How to Fool the Whole World – Machiavelli, the British Press and Jenin

Mad as he was, Machiavelli certainly understood the basic requirements of an effective propaganda system:

“It is not essential, then, that a Prince should have all the good qualities which I have enumerated above, but it is most essential that he should +seem+ to have them… Thus, it is well to seem merciful, faithful, humane, religious and upright, and also to be so; but the mind should remain so balanced that were it needful to be so, you should be able and know how to change to the contrary.” (Machiavelli, The Prince, Dover Publications, 1992, p.46, our emphasis)

The ‘societal purpose’ of the media is to ensure that both it and our governments +seem+ “merciful, faithful, humane, religious and upright”. A constant refrain in the media, for example, is that we in the West are the tireless champions of the powerless and oppressed, unbiased by self-interest. Thus Timothy Garton Ash writes:

“I have spent the last few weeks in California, watching the horror in Israel and the West Bank through the eyes of the American media. They are not as biased in favour of Sharon’s Israel as most people in Europe think. >From quality press and television you get a clear picture of what is being done to the Palestinians.” (‘The case for humility’, Timothy Garton Ash, Guardian, April 18, 2002)

Like so many mainstream commentators, Garton Ash is able to make this claim because the majority of his readers have no way of knowing if it has any basis in fact. His claim also relies on a kind of intellectual sleight of hand, blurring the distinction between the fact of media coverage, and the intensity, tone and emphasis of that coverage. That “what is being done to the Palestinians” has to some extent been reported does not at all mean that the US media “are not as biased in favour of Sharon’s Israel as most people in Europe think”.

Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR: has reported massive bias in the US press. From the start of the Intifada in September 2000, through to March 17, 2002, the three major US networks’ nightly news shows used some variation of the word ‘retaliation’ (‘retaliated’, ‘will retaliate’, etc.) 150 times to describe attacks in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. About 79 percent of those references were to Israeli ‘retaliation’ against Palestinians. Only 9 percent referred to Palestinian ‘retaliation’ against Israelis. (Approximately 12 percent were ambiguous or referred to both sides simultaneously.)

Even Garton Ash’s own paper recognises the truth of US media performance. On April 17, Julian Borger reported,

“The outcry in the European press over the killings of civilians in Jenin has not been echoed in US newspapers. Since being allowed into the West Bank town, American journalists have reported extensively on the devastation there, but the editorial pages have offered a mixed response.”(Borger, ‘Muted criticism in American newspapers – Scepticism at reports of Jenin bloodbath’, Guardian, April 17, 2002)

But here we encounter another intellectual sleight of hand – “the outcry in the European press”, as we will see, is also not what it is claimed to be. It also has offered, at best, “a mixed response”.

Garton Ash continues, “However, one thing that American reporters and commentators do seem to agree on is that Europe is shamefully biased against Israel, for suspect reasons… There is huge sympathy in Europe for the Palestinians, as an oppressed and dispossessed people who should have their own state.”

The Glasgow University Media Group has described how, like the US media, the UK media uses “two languages” when describing Palestinian and Israeli atrocities, with the Israelis generally depicted as ‘retaliating’ to Palestinian attacks. The “huge sympathy” in the British media for the Palestinians is such that in a Glasgow Media Group poll of TV viewers and newspaper readers, “many people did not understand that the Palestinians were subject to a military occupation and did not know who was ‘occupying’ the occupied territories”. (Greg Philo, ‘Missing in action’, the Guardian, April 16, 2002)

Recall that Garton Ash’s theme – of overwhelming European sympathy for the powerless and oppressed, here the Palestinians – is a fundamental requirement of a propaganda system, as outlined by Machiavelli. No matter what is actually true, this must +seem+ to be true. The claim is developed even further in the latest Media Guardian.

In an article, titled, ‘How Jenin battle became a “massacre”‘ (The Guardian, May 6, 2002), Sharon Sadeh, London correspondent of the Israeli liberal newspaper Ha’aretz, writes:

“The battle of Jenin was indisputably fierce and bloody. But while the British papers, almost unanimously, presented it from the outset as a “massacre” or at least as an intentional “war crime” of the worst kind, the US and Israeli papers – Ha’aretz included – were far more reserved and cautious, saying that there was no evidence to back such claims. The left-liberal press in Britain thought differently. The Independent, the Guardian and the Times, in particular, were quick to denounce Israel and made sensational accusations based on thin evidence, fitting a widely held stereotype of a defiant, brutal and don’t-give-a-damn Israel.”

Note that while the title and the second sentence boldly declare that the British press has “almost unanimously presented” Jenin “as a ‘massacre'”, Sadeh immediately qualifies her claim by adding “or at least as an intentional ‘war crime’ of the worst kind”. A reader of this piece, however, would undoubtedly receive the impression that the press has indeed consistently described Jenin as a ‘massacre’.

Readers will recall that when Media Lens recently reported how the British press described the alleged killing of Albanian civilians in Racak in January 1999 as a ‘massacre’, we immediately provided examples. Significantly, Sadeh provides not one example to support her case. There is a good reason for this. As of May 6, 2002, Media Lens found 65 examples in the Guardian and Observer, and 27 examples in the Independent, of articles containing the words ‘Jenin’ and ‘massacre’. Remarkably, we found not even +one+ example of a Guardian, Observer or Independent journalist describing Jenin as a massacre. Instead, we found dozens of references to ‘claims’ and ‘allegations’ of a massacre in Jenin. Here are typical examples:

“There were calls for a United Nations-led inquiry into allegations that the Israeli army carried out a massacre and that its soldiers were guilty of war crimes.” (‘Israel faces rage over ‘massacre’ – London and Brussels politicians demand UN investigation of Jenin allegations’, Ian Black, Ewen MacAskill, Nicholas Watt, the Guardian, April 17, 2002)

“Israel’s task has been made easier by Palestinian officials who rushed to declare a ‘massacre’ – an allegation which has not been proved.” (‘From the ruins of Jenin, the truth about an atrocity,’ Phil Reeves, Justin Huggler, the Independent, 20 April 2002)

Out of the 92 articles searched, we found several that rejected the allegation of a ‘massacre’ and just +one+ that used the term without qualifying it with words like ‘alleged’ and ‘accused’. This mention was by Paul Stockley of the Oxford Palestinian Solidarity Campaign, described, not as a journalist, but as “nervously running errands in Jerusalem”. Stockley wrote:

“Here’s a summary of some of the things that have been happening… Bethlehem: refugee camps have not been invaded, but everyone nervous having heard of the major massacre in Jenin (dense refugee camp assaulted with aerial bombing and shelling, and houses bulldozed).” (Stockley, ‘Bethlehem diary’, the Guardian, April 12, 2002)

This is the only example we were able to find in the Guardian, Observer and Independent of a reporter or commentator describing events in Jenin as a massacre.

As Media Lens readers know, journalists were not afraid to reject the allegations that a massacre had taken place. Peter Beaumont of the Observer wrote:

“But a massacre – in the sense it is usually understood – did not take place in Jenin’s refugee camp.” (Beaumont, ‘Brutal, yes. Massacre, no’, the Observer, April 21, 2002)

David Aaronovitch of the Independent wrote:

“The German president, Johannes Rau, was in Italy this week to apologise for the wartime massacre of 700 villagers at a place I had never even heard of. For all its horrors, that is not what has happened in Jenin.” (Aaronovitch, ‘It’s not anti-Semitic to deny Israel’s right to exist. It is just wrong’, the Independent, 19 April 2002)

On ITV’s Tonight programme, reporter Colin Baker said:

“It’s probable that there was not a massacre here. But then not everyone in Jenin was holding a weapon. Like all the other victims of this conflict – Palestinians and Israelis – they just got in the way of intolerance, intransigence and hatred; which, for the moment in this barren land, seem to have suffocated any thoughts of peace.” (Baker, Tonight, ITV, May 2, 2002)

Thus Sadeh’s claim that the British “unanimously, presented it [Jenin] from the outset as a ‘massacre'”, is flatly false.

This is significant for several reasons. As the press’s reluctance to use the term suggests, ‘massacre’ is a highly emotive word suggesting an extreme level of atrocity and moral outrage. We might argue that highly trained, professional journalists are rightly cautious in using such a pejorative term. But this is clearly not the case when journalists report on alleged massacres in murky circumstances by enemies of the West. Thus in reviewing Nato’s assault on Serbia, Raymond Whitaker of the Independent wrote matter-of-factly:

“There was fighting between Serbian forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army within a few hundred yards of the gates, and just over the hill is the village of Racak, where the massacre of 45 Albanian civilians in January set in motion the events which led to Nato’s air campaign.” (‘An island of tolerance in province destroyed by conflict,’ Raymond Whitaker, the Independent, 24 December 1999)

An editorial in the Observer stated:

“The massacre that lit the touchpaper of the war with Yugoslavia was, by the standards of recent conflicts, a small one. It was no My Lai with its 500 Vietnamese dead. By the benchmark of the Rwandan civil war, it would barely rate a mention. But Racak would begin the process that led to Europe’s most serious bombing since World War Two, and to the preparations for a land invasion that would finally – when Milosevic got wind of it – lead to his capitulation. It was the moment, as Ministers and officials would reiterate, that the ‘scales fell from our eyes’.” (Leader, ‘Inertia in Washington: how the peace was lost,’ Observer, July 18, 1999)

The unanimity is such that we have to remind ourselves that the ‘free press’ is supposed +not+ to be state-run, that it is supposed to operate free from government pressures. Our press claims to report the crimes of ‘enemies’ and ‘allies’ with equal objectivity. But if we stand back from the minutiae of reporting for a moment and take a broader look at the media, the truth is overwhelmingly obvious.

We know perfectly well, in fact, that an enemy of the state automatically becomes an enemy of the media. The BBC, for example, always accepts the government’s position on foreign ‘threats’ – it is inconceivable that the BBC would ever seriously question the government’s assertion that a foreign power constituted a threat to national security. It is equally inconceivable that the BBC would ever present Britain and the US as a threat to world peace. Over and over again, endlessly, the BBC, like the rest of the media, promotes the government position on ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys’ without challenge.

As Machiavelli knew, the secret to successful propaganda is to declare with great sincerity and confidence that we are good, caring, unselfish people – defenders of powerful and powerless alike. This is stated, or presupposed, so often by our media, that the public assumes it must be true. Thus there +has+ been coverage of the suffering in Palestine – the media do appear to care. But when this coverage is analysed closely, and when it is compared with the coverage of suffering caused by our ‘enemies’, the truth is starkly revealed – condemnation is clearly muted, softened and blurred. The kind of clear-cut moral outrage employed to generate a critical mass of public support against “evil doers”, is nowhere in sight, and so the public remains silent and unmoved. And this, ultimately, is all that is required.

Phil Lesley, author of a handbook on public relations and communications, brilliantly describes how state-corporate propaganda works to maintain public passivity:

“People generally do not favour action on a non-alarming situation when arguments seem to be balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt. The weight of impressions on the public must be balanced so people will have doubts and lack motivation to take action. Accordingly, means are needed to get balancing information into the stream from sources that the public will find credible. There is no need for a clear-cut ‘victory’. … Nurturing public doubts by demonstrating that this is not a clear-cut situation in support of the opponents usually is all that is necessary.” (Lesly, ‘Coping with Opposition Groups’, Public Relations Review 18, 1992, p.331)

This really is the key to understanding how the state-corporate media system manipulates the public mind. When the state-corporate elite requires action backed by public support, “the weight of impressions on the public” are +not+ balanced: the Soviets are intent on world domination and must be stopped; Saddam Hussein is a lethal threat who must be destroyed; Slobodan Milosevic is definitely responsible for a “Balkan Final Solution” and must be confronted militarily.

But when state-corporate elites are +opposed+ to action, then, as if by magic, the media is filled with arguments that are “balanced on both sides and there is a clear doubt”. Outraged condemnation is replaced by philosophising on the tragic nature of human existence and human folly (see, for example, Colin Baker’s statement above). There is plenty of discussion but the public is not mobilised and so no pressure is brought to bear. As a result, nothing changes, and the powers that be are free to continue on whatever course they have chosen. Ironically, all of this has the added advantage of promoting the media’s reputation for balance and objectivity.

In an article titled ‘Parallel universes’, Jonathan Freedland described the significance of a line of graffiti, written in blue ink, on a wall in the home of a Palestinian whose house was seized by Israeli soldiers. Before they left, one of the soldiers took up his pen and wrote on the wall: “I don’t have another land.” Freedland explains the deeper meaning:

“That simple, almost apologetic phrase, ‘I have no other land’ expresses how Israelis and Jews see themselves in this conflict – as a victim nation, exiled, dispossessed and desperate for their own home – and how far apart that is from the way almost everyone else sees them. It goes to the heart of the strange truth about the current conflict: that the two sides are living in parallel universes, where the same set of facts has two entirely different meanings depending where you stand.” (Freedland, ‘Parallel universes’, the Guardian, April 17, 2002)

Consider that this is the same contemplative, philosophical Jonathan Freedland who wrote in 1999:

“How did the British left get so lost? How have its leading lights ended up as the voices of isolationism? How did it come to this…? Why is it the hard left – rather than the isolationist right – who have become the champions of moral indifference? For, make no mistake, that’s what opposition to Nato’s attempt to Clobba Slobba (as the Sun puts it) amounts to… either the West could try to halt the greatest campaign of barbarism in Europe since 1945 – or it could do nothing.” (Jonathan Freedland, ‘The left needs to wake up to the real world. This war is a just one’, Guardian, March 26, 1999)

Where allies are concerned, there is time aplenty for musings on the meaning, misunderstanding and tragedy of the human condition. But where officially targeted enemies are concerned, there is barely enough time to scream: ‘Bombs away!’

We at Media Lens abhor all violence – for example, on both sides of the appalling Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and we passionately support reasoned and thoughtful attempts to understand and remove the roots of violence. We believe that compassion and reason are the only credible antidotes to hatred and greed, and to the ignorance generated by them. But this compassionate approach must not be applied selectively +only+ to horrors perpetrated by our friends and allies. The reason is simply that this selective approach is +itself+ a fundamental cause of so much suffering. Selective compassion is not a halfway house to universal compassion; it is the root of much of the worst brutality and horror in our world.


The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. In writing letters to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.

Write to Janine Gibson, editor of Media Guardian:

Email: [email protected]

Ask why she published Sharon Sadeh’s claim that British papers have “unanimously” presented events in Jenin “as a ‘massacre'”. Ask her if she is able to find even one example of a British journalist in the Guardian, Observer or Independent describing Jenin as ‘a massacre’.

Copy your letter to Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian:

Email: [email protected]