Clueless in Gaza: Western media and the Arab-Israeli conflict

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.

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  1. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    The job of a journalist is to report pure unadulterated facts. They don’t have the luxury to show partisan. However, journalists and news papers/channels by the extension are becoming more and more biased in their reporting (some news channels are even accused of being party to propaganda). The reports concerning Israel is one such example. Many media houses are extremely biased while reporting issues related to Israel, in-fact, even going to the extent of not reporting some incidents. This trend doesn’t bode well for the credibility of media and is contradictory to the ethos of this profession. It won’t be an exaggeration to state that if things are not rectified, media might loose its role as the reformer of the society.

    • Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      En lisant le commentaire de Mujahid, je me suis demandée si dans le fond il était véritablement possible pour un journaliste de ne pas prendre parti. L’on ne peut réellement attendre d’un journaliste qu’il rapporte tous les faits, ni même tous les faits dont il est témoin; une sélection se fait forcément dans le choix du sujet et ensuite dans ce qui doit être mis sur papier. Ce choix en lui-même est déjà un parti pris. Par conséquent, ne faudrait-il par encourager, non pas un journalisme pur et complètement objectif (car celui-ci semble impossible), mais plus de journalisme pour que la pluralité des visions finissent par donner une image moins floue, comme l’effet obtenu par les points des tableaux de Seurat ou les pixels d’une photo…?

  2. Your comment is awaiting moderation.

    I am a right wing extremist in New York City and a Jewish nationalist, whatever that means (Zionist mostly but there are many Zionisms)

    I respond to the brief description of the reportage of the recent Gazan war, of disproportionate casualties, 2000 dead in Gaza 70 dead in israel, therefore israel is wrong?

    Not here, I explain why.

    Gazans went to war without bomb shelters Israelis had bomb shelters, these Gazan dead are on Gazan heads

    Gazans were warned of individually and specific bomb attacks and did not evacuate; we are told that Gazan police prevented such evacuations, preferring photo ops of dead Gazan kids, these dead are on Gazan heads

    There is no dispute that Gazan fighters militarized civilian areas, which is a war crime (as well as indiscriminate attacks on Israeli civilian areas, also a war crime) , thus making their own civilians human hostages, make their own human shields, thus these dead are on Gazan heads

    Gazans send 10,000 rockets and act surprised when they are attacked in response and with no war preparations- thus these dead are in Gazan heads

    Gazans, and the larger Arab community, lost sovereignty in 1917 when the British conquered this outpost of the Ottoman empire, although it had long had de facto autonomy, from the 19th century, – and thereby became part of the new British empire – but this ownership by conquest is not new, Islam and Araby came to ownership by conquest, from the Persians before, and the Romans before that, and from the Jews before that

    Right of Conquest

    From 1917 on, the area’s outcome was to be an international decision, and in 1947 the UN voted partition, the Arabs and the Gazan and the Pals (who were not yet Pals, those days ‘Palestinians’ were pre-Israel Jews ) all had a major piece of the partition, the Jews who soon became Israelis, had two preposterous Cantons or Bantustans, and the Arabs said No Way and promised war in 1947 and brought war, or continued it ongoing since the 1920s, and have not stopped one day since

    In real estate, remember ‘ 100% of nothing is nothing’ – not very good bargainers we see

    So these dead are on them

    So these dead are on them for not making peace, not accepting the UN vote – and as a result they are both war criminals and international outlaws and deserve no sympathy as these dead are all self-created hardships,

    Arabs are wretched but blessed of God that they fight Jews , were they to fight other Arabs the body count would be not 2,000, but in the 100,000s as we see in Syria and Iraq and where Green kills Green, video beheadings, women sexually enslaved, proudly so in social media , over who is Mohamed’s heir, or geography or tribalism, or just plain booty loot – think back to Iran v Iraq and 2m dead or more

    Pals should thank their many gods that they fight Jews not each other

    When we get really really mad at them we will airdrop them into Iraq or Syria or Yemen and they can embrace each other, 100,000s dead, or beg us to let them come back and fight Jews

    And you know, we will let them, because we are neither Arabs nor Muslims, we fight to defend ourselves and stop 10,000 rockets, not to impose one sharia over another as they fight each other

    I hope this helps

    As for Jews, and even Israelis, who take a position that the Gazan war was wrong, well Israel is a pluralistic society where dissent has a voice; in Araby were the Arab war of 10,000 rockets to be criticized, the result is execution, one more reason why our side is morally superior than the Arab side

    Gazan have taken 2,000 dead about 1/1000, 20,000 wounded about 1/100 and 100,000s internally displaced, 10% of structures destroyed

    How many more have to be war victims before they make peace? all of them? My side hopes not. There is enough room for all sides

    Back to bomb shelters, Gazan clearly know how to dig, they dig attack tunnels, so leaving their civilians exposed and vulnerable is even more egregious, national suicide as policy the suicide bomber as national symbol and cultural icon and core DNA value

    Ad they are back at it again, soonish

    “Lather rinse repeat” (an American expression for do the same thing over and over and get the same result)

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