The story TV news won’t tell
For 10 years Tim Llewellyn was the BBC’s Middle East correspondent. In this passionately argued polemic he accuses British broadcasters, including his former employer, of systematic bias in covering the Arab-Israeli conflict, giving undue prominence to the views of Jerusalem while disregarding the roots of the crisis
Sunday June 20, 2004
Since the Palestinians began their armed uprising against Israel’s military occupation three years and eight months ago, British television and radio’s reporting of it has been, in the main, dishonest – in concept, approach and execution.
In my judgment as a journalist and Middle East specialist, the broadcasters’ language favours the occupying soldiers over the occupied Arabs, depicting the latter, essentially, as alien tribes threatening the survival of Israel, rather than vice versa. The struggle between Israel and the Palestinians is shown, most especially on mainstream bulletins, as a battle between two ‘forces’, possessed equally of right and wrong and responsibility. It is the tyranny of spurious equivalence.
That 37 years of military occupation, the violation of the Palestinians’ human, political and civil rights and the continuing theft of their land might have triggered this crisis is a concept either lost or underplayed. Nor are we told much about how Israel was created, the epochal dilemma of the refugees, the roots of the disaster.
Legions of critics have formed similar views and put them to the BBC and ITN, to no avail. In my case, the BBC, who employed me for many years in the Middle East, was no doubt able to categorise me as a veteran journalist who had spent too long in the region, though executives are always polite and prompt in their replies. Even making such criticisms carried the risk of my being labelled parti pris. (BBC producers are instructed not to mention that I was a BBC Middle East correspondent on air, in case my views might be associated with the BBC.)
Now comes hard evidence to support these views, gathered by Greg Philo and his Glasgow University Media Group, who have monitored and analysed four separate periods of BBC and ITN coverage between late 2000 and the spring of 2002. Bad News From Israel makes the scientifically based case that the main news and current affairs programmes – with the rare exception, usually on Channel 4 – are failing to tell us the real story and the reasons behind it. They use a distorted lens.
The result is that the Israelis have identity, existence, a story the viewer understands. The Palestinians are anonymous, alien, their personalities and their views buried under their burden of plight and the vernacular of ‘terror’.
The Israeli view, the study finds, dominates the coverage. There is far more coverage of Israeli deaths than Palestinian, even though far more Palestinians have died, and they have the evidence that unerringly shows it. Israeli violence is tempered not only by the weight of coverage but by the very language used to describe incidents.
One example is a template for hundreds: when Israeli police killed 13 Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin in October 2000, inside Israel, soon after the armed uprising in the occupied territories began, BBC and ITN coverage was a fifth of that given to the Palestinians who stormed a police station in Ramallah a day later and murdered two captured Israeli soldiers. These Palestinians were ‘a frenzied [lynch] mob… baying for blood’. No such lurid prose was used to describe the Israeli killing of their own citizen Arabs.
In the Israeli reprisals that followed the Ramallah killings, ITV said the Israelis were ‘abandoning their restraint’. This was after two weeks in which Israeli forces had killed 100 Palestinians, most of them civilians.
Cause and effect, the Philo team finds, are misreported. Why does the ‘cycle of violence’ start, for example? In October 2002, the BBC repeatedly referred to the killing of the Israeli tourist minister as the reason for Israeli army reprisals against Palestinian towns and villages. It did not mention the fact that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had killed the minister in reprisal for the Israeli assassination of its leader.
As Philo shows, the cycle is always shown as Palestinian attack and Israeli reprisal. Broadcasters consistently fail to suggest that it might be the military occupation that engenders armed resistance, or that Israeli actions may be such as to provoke Palestinian violence. The study finds that the daily despairing and degrading consequences of living under military occupation are rarely reported.
And while there is constant reference to Israeli security and Israel’s right to exist, there is little mention of Palestinians’ security or their right to exist.
A former news agency bureau chief, based in Jerusalem, sums it up: ‘[British TV] cover the day-to-day action but not the human inequities, the essential imbalances of the occupation, the humiliations of the Palestinians.’ He also quotes a BBC journalist, who tells him TV centre does not want ‘explainers… it’s all bang-bang stuff’.
Almost as importantly, the Glasgow volume also shows the results of this coverage and how badly it serves the public who pays for it. The team interviewed many people, of different backgrounds, regions and ages (the study explains fully its focus group methods and practices), whose views of the conflict, as seen through TV, are closely analysed. Two examples: of groups of British students interviewed in 2001 and 2002 only about 10 per cent knew it was Israel that occupied Palestine – most believed the Palestinians were the settlers and it was they who occupied Israel. In 2002, only 35 per cent of the British students questioned knew that the Palestinians had suffered far greater casualties than the Israelis.
This ignorance among people who rely on TV for their information about the world is not surprising: Bad News reveals that between 28 September and 16 October 2000 BBC1 and ITN devoted 3,500 lines of text to the crisis in Israel/Palestine – 17 of which were devoted to the history of the conflict.
Since Philo and his team finished their analysis, little has changed. So far, criticism has been deflected. Mostly as a result of pro-Israeli pressure, a Middle East ombudsman has been appointed by the BBC, who will report by the end of the year; and organisations such as Reporting the World try professionally, by example and by discussion, to suggest how the TV companies might improve their coverage.
I am not confident of change. The reasons for this tentative, unbalanced attitude to the central Middle East story are powerful. BBC news management is by turns schmoozed and pestered by the Israeli embassy. The pressure by this hyperactive, skillful mission and by Israel’s many influential and well organised friends is unremitting and productive, especially now that accusations of anti-Semitism can be so wildly deployed.
The general BBC and ITN attitude is to bow to the strongest pressure. The Arabs have little clout in Britain, and their governments and supporters have much responsibility to bear for not presenting their side of the story and for abysmal public relations.
After Hutton, the BBC’s tendency to sniff the wind from Downing Street on such a sensitive foreign story, where the line is taken from Washington, has been intensified.
There is still an inbuilt cultural tendency in broadcasting newsrooms, easily exploited, to see the world in terms of ‘them’ and ‘us’, the carnage in an Israeli shopping mall still somehow more evocative and impressive in news terms than the bomb that devastates the shabby apartments in an Arab slum. The events of 11 September 2001 reinforced this endemic bias. It is easier to invoke Islamic extremism or al-Qaeda or ask why there is no democracy in Palestine than go to the awkward heart of the matter.
The TV companies’ reluctance to view the crisis, as they once did, from inside and across the Arab world as well as from Israel, and their failure to base a senior and credible team in the occupied territories, mean that the crisis is consistently viewed from the ambience of Israeli west Jerusalem. Here, it is easy for Israelis to shape the views of the western journalists who live among them, or, conversely, threaten those who step out of line.
Orla Guerin, the BBC’s fearless and candid Middle East correspondent, drew on herself not for the first time unwarranted Israeli wrath recently when she reported how the Israeli army had kept a Palestinian boy in a bomb belt waiting at his, and everyone else’s, peril while the camera crews showed up. She told viewers, ‘these are the pictures the Israelis wanted the world to see’. The Israelis did, of course, but they did not want such frank exposure of their cynicism.
Just before the invasion of Iraq last year, a BBC current affairs documentary (not mainstream news) exposed Israel’s unadmitted nuclear weapons programme, a rare if very late-evening example of the corporation risking Israel’s displeasure. The Israeli authorities threatened to expel the BBC’s Jerusalem bureau and boycotted its news teams, only lifting their strictures when BBC management appointed a monitor of all the corporation’s Middle East coverage. His findings will appear later this year, but there is no doubt he exists as a result of pressure from Israel and its powerful friends in Britain.
There is currently also froideur between the BBC and Israel’s government over an interview aired on 30 May with the nuclear weapons whistleblower, Mordechai Vanunu. A foreign ministry spokesman has accused the BBC of breaking Israeli law because Vanunu’s freedom depended on his having no contact with foreigners. Here, Israel may well have gone over the top.
Israel’s hysterical reactions to frank and critical reporting show the uselessness of British broadcasters’ trying to appease Israel by constraining and falsely ‘balancing’ coverage. Spin doctors and media bullies must be seen off whether they are in Westminster or west Jerusalem. Nervousness in London has caused tension between reporters on the ground and their managements as the news teams try to survive the trigger-happy Israeli army, a paranoid Israel government and their own masters’ tentativeness.
This thoughtful Glasgow study does offer some hope. It found that the images of this crisis, of tanks, jet fighters and helicopter gun-ships in lethal pursuit of terrified civilians, many of them women and children, have brought home to viewers that a grave injustice is being committed in Palestine. They are just not quite sure what it is. The words our broadcasters so often use to explain those images stand in the way of of them, as if to try to block them or ameliorate them, rather than tell of the horror they signify.
‘Bad News From Israel: television news and public understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict’, by Greg Philo and the Glasgow University Media Group, is published by Pluto Press (£10.99) on Tuesday.