Tom Gross: Role of the Journalist Is to Report Events, but Some Media Have Now Gone Beyond That
In an interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, British journalist Tom Gross, who specializes in the Middle East, emphasized that the role of journalists should be to convey the truth, but he added that complete impartiality and objectivity by media is almost impossible to achieve.
Gross has written extensively on human rights around the world from North Korea to Mauritania, and he has criticized the United Nations for not doing more to advance freedom. He started his career as a non-political journalist, writing about entertainment, art, and travel. However, his destiny was to dive into the world of political journalism.
In Jerusalem, he covered the Intifada, and over the ensuing years, he met with many international decision-makers who sought his advice due to his independent ideas and contacts within the world of diplomacy.
In an interview, we spoke about his career:
Q: Why did you choose political journalism despite the fact that you studied politics at Oxford?
A: Political journalism is in some ways just another type of politics. And there isn’t necessarily that much difference between working in politics and working in the political press, which can encourage or stimulate constructive dialogue.
Q: What’s the role of the political press?
A: That’s a controversial question these days. People want a fair, impartial press. But journalists are human and often find it difficult to be impartial or neutral. Everybody has his own interests and views, even if they are subconscious or unintentional. The role of a journalist is to inform people and let them know what happened. Though right now this isn’t always the case, and in our world, there is often more than one interpretation of events (whether accurate or not).
Q: You come from a family of journalists and your godmother was George Orwell’s widow who inspired the character, Julia, in his novel ‘1984’. How did this impact your professional life and your choices?
A: It seems that my destiny was to be a journalist. Everyone in my family was a journalist except they were literary or cultural journalists whereas I am primarily a political journalist. Ever since I was a child I have been interested in politics and human rights. Not just because my godmother gave me all of Orwell’s writings which I read. When I was a teenager, I went with my grandmother on a series of trips to Eastern Europe while it was still communist. This was something that opened my eyes to the reality and the dangers of extremist political ideology – poverty along with the oppression and denial of human rights.
Q: Tell us about your profession as a journalist.
A: Initially my journalism was mainly non-political. I conducted interviews with famous actors. I wrote articles about travel and art. I worked for fashion magazines including Harper’s Bazaar and Elle. After that, I worked as a correspondent in Prague and then Jerusalem. But after the tense years of the Intifada, the 9/11 attacks, and the Iraq War, I decided to stop doing fieldwork and news reporting and started writing analytical pieces and op-eds.
Q: Tell us about your experiences as a Jerusalem correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph and New York Daily News.
A: It was exhausting due to the time difference between New York, Jerusalem, and London. During the second intifada, I’d be getting 3 am phone calls from the NYC office. Plus due to all the killing and destruction, the situation was tense.
Q: At that time did you feel that your life was in danger?
A: Once or twice while bullets were flying all around me. But I wasn’t a war correspondent in the strict sense of the word.
Q: Through your work, you have met with a lot of world leaders and diplomatic figures. What was your role in these meetings?
A: I have met governmental figures (including those with important roles behind the scenes). And I also met with many human rights activists, reformers and opposition groups. I was able to give them some advice and suggestions in a number of areas including the Israeli-Palestinian issue, and the Kurdish-Turkish one, and there were others.
Q: Did you have a role in formulating any of the political decisions taken in some of these countries?
A: During my time as a political analyst I have been invited to attend private meetings with key decision-makers. I doubt I was directly responsible for any of their subsequent decisions but I may have contributed in some small ways.
Q: I heard you met Shimon Peres. Tell us about your meeting with him.
A: I met with him more than once but he didn't need any advice from me. Despite the fact he was well known, there are other perhaps more influential people I have met in various countries’ governments. I also had lunch with Benny Gantz shortly before he entered politics. One of his advisors suggested he meet me. He wanted to understand more about the implications of Brexit and other international issues. I think he may be different from Netanyahu if he assumes power.
Q: How does Boris Johnson the journalist compare to Boris Johnson the politician?
A: We were both foreign correspondents for the Telegraph at the same time, he in Brussels, myself in Prague, and we also met socially on occasions. And his first wife was a family friend. I don’t think that his personality has changed since he entered politics. Boris was a successful journalist and now he’s a successful politician. But it’s too early to tell how successful he will be in the years ahead.
Q: Have you ever considered quitting journalism and working in the political or diplomatic field?
A: I was once offered [by a cabinet minister] the chance to run for the British Parliament but I said no because I’m very independent and I didn’t want to be a member of any party. Plus I’m more interested in foreign affairs.
Q: What newspapers do you read every day?
A: I read lots of them. I’m interested in being exposed to a wide range of news sources and viewpoints. I read the Guardian online and the Times in print form when I can. I follow the US press and Middle Eastern news websites on a daily basis. I also read government agencies which at times can be mere propaganda such as Iran’s English language state news agency. I’m interested in knowing all the viewpoints. I don’t believe everything I read, of course.