

* Scilla Elworthy and Gabrielle Rifkind, Hearts and Minds: Human security approaches to political violence, Demos, London 2005 p33