Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Hasty or hero? Al-Zaidi bears his sole

The "shoe-thrower of Baghdad", as Muntazer al-Zaidi has now been dubbed by the Independent, has caused ripples of controvery the world over. The blogosphere went into over-drive with people posting the undeniabily amazing (if unintentionally farcical) video footage and people the world over have rejoiced at the sight of al-Zaidi's brave action. In a world of global communication, he has become an over-night hero for all those opposed to the allied occupation in Iraq.

So I was interested to see in yesterday's paper a comment from another Iraqi. Hamza Mahdi, a Baghdad shop keeper, was quoted saying: "I don't like Bush, but I don't agree with this action, it's not civilised. Journalists should use pen and paper to make their point, not their shoes". Is he right? Did al-Zaidi's action demonstrate the dangers of a journalist being too close to a story?

Obviously this "closeness" was through no fault of his own. Considering he has watched his country fall down around his ears, not to mention the fact he was kidnapped and badly beaten in 2007, one can hardly even begin to imagine, let alone blame him for the strength of his anger against those he feels are responisble. But it raises an important question about when emotion stops you doing your job. Have his actions aided understanding? I would suggest not. Although blogs and editorials have been almost unanimously in support of him, discussion has largely been of his daring action, not the motivation and stories behind it. The only thing I know for certain is that to throw shoes in an Arab country is not a good idea, despite the fact I can now do it for myself.

It reminded me of another example where a journalist's actions took away from the gravity of the situation. John Sweeney's outburst during a BBC Panormama investigation into the Church of Scientology has achieved almost legendary status. But can you remember what you actually learned from the programme about scientology? Thought not.

I am not for one moment taking away from the resentment al-Zaidi feels towards Bush. In my opinion it is understandable and justified. But I think it raises the very real problem journalists face when reporting on any difficult, complex and emotive situation to balance their own emotions with getting a story across, as Hamza Mahdi says, using a pen and paper. Or whatever the digital version of that is now. al-Zaidi's actions have wider inferences that go way beyond his shoe size.

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