Pilger Film Vindicated by Independent Television Commission

In September the press eagerly covered the story of how Michael Green, chairman of Carlton, had joined “a barrage of criticism” by attacking a documentary produced by his own company. The film in question was John Pilger’s ‘Palestine is Still the Issue,’ shown at 11pm, “three hours after the end of Yom Kippur”, Leon Symons wrote significantly in the Guardian.

The problem, Symons reported, was Pilger’s “passionately voiced contention that Israeli injustices towards the Palestinians over a period of many decades was at the heart of the Mideast conflict”, which had brought “scathing condemnation from the Israeli embassy, the Board of Deputies and the Conservative Friends of Israel. All said they would be complaining to ITV and would seek a programme to redress the balance”. Symons added that Carlton had received a large number of comments on the film roughly balanced between those supporting and those criticising the film. (Leon Symons, ‘Carlton chief slams Pilger’s attack on Israel’, The Guardian, September 20, 2002)

Carlton chairman, Michael Green, was bitter in his condemnation of the film:

“There’s no doubt in my mind that this programme is a tragedy for Israel so far as accuracy is concerned. What I am doing right now, what I am focused on, is to make sure there is a programme that shows the Israeli point of view. The [Carlton] network centre is looking at making a programme showing another point of view.” Green continued:

“It was factually incorrect, historically incorrect. Unfortunately, you can’t always agree with him. He has a huge reputation but consistently my views are very much opposed to his views.”

The Israeli embassy similarly claimed that the programme was a wilful distortion and offered a “dehumanised portrayal of the Jewish people, exemplified by regular insinuation and comparison to the holocaust (which) was wholly offensive”. (Stephen Bates, ‘TV chief attacks ‘one-sided’ Palestinian documentary’, The Guardian, September 20, 2002)

Gillian Shepherd, the chair of the Conservative Friends of Israel, said: “How this grossly unbalanced and biased programme can contribute to a peaceful Middle East is beyond my understanding. We shall be taking this up with Carlton at a most senior level.” (Ibid)

Following a three-month enquiry, the Independent Television Commission (ITC) has published (January 14, 2003) its adjudication, rejecting complaints against Pilger’s documentary. The report praises the film’s journalistic integrity and refers to the “care and thoroughness with which [the film] was researched”, adding:

“The ITC raised with Carlton all the significant areas of inaccuracy critics of the programme alleged and the broadcaster answered them by reference to a range of historical texts. The ITC is not a tribunal of fact and is particularly aware of the difficulties of verifying ‘historical fact’ but the comprehensiveness and authority of Carlton’s sources were persuasive, not least because many appeared to be of Israeli origin.” (ITC Report: Palestine is Still the Issue: a Special Report by John Pilger, Monday 16 September. 11.05pm. ITV, Carlton, January 14, 2003)

Pilger’s documentary, the ITC adds, “was not in breach of the ITC Programme Code… Adequate opportunity was given to a pro-Israeli government perspective.”

A Carlton spokesman said: “We are delighted that the ITC has recognised the quality of our film-making process and particularly its praise for the editorial and journalistic integrity of our production.”

John Pilger comments:

“This is a complete vindication of a film that told the story of a people long denied basic human rights, and international justice – the Palestinians. The film was fair and restrained, and expressed the humanity of both ordinary Palestinians and Israelis. Following an orchestrated campaign by the pro-Israel lobby and Michael Green’s remarks, I and my Carlton colleagues received a stream of threats, including death threats. The ITC’s investigation, conducted over three months, was exhaustive. All our historical sources, most of them Israeli, were submitted for scrutiny. Following the Commission’s unequivocal rejection of the complaints and praise for the film’s thoroughness and integrity, Michael Green should withdraw his slur against the integrity of work done for his company, and apologise.” (John Pilger, email to Media Lens – January 13, 2003)

In the Guardian, Tim Llewellyn, formerly BBC Middle East correspondent, writes:

“Pilger is known as an opinionated journalist with an appetite for upsetting authority. But this programme was not ‘campaigning’ journalism. It was a painstaking portrayal of the humiliation Israel’s soldiers and politicians visit daily on the Palestinians: not just the deaths, injuries and arrests, but the intrusions of the military into every aspect of a Palestinian’s life.” (Llewellyn, ‘False witnesses – ITC approval of John Pilger’s documentary is a shot across the bows of mainstream Middle East coverage’, The Guardian, January 16, 2003)

We await Michael Green’s response with interest.