|Artwork by Sharif Sarhan.|
|Photo by Mahmoud Ja’bari.|
Re-enforcing the Narrative
By Kieron Monks
On 25 June 2006, the liberal British newspaper The Observer ran a single-paragraph story detailing an Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip. It reported that commandos had “detained” two alleged Hamas members during an “arrest raid.”
The following day, armed Palestinians tunnelled under the fence surrounding Gaza and attacked an Israeli army post named Kerem Shalom. They captured Gilad Shalit, a young French-Israeli corporal.
It was to become one of the most high-profile and long-running stories of the conflict. As soon as the news broke, the BBC’s Gaza correspondent, Alan Johnston, described the capture as “a major escalation in cross-border tensions.”
While Palestinians had been “arrested” the previous night, Shalit had been “kidnapped,” and there was a broad consensus in Western media that he was to be considered a “hostage.” Although the two raids carried striking similarities - incursions into enemy territory that resulted in the seizure of combatants - they were not reported in comparable terms. While the 7,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails are rarely deemed worthy of media coverage, Shalit has been a cause célèbre, the subject of thousands of newspaper stories and television specials.
His case is an example of the contextual framework typically applied to the conflict by Western reporters. Johnston’s description of the Palestinian raid as an “escalation” fit the narrative of aggressor/defender that is so commonly used to allow different standards for Palestinian and Israeli violence.
By this criterion, Operation Cast Lead, the devastating war on Gaza that claimed almost 1,000 civilian lives, could be accepted as “retaliation.” Researchers from Glasgow University worked with focus groups composed of American news consumers. The majority were able to recount the occasions of Palestinian rocket fire prior to Cast Lead and felt this justified a forceful Israeli response. None were aware that Israel had itself broken the ceasefire in November 2008, killing six Gazans, as the story had received little attention.
Even in extreme cases, it seems difficult for Western media to escape the default interpretation that Israel’s role in violence is defensive, a response to Palestinian threats and aggression. When navy commandos attacked the Gaza flotilla last May, killing nine activists in a night-raid, reports were filled with the accounts of traumatised Israeli soldiers. The BBC carried MK Benny Begin’s account of soldiers “arriving almost barefoot,” while Prime Minister Netanyahu explained the nine deaths, including those caused by multiple shots to the head, as “acts of self-defence.” This became the widely accepted starting point for analysis.
The Israeli narrative can be given precedence in more subtle ways. A recent investigation by University of New York professor Anthony Alessandrini found that the New York Times, so often held as the gold standard for journalism, typically use vague attribution and sourcing to mislead readers.
Analysing a report of the recent fly-in, in which activists arriving at Ben Gurion Airport declared their intentions to visit Palestine, Allesandrini showed that pieces of seemingly neutral commentary contained bias. In the report we are told, “There were persistent reports that the foreign visitors would try to create chaos and paralyze the airport,” before introducing the activist’s perspective. Without attribution, the “persistent reports” are given credibility in the report, while their anonymity allows them to avoid the suspicion that would fall on any interested party.
The activist’s perspective is positioned in response to the “persistent reports,” in the form of “strenuous denials,” and their intentions are summarised and anonymously quoted as to “go to Palestine.” Those three words, without citation, are made weaker by the speech marks. While the “persistent reports” are presented as a body of evidence, the intention to “go to Palestine” is reduced to a claim.
In the same vein, the Times’ coverage of Cast Lead incorporates an Israeli perspective into its commentary. We are told that a “phosphorus smoke bomb,” which was “intended to mask troop movements,” has killed five members of a family. The seemingly interest-free phrasing actually absolves the IDF of responsibility by providing a reasonable, unattributed explanation for the bomb. Perhaps deliberately, the report uses the tragedy of civilian death to make the wider point that Israeli use of phosphorus is legitimate, rather than the war crime human rights groups have alleged.
By contrast, claims from the fly-in activists were felt to require a challenging introduction, while last year’s Freedom Flotilla became the “so-called Freedom Flotilla.”
The choice of sources in news reporting often reveals imbalance. If Americans Knew, a US research institute for Middle East study, found that Palestinian human rights abuses receive 19 times more space in the Times than Israeli offences. Their policy seems to be the rule rather than the exception. The BBC’s Web bulletins about Cast Lead carried 421.5 lines on Israeli explanations of the attack compared to 10.5 lines on the blockade. The network’s Panorama documentary Death in the Med attracted criticism for interviewing a number of navy sources yet none of the ships’ passengers.
It is not hard to understand why Western media allow this imbalance, even where it conflicts with basic journalistic standards of fairness. As one senior BBC producer puts it: “We all fear the phone call from the Israeli embassy.”
Israel’s public relations department are in constant contact with bureau chiefs for all the mainstream channels and newspapers, always prepared with their version of events and ready to leap on any perceived criticism. When Sky News refused one of their suggested stories in 2009, the Foreign Ministry demanded that their correspondent be banned from Israel on the ubiquitous and feared charge of anti-Semitism.
Sky News is half-owned by Rupert Murdoch, a renowned supporter of Israel, who told an Anti-Defamation League conference in 2010 that “the Israeli people are fighting the same enemy we are: cold-blooded killers who reject peace … who reject freedom … and who rule by the suicide vest.” If his network can be “anti-Semitic,” then no reporter is safe.
Of course, the independent journalists who operate without the protection of a major network are even more tightly controlled. No journalist can receive accreditation without the Government Press Office’s approval. This requires a specific assignment, support from an editor, background checks, and numerous other hoops to jump through. All too often accreditation is denied to any reporters whose work suggests that they may not re-enforce the desired narrative. Even to those granted GPO cards, at any moment an area can be declared off-limits to avoid the risk of critical accounts of Israeli policy emerging. The most high-profile of these instances was Cast Lead, during which only a few vetted journalists were allowed into the strip.
In order to continue operating in Israel and Palestine, reporters quickly learn that only certain stories will be acceptable to editors who have political interests to consider. Any reporters who buck too strenuously against this convention will do so to the detriment of their career.
The rise of Internet media and increased media-savvy among Palestinians has given the world a different perspective on Israeli policies. In addition, Al-Jazeera’s sudden breakthrough into Western consciousness has given some balance to coverage, while Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing media empire is suffering from the phone-hacking scandal. Reasons for optimism are slowly emerging.
But that optimism should be tempered by awareness that Israel still holds a special status for the mainstream English-language newspapers and networks. The Jewish state has been uniquely difficult to criticise since its creation, and whether through interests or cowardice, much of the Western media has been complicit in its protection.
Kieron Monks is content manager of This Week in Palestine.