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Tagged: / Posted: 20 August 2008

Email from Tom Naegels, Belgian journalist turned novelist and columnist:

I would like to thank you for your book. As a Belgian journalist, I can tell you much of
what you describe, goes for the Flemish press as well. There are notable
differences - our newspapers aren't as ruthless as the Daily Mail or any
of your tabloids; Belgian journalists usually don't rely on the illegal
methods you describe, certainly not on that scale; in Belgium, there never
wàs a 'good old time' when the noble trade of journalism was practiced,
since all of our media were politicized until 30 years ago - but still, in
all, the situation is the same. One of the reasons I quit working as a
journalist is that I was bored writing the same stories over and again.
(For instance: I ran a story, another newspaper waited a couple of months
before running the same story, our editor read it and said: "hey, we
should write something about this too!" And if I told him we had already
done it, he replied: "Our readers have long forgotten that, we can run it
again"... :-))

Your book also does an excellent job in describing the lack of credibility
in foreign reporting. Both Belgium and my home town Antwerp from time to
time attract crowds of foreign journalists, either to cover the impending
collapse of our country, or to cover the impending 'fall' of Antwerp to
the racist party Vlaams Blok, which has constantly been expected by
foreign journalists to win an absolute majority in our local elections for
almost 20 years now, and never has. In both cases, it is startling to see
how even monuments like The New York Times can produce complete nonsense.

And I'm not talking about "interpretations the Belgians don't like", I'm
talking about factual nonsense. The New York Times, for instance, told its
readers only two parties would matter in the last local elections: Vlaams
Blok, and a tiny party of far-left-radicals and Arabic nationalists, that
eventually won 1,5% of the vote. The same newspaper talked about the fears
of the Jewish community of growing Arabic hostility towards them, and
presented an "influential spokesperson" of that community: a
right-wing-radical who raves on a blog nobody ever reads. The fears were
real, but this was nòt the right man to voice them, especially not in an
influential paper like the NYT.

I myself was one of many who was interviewed by a journalist from The Mail
on Sunday - I forgot his name, I'm sorry, but he was writing about the
tensions between Arabs and Jews in Antwerp. It was right after Theo Van
Gogh was murdered in Amsterdam, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was receiving death
threats and in Antwerp, too, a female politician from Moroccan decent had
received one threatening phone call. Also, a Jewish man had been murdered
a couple of days before, nobody knew why or by whom. The journalist - who,
as he explained to me, had never visited Belgium before - was here to
describe how "the old world was trembling with fear as its naive ideal of
multiculturalism was crumbling." I did my best to put that into
perspective: we did not know who had killed the Jewish man, there hadn't
been many incidents of this kind, and it was highly exaggerated to assume
that what was going on in Holland could just as easily happen in Belgium.
It turned out that I was right: the threatening phone call to the
politician was made by a disturbed man who, luckily, never had any serious
plans to harm her; the murder of the Jewish man was never solved, and there
still is no evidence to suggest that he was killed for antisemitic reasons.

In short: his impression that we were a country trembling with fear, was
wrong. And everybody told him so. And it infuriated him. "Why can't you
see what is happening to you?!" he said. "Why doesn't anyone want to admit
it?!" Because it isn't true, I told him. There are more race-related
hate-crimes happening in London alone than in the whole of Belgium!
When I eventually read his report, I saw that he had chosen to stick to
his own agenda. He painted a very gloomy portrait of Belgium, calling it a
"strange, dark, haunted part of Europe", which made me frown a bit. He told
his readers that the Belgians were in the grip of "raw panic". The confused
man who had made the threatening phone call was described as "a fanatical
muslim, converted to the most fanatical breed of Islam" - which he clearly
was not. He hadn't been able to find Jews who were willing confirm that the
murder was probably an antisemitic one, so he wrote that they were "too
afraid" to do so. And when talking about previous riots, three years
earlier, he tells us only Jewish stores had been targeted, "in a shocking
echo of the infamous Kristallnacht". Again, this is untrue: those riots
happened in an area where there are no Jewish stores, the six (!)
shopwindows that were destroyed, all belonged to Belgian, non-Jewish
shopkeepers.

For someone who visited had Belgium for the first time, and only stayed
for three days, I thought his choice of words was a bit on the dramatic
side. And he surely felt véry free to interpret what his interviewees -
all born and bred in Belgium - had told him. Until this day, I couldn't
help feeling confused about the article: why would this man do such a
thing? He talked to me for over three hours. I explained a lot of things
in detail. A lot of people did so. Why did he deliberately choose to
ignore it and make up his own story?

Now I've read your book, I understand better.

 

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