I have the feeling this Abu Sharati business is a storm in a teacup. I have no idea for certain whether he was a plant or not, and I suspect few of us who have been following the story do. A quick bit of research reveals he has made around 3 statements in the mainstream media over the past year (a few newswire quotes and one in the NYT): this is a pretty poor haul if he was intended as a plant. This low figure doesn’t mean he wasn’t a plant, it just means either he wasn’t very good at it, or he didn’t pursue it very actively.
I don’t particularly blame the journalists in question for having quoted this person – as I say, I don’t know if he is genuine or not – but I can also appreciate the reasons that he was quoted. I’m sure many other journalists would have done the same in the same situation, particularly in Darfur where every journalist is a parachute journalist and must rely up to a point on contacts given to them, and not on relationships established over long periods of time, as is the case in many other places.
Nothing seems to have happened here that hasn’t been seen in the media industry very frequently. Sources have always been placed (in an active sense) in the media (and some journalists acquiesce to it knowingly, of course) and the job of the journalist can be quite hard in according relative importance and degree of ‘representativeness’. Additionally, nor will you ever get agreement amongst consumers on the journalist’s choice of source. Some people will have fully empathised with what Abu Sharati said, and felt he was a legitimate source.
Seasoned readers of newspapers can pick an official statement a mile off. In any conflict, most of us know what a spokesman from one side or the other is going to more or less say, and so it is the case with Abu Sharati. In fact, many journalists – usually the more cynical kind – often don’t bother to attend official press briefings for this very reason. It is unlikely that anything new or interesting will be added to the general picture that already exists.
In the Vietnam War, these briefings were referred to as the Five O’clock Follies, and one particular Vietnamese attaché from the South Vietnamese Army – which took its cue from the Americans, of course – became a cult hit among the press corps, because of his name: Am Rong.
The veteran British war correspondent, and later editor, Max Hastings, recalls in his memoirs a final bit of advice about dealing with officials given to him by his editor as he left for Vietnam on one of his first assignments: “they lie, they lie, they lie.” It is the job of the journalist, and also the reader, to figure out for themselves where the balance of evidence lies.
One thing that this episode reveals is that the reporting of Africa has not felt this kind of scrutiny before. If you compare this with the reporting of Israel / Palestine – where activists fight pitched battles over almost every word, and seasoned followers expect the journalism to be pretty grubby – the story of Abu Sharati pales into insignificance. There, you get more than 3 quotes from an unnamed ‘security source’, or named and fictitious source in a single day, let alone a year – with countless officials and representatives saying things that everyone expected them to, and little else besides.
To finish, Rob Crilly made a sensible point on his blog:
“He [Abu Sharati] was articulating a reasonable point of view, representing a strand of opinion that certainly exists, so does it matter exactly who he is?”