JOHN TULLOH. My first foreign news assignment 50 years ago – the Six Day War.

May 26, 2017

This article was first published in Foreign Correspondents’ Association Australia and South Pacific website.  Next week, John Tulloh will be writing on the 50th anniversary of the Six Day War.

It was mid-afternoon Sydney time on a winter’s Monday 50 years ago that events were set in train which to this day remain a major running news story. On June 5, 1967, Israel staged a pre-emptive strike against Egypt to launch what became known as the Six-Day War. It ended with Israel more than trebling the land under its control stretching from the Golan Heights in Syria all the way to the Suez Canal.  

At the time, I was a relatively junior member of the London newsroom of Visnews, the world’s leading television news agency (now known as Reuters TV). I arrived at the office just as news of the attack was developing. It soon became apparent that this was not a one-off assault, but a major thrust against Egypt. I offered to fly to Israel to coordinate Visnews coverage. The bosses were first dubious about spending the money or to send such a relatively inexperienced person as me. When I offered to pay my own way and for the company to pay me back if the trip were worthwhile, Visnews agreed I should go, but at its cost.

I raced home, full of nervous excitement and anticipation at what was my first foreign tv news assignment. I then rushed to Heathrow to catch a flight to Cyprus, the nearest point to Israel. Air space in the war zone had been closed to commercial airlines. The other passengers included the young and ambitious BBC reporter, Martin Bell, who made a name for himself covering many conflicts over the next 30 years before turning his interests to politics. He proved an excellent working colleague on this and future assignments and became a good friend. Another was a new BBC radio producer called Michael Parkinson and we exchanged anecdotes about a mutual Australian friend.

The Israelis sent a Fokker Friendship propjet to collect us and other newsmen straining at the leash in Nicosia. In the wee morning hours, we skimmed low over the Mediterranean to avoid the few planes Egypt had left after its mauling by the Israelis and landed at Tel Aviv’s Lod airport right on dawn. While I had been to Egypt, Lebanon and Syria before on holiday, the Jewish state was an entirely new experience for me. Would I find immediate evidence of war? My first impression was not of conflict, but the overwhelming smell of fertiliser in the market gardens alongside the airport. The only war-like hint was a lot of activity by Israel air force transport planes, including bringing in reservists and ammunition from overseas.

I headed straight to the Dan Hotel overlooking the Mediterranean where a Dutch-based Visnews cameraman called Jac De Gier was staying, having been in Israel already for a week or two after Egypt blockaded the Strait of Tiran and thus the port of Eilat where Israel received its oil from Iran. I then headed for the media centre – Tel Aviv being the administrative capital of Israel then – only to be dropped by the taxi driver at another street of the same name. As I looked around, the air raid siren sounded and everyone scattered from the streets. I remained outside looking into the sunny sky until a man shouted at me and beckoned me to a building which had a bomb shelter. I was reluctant to miss any action, only a few minutes later for the all-clear to sound. Ah, such excitement already!

I eventually found the media centre or the Public Information Office (the PIO), as it was called. I was soon to discover its staff included reservists who were totally innocent about media matters. One was a gentle schoolteacher from Manchester who just happened to mention to me that a helicopter was going to the Sinai, where the Israelis had routed the Egyptian tanks. There was space for four media and did I have any idea how he should organise this? Leave it to me, I said. I immediately arranged to ensure the Visnews competition, specifically the news agency UPITN and CBS, would not be considered let alone informed. Two from BBC and NBC, both allied to Visnews, and a Danish print journalist, harmless as far as Visnews was concerned and astonished at being chosen, would join our cameraman. Even though he probably he probably had to endure fire and brimstone later for neglecting the aforementioned competition, the man from Manchester seemed ever so pleased, though not half as I was. This would never happen today as the material would be declared pool and available to everyone.

Press releases then were, thankfully, brief and generally free of the spin which often corrupts today’s version. For me, a memorable handout was an audio cassette which the Israelis said was a bugged phone conversation, albeit muffled, between President Nasser of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan demonstrating their complicity and thus being a pretext for Israel to attack the Jordanian-controlled West Bank and East Jerusalem (the Old City).

It is astounding to recall that the media were allowed to operate almost at will then as against the modern era when they are carefully controlled by a seasoned and cunning array of military and government minders. TV coverage depended on your wits and what you could gather yourself. Israel was so small that you could drive to almost any area of conflict and be back well before nightfall. You could go down the road to the Sinai in the wake of the fleeing Egyptians. De Gier did just that and came back with an abandoned, brand new Russian assault rifle. He later stripped it down, wrapped his corduroy trousers around it, placed it inside his tripod and smuggled it back to Holland where in exchange a grateful NATO suitably rewarded him.

I recall the pulsating excitement of moving into Jerusalem just after Israel had taken the eastern half from Jordan and driving straight past the old border post to the gates of the Western Wall. Here the Israeli military mastermind, General Moshe Dayan, suddenly appeared as Rabbi Shlomo Goren blew the shofar, a kind of ancient horn, to signify that the Wailing Wall was back in Jewish hands. An unknown sniper fired a bullet which whistled above the ancient ramparts. The next day I drove with De Gier into Galilee which reverberated with artillery fire as the Israelis pushed the Syrians off the Golan Heights. We took a rented Peugeot into the hills alongside the clanking Israeli tanks amid the summer heat, dust and shellfire. Tank crews gave us grapefruit to suck on as an antidote to the dust. Late in the day we stood in the vineyard of the Dan Kibbutz at the Golan foothills and I found myself transfixed as a Syrian jet fighter suddenly appeared from the east and seemed to be lining up on us. Then it suddenly veered away as two Israeli jets appeared seemingly from nowhere. Incidents like this underlined how much easier it was being on the winning side than colleagues in Cairo trying to persuade the Egyptians for access to their humiliation.

In those days, there was no instant television coverage as Israeli did not have a satellite facility yet. TV coverage depended on whatever cameramen could cover themselves and then have it flown to microwave points in Europe. Viewers in Australia would have to wait three or four days before pictures reached here. Graphic frontline and gunsight footage came from the Israel Defence Force’s own cameramen and aircraft. This proved a coup for Visnews as well thanks to the ingenuity of its Tel Aviv cameraman, Mimish Herbst. Prints of the different actions would be brought each afternoon in a large what looked like a bread basket to the media centre for the media to help themselves. But Herbst told me all this footage was printed – but not developed – each night at a particular suburban lab. If I went there after 9pm and knocked on the back door of the building, a sealed parcel of the undeveloped prints would be handed to me. Say nothing and ask no questions. A curfew was in force, but I managed to find my way by car with headlight slits through blacked-out streets to the airport where El Al had an office for small items of cargo. It meant having to bypass the censor’s office and its important stamp of approval which at the time was necessary to send film out of the country. But with victory all around them, it was not difficult to persuade the cargo staff that it was vital material which must be sent without delay. Amazingly, when you consider today’s ultra-security and secrecy, they or the control tower would tell you where freight planes in the dead of night were heading and you could make your choice of which one to ship the material. The result was that Visnews beat the competition and everyone else by up to 24 hours.

It was an exhilarating experience and all the more so because I was covering the side which wanted to maximise publicity of its successes. Mimish Herbst, a middle-aged Jew of Czech origin with a craggy face, proved a great mentor with his indefatigable zest for chasing stories and dealing with any obstacle to news-gathering. Nothing made him happier than being told by authority that he could not do something or go somewhere he wanted. He relished the challenge of ignoring this. He was a wonderful colleague to be with, ending each day with not a cold beer, as I had hoped, but chicken noodle soup as insisted by his beloved wife, Magda, at their flat at 22 Bloch St, Tel Aviv, an address I have never forgotten. She died of cancer a few years later and he of a broken heart not long afterwards.

Fifty years on, I still have what is an enduring image of coming over the brow of a hill from Tel Aviv early one afternoon and there across the valley was what I felt was a biblical scene…a sun-splashed row of small stone houses lining the ridge. It was Jerusalem. I returned five years later and was appalled to discover the same vista ruined by a forest of ugly tv aerials and several high-rise buildings. I thought Tiberias on the peaceful waters of Lake Galilee, fringed by palms, willows and eucalypts, was paradise in 1967 only to note how it had become a scruffy tourist resort five years on. And I do wish I could recall the name of the kibbutz which I visited briefly and which grew its own variety of rock melon, the tastiest I’ve ever had.

Today the consequences of 50 years ago still torment Israelis and Palestinians alike, not to forget the Syrians or the stream of peace emissaries who have come and gone, most of them frustrated and empty-handed. And now there is no such thing as media arrangements left to the media to organise, of course. When there is a major incident in Israel these days, such as a terrorist outrage, you can be sure multilingual Foreign Ministry spokespeople will be deployed to the scene as rapidly as the police and ambulances.

I visited the Middle East several times since then and grew to admire the Jews and Palestinians for who they are as peoples, their culture, their resilience and their attitude to life except for their reaction if you mentioned the word ‘compromise’. It never occurred to me that 30 years after the Six-Day War I would find myself dealing with regular complaints of bias from supporters of both sides of the ABC coverage of this festering and interminable conflict.

John Tulloh had a 40-year career in foreign news, including as the ABC’s Head of International Operations, and has an abiding interest in Middle East affairs.  

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