One Story, three Perspectives – The Dubai Assassination 2010 and the Media

The following essay uses  critical discourse analysis (CDA) as a qualitative method to examine differences between media producers and -platforms. I use the assassination of the Palestinian military leader Mahmoud al-Mabouh in January 2010 as an empirical example. The text provides an comparative  analysis of three different media outlets concerning their coverage  of the story. This might be of interest to people focusing on journalism and communication sciences.

“Who killed Mr. Al-Mabhouh?”

A Comparative Critical Discourse Analysis on the News Coverage of the Dubai Assassination 2010

1. Introduction

On 19th January 2010 Mahmoud al-Mahbouh, a Palestinian Hamas military commander, was killed in a hotel in Dubai. Evidence gathered during the investigation hint to the possibility that the assassins were members of the Mossad, the Israeli secret service. It later emerged that the alleged agents used stolen passports of residents from the UK, France, Germany and Israel. The findings of the investigations conducted by Dubai’s police department aroused a broad media coverage, especially in the United Arab Emirates, the UK and Israel. Until today, the issue remains ‘newsworthy’ and numerous articles, commentaries and reports have been published. Hence, it became the focus of different media discourses around the globe. The involved governments, organisations and individuals have very different perspectives on this incident. The same applies to the different news media producers, which observed and covered the issue as well as the subsequent developments. The controversial debates on this incident are transported and, to a certain extent, formed by the media.

A comparison of “hard news” (e.g. Tran Thi/Thomson 2008: 51) on the issue, produced by news media allocated in the involved cultural and political spheres, can reveal important differences in several dimensions: in the used “news language”, applied agendas, argumentations, sources and the ideological/political backgrounds; therefore, the media portrayals and implicit evaluations of the incident are subjects of analysis. Furthermore, the representation of the victim and the alleged assassins are crucial aspects as well; here, the construction of identity plays a considerable role. Distinctive techniques of news presentation on different media platforms are of particular interest, too, as for each channel varying content production processes apply. In sum, three forms of news media texts have been chosen for this analysis: Comparing a newspaper, an online article and a TV news clip; this choice of subjects allows to ascertain and highlight structural differences. The present analysis applies a form of critical discourse analysis (CDA, e.g. Richardson 2007) as a qualitative method to  approach selected media texts. Several basic theories of news text research are also part of the theoretical framework, most notably those on ideology, identity construction in media discourses (e.g. Hall 2000 & 2006), gatekeeping and agenda setting (e.g. McCombs/Shaw 1994 & 1999). However, the present paper only provides a limited, relatively cursorily analysis of the chosen topic in regards of its media coverage; it still highlights the most striking differences between communicators and formats in this extremely controversial political discourse.

2. Methodology and Sources

2.1  Methodology and Theoretical Background

To examine the selected media artefacts the critical discourse analysis (henceforth CDA) provides an appropriate methodological approach: this critical in-depth reading of the source material allows to draw conclusions on the different “news languages”, argumentations and priorities of the texts; it thus opens the way to examine and identify differences and certain tendencies. Especially social and discursive practices (Richardson 2007: 178 et seq.; Scollon 1998) play an important role in this respect, i.e. the relationship between the texts and their social, political, cultural and ideological context (Richardson 2007: 27). It is crucial to identify who produced a statement/description/depiction in a text and who the same communicator tries to address, and which position either of them takes towards the issue in focus. A critical analysis of the discursive structure also facilitates the comparison of different forms of media texts, as it puts its emphasis on the semantic level. Nevertheless, CDA has certain limits and more substantiated conclusions on the approached issue would require a broader empirical basis. Thus, all conclusions are somewhat limited to the few examples of this analysis. Epistemologically, the author applies a constructivist perspective, in which news media construct ‘realities’ which consequently have an affect on the recipient’s ‘world perception’. They “construct and express meanings” (Gillespie/Toynbee 2006: 2) or to put it in other words: by applying discursive techniques, they provide knowledge (e.g. Gillespie/Toynbee 2006: 122).

2.2 The Sources: Three Different Perspectives

The text sample includes an article from the British Guardian newspaper, an online article from the Israeli Jerusalem Post, and a news report broadcasted on Al-Jazeera. Each one represents a different perspective on the highly controversial issue. This choice of sources provides the basis for comparisons on at least two different levels: Firstly, it is possible to contrast different ideological and political agendas. Secondly, it allows to point out differences between media platforms in regards of the structure of their news products. The articles and the clip were all ‘published’ on the 17th of February and cover the ”identity theft” (The Guardian 17/02/2010) committed by the alleged “assassination squad”. Apart from the attack itself, especially this issue caused diplomatic disgruntlement between Israel and a range of European countries[1];  in the case of the UK it lead to serious tensions between high level representatives from both countries.

The Guardian is one of the oldest and most popular newspapers in the UK (http://www.guardian.co.uk/gnm-archive/2002/jun/06/1 23/03/2010). It reaches around 335000 readers and represents politically a centre-leftist position. It has constantly covered the events, often as a ‘top story’ and in detailed, long articles, providing background a lot of  information, similar to the BBC and many other British media producers. The usage of British passports by the alleged assassins and the subsequent diplomatic scandal between the UK and Israel made the incident a highly newsworthy issue to British news media. Hence, this news source becomes to a certain extent representative for one of the British positions in this specific media discourse. However, even though the Guardian is a widely read publication, it is only one among various perspectives within the UK’s media landscape. Other important print media such as the Times or popular tabloids like the Sun and the Daily Mirror may cover the same story quite differently. The same applies for the other two chosen news texts, too: they represent only one of the perspectives in their cultural space. Due to the limits of this paper, these differences cannot be further outlined. A more elaborate research project would have to pay more attention to this aspect.

The Jerusalem Post might not be the most widely read Israeli newspaper but still reaches a broad audience worldwide, especially in Israel, the U.S.A. and France (Britannica,http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/302951/ The-Jerusalem-Post 23/02/2010). Since its takeover by the Hollinger Group in 1989 it shifted its political preference from a leftist to a right-wing position, often expressing a “tougher line on issues such as security and the Palestinian territories” (BBC NEWS, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/ middle_east/4969714.stm 23/03/2010).  The publisher also provides a daily updated news website. The assassination of a Hamas leader such as Mabhouh is a highly newsworthy topic to an Israeli news source like the Jerusalem Post, due to reasons of proximity, relevance, ‘recency’ and the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.

Al-Jazeera English is a 24-hour news channel located in Qatar, which is accessible both on TV and the Internet. It is part of the bigger Al-Jazeera satellite television network which launched in 1996 and incorporates several special TV channels and news websites (DocStoc, http://www.docstoc.com/docs/6294775/Al_Jazeera 23/03/2010). Al-Jazeera reaches,  especially in the Arabic-speaking world, a large international audience. It regards itself  as a ‘counter balance’ to the hegemony of Western media networks (Al-Jazeera, http:// english.aljazeera.net/aboutus/2006/11 /200852518 5555444449.html 23/03/2010). Due to the very same reasons named above, the Dubai incident has special news value to an Arabic news producer; unsurprisingly,  Al-Jazeera provided constant coverage of the events as well.

3. Analysis of Media Texts

The comparison of the chosen media texts reveals several striking differences concerning their form, narratives, usage of sources, argumentations and (indirect) evaluations of the incident. The Dubai assassination, its media coverage, and the political implications must be examined against the background of the general conflict in the Middle East.

3.1 The Guardian (17/02/10, Newspaper article/Appendix1)

The article “Dubai killers stole identities of UK citizens: Real British nationals named among suspects deny role in Hamas murder“ was published on the front cover of the issue. This media text is a classic newspaper article, including a catchy headline, a pre-text, quotations, sources and some background information. It is structured into three parts: 1. Headline and introduction, which provide the most important information; 2. The main section that describes and explains the actual event as well as related developments, and it cites statements and sources; 3. Background information and explanation of  the broader context. Compared to the other texts, this is the longest one and contains the most information. In terms of agenda setting the issue was given top priority at the time. The misusage of UK passports and possible diplomatic tensions between the involved governments contributed significantly to the news value of the story. The article describes the operation as well as the including ‘identity theft’ rather negative, and implies that it actually is a full diplomatic scandal. It refers to various Arabic and European sources, which criticise the attack or hint to similar, past incidents (see appendix 1). Furthermore, the authors name Israel as the most likely originator of the attack. Analysing the description of the “hit squad” in this article, there seems to be virtually no doubt that the Israeli secret service is responsible for this attack[2]: The authors write about “which role Israel plays” and do not question if its government is involved at all. However, in the last sentence of the article a former Mossad agent is cited, who expresses his doubts on Israel’s involvement, but this point is not further elaborated or commented on: “A former Mossad official, Rami Yigal, told Israel Army radio the assassination‚ doesn’t look like an Israeli operation’“ (The Guardian 17/02/2010). On the contrary, this brief statement on the whole issue appears in the context of the article as if it was a flimsy denial. Furthermore, the attack is depicted as an “elaborately orchestrated plot“ and the Dubai police is quoted, describing the incident a “meticulously planned killing”. This portrayal further implies that the whole operation must be the work of a professional organisation that operates on this level in the region, which is most likely to be the Mossad. Past Israeli actions, using stolen passports, are listed as further evidence for this assertion, too.

Concerning the issue of ideology, the Guardian represents a Western European, centre-leftist perspective, which condemns – at least officially – such secret execution operations, especially when their citizens’ passports are misused. Hence, the article emphasises the unlawfulness of this incident. It also cites one of the victims, who expresses his anger and fear. This quotation fulfils several functions in this text: 1. Showing another important perspective in this discourse, 2. Highlighting the criminal character of the very incident (and consequently of the alleged assassins themselves), 3. Contributing to a more interesting, diversified narrative. Quantitatively, the text mentions the “the killing” and the “assassins” in considerable frequency (see appendix 1). Only a few bits of information are given about Mabhouh himself. In the first line, the authors refer to him rather neutral as a “Hamas official”. Though the article briefly hints to his involvement in the killing of two Israeli soldiers in 1989, the Palestinians representation remains cursorily: „Mabhouh was one of the founders of Hamas’s military wing and had been wanted by Israel for his role in the 1989 kidnapping and killing of two Israeli soldiers on leave. His participation was acknowledged by Hamas last month.“ (The Guardian, 17/02/2010). Despite this short contextualisation, Mabhouh’s representation appears restricted to the role of a victim in an unlawful attack. This aspect in particular differs strikingly with the depiction of the Hamas commander on JerusalemPost.com.

3.2 Jerusalem Post (17/02/10, Online article/Appendix2)

The online article’s headline is “Mildiner: I woke up a ‘murderer’”. It diverges significantly from the other two text-types, especially in comparison to the newspaper article, the other ‘written’ text in the sample. Generally, new media texts can potentially benefit from a range of technological advances: most notably interactivity, media convergence[3], and high speed distribution of information (Hall 2008: 216 et seq.). However, in terms of form and structure information products on news websites are still often shorter than their printed counter-parts and keep the level of coverage on an issue comparatively cursorily. This is mainly result of their economic nature, i.e. that they are mostly for free; viable ways of selling professional online news products are just emerging (e.g. Hall 2008: 219 et seq.). Though many publishers of print products constantly improve their online derivates, they still do not provide the same amount of information as in the newspapers. The specific value of print products is primarily constituted by the provision of more details and background information.

The article mainly focuses on Melvyn Mildiner, one of the victims, who provides his personal reaction to the issue. In contrast to the Guardian article, the Israeli author uses the term “alleged assassination” to refer to the event, and this only three times, while his British colleague names the “killers” and “the killing” at least twelve times (see appendix 1). By doing so, this text actually emphasises that it is not clear who really conducted the murder, yet. Though not directly justifying the assassination of Mabhouh, the article tries to dismantle his representation as a mere ‘victim’, too:

„In a video made two weeks before his death, and broadcast on Al-Jazeera earlier this month, Mabhouh said he kidnapped and murdered two IDF soldiers, Ilan Saadon and Avi Sasportas, in 1989. Mabhouh said he disguised himself as an Orthodox Jew during the terrorist attack. Israeli defense officials said Mabhouh was tasked with smuggling long-distance Iranian rockets into Gaza.“ ( http://www.j post.com/Home/Article.aspx?id=168901 12/03/10)

In opposition to the Guardian and Al-Jazeerah, the Jerusalem Post explicitly describes Mabhouh as the actual murderer of the two Israel soldiers. Gatekeeping is another interesting and important aspect: by providing further information about his activities against Israel and selecting this representation of Mabhouh, the author decides how his identity is shaped in this discourse. This inevitably affects the portrayal and interpretation of the whole incident: the assassins killed not a simple Palestinian politician but a combatant in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict who is potentially still dangerous. Consequently, even if the assassination might have been an unlawful act of violence, it could be interpreted as an understandable military action, at least from a right-wing Israeli perspective[4]. One could argue that this viewpoint i rooted in Israel’s direct involvement in the conflict with the Palestinians and organisation such as the Hamas, which declares itself an sworn enemy to the Jewish state. This aspect reflects the news producers right-wing position towards security issues and highlights that ‘gatekeeping’ is also determined by ideological and cultural factors (e.g. Tumber 1999: 74-79), aside from economical ones; it further highlights how identities are constructed and distributed by media.

3.3 Al-Jazeerah (17/02/10, TV Clip/Appendix3)

This news clip titled “Hamas Murder in Dubai: Police say Suspects Passports are Fake” was broadcasted on Al-Jazeera and focuses mainly on the reactions of the people whose “identities have been misused” (Al-Jazeera, http:// www.youtube.com/user/AlJazeeraEnglish#p/search/5/qnT174njNYM 23/03/2010). The clip seems to to provide an apparently ‘neutral’ audio-visual news report which informs briefly about a single issue. The given information is thereby reduced to a minimum, as the structure of this text-type prohibits excessive descriptions and explanations. Due to its short duration of only 1:58 minutes, including three statements, it can only provide basic background information. As this is a visual news medium, ascertaining the used pictures is pivotal to understand this text. The clip starts with takes of Israeli newspapers which headline the ‘identity theft’; pictures of the victims are shown and the captions are cited; CCTV footage, showing the alleged assassins is used, too. The three statements of the identity-theft’s victims are played in via voiceover while the filming shows pictures of the stolen IDs. This stylistic devices contributes to an authenticity effect to the news story. However, except for allegedly hard facts little more information is given. A clear ideological position is not detectable in this text, which could be a consequence of the news item’s structure[5]. However, though the producers try to use a prosaic language, there are some judgemental expressions: for instance, the voiceover explains that some of the victims fear that “something more sinister is going on” (see appendix 3), which implies a negative evaluation of the incident. While the Guardian’s and the Jerusalem Post’s text somehow contradict each other on the question of the Mossad’s involvement, the selected Al-Jazeera news item can be allocated in between both positions; it actually names both possibilities.

4. Conclusion

This very brief analytical glance at the Dubai assassination implies that a news media product is the result of complex  cognitive and discursive processes that are largely determined by a shifting conglomerate of economic, political, and social factors; in certain sense, news items could be described as dynamic constructions. In fact, a closer look on this particular media discourse shows that one actually has to deal with multiple discourses connected to each other: the diplomatic and judicial discourse between the UK (and other European states) and Israeli government, the cultural and political discourses (or rather tensions) between Israel and the Arabian world, and the discourse about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Discourses about secret service activities of the Mossad and historical developements play a major role, too. It also shows that the narrative of an issue, as well as the contained representation of individuals or collectives, also depends on very subjective factors, such as the cultural and/or political background; while the Guardian only cursorily hints to Mabhouh’s role as a Hamas military commander, the Jerusalem Post calls him de facto a murderer. As the Israeli government remained silent on the Dubai incident, it gave space for contradicting interpretations; thus, it played a key role in the course of the discourse(s) on the issue.

A more extensive research project may combine quantitative and qualitative methods[6] and use a bigger sample of articles for in-depth analyses. Approaching this media discourse in greater detail may also include further semantic and linguistic examinations of the selected news texts (e.g. Khalil 2000; Montgomery 2007; Dean et al. 1999: 162 et seq.).

5. List of References

Al-Jazeera, http://www.youtube.com/user/AlJazeeraEnglish#p/search/5/qnT174njNYM (13/02/10)

BBC Newshttp://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/4969714.stm (23/03/2010)

Britannica, http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/302951/The-Jerusalem-Post (23/03/2010)

Bruhn Jensen, Klaus (2002) ‘The Complementary of Qualitative and Quantitative Methodologies in Media and Communication Research’ in: Bruhn Jensen (ed.) (2002) A Handbook of Media and Communication Research. Qualitative and Quantitative Methodologies. London and New York:  Routledge.

Dailymail.com, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1251604/Hamas-assassination-Dubai-Mossad-killing-come-thriller-novel.html (23/02/2010)

Dean, David et al. (1999) Researching Communications. London: Hodder Arnold.

DocStoc, http://www.docstoc.com/docs/6294775/Al_Jazeera (23/03/2010)

Hall, Jim (2008) ‘Online Editions: Newspapers and the ‘New’ News’. In: Franklin,Bob (2008): Pulling Newspapers Apart. Analysing Print Journalism. New York: Routledge.

Hall, Stuart (2000) ‚Who needs identity’? in J. Evans / P. Redman eds. Identity: a Reader. London: Sage.

Hall, Stuart (2006) ‚The Whites of their Eyes’, in: A. Jawoski / N. Coupland, eds. The Discourse Reader. London: Routledge.

JerusalemPost.com, http://www.jpost.com/Home/Article.aspx?id=168901 (12/03/10)

Gillespie, Marie / Toynbee, Jason (eds.) (2006) Analysing Media Texts. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

Gulfnews.com, http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/crime/more-british-and-irish-passports-used-in-killing-1.587632 (23/02/2010)

The Khaleej Timeshttp://www.khaleejtimes.com/ DisplayArticleNew.asp? section=theuae&xfile=data/theuae/ 2010/february/ theuae_february504.xml (23/02/2010)

Khalil, Esnam N. (2000) Grounding in English and Arabic News Discourse. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Pub.

McCombs, Maxwell E. (1994) ‘New Influence on Our Pictures of the World’. In: Bryant/Zillmann (1994) Media Effects: Advances in Theory and Research. London: Routledge.

McCombs, Maxwell E. / Shaw, Donald L. (1999) ‘The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media’. In: Tumber, Howard (1999) News: A Reader. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Montgomery, Martin (2007) The Discourse of Broadcast News: A Linguistic Approach. Abingdon: Routledge.

Richardson, John E. (2007) Analysing Newspapers. An Approach From Critical Discourse Analysis. Hampshire and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Scollon, Ron (1998) Mediated discourse as social interaction :a study of news discourse. London: Longman.

The GuardianHamas Murder in Dubai: Police say Suspects Passports are Fake (17/02/2010)

Thomson, Elisabeth/Tran Thi Hong Van (2008) ‘The Nature of ‘Reporter Voice’ in a Vietnamese Hard News Story’. In: Thomson, Elizabeth A. /White, P.R.R. (2008) Communicating Conflict: Multilingual Case Studies of the News Media. London: Continuum.

Yonah, Tamar (2009) The Tamer Yonah Show: Who Dunnit? & Biblical Novels, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Radio/News.aspx/1970(21/02/2010)


[1] E.g. France, Germany and Ireland.[2] This evaluation of the incident is in other British new items observable, too: e.g. Dailymail.com, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1251604/Hamas-assassination-Dubai-Mossad-killing-come-thriller-novel.html 23/02/2010.

[3] E.g. being a print and video product simultaneously, embedding links etc.

[4] Several other Israeli news texts share this depiction of Mabhouh, e.g. Yonah, Tamar (2009) The Tamer Yonah Show: Who Dunnit? & Biblical Novels, http://www.israelnationalnews.com/Radio/ News.aspx/1970(21/02/2010)

[5] In other Arabian news products ideological tendencies are more obvious – which is again reasoned in the text’s structure. E.g. http://gulfnews.com/news/gulf/uae/crime/more-british-and-irish-passports-used-in-killing-1.587632 or The Khaleej Times, http://www.khaleejtimes.com/ DisplayArticleNew.asp? section=theuae&xfile=data/ th euae/ 2010/

february/ theuae_february504.xml (23/02/2010)

[6] On the complementary use of both method-types in media and communication studies see Bruhn Jensen 2000: 254 et seq.

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