Israel and the media

1 July 2002

If you got your news only from the television, you would have no idea of the roots of the Middle East conflict, or that the Palestinians are victims of an illegal military occupation.  
In May, the Glasgow University Media Group, distinguished for its pioneering media analysis, published a study of the reporting of the Israeli/ Palestinian conflict. It ought to be required reading in newsrooms and media schools. The research showed that the public's lack of understanding of the conflict and its origins was compounded by news reporting, especially on television.

Viewers, says the study, are rarely told that the Palestinians are victims of an illegal military occupation. The term "occupied territories" is almost never explained. Indeed, only 9 per cent of young people interviewed knew that the Israelis were the occupiers and the "settlers" were Israeli.

The selective use of language is important. The study found that words such as "murder", "atrocity", "lynching" and "savage, cold-blooded killing" were used only to describe Israeli deaths. "The extent to which some journalism assumes the Israeli perspective," wrote Professor Greg Philo, "can be seen if the statements are 'reversed' and presented as Palestinian actions. [We] did not find any [news] reports stating that 'The Palestinian attacks were in retaliation for the murder of those resisting the illegal Israeli occupation'."

Given that the central truth of the conflict is routinely obscured, none of this is surprising. News and current affairs programmes seldom, if ever, remind viewers that Israel was established largely by force on 78 per cent of historic Palestine and, since 1967, has illegally occupied and imposed various forms of military rule on the remaining 22 per cent.

The media "coverage" has long reversed the roles of oppressor and victim. Israelis are never called terrorists. Correspondents who break this taboo are often intimidated with slurs of anti-Semitism - a bleak irony, as Palestinians are Semites, too.

Having long ago recognised Israel's "right" to more than two-thirds of their country, the Palestinian leadership has contorted itself in order to accommodate a maze of mostly American plans designed to deny true independence and ensure Israel's enduring power and control. Until recently, this was reported uncritically as "the peace process". When ordinary Palestinians cried "enough!" and rose up in the second intifada, armed mostly with slingshots, they were put down by snipers with high-velocity weapons and with tanks and Apache gunships, supplied by the United States.

And now, in their despair, as some are turning to suicide attacks, the Palestinians appear on the news only as bombers and rioters, which, as the Glasgow study points out, "is, of course, the view of the Israeli government". The latest euphemism, "incursion", is from the vocabulary of lies coined in Vietnam. It means assaulting human beings with tanks and planes. "Cycle of violence" is similar. It suggests, at best, two equal sides, never that the Palestinians are resisting violent oppression with violence. A Channel 4 Dispatches recently "balanced" the Israeli assault on the Jenin refugee camp with a Palestinian attack on a "settlement". There was no explanation that these are not settlements at all, but armed, illegal fortresses that are central to a policy of imposing strategic and military control.

On 9 June, the Correspondent series on BBC Television broadcast a report about the recent siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This was an exemplar of the problems identified in the Glasgow research. It was, in effect, an Israeli occupation propaganda film put out by the BBC. It was made as a co-production with an American channel, and the credits listed the producer as Israel Goldvicht, who runs an Israeli production company.

That would have been fine had the film-makers made any attempt to challenge the Israeli military with whom they had ingratiated themselves. "The Israelis were determined not to damage the buildings," began the narrator. "The international press were cleared from Manger Square, but we were allowed to stay and observe the Israeli operation . . ." With this "unique access" unexplained to the viewers, the film presented one Colonel Lior as the star good guy, guaranteeing "medical treatment to anyone wounded", saying a cheery hello on a mobile phone to a friend in Oxford Street and, like any colonial officer, speaking about and on behalf of the Palestinians.

"Killers" were described by the colonel without challenge by the BBC/Israel Goldvicht team. They were "terrorists" and "gunmen", not those resisting the invasion of their homeland. Israel's right to "arrest" foreign peace protesters drew no query from the BBC. Not a single Palestinian was interviewed. As the sun set on his fine profile, the last word went to the good colonel. The issues between the Israelis and Palestinians, he said, "were personal points of view".

Well, no. The brutal subjugation of the Palestinians is, under any interpretation of the law, an epic injustice, a crime in which the colonel plays a leading part. The BBC has always provided the best, most sophisticated propaganda service in the world, because matters of justice and injustice, right and wrong are simply usurped either by "balance" or by liberal sophistry; one is either "pro- Israeli" or "pro-Palestinian".

Fiona Murch, the executive producer of Correspondent, told me that Israel Goldvicht Productions would not have won the "trust" of the Israeli army had the producer asked real journalistic questions. That was the way of "fly on the wall": a candid admission. "It was breaking a stereotype," she said. "It was about a good, decent man" (the colonel). She said I ought to have seen an earlier Correspondent series, which had Palestinians in it.

I think she was trying to offer that as "balance" for The Siege of Bethlehem - a film that might be dismissed as cheap PR, were it not for its complicity with a regime that uses ethnic difference to deny human rights, imprisons people without charge or trial, and murders and tortures "systematically", says Amnesty.

Goebbels would have approved.

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The John Pilger archive is held at the British Library