A ROYAL MISHAP:Post-truth, Palestine, and the shifting sands of the media landscape
By Georgia Tindale
‘Never let the truth get in the way of a good story’
The 19th-century American writer, Mark Twain is typically attributed as the author of the above aphorism. Rather fittingly, as noted in a 2017 article by the New York Times, this quotation may well not have come from Twain at all and could be one of the many pithy truisms, aphorisms and witty comments which have been falsely attributed to the humorist in the century following his death. The question of what ‘truth’ means within the 2022 media landscape is an undeniably hot topic. With the ever-increasing prevalence of unreliable news sources online, (which can primarily be found online), alongside the continued usage of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter as increasingly popular vehicles for transmitting information, various allegations of election hacking and the use of bots to promote misinformation and influence elections by foreign powers, it can be harder than ever to distinguish fact from fiction. As a consequence, curtailing or even slowing the spread of misinformation in an age of instant reaction, tweeting and sharing can feel like a thankless and nigh impossible task.
Meeting Othman Al-Omeir
One man who has experienced what it is like to be at the thick end of misinformation on a deeply personal level is the Saudi-born and London based businessman, publisher, journalist and editor, Othman Al-Omeir. Now 71, Al-Omeir has a prestigious and wide-ranging journalistic career under his belt and still remains influential in high profile media and political circles today. Al-Omeir’s career highlights include becoming the youngest Saudi editor of a major daily newspaper, Al-Yum in 1980, founding the first Arabic independent online daily publication, Elaph, in 2001 – reported by Forbes in 2012 as the tenth most visited website in the Arab world – and being awarded both ‘Media Personality of 2006’ by the Arab Media Forum ‘for his contribution to the industry in the Arab world,’ as well as the ‘The New Media Future Prize’ by the Anna Lindh Foundation in 2009.
That said, however, Al-Omeir’s early career was not without its challenges. Speaking to him from his penthouse apartment, which contains a balcony overlooking the iconic Fleet Street, where he started his career 40 years ago and is appareled like a modern gallery, decorated with eye-catching paintings, rare books, manuscripts, vintage photographs and much more, Al-Omeir describes one significant incident which happened when he was a young correspondent at Al Jazeera in 1979. The incident took place after it had been reported that Al-Omeir would be included in a group of journalists accompanying HM Queen Elizabeth II during her 1979 visit to Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf, representing the first time that an Arab journalist had ever been invited to join the royal delegation. Following the announcement, the media began preparing to cover this historic occasion, with the British tabloid, The Daily Star taking the opportunity to publish its own unique take on Al-Omeir’s inclusion in the trip.
A BAFFLING ALLIANCE
Splashed across two columns on the newspaper’s front page, and with both a grainy headshot and a misspelling of both his surname and first name providing the icing and cherry on the cake respectively, The Daily Star published a story containing damning accusations against Al-Omeir, describing him as ‘An Arab with terrorist links’ and making claims that he was a ‘close friend of members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization.’
As Al-Omeir explains, “I woke up one day to find myself labelled a terrorist. Without any introductions ever having been made, I had suddenly become a fully-fledged member of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and a signed-up member of its ‘terrorist arm’, as it is referred to in Western media speak. “As I seemingly could not recall this for myself, I wanted to know for how many hours, how many times, and for how long I had met with the villains of that time, whether that was Abu Nidal, George Habash and Wadie Haddad. Had I had a clandestine meeting with someone from the Baader-Meinhof Group at a backstreet corner in Frankfurt, or carried a bomb that was too light to notice in my inside pocket? No matter how many times I rebooted my mind to try and recall this information, I failed to find the relevant files.”
And the evidence behind The Daily Star’s claims? It all basically boiled down to a meeting and a handshake with a PLO representative which was photographed. Notably, the PLO was still viewed with suspicion by some parties at the time, despite having enjoyed observer status at the United Nations since 1974.
As Al-Omeir highlights: “Al-Jazeera newspaper held an annual party to which it invited PLO’s London representative, Dr. Nabil Ramlawi. It also invited the Saudi ambassador to London, Sheikh Faisal Al-Hujailan. Also present were ambassadors of Arab and friendly states. Since meeting with the PLO’s representative is a sort of terrorism, according to some British mindsets, the handshake and the meeting revealed my ties to terrorism.”
Al-Omeir recalls Cathy Couzens, The Daily Star reporter, paying him a late visit in his Hilton Kuwait room during the tour, and asking him about the whole issue of handshaking a Palestinian in London, asking how he had managed to “join this tour”. At this point, Al-Omeir realized that she was just playing him to get information, so he referred her to his London based lawyer.
Sex, scandal and Arabs Even taking into the contexts of the uncertainty towards the PLO and the unprecedented inclusion of an Arab on the royal trip, the publication and tone of these accusations by The Daily Star can seem extraordinary when viewed from a 2022 perspective. There is another important context to factor in, however: the desire to make a splash by certain portions of the media at the time.
As Al-Omeir explains wryly, “An Arab journalist was joining the royal delegation for the first time. He comes from a country that tickles the imagination of Europeans. Certain newspapers at the time were interested in fanfare and suspense by any means, be it sex, Arabs, scandals and so on. In terms of yellow journalism, Europe tops us no matter how hard we, in the Arab media, try, and the process is very tempting.”
“In my case, The Daily Star tried to elbow in between other tabloids and take its place next to The Daily Express, The Daily Mirror and The Sun. And it had the ability to be at the forefront, especially when the subject was ‘Arab’. Arabs were attractive because they were seen as rich, sexually capable and sparked the imagination. In this case, however, it was a sensational story from a sensational paper – no other paper would touch it.”
The story fizzles out
Despite the best efforts from the Star, however, the fireworks which could have been launched from these accusations became a damp squib. “A member of the scandal club told the authorities in question about the accusation”, says Al-Omeir, “They described how ‘this Saudi journalist will sabotage the Queen’s trip because he could be a veteran terrorist and has ties with terrorist groups around the world’. The authorities did their job, looked into it, and concluded that the story was a complete joke.”
Indeed, when subjected to scrutiny, the article soon ran out of steam, largely as a result of the comparatively small, and therefore containable, media landscape at the time, which stands in contrast with today’s sprawling dissemination of stories across social media platforms and countless news websites. Journalists from the other major publications in the 1970s – the Daily Express, the Daily Mail, the Mirror and so on – were able to ascertain the veracity or otherwise of the story by speaking to Al-Omeir directly, and then neglected to run the story once they had established the facts (or lack of them).
A royal success
Following the dismissal of the story by all relevant parties, it became a source of humour for those attending the much-awaited Gulf trip. “In the delegation, it was a joke. Many peers asked me if I carried a pistol or a bomb. The tallest and biggest member of the delegation, Malt Fullerton Flirton from the US ABC, even bought a toy pistol from Kuwait City Market and presented it to me,” Al-Omeir recalls.
Norman Luck, The Daily Express reporter, knocked on his door the same evening Couzens visited him. Al-Omeir describes him as a “troublemaker just like his newspaper: he is lively and violent”. Luck stormed in, demanding of Al-Omeir: “Is it true that you have links with terrorists? Would you allow me to search your room?”, and they both roared with loud, unrestrained bursts of laughter.
As for the trip itself, it was a major positive milestone in UK-Gulf relations. Speaking through Buckingham Palace’s Press spokesperson at the time, Michael Shea, Her Majesty described to Al-Jazeera, how her visit to Saudi Arabia – which took place as part of the tour – represented a “new milestone in bilateral relations and close cooperation between the two countries.”
For his part, Dr David Owen, the British Foreign Secretary at the time who accompanied HM Queen Elizabeth II on her visit, told Al-Jazeera that Saudi-British ties were “excellent”, hailing the “great wisdom” with which Saudi Arabia’s domestic and foreign policies were being administered, and adding that his discussions in the Kingdom would focus on the further strengthening of these ties.
Although Al-Omeir unsurprisingly kept Mr Hard, his lawyer, closely informed about the whole sorry series of events, he was not able to pursue any legal action for ‘slander’ against The Daily Star due to their careful wording of the story. “The lawyers told me that they were very clever in their choice of words, such as accusing me of having terrorist ‘links’ which could not lead to legal action on my part as it is much more difficult to prove.”
Finally, however, it is clear that this unfortunate incident did not tarnish relations between HRH Queen Elizabeth II and Al-Omeir, who describes how Her Royal Highness made the Gulf trip a success, thanks, in part, to her “great knowledge” of the region. He describes how she seemed to enjoy the trip, which was a “very historical moment for the Gulf people.” Fast forward to 2022, and Al-Omeir has had the pleasure of meeting HRH Queen Elizabeth on several occasions since, describing her as “very kind”, thanks to her care in taking the time to speak personally to everyone present. And, with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek, Al-Omeir also has some advice to impart for readers keen to avoid the same situation occurring to them: “I warn you against shaking hands with any Palestinian. That means terrorism.”