Jordan 1974 part 1 – A journey into the unknown
In February 1974, UPITN took on a Middle East representative. He was a Jordanian in his early thirties. He was dapper with a high forehead, wavy dark hair and he always wore a reefer jacket and grey flannels. He always wore a collar and tie. He was Yasar Durra.
He was to transform the activities of my department, bringing in a continuous list of productions on behalf of our Arab clients. Life would never be the same again.
Much of 1974 was taken up with small productions for the likes of Caravans International and the car companies. We were ticking over, but still making a sizeable profit. I say “We” in fact within UPITN that meant “Me” – that’s another article in itself. All my assistance came from outside the company and the individuals, as well as the services, were chosen by me. I chose the laboratories, the crew, the editing services and the re-recording studio. Nothing inside UPITN was used in the overwhelming majority of the productions.
In July, I was called into Kenneth Coyte’s Office (company Vice-president). Yasar Durra was with him. It appeared that Jordan Television needed an adviser and I had been selected. I was to go to Jordan for a couple of weeks and give lectures to the staff. Curiously, my wife Janet was invited to accompany me. This went against Coyte’s practice of “no freebies” (that was for any other member of the staff other than himself), so there had to be a reason that he did not object to Janet coming with me.
Outside, Yasar told me that it was the Jordanians that insisted that my wife come with me and Coyte could not object.
It was the height of Summer and the Middle East was not the best place to be.
We were given tickets for an Alia flight to Amman. At Heathrow, there were intense searches going on, quite soon after the airliner hijackings. I was asked if I had a cigarette lighter. I said that I had and I was told to produce it and to make it work. If it had not worked, they would have taken it from me. I never understood this reasoning. We travelled the seven hour flight First Class.
At Amman airport, we were met by a chauffeur who took us to the Hilton Hotel and checked us in. We were advised that our entire hotel bill would be paid for by Jordan Television, all I had to do was sign the bills.
We had dinner and after went into the bar. I explained to the duty barman that I drank Whisky and soda and that Janet drank Gin and Tonic. We did not wish to have ice in our drinks (possibly made from local water), so I asked if he would put Soda and Tonic mixers in the fridge for us. He agreed. I was told around about this time that the local water might not be any less clean than our own at home, but it would have different bacteria that could upset us.
A few days later, I went down with food poisoning which, although quite uncomfortable, did not prevent me from going about my tasks.
We were visited the next morning by Mohamed Kamal, head of Jordan Television. He explained why they wanted me to talk to their staff.
Life in Jordan, at that time was one of tight Government control, suspicion, political prisoners and the probability of unrest among the Palestinians. There had already been an armed uprising some months earlier.
It seems that the news department, who were heavily censored, had misjudged their coverage of the State Visit of President Nixon. As he was driven from the Airport to the Palace, he was accompanied by King Hussein in an open limousine. There were a number of cameramen on the route and each obtained a big close up of the two heads of state. As a result of this, when the edited film was broadcast, it was impossible to see that there were large crowds lining the streets.
A diplomatic write up on Kamal, emanating from Washington in 1986, can be found on the following website:
Mohammed Kamal was a giant of a man, in more ways than one. It was said that he had fallen out of favour with King Hussein over an article he published that was not complimentary to the Jordanian regime. Obviously all was forgiven by the time he was made Head of Television.
He took me along to meet the head of television news who was named George, although I cannot recall his second name. He, like most production staff, was a Palestinian.
It was quite clear that they wanted me to give some guidance as to how to stop the same error taking place in their coverage of the King. This I had to do in the face of heavy censorship of the television news which was clearly an embarrassment and inconvenience to George. In imparting the information to me, no-one mentioned the blindingly obvious that there was too much of the King on the screen.
George would assign a film news story with no guidance from the censor; his staff would edit the same, without guidance from the censor, and, when they were ready to make up the reel of newsfilm for broadcast, the censor would come along to view the films and to demands cuts and alterations. This could be as close as twenty minutes from broadcast time. In some cases this meant that the alterations could not be made and the story had to be shelved.
As I was to find out some years later, this was a favourite pastime for some Jordanians. Usually, it was quite obvious that these alterations had no relationship to censorship and very often were quite unnecessary. This was enormously frustrating for George and his team.
The mindset of the whole production team running the television service was influenced by the fact that they must do something that would please the King and not displease any other faction in the Government. Of course, the Government, effectively, was the King, but many of his advisers were very powerful.
The overall result of this was that almost everything they produced on television was bland and quite uninteresting, so much so that large numbers of people were, where they could, watching Israeli, or Lebanese Television.
For Jordan, their Television Service was meant to be the main source of Government information, that is, propaganda and yet it was being held in disrepute by the overwhelming majority of the Jordanians and, probably, all of the Palestinians living in Jordan.
If this was not enough, there were other problems. It was common practice to offer a camera to almost any able bodied man and, without professional instruction, expect them to start shooting news stories. The result was predictable, much of their work was unusable. It appeared that George had no control over this process. Eventually, these cameramen would be able to produce usable material, but for reasons I never ascertained, they were inclined to quit the job after a year or so. If they were bright, they might be made up to film editor or even director.
The whole staff situation provided the worst of conditions in which to run a successful television service.
After I had studied this situation and had spoken to a number of the staff, hearing all their troubles and suggestions, I was ready to talk to them. Among those I spoke to was a man named Cairouse, a Lebanese and a highly skilled technician from Beirut who serviced the equipment of the television station. He worked from Sunday to Thursday then he would drive home to Beirut for the Arabic week-end.
He was able to tell me things about the service that others were either unaware of or had not got the nerve to tell me.
It was arranged that I would give a lecture to the assembled technical staff of the television station.
This I did after several days preparation. The lecture lasted for over two hours because, everything I said had to be translated for those who spoke no English. Not being bound by their censorship rules, I did not hesitate to tell them what was wrong with their approach to production, both of the news and documentary programmes.
The main point I had to make was that they were doing the King no favours by giving too much emphasis to his image against that of everything else. I gave the example of one of their news items I had seen. King Hussein went to see an Art Show at an Amman Gallery. We were shown shot after shot of H.M. and very little on the paintings.
I suggested that they should give no more than thirty per cent of shots of H.M. against seventy per cent on the paintings. This would allow the audience to feel that they were “sharing” the experience with the King.
In terms of censorship, I realised that in Jordan, it was regarded by them as being necessary. My suggestion was that the censors should become involved at an early stage instead of the minutes before transmission. I did not see why, upon hearing that a certain story was to be covered, that they gave their opinion in terms of what should and what should not be included in the coverage.
Likewise, the editors should be briefed as to what was acceptable and what was not. All this before the story was processed. It seemed reasonable to me.
Of course in two hours, I dealt with a large number of items including tuition for technicians, even if it meant sending people out of the country to study and practice.
Kamal asked me if I would write a substantial report for him to submit to his superiors, i.e. the King. I said that I would need to return to London to do this.
Click to read: Jordan 1974 part 2 – tales of Lawrence
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