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.

Review: “Shifting Sands” anthology a hit and miss


In the preface to the new anthology Shifting Sands: Jewish Women Confront the Israeli Occupation, dissident Israeli journalist Amira Hass brings attention to “part of this ‘other’ Jewish tradition, the tradition of those who tell jokes and break down walls” (xi).

Published by Whole World Press and edited by Osie Gabriel Adelfang, Shifting Sands is a collection of essays, prose and one poem by Jewish activists and writers. The anthology opens with Linda Dittmar’s account of her Israeli upbringing in pre- and post-Nakba Palestine. She works with Zochrot, the Israeli organization documenting the Nakba — the 1948 catastrophe in which more than 750,000 Palestinians were expelled from their homeland by Zionist militias.

Dittmar’s story gives clues as to why she would want to get involved. Soon after 1948, the neighboring Palestinian villages were no longer full of the signs of life she was used to seeing as a child: the felaha (villager) women selling produce door-to-door, the lights shining from domestic windows. As a child she could not understand why or how this happened, and her essay is a revealing account of “the silence in which everyone around … [me] colluded” (8).

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Book review: Popular resistance, popular history


Intifada: a Palestinian uprising. National committees organizing popular resistance; boycotts and tax revolts against the occupier; mass demonstrations calling for an end to the occupation; a violent crackdown by the occupation forces — and an official Palestinian leadership caught off guard.

This may sound like a description of the first intifada of 1987-1991 but it’s also how the 1936-39 Palestinian revolt against British occupation operated. Mazin Qumsiyeh’s new book on the long history of Palestinian popular struggle, Popular Resistance in Palestine: a History of Hope and Empowerment is great for drawing out such parallels.

Qumsiyeh traces this vibrant history even further than the British Mandate, back to the days of Ottoman rule and uprisings against both the Turkish empire and the Egyptian occupation of the 1830s (36). Even readers familiar with the Great Revolt of the 1930s will find much to enlighten them here.

Qumsiyeh recounts the successes and failures, before the British occupation of Palestine in 1917, of Palestinian campaigns to resist dispossession of fellahin (peasant farmers) by Zionist land colonization organizations and militias (working in cooperation with the Ottoman state) (39-47).

A zoologist from Beit Sahour near Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, Qumsiyeh is also an activist, and takes a refreshingly practical approach to history. One of the book’s main strengths is that Qumsiyeh has a measured take on the issue of nonviolence verses violence. As he explains early on, he generally prefers the term “popular resistance” to “nonviolence” — mainly because that’s the term generally used in Palestine for this form of resistance (muqawama shabiya) (11).

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The last chance salon: why Ilan Pappe left Israel

Originally published by Ceasefire Magazine.

“Out of the Frame”
Ilan Pappe
Pluto Press, 2010

By Asa Winstanley

Of the small group of Israeli academics known as the “new historians” Ilan Pappe has been the most vocally critical of the founding ideology of Israel. Beginning in the late 1980s, professors such as Pappe, Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim examined newly-released Israeli archives and came to the conclusion that decades of Israeli history on the 1948 war was mostly propaganda, and that the Palestinian narrative was essentially correct.

The Palestinians did not “leave their homes” because of the orders of Arab governments as the standard Israeli line had had it. They were in fact driven out at gunpoint by Zionist militia groups such as Haganah, Irgun and Lehi (aka Stern Gang). Many of the 800,000 Palestinian refugees fled from fear of the many massacres the Zionists carried out, possibly the most notorious being at the village of Deir Yassin.

Thus these new historians documented the reality of the Palestinian Nakbah (Catastrophe) from Israel’s own internal sources. The basic facts no longer being under any serious dispute, Benny Morris eventually took another approach. In a now-infamous 2004 interview with Israeli broadsheet Ha’aretz, Morris clarified his commitment to Zionism, stating that yes, Israel had carried out ethnic cleansing, massacres (and even rapes) but that there are “circumstances in history that justify ethnic cleansing… A Jewish state would not have come into being without the uprooting of 700,000 Palestinians. Therefore it was necessary to uproot them.”

Although, like Morris, Pappe started out as a leftist Zionist, the full reality of the facts he had uncovered about the Nakbah in his research started a chain of event that led towards anti-Zionism. In Out of the Frame, Pappe narrates this story for the first time.

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Book review: Rich definition of “What it Means to be Palestinian”

Published by The Electronic Intifada.

Asa Winstanley, The Electronic Intifada, 2 February 2011

“This is what it means to be Palestinian, to care, because if you stop caring, then you let go. We cannot let go” (p. 110) explains Jerusalemite Samia Nasser Khoury in Dina Matar’s landmark new book, What it Means to be Palestinian. Matar is a lecturer in Arab media at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies. In researching the book, Matar conducted countless interviews across the Arab world with fellow Palestinians, recording their experiences.

Matar grounds this fascinating collection in a series of brilliant historical summaries that open each chapter. From the Great Arab Revolt against the British occupation of the late 1930s until the first Palestinian intifada, this is a rich narrative woven together by expert hands. In all the historical phases presented here, the ethnic cleansing of historic Palestine — what Palestinians call the 1948 Nakba — looms large: “Most of those I interviewed wanted to tell of personal experiences … not as past events, but as events that remain current because, to them, what happened in 1948 is not over” (p. 130).

Above all, the book aims to “ascribe agency to the Palestinians, not as helpless victims of forces beyond their control, as they have often been portrayed, but as actors at the center of critical phases of their modern history” (p. xii, emphasis in original). Indeed, Matar succeeds brilliantly in this aim. What comes through more than anything, are the many insights readers gain from the Palestinian narrators themselves.

Behind the success of this book are three main strengths: the well-balanced spectrum of Palestinian interviewees, Matar’s solid grasp of Palestinian history and the lively and interesting stories of the interviewees themselves. The footwork that went into Matar’s research is obvious, and has reaped great rewards. Matar traveled to Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine to interview Palestinians in refugee camps, villages, towns and cities.

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My appearance on Epilogue, Ken Livingstone’s book review show

Me on Press TV’s book review show “Epilogue”. Ken Livingstone leads a discussion between Dr Salman Sayyid & myself about Raja Shehadeh‘s book “Strangers in the House”.

Part 1: (parts 2 and 3 after the break)

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Book review: Humanity and warmth in “Letters from Palestine”

Written for and originally published on The Electronic Intifada.

Asa Winstanley, The Electronic Intifada, 15 December 2010

Western publishers have too often neglected the perspective of Palestinians and other Arabs when it comes to books on Israel and the Palestinians. Letters from Palestine, a new collection of Palestinian writing edited by Kenneth Ring and Ghassan Abdullah, is thus a welcome initiative. As writer Anna Baltzer says in the foreword: “Palestinians themselves are the experts on their own plight and liberation struggle, and their voices are the ones that most need to be heard.” It’s a simple but effective idea — allowing Palestinians to explain in their own words what their lives are like.

Ring explains in the introduction that his interest in the plight of the Palestinian people is relatively recent. The book takes the form of a selection of letters to Ring from Palestinian correspondents, many of whom he was put in touch with by his co-editor Ghassan Abdullah, who himself writes one of the best, and most humorous, chapters of the book. Most of the pieces were written especially for this volume, but others were originally sent out as emails or blog posts addressed to American friends. There are even two poems, including the transcendent and brilliant “Pick Me Up” by Hind Shoufani.

There is a decent selection of the Palestinian experience in all its variety represented in the book; all contributors are Palestinians from the diaspora, from the West Bank and from Gaza — plus one account of contemporary Palestinian life in Haifa. The international scope of the Palestinian reality is well conveyed. Unfortunately omitted for the most part, is the particular plight of refugees in the camps in Arab states (although there is a good selection of stories from West Bank and Gaza refugees). The subjective and personal nature of most of the pieces also means the work as a whole suffers a little from lack of context and detail at times.

The kind of subjects that constitute “everyday life” for Palestinians varies greatly, even within this selection. But some common themes do emerge: personal and collective identity; return and dispersal from the homeland; racism, freedom and family life are some of the most identifiable. The final part of the book brings things up-to-date with tales from the most recent major Israeli assault on the population of Gaza in winter 2008-09.

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Book review: understanding the economics of occupation

Originally published on Electronic Intifada.

Asa Winstanley, The Electronic Intifada, 1 November 2010

Economist Shir Hever has served as the main author behind a series of pamphlets entitled “The Economy of the Occupation” published by the Alternative Information Center in Jerusalem during the past five years. The pamphlets serve as the basis for Hever’s debut book, The Political Economy of the Occupation. Although the work as a whole is still a little disjointed at times, there are enough flashes of brilliance to make this new book more than worth your while.

Hever has an impressive grasp of the literature and has trawled through a slew of primary and secondary sources and raw data to synthesize a solid analysis of the economic factors behind the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Indeed, The Political Economy of the Occupation abounds with fascinating and original insights.

Hever outlines three distinct periods: the early occupation, the late occupation (or the years of resistance) and the privatized occupation (the last two periods overlapping). While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proposed a policy toward the Palestinians of “economic peace” during the 2009 elections, the origins of this idea can be found at the beginning of the occupation in 1967 — of course, it failed.

Hever recounts that soon after occupying the West Bank in June 1967, the military authorities implemented policies such as the “open bridge” to Jordan (an “enemy state” at the time) which allowed Palestinians to continue trading with the Hashemite Kingdom. But this was only one element in a carrot and stick approach. Palestinians were required to obtain permits from the military regime for “nearly any economic activity, from going to work inside Israel to setting up a shop.” Such permits were often revoked in cases where the Israel Security Agency, or Shin Bet, made accusations of “dissenting political activity” (p. 9).

Such economic suppression forced Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to cease working on independent farms, as they became unprofitable. Many then sought jobs within Israel or in the newly booming oil economies of the Gulf states.

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Book review: diary from pre-Nakba Palestine

Originally published at Electronic Intifada.

Asa Winstanley, The Electronic Intifada, 13 October 2010

In recent years, a growing number of Palestinian memoirs have been published in English. These have tended to be from activists and writers such as Ghada Karmi (author of the phenomenal In Search of Fatima) and Raja Shehadeh or by Palestine Liberation Organization officials such as Shafiq al-Hout (forthcoming in translation from Pluto Press). A Young Palestinian’s Diary 1941-1945: The Life of Sami ‘Amr is an interesting departure from this pattern, because the late Sami ‘Amr (although he was latterly a successful bureaucrat and businessman in Jordan) did not live a particularly noteworthy life. Furthermore, since the diary ends in 1945, the work lacks any kind of narrative or reflection of the catastrophic events of 1948 — the year that normally forms the backbone of most Palestinian memoirs.

In terms of the Zionist-Palestinian conflict, Sami’s diary is mostly apolitical, apart from one short entry in which he predicts that the Zionists could drive the Arabs out of Palestine. The diary is almost totally prosaic, sometimes boring. The star of the book, however is Kimberly Katz, who translated Sami’s diary from the handwritten Arabic manuscript. This professor of Middle East history also introduces the work with a 65-page historical contextualization (the diary itself is only 83 pages long) as well as embellishes the diary itself with copious explanatory footnotes on almost every page.

Sami’s work is not a memoir, but a diary recounting day-to-day events: his career aspirations, his family problems and, most of all, his preoccupation with finding the right woman to marry. Although Katz notes that Sami later hoped it would be published, it certainly doesn’t read as though it were ever intended for public viewing.

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The Receiving End of our Dreams: book review of “A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement”

Originally published on the New Left Project.

‘A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement’ by James Horrox (AK Press, 2009)

"Early members of ‘HaShomer’ at the beginning of the 20th Century"

In his seminal book Expulsion of the Palestinians, Palestinian scholar Nur Masalha writes of Israel Zangwill’s infamous slogan “a land without a people for a people without a land” that it was not intended as a literal demographic assessment: “[Zionists] did not mean that there were no people in Palestine, but that there were no people worth considering within the framework of the notions of European supremacy that then held sway” [1].

James Horrox’s book on anarchism in the kibbutz movement marginalises the Palestinian people in a similar way – they do not really exist in his narrative of how the Israeli collective settlements were established and then functioned. He is writing about Palestine, a country whose population was around 90% Arab (Christian and Muslim) when the first kibbutz was established in 1910, as if its primary importance was as a plaything for European experiments in group living [2].

The book is a strange attempt to blend Zionist mythology with anarchism. In the forward, Israeli anarchist Uri Gordon questions “the validity of applying anti-colonial hindsight to people that any progressive would otherwise consider economic migrants or refugees” (p. iv).

Gordon is, in part, referring to the Jewish refugees who fled the Russian Empire because of antisemitic pogroms in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Horrox similarly claims that “Palestine was rapidly becoming the destination of choice for Jewish refugees” with the rise of the Zionist Organisation (later renamed the World Zionist Organisation) and the pogroms of 1903-1906 (p. 14). In reality it was a relatively small minority of ideological Zionists who chose to go to Palestine. As Mike Marqusee points out in his extraordinary memoir, 1.7 million of the 2 million Russian Jewish refugees between 1881 and1921 in fact left for the USA [3]. Estimates suggest that from the mid-1850s to 1914, the number of Jews who fled Czarist Russia was about 2.5 million of whom about 50,000 (2%) emigrated to Palestine [4].

Continue reading The Receiving End of our Dreams: book review of “A Living Revolution: Anarchism in the Kibbutz Movement”

Book review: history lesson on the left’s Palestine blind spot

Originally published on Electronic Intifada.

Asa Winstanley, The Electronic Intifada, 30 July 2010

Mike Marqusee’s book If I am Not For Myself, newly available in paperback, is a fascinating, meandering sort of family memoir. From the subtitle “Journey of an Anti-Zionist Jew” one expects an autobiography. As it turns out, it mostly tells the story of Marqusee’s grandfather Edward V. Morand, based on an inherited suitcase full of his old personal letters, newspaper clippings and so forth.

Morand (or EVM as he is referred to throughout) was an American lawyer, sometimes columnist and Jewish activist. The fight against anti-Semitism on the streets of New York during the long build-up to the Second World War forms a large part of the narrative thrust of the book. Marqusee takes us through the Jewish and leftist milieus of the period, with extensive detours via extracts from his own life story, with analysis on religion, history and politics.

We meet Jewish prophets, heretics, thinkers, militants and activists: from Amos to Spinoza, the Haskalah and the Bund. They are a mixed bag, but their stories are rarely less than intriguing. Marqusee recalls a politically formative moment from his childhood, when an Israeli soldier, fresh from the 1967 occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, visits his Jewish weekend school. The exotic visitor’s dismissive attitude towards the Palestinians makes a deep impression on the 14-year-old Mike:

“… they were better off now, under Israeli rule. ‘You have to understand, these are ignorant people. They go to toilet in the street.’ Now something akin to this I had heard before. I had heard it from the white Southerners I had been taught to look down upon … So I raised my hand … It seemed to me that what our visitor had said was, well, racist” (p. 59).

Around the dinner table, Marqusee senior angrily dismisses his son’s reaction as “Jewish self-hatred.”

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Book review: Gideon Levy and the Western media elite

Originally published on Electronic Intifada.

Asa Winstanley, The Electronic Intifada, 26 July 2010

The small volume The Punishment of Gaza is a selection from Gideon Levy’s columns on Gaza in Israeli daily Haaretz since 2006. The dissident Israeli journalist reminds us that the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza has not been a matter of isolated wars of aggression, but an ongoing, long-term policy directed at the population of that small, refugee-packed fraction of Palestine.

Despite his ideological limits, Levy is a searing critic of Israeli brutality, as anyone who has read him will know. Right from the beginning, he named the last major Israeli massacre of Gaza “a war crime” — in his 27 December 2008 article “The Neighborhood Bully Strikes Again.” And he criticized it on moral grounds, not merely as the “mistake” or “blunder” that hypocritical Israeli pundits, masquerading as critics, would label it much later on.

At his best, Levy has a way with words that leads him to some brilliant indictments of Israel. He speaks of “the basic, twofold Israeli sentiment that has been with us forever: to commit any wrong, but to feel pure in our own eyes. To kill, demolish, starve, imprison and humiliate — and to still be right, not to mention righteous.” He describes how the 2008 feature film Waltz With Bashir, Ari Folman’s apologia for the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, “outraged” him on a second viewing: “Art has been recruited here for an operation of deceit” and, “this is not an antiwar film.” He also seems to implicitly support the movement to boycott Israel with statements such as “Israelis don’t pay any price for the injustice of the occupation, so the occupation will never end” and the piece “A Just Boycott.”

Yet reading Levy can be a frustrating experience. In a July 2006 piece about an attack on Gaza after the capture by Palestinian fighters of a soldier involved in shelling the Strip, Levy writes: “The legitimate basis for the [Israeli army’s] operation was stripped away the moment it began.” This is an odd and convoluted phrase. Why not just say it was illegitimate to begin with? But there is worse than that. In an article arguing for negotiations with Hamas, he describes the first Palestinian intifada as “unnecessary and cursed.” Palestinians would beg to differ — the popular uprising is widely regarded as a high point of legitimate and mostly unarmed resistance.

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