John Lloyd explores the history and weakness of Western media coverage, and suggests one way it could be improved.
To write or broadcast on Israel is to invite controversy. A programme I presented in September 2014 for BBC Radio on the coverage of Israel by western media since the Second World War was praised by some, anathematised by others – the latter mostly identifying themselves as members of the Jewish diaspora.
Israeli and diaspora civil society is among the most robust and argumentative in the world: the BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, said on the programme that the complaints he received about his reporting were “99 per cent” from Jews. A rare complaint from the Palestinian side came from Yasser Arafat’s office, threatening legal action (which did not materialise). It’s unpleasant to be called an anti-Semite: one unidentified correspondent wrote that “John Lloyd so slanted this programme against not just Israel, but Jews in general, and so made excuses for Arab violence, that I consider it slips from anti-Zionism into anti-Seminitsm”. It’s more so because my son is happy to claim Jewishness (his mother is Jewish) and I am happy that he does. But the stakes in Israel, and in and for the diaspora, are high, so passionate intolerance is inevitable.
This is changing: Arab society, though most states still tightly control their media, is experiencing greater debate than before. In a recent column, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times quoted, from an August essay on the Lebanon Now website, the Lebanese Shiite writer Hanin Ghadar as writing that “Our media and education systems are liable for the monster we helped create. … We need to teach our children how to learn from our mistakes instead of how to master the art of denial. When our educators and journalists start to understand the significance of individual rights, and admit that we have failed to be citizens, then we can start hoping for freedom, even if it is achieved slowly.”
Views in the west on the coverage of Israel reflect the polemical nature of the debate. Radical critics of Israel – most of whom should not be disqualified as anti-semites, and some of whom are themselves Jewish, see the coverage as markedly, in some versions grossly, pro-Israeli. The minority of real anti-semites enjoy using the trope that the world’s media are controlled by Jews. Very broadly, publications of the democratic left tend to be critical in varying degrees of Israel; those of the democratic right, supportive.
In one case, that of the powerful Springer group in Germany – which produces the most popular German newspaper, Bild – support for Israel is part of the company’s mission statement, to which all journalists must sign up. The second of the Springer Group’s five editorial principles reads that its publications mission is “to promote the reconciliation of Jews and Germans and support the vital rights of the people of Israel”.
Less obvious is that this has been an inversion of the decades immediately after the foundation of the State of Israel. From the 1950s to the 1970s, leftists saw Israel as a socialist society, with the cooperatively run, strictly egalitarian kibbutzim at the centre of the economy and a socialist Labour party in power, while many publications of the right were more skeptical, or even hostile.
The real battleground, at least in the UK, is over broadcasting, by far the most popular news source: and within that, the dominant broadcaster, the publicly owned BBC. Its coverage of the armed conflict in Gaza in August and September 2014 was thus closely watched and bitterly criticized, especially within the diaspora. It’s important to understand some of the reasons why.
‘The medium is the message’: Marshall McLuhan’s most quoted remark is capable of different interpretations. I interpret it here as pointing up that television privileges spectacle and visual drama. It gives you, the viewer, the “pictures which tell the story” rather than – as is the case when you read a newspaper article or an essay – allowing the reader to form his or her own pictures based on the text.
The BBC coverage, like that of most other visual media, privileged the drama of the dead and wounded civilians in Gaza, especially children and women. Estimates by the UN put the Gazan dead at well over 2000. Since Israeli dead in the conflict (mostly soldiers of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF)) were less than 70, the asymmetry of casualties was evident.
Diaspora and Israeli complaints were largely set within the perception that Hamas is a dictatorial organization, which commands obedience by violence. Its shooting of around 20 young men said to be informants for the IDF has been well attested; less well documented has been the murder of anti-Hamas protestors, the suppression of dissent and the curfew imposed to keep people in their houses, even when these houses were advertised by the Israelis to be in the line of fire. My watching of the BBC news bulletins of the conflict tended to give some credibility to that view – but sporadic viewing isn’t proof of any kind.
The approach in my BBC programme was much influenced by a recent book, My Promised Land, by Ari Shavit, a commentator for the Israeli liberal daily Haaretz. Shavit poses two tragedies. One, incomparably the greater, was the Holocaust and the need of the surviving European Jews to find a defensible territory: the other was the displacement of 700,000 Palestinians by the incoming Jews over several years in the 1940s and 1950s, what the Palestinians call the naqba.
These two vast events lie at the base of the conflicting Israeli and Palestinian narratives of conflict: both demand of media coverage that their context be part of the story. It rarely is, except telegraphically, in broadcast news or newspaper reporting. The response of many journalists is to throw up their hands and say it’s impossible. I’m less convinced of that: I believe it is, and that it would satisfy at least part of the complaints – that part which reasonably asserts that un-anchored ‘bang-bang’ coverage distorts. It’s hard to insert an adequate representation of seventy years of history into daily news, but it’s journalists’ responsibility to keep trying.
John Lloyd is the Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford University, and a contributing editor to the Financial Times.