Endemic pro-Israel bias in UK TV coverage, new book finds

Originally published by Electronic Intifada

Asa Winstanley | The Electronic Intifada | 25 June 2011

Glasgow University Media Group’s ambitious new study of British TV’s coverage of Israel and the Palestinians, More Bad News from Israel, is the second edition of 2004’s Bad News From Israel. Led by academics Greg Philo and Mike Berry, this work is precise, fair-minded and detailed. It constitutes irrefutable evidence of endemic pro-Israel bias.

Those of us regularly subjected to BBC and ITV news won’t exactly find this conclusion surprising but the importance of detailed documentary evidence like this book provides cannot be overstated.

The team had originally analyzed approximately 200 bulletins and questioned more than 800 persons. This new edition examines coverage from the past few years (369). Samples of coverage were taken from the main news bulletins on BBC and ITV (the most popular TV news programs in the UK). The authors identify key themes, such as coverage of casualties on “either side,” justifications for violence and “peace conferences” and international diplomacy. Audiences from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds were asked to complete a series of questionnaires and take part in focus groups. The vast majority reported that TV news was their primary source of information on Israel and the Palestinians.

The samples, taken from key moments in recent history, are well chosen. The focus of the initial study was coverage of the second Palestinian intifada’s outbreak in 2000 (in the first two weeks of which, Israel, by its own soldiers’ accounts, fired a million bullets at unarmed protesters). The next samples are taken from one year later (by which time Palestinian groups had started retaliatory bombings within Israel), and from coverage of the March and April 2002 Israeli re-invasions of the occupied West Bank.

The new chapters look at coverage of Israel’s 2008-09 winter assault on Gaza and the Israeli attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla a year ago (which was breaking news at the time the book was due to go to print).

Systematic preference for Israeli points of view

By fastidiously counting lines of transcript text, the authors identify a systematic preference for Israeli points of view. Israeli speakers were given twice as much space as Palestinians during the first few weeks of the intifada (215). Israeli casualties were disproportionately reported, accounting for approximately a third of the coverage, despite the actual ratio of 13 Palestinian deaths to one Israeli at that stage (223). After the Palestinian retaliatory bombing campaign began, this phenomenon worsened: “from October to December 2001 we found that there was significantly more coverage of Israeli casualties than Palestinian” even though the reality was actually still the opposite (259-60).

The study’s most telling findings concern the dominant explanatory framework and the lack of background or historical context in coverage. Even when individual journalists manage to make implicit criticisms of Israeli actions, such as on the killing of civilians, Israeli rationales were always reported — or even adopted by journalists themselves. “The journalists do not always sound happy about the Israeli rationales” but they were still included and “there is no comparable inclusion or discussion of the reasons for Palestinian action” (254).

The authors give many examples of this, including an ITV report from March 2002 that described Israeli collective punishment destroying civilian infrastructure around Bethlehem as “the ongoing fight against terror.” But there are “no commentaries such as ‘the Israeli attacks have reinforced the determination of Palestinian fighters to defend their land against Israeli terror’ [and] … we do not hear of Palestinian attacks as sending ‘a tough message to Israelis to end military rule’” (265). Such statements are unimaginable on British TV.

“All bang bang stuff”

One BBC journalist was told by his editor he wasn’t interested in “explainers” since “it’s all bang bang stuff” (180-1). But the audience studies here reveal “a strong feeling in the [focus] groups that the news should explain origins and causes” (315). This is unsurprising, considering that audiences questioned here often did not even know what nationality “settlers” were, or that there was a military occupation of the West Bank (400-1).

The two key historical events missing from the narrative of TV news are the Nakba (Arabic for “catastrophe”), what Palestinians call the ethnic cleansing and dispossession of their homeland in 1947-48, and the military occupation that started in 1967 (333). One student in a focus group said: “I didn’t realize they [Palestinians] had actually been driven out” (292). As the authors put it: “these absences in public knowledge very closely parallel the absence of such information on the TV news” (294).

The new audience studies for this second edition looked at whether anything has changed since 2004. The answer for the most part seems to be no. Coverage of Palestinian casualties seems to have increased, but Israeli casualties are still over-represented proportionate to the level of Palestinian deaths (363). Overall, the “most striking feature” of the new samples was “the dominance of the Israeli perspective” (340).

Has the tide turned on perceptions of Palestine?

Many of us who follow Western perceptions of Palestine have gained optimism by detecting a slow but positive shift in public opinion in support of Palestinians over the last couple of years. Perhaps that is still true, but the new findings here give pause for thought. The framework of assumptions is still overwhelmingly influenced by the Israeli version of events. In other words, Palestinian actions are always assumed to lead to Israeli “responses.”

The original study revealed that the “Israeli response to Palestinian violence” formula was so all-pervasive that the infamous Israeli killing of Gaza schoolboy Muhammad al-Dura in the first days of the intifada was understood by many as as “response” to a killing of two Israeli soldiers in Ramallah — even though the latter event actually took place afterwards (305). The updated audience studies here suggest that this malign phenomenon has not changed.

Palestinian rockets from Gaza were still seen by many as the main reason for Palestinian civilian deaths: “Palestinians are seen as initiating the violence … [so] it follows that Israel is ‘retaliating’” (378). On the BBC during the sample period 27 December 2008 to 17 January 2009, Israel’s November 2008 violation of the ceasefire with Hamas was mentioned in only 4.25 lines of transcript, compared with 249 lines of text that emphasized the firing of Palestinian rockets into southern Israel (419).

The weakest part of the book is the chapter “Why does it happen?” which offers some tentative explanations for the problematic patterns in the studied coverage. The influence of the Israel lobby is over-emphasized here and there is little analysis of real shared values between the United States, the United Kingdom and Israel, such as imperialism, military hegemony, Orientalist assumptions and racism. There are revealing statements by some in the focus groups that I would have liked to have seen pursued. One person thought Palestinians and Israelis fight “because that’s what their ancestors did and that’s what they know how to do” (374).

Despite this flaw, More Bad News from Israel is a valuable tool in understanding mass media coverage and popular opinion on Israel and the Palestinians. If journalists are to present the Palestinian perspective to people in the West, these are important issues to understand.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book, Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation, will be published by Pluto Press in October. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

Palestine is Still the Issue: On American Principles for Negotiating With Official Enemies

My fortnightly column published by Ceasefire.

By Asa Winstanley

This week Barack Obama confirmed something the US government had been moving towards for a long time: opening negotiations with the Taliban. “America will join initiatives that reconcile the Afghan people, including the Taliban,” Obama said in a speech Wednesday. This has been in the works for a while. On Channel 4 News Thursday, minor celebrity soldier Captain Doug Beattie said that British forces had been talking with the Taliban “on a local level in Helmand since 2007”.

The US military, along with satellites such as Britain, are being defeated by the Taliban. Nothing demonstrates this more clearly than the fact that, at exactly the same time negotiations were being made public for the first time last week, Taliban military activity was very much ongoing. Indeed, as reported by AP Saturday, quasi-puppet Afghan president Hamid Karzi announced to the world the US was in talks with the Taliban “even as insurgents stormed a police station near the presidential palace, killing nine people.

And yet, we are dealing with the very same United States establishment that absolutely rules out any talks with Hamas, despite the fact that the Islamic Resistance Movement forms the elected majority of the Palestinian Authority’s parliament; and despite the fact that Hamas has by now presented multiple offers to Israel of long term negotiated ceasefires.

In Gaza Hamas has even, at times, enforced truces with Israel, imposing them on smaller armed factions that had continued to fire rockets at Israeli positions – and even arresting Al-Aqsa Brigades fighters (members of the rival Fatah faction of Mahmoud Abbas, lately propped up by the US).

Ideologically, Hamas is a conservative movement which has much in common with Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (indeed they share historical roots). Reactionary as they have proven to be, both of these Arab movements are a world away from the Taliban.

The Taliban is far more reactionary and brutal and has zero democratic legitimacy. Hamas on the other hand is essentially a popular resistance movement – a Palestinian nationalist movement with Islamist tendencies.

It is true that the corruption of the Fatah-dominated PA was an important factor behind Hamas’s 2006 election victory, but I find this is usually over-emphasised. The movement’s reputation for resistance to Israeli occupation was the main reason. Since then, it has more and more moved away from armed resistance and tried to make itself appealing to the West.

Instead of negotiating with Hamas when they won the elections, the US initiated a proxy conflict that sparked a mini-civil war in Gaza, until Hamas fighters ejected what had been termed the “Palestinian contras”.

It is quite instructive that even while the Taliban continues to fight America it gets negotiations. Hamas stops fighting Israel (a US client state by any definition), reconciles with Fatah, increasingly moves towards the “two state solution” – and yet is still shunned by the US government. It follows then, that the stated pretexts of Empire – pious declamations about democracy, freedom and women’s rights – cannot possibly be the real reasons for shunning Hamas.

It looks very much like the Taliban have forced America to sit at the negotiating table. The US are essentially trying to save face, because they know they can’t stay in Afghanistan forever: the American people simply do not support it any more. By now the war is so unpopular that even some Republican presidential candidates have started to call for American troops to come home. The message this “softer” American strategy sends is, in effect: if you want America or its regional clients to back down, do NOT stop fighting.

Indeed, the only meaningful negotiations Israel has ever had with Hamas have been over an occupation soldier captured by Hamas in Gaza, in 2006, and still held prisoner. Should the long-discussed prisoner exchange for him eventually go ahead, it would be proof that armed resistance by liberation struggles can still achieve concrete gains despite the military odds.

However, the Hamas government’s “morality campaigns” in Gaza in recent years have led to a decline in its popularity. At the same time, Fatah’a “security coordination” with Israel, corruption and a succession of scandals have meant they too remain unpopular. Recent polls show low approval ratings for both, with a majority of Palestinians in the occupied territories favouring no political party at all.

The fledgling Arab revolutions have changed the rules of the game. The Palestinian people are unlikely to tolerate Hamas and Fatah’s mutual delay in implementing the April deal to form a unity government and prepare for new elections.

Although Fatah and Hamas probably think they have diffused popular Palestinian discontent by signing their unity deal, the way things are going the third Palestinian intifada, an increasingly plausible prospect, is highly likely to cast them aside for a better, more unified strategy, transcending party politics.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. His first book “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” will be published by Pluto Press in October. His Palestine is Still the Issue column appears in Ceasefire every other Saturday. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

Palestine is Still the Issue: Arab Revolutions and the Recognition of Israel

My fortnightly column published by Ceasefire.

By Asa Winstanley

Last week French so-called philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy was in the press again making extraordinary claims about Libya. He insisted that the rebel Transitional National Council (TNC) led by Mustafa Abd al-Jalil was looking to recognise Israel. The TNC intends to “maintain normal relations with other democratic countries, including Israel” Levy said. He even claimed to have delivered a message from the TNC conveying as much to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu himself.

This was immediately denied by a TNC representative in Benghazi. Algerian paper Echorouk said the TNC vice-chairman had denounced Levy’s allegation as “baseless” and insisted they had never asked Levy to convey such a message “to the Zionist entity leaders”, as the paper put it.

He also said the TNC would never recognise Israel and that “such groundless assertions were being propagated by the despotic Gaddafi regime and its henchmen” to tarnish “the image of the national transition council in the eyes of the fervent supporters of the legitimate Palestinian cause in the Arab world and elsewhere.”

This tells us a lot about the nature of the Zionist state and its crimes. The TNC was established to take control of the popular Libyan uprising against the despotic and sadistic Gaddafi regime which broke out in February. Abd al-Jalil himself is a former Gaddafi loyalist and minister. Since the the Libyan intifada was taken over by such elements, the TNC has been doing its best to show deference to its new funders in the EU, the US, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

This week I even saw Abd al-Jalil on TV making excuses for Qatar’s deportation of Iman al-Obeidi. Obeidi is the woman who was allegedly gang-raped by Gaddafi troops and famously appeared on TV screens around the world when she was dragged away by Gaddafi thugs after approaching international journalists at breakfast in a Tripoli hotel.

She was later able to flee to Tunisia, and then onto Qatar. She is now reportedly headed to the US after being deported by the Qatari regime (Channel 4 News has more on on recent developments in her story, alleging the TNC have treated her badly by “using” her in media appearances she was uncomfortable with). After Qatar deported her, Abd al-Jalil bizarrely told al-Jazeera that he “understood” Qatar’s position.

So the TNC is starting to look like a US-Saudi puppet regime along the lines of Iraq (or indeed the previous Gaddafi regime of the last decade). Despite that, it is highly unlikely to recognise Israel. The Libyan people would not allow it, even if the TNC wanted to.

One of the most striking images in the wave of Arab revolutions since the start of the year has been the presence of Palestinian flags on demonstrations throughout. From Tunis to Cairo to Benghazi, expressions of solidarity with the Palestinians have been there all along, represented in such slogans as “the people, demand, the liberation of Palestine” – a play off the most common chant of the revolutionaries: “the people, demand, the fall of the regime”.

The comparison with the puppet regime in Iraq is apt. The Levy episode reminds me of the time in 2008 when members of the US Congress were dismayed to discover that Iraq offered no flights to Israel, because of its lack of relations with the Zionist state.

They had been in Israel for the 60th anniversary celebrations of the 1947-48 ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians from Palestine (al-Nakba, The Catastrophe, in Arabic – what Israelis sadistically call “Independence Day”). They decided to visit Iraq for a day but found they had to return to occupied Palestine via Amman. Outraged that billions of dollars in US taxpayer’s cash, was still not enough to buy normalization with Israel, they put forward a congressional resolution demanding Iraq recognise Israel or have its funding cut. But apparently, the resolution was non-binding. I imagine it was never heard from again.

If the US can’t even force puppet regimes like Iraq to recognise Israel, it has no chance should anything resembling democratic states begin to emerge in revolutionary Tunisia and Egypt. Israel relies on kings and other dictators to force through agreements with Arab states against the wishes of their people. And even then there is only Jordan and Egypt, with the latter agreement increasingly being challenged by Egyptians on the streets calling for cancelation or at least amendment of the unequal peace treaty with Israel.

Israel is a state founded on ethnic cleansing and war crimes. Its maintenance relies on a military regime in the West Bank, racial and sectarian segregation policy and law throughout historic Palestine, periodic festivals of massacres against Palestinians and Arabs such as in Gaza, and wars of aggression against country after country. Such a colonial entity implanted in the heart of the Arab world, will never be recognised as “legitimate” by the Arab masses.

It has been quite amusing all year to see Western supporters of Israel in total denial about the nature of the Arab revolutions. They tell themselves tall tales about how people in the region supposedly only resent Israel because of state propaganda that was used to distract attention away from regime crimes to external enemies.

But the reality now and through history has been the opposite: the Palestinian and Arab masses have always had to push Arab regimes into taking any action, however limited, against Israeli war crimes and occupation. It has been the people of the region themselves who have ensured that Palestine is still the moral issue of our time.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. He is the co-editor of “Corporate Complicity in Israel’s Occupation” published by Pluto Press in October (with a foreword by Alice Walker).

His Palestine is Still the Issue column appears in Ceasefire every other Saturday. His website is www.winstanleys.org .

Updated: British prime minister steps down as JNF patron

A spokesperson for David Cameron on Friday refused to comment on the rationale behind the British prime minister’s decision to step down from his position as honorary patron of the Jewish National Fund (JNF). The move comes as pressure on the JNF steps up in Britain, and is being hailed by activists as a big victory in the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign.

Campaigners with activist group Stop the JNF had written to Cameron earlier in May calling on him to cut his links with the JNF. Registered as a charity in the UK, the JNF is involved in development of illegal settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the destruction of Palestinian Bedouin villages in the Naqab (Negev) inside Israel and stands accused of institutionally racist practices and complicity in ethnic cleansing since 1948.

Cameron’s press office told The Electronic Intifada that the decision had been made after a review of all the charities Cameron supported: “This is not a particularly recent decision,” said a spokesperson on Friday. In a short statement Thursday, the prime minister’s office had said the JNF was one of a “number of charities” Cameron stood down from following the review which was undertaken “[f]ollowing the formation of the Coalition Government last year.”

The statement did not specify any reason for the move. When asked if it was related to the JNF’s involvement with Israeli settlements in the West Bank (which the British government, in line with international law, considers illegal) the spokesperson said they were “not going to get into any further details.”

The spokesperson implied that Cameron is only involved in local causes: “The charities that he’s currently involved with will normally be charities in his [local parliamentary] constituency … or a couple of national campaigns. There aren’t really any that deal with specific issues in specific foreign countries,” he stated. He would not comment on why this had changed after Cameron had become prime minister.

The JNF’s UK office refused to comment on the matter. A report in The Jewish Chronicle on Thursday suggested “time constraints” were behind the move, although the email statement did not mention this (“Cameron leaves the JNF,” The Jewish Chronicle, 26 May 2011). On the Spectator website Monday, staunchly Zionist columnist Melanie Philips used her blog to describe the move as “the latest act of aggression against Israel by HMG [Her Majesty’s Government],” and suggested that the time constraints justification are “unconvincing” (“Cameron drinks the Kool-aid,” Spectator blogs, 30 May).

The spokesperson refused to name the other groups, saying he didn’t “think it would be very fair on the other charities that he stepped down from to name them.” While the statement claimed a “full list of all the charities and organizations the prime minister and Mrs. Cameron are associated with is published on the Cabinet Office website,” several searches for this list were unsuccessful. The spokesperson declined to provide The Electronic Intifada with a link to the list.

According to a list on the JNF’s UK website, the move leaves former Prime Minister Gordon Brown as the only serving member of parliament left as honorary patron to the group. Other figures on the list include staunch supporters of Israel such as former prime minister and current Quartet envoy Tony Blair and Israeli government figures such as Shimon Peres. An open letter signed by campaigners calling for current Labour leader Ed Milliand to “break from this tradition” of party leaders patronizing the JNF was printed by The Guardian in October. So far he has not followed Brown, Blair or Cameron (who became patron while opposition leader).

The JNF is a quasi-governmental organization that controls large swathes of state land in Israel. This land is reserved for the use of Jews only — to the detriment of Israel’s 1.5 million Palestinian citizens, and the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who were expelled from that land by Zionist militias in 1947-48.

The JNF has in recent years tried to re-brand itself as an environmentally-friendly charity, an effort critics have branded “greenwashing.” But pressure on the JNF mounted Saturday as Friends of the Earth (FoE) Scotland, at its annual general meeting, voted to endorse the Stop The JNF campaign. Chief Executive Stan Blackley said FoE Scotland was “pleased” to join the call for revocation of the JNF’s charitable status, according to a Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC) press release (“Friends of the Earth Scotland endorses call …,” Stop the JNF website, 28 May).

The JNF has been connected with ethnic cleansing and abuse of Palestinian rights on both sides of the green line — the internationally-recognized armistice line between Israel and the occupied West Bank.

Journalist Max Blumenthal reported that the fund recently “set its sights” on al-Araqib in the Naqab (or Negev) desert. The Bedouin village has been destroyed 21 times since July 2010 so that the JNF can “develop” the area as part of the government’s Judaization campaign (“On Land Day, the Jewish National Fund’s Racist Legacy is Exposed,” MaxBlumenthal.com, 30 March 2011). The JNF is also involved in funding projects in illegal West Bank colonies such as Sansana in the south Hebron hills.

According to Adalah, the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, as of 2007 the JNF owned a total of just over 2.5 million dunams of land (a dunam is the equivalent of 1,000 square meters), the majority of which was seized from Palestinian refugees.

In the course of a 2004 legal challenge by Adalah, the JNF confirmed in a response to the court its discriminatory policies against non-Jews: “The JNF is not the trustee of the general public in Israel. Its loyalty is given to the Jewish people in the Diaspora and in the state of Israel … The JNF… does not have a duty to practice equality towards all citizens of the state” (“Land Controlled by Jewish National Fund for Jews Only,” Adalah press release, 29 July 2007).

Stop the JNF, which emerged in May of last year, is a working coalition of different campaigning groups including the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network and the Palestinian BDS National Committee (BNC). The campaign will be holding a series of workshops in London on 4 June.

Asa Winstanley is a freelance journalist based in London who has lived in and reported from occupied Palestine. He is the editor of a book about the Russell Tribunal on Palestine coming out on Pluto Press later in 2011. His website is www.winstanleys.org.

Front page photo: Bedouins carrying signs reading “JNF robs Bedouin land” protest in front of the Jewish National Fund office in Jerusalem, 1 February 2011. (Anne Paq / ActiveStills)

I wrote this update to the story, and it appeared on the EI editors’ blog on the 9th of June:

Last month Asa Winstanley reported for The Electronic Intifada on how British Prime Minister David Cameron had stepped down as honorary Jewish National Fund patron. Asa, a journalist in London who blogs at winstanleys.org and who can be followed on Twitter, wrote up the following update and analysis after the prime minister’s spokespersons broke the silence on Cameron’s resignation:

When I called the Number 10 press office to get a comment from British Prime Minister David Cameron for my story for The Electronic Intifada on his resignation as honorary Jewish National Fund (JNF) patron last week, the two spokespersons I talked to were polite enough. But it was clear there was a decision not to comment on reasons.

A few days after my story was published, this line changed. The Jewish Chronicle (JC) last Thursday published a new story in which they had managed to coax out new details: “a spokesman confirmed that the reason [for his resignation] was JNF’s links to Israel”

However, Number 10 is also now saying it was about “having an organisation that was specifically focused around work in one specific country. We spoke to JNF to say this had nothing to do with a policy issue.” To make things even more clear: “This has absolutely nothing to do with any anti-Israel campaign … The Prime Minister’s clear views on Israel are on record.”

So what are we to make of this? Was this a victory for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement or not? Stop the JNF thinks it was, but this seems to be contradicted by the new rationale published in the JC Thursday, 2 June.

In this context, it’s important to clarify two points. Firstly, BDS is about concrete results to challenge Israeli apartheid policies such as those funded by the JNF. It’s not just a list of things to boycott so we can feel good about ourselves. Secondly, it is worth clarifying that The Jewish Chronicle, under its current editor, is staunchly pro-Zionist (remember, this was the paper that recently published a columnist who expressed “pleasure” at the murder of Vittorio Arrigoni, the Italian ISM activist based in Gaza).

On the first point: it is clear that, regardless of the reasons for Cameron’s resignation, the move is clearly a big setback for the JNF in UK. The “Israel: right or wrong” crowd are very much gnashing their teeth about it. As well as the rantings of Melanie “Mad Mel” Phillips that I reported on in my original article, in the new JC piece Zionist Federation chairman Harvey Rose said the decision sent a “terrible message” to Israel supporters in the UK. Former JNF President Gail Seal said that it was “very damaging … It undermines the work we are trying to do for Israel. It’s broken a chain since 1901 where we have always had a British prime minister as a patron. It’s very sad and I’m very upset about it.”

On the second point: As far as I can tell, the first place this story emerged was in the JC on 26 May, in a very short piece buried on the website (I have not had a chance to check if it was in the print edition or not): “Cameron leaves the JNF”.

It seems that these few short paragraphs were essentially based on Stop the JNF’s detective work: i.e. keeping an eye on the JNF UK website, and noticing that Cameron’s name had been quietly dropped. It seems that the JC was caught in a dilemma: they clearly did not want to draw attention to Stop the JNF’s claim of victory, but it was obviously too big to altogether ignore. When the story was picked up and reported on by The Electronic Intifada, Harriet Sherwood in the Guardian and others, it seems the JC decided to try and salvage the narrative.

I think it would be naive for Palestine activists to take David Cameron as a political ally. He has not broken from long-standing British policy in support of Israel (even if he does not seem to be an ideological Christian Zionist like Tony Blair). This is also the man who, while in opposition infamously said “If by Zionist you mean that the Jews have the right to a homeland in Israel and the right to a country then I am a Zionist”.

Rationale aside, in my opinion, this is clearly a material advance in the campaign against the JNF and its funding of apartheid and ethnic cleaning throughout historical Palestine.