During Labour Party conference in Brighton last month, I spoke at the Resist! event as part of this panel with Peter Oborne and Greg Hadfield at the Rialto Theatre.
Published by The Electronic Intifada and protected by copyright. Republished with permission.
The Palestinian Authority imprisoned journalist Yousef al-Shayab Wednesday because of something he wrote, and because he insists on protecting his sources, say his colleagues. Al-Shayab hit back by announcing in court he would go on hunger strike.
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.
In an attempt to disguise the current Israeli military operations in Nablus as a response to the suicide bombing in Tel-Aviv, the Israeli media are either directly lying that the military entered Nablus “in response to the terror attack” (Jerusalem Post) or strongly implying the same by saying the army is there “in [the] wake of [the] Tel Aviv blast” (Ha’aretz).
In actual fact, house occupations and shootings of Palestinian children by Israeli soldiers in Nablus were underway well before the bombing. Furthermore, the military have been in and out of Nablus almost constantly over the last week. The Ha’aretz news timeline today directly contradicts the claim by the Jerusalem Post and even the strong implication that it was a “response” in the headline of their own story. At 12:34, the timeline refers to an AP wire report covering the military operations in Nablus: “Palestinian youth shot by Israeli troops during W. Bank protest” (note that there is no mention of the Tel-Aviv bombing in this story). The bombing does not appear in the Ha’aretz site’s timeline until over an hour after the Nablus story was filed: 13:43.
It is possible that the military operation intensified in Nablus after the Tel-Aviv bombing. But the Israeli media were ignoring the story about Israeli jeeps rolling into Nablus before it became possible for them to re-cast the incursion as a ‘response to terrorism’. A response to what is often characterised as ‘irrational, unprovoked, fanatical terrorism’. All this despite the fact that the Israeli army has been shelling civilian areas in Gaza for the past 12 days killing at least eighteen people, including at least two children with many more injured. We in the general public might be niave enough to think that terrorism is the deliberate targeting of civilians, regardless of their natonality, but it would seem that the major media defines Israeli bombing of Palestinians as “counter-terrorism” almost by definition.
Before the bombing in Tel-Aviv, the story about Nablus was all but ignored by the Israeli media. This currently remains the the policy of the western media, despite the fact that the army continues to occupy as many as five houses in Nablus using them as sniper posts, and have injured at least four Palestinian young people with live rounds and rubber-coated bullets.
We have been covering this story here in the ISM Media office since 10am this morning, and have watched the hypocrisy and subservience to establishment interests of the Israeli media explicitly illustrated before our own eyes. Apparently, Palestinian lives are only of use to the propaganda system. It could be argued, however, that this position is morally superior to the position of western media agencies such as the BBC on whose radar the attacks in Nablus do not even register.
In the weeks before the the 15th of February, the scale of world opposition to the impending invasion of Iraq started to become clear. Even the majority of the Western ruling elite were against it and proposed alternatives.
In the run up to the London demo, much of the liberal press derided the movement, although there was plenty of sort-of favourable coverage too. It was also predicted around this time, that there would be mass walkouts in workplaces around the country on the the event of war (in the event, if this did happen to any extent, the media made sure it did not spread by simply not reporting it). The government at one stage tried to ban the march to Hyde park, though it ultimately relented to pressure (as if it had much choice anyway). Meanwhile, the US continuted to make up pretty pictures in a vain attempt to convince the UN that it had a good reason to invade.
The final count for the day was up to 30 million around the world, including 2 million in the UK. Notable is the fact that the largest protests were seen in the countries whose governments supported the US most. As Chomsky pointed out, the scale of the anti-war movement was unprecedented. Never before have the populations of the imperialist nations agitated against one of its government’s wars before it even started.
Back in February 2003 there was quite a lot of coverage of the anti-war movement in the liberal press. One decent article was about the politicisation of young British Muslims in reaction to the increasingly agressive stance of western governments against Muslim countries since 9/11.
At the same time, there was a huge upsurge throughout the whole of the media in warnings about imminent terrorist attacks supposed to happen any minute now. Hmmm… Nothing to do with keeping us pliant and scaring us into not making a fuss about the war I suppose…
Here’s a reminder of the high level of censorship there was in media during the run up to the start of the occupation of Iraq. Back in February 2003, the pacifist folk band Seize the Day were disqualified from the BBC’s annual world music awards [free registration required] merely because they were first in the running and the BBC were afraid they would use their acceptance speech to promote an anti-war message.
And the ever so impartial BBC couldn’t have that, now, could they?
Apparently, Saddam Hussein was corrupt and tried to nick money using the UN oil-for-food programme. Who knew? More interesting is this Washington Times op-ed, which is just the height of hypocracy. Even more interesting is how the list of the accused includes anti-sanctions and anti-war activists, with no evidence whatsoever. Hmmm…
Last one from the archives for now. Did this after getting angry at the nonsense I woke up hearing on BBC Radio 1’s news bulletin back in 2004. Originally posted on Indymedia UK, where you can find some debate about it.
by Asa Winstanley
The national survey of Iraq conducted this February by Oxford Research International hit the news on the 16th of March. The poll of well over 2000 Iraqis was sponsored by the BBC in the UK, ABC in the US, ARD of Germany and the NHK in Japan. A news bulletin on the BBC’s Radio 1 claimed that “most Iraqi’s think their lives are better than before the war a year ago” according to the poll. In the US, the New York Times also covered the story, but gave it less prominence (1). They write that the poll finds “an upbeat sense among most that their lives were better than before the war” although “other questions about the invasion provoked more negative reactions”. The BBC news website headlined with the story (2), musing that the poll will “make good reading for US President George W Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair”. This is no doubt true when viewed through the ideological bias of the New York Times and the BBC. A cursory look beyond their ‘liberal objectivity’ at the actual facts of the survey suggests very different conclusions.
The poll question that the media have most focused on is also the most vague one: “compared to a year ago, I mean before the war in spring 2003 [sic], are things overall in your life [better or worse]?”. Although it is true that 35% replied with “somewhat better” to this question, 36% said it was “about the same” or “somewhat worse”. Considering that one of the worst dictators the world has seen in modern times was still ruler of Iraq a year ago, these should be astonishing figures to those (such as the BBC) who expect gratitude from Iraqis. It seems the majority of respondents think the occupation is at best only “somewhat better” or “about the same” as the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. Seen in this light the brave face that the liberal media have tried to put on this starts to melt away. A basic examination of the rest of the poll tells us even more about the imperialist ideology of Western media, considering the figures they have chosen not to discuss.
It should tell us something that Iraqi support for a war that has led to the toppling of such a tyrant is extremely shallow. The respondents were split, with 39% saying the invasion in March 2003 was wrong and 49% right. The reasons for this should be seriously considered by anyone in the West who cares about the conduct of their government. The western media often try to imply that Iraqis are somehow naturally inclined towards dictatorship. The BBC Online article continues: “Dan Plesch, a security expert at Birkbeck college in London said that the poll was good news for the leaders of countries who began the invasion a year ago this week. ‘This poll indicates that Iraqis strongly support a unified country with strong leadership’ ” (3) who will run the country with the same discipline as Saddam Hussein that “presentable young man” with an “engaging smile,” who we can “do business” with according to the British Embassy in Baghdad in 1969 (4). The New York Times article takes a similar view: “the largest share of respondents – 47 percent – said what their country needed most in 12 months was a ‘single, strong Iraqi leader’. Twenty-eight percent said an Iraqi democracy was most important, and 10 percent said the priority should be ‘a government made up mainly of religious leaders’ “. This result is for the question “What do you think Iraq needs in 12 months time? Five years time?”. The results of the part of the question that takes a five year perspective are reversed: 42% prioritised democracy, while 36% mentioned a strong leader. Note the selection of facts: the second aspect of the same question is unmentioned by the New York Times. The BBC omits the entire question. This only serves the imperialist ideology that views Iraqis as irresponsible Arabs who need to be led by enlightened Western powers. Unsurprisingly, Iraqis overwhelmingly disagree with this point of view. In fact the support for a broad, indigenous, representative democracy seen in the poll is striking when the actual figures are viewed without the ideologically tinted sunglasses of the Western media. In fact, 72% agreed with the statement that Iraq needed a democracy. Again; out of fourteen options of political configureation, the most popular was a “democracy” run by “democrats” (42%) with “an Islamic state and religious politicians” receiving only 11%.
The BBC too implies that Iraqis actually want to be dominated: “[the US government’s] favoured son Ahmed Chalabi had no support at all, while Saddam Hussein remains one of the six most popular politicians in the country”. True enough in relative terms, though it conveniently omits the simple truth that the respondents had no trust in any politicians: 58% said they trust none in the offered list or gave no answer. Saddam Hussein only scored 3.3% of the trust vote, with former CIA man Ahmed Chalabi accruing a mere 0.2 of a percent worth of trust.
The respondents overwhelming concern for the next 12 months is for security in the country (64%). When presented with a variety of parties from which to choose who should take care of securitry, the vast majority mention an Iraqi government and the people of Iraq, not the occupying powers. Thirty three percent say an Iraqi government while 17% reply “the people” (the two highest figures). Only 8% said the USA should take care of security and only 5% chose the “coalition forces” (even less chose the UN at 1%).
The BBC News Online article tries to present itself as an exploder of received truths claiming that the poll “suggests that the reporting of the daily attacks on the occupying forces in Iraq could be obscuring another picture”, one of Iraqis “adjusting to life with an occupying force” (5). Once again, the facts tell a different story. Most respondents (51%) still oppose the presence of the occupying forces, with 15% saying that they should leave the country immediately and 17% accepting armed attacks on “coalition” troops. Thirty percent even said that the immediate departure of coalition forces would be “very effective” as regards the security of the country, although 35% think that they should stay until an Iraqi government is in place.
Perhaps the most telling poll question answer of all lists several organisations and asks how much confidence respondents had in each. A quick look at the responses will tell you all you need to know about why neither the BBC nor the New York Times mention the question at all. An overwhelming 42% of respondents said they had “no confidence at all” in the US and UK occupying forces, with 24% saying “not very much” and only 25% expressing any sort confidence at all in the occupiers.
Whatever arrangements are made for self determination in Iraq, we should not delude ourselves that the current occupiers are trusted by the population, for reasons which by now should be too obvious to point out. Nor should we delude ourselves that the Western media are anything other than deeply indoctrinated in the service of great power.
(1) New York Times, 16 March 2004, “Ambivalence From Iraqis in Poll on War”,
http://www.nytimes.com/2004/03/16/international/middleeast/16SURV.html (accessed 16/3/2004)
(2) BBC News Online, 16 March 2004, “Survey finds hope in occupied Iraq”,
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3514504.stm (accessed 16/3/2004, 01:17 GMT version)
(4) Biographic sketch of Saddam Hussein by British Embassy Baghdad, November 15, 1969. Telegram from British Embassy Baghdad to Foreign and Commonwealth Office, “Saddam Hussein,” December 20, 1969. Public Record Office, London, FCO 17/871. Available online from the National Security Archive, George Washington University: http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB107/index.htm
(5) BBC, “Survey finds hope in occupied Iraq”, Op. cit.
Copyleft article. You are free to made verbatim copies.