The horrific shooting of eight young people at a Jewish seminary in Jerusalem last Thursday was followed by saturation media coverage. International statesmen lined up with condemnations of the attack and condolences for the victims and their families.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced: “This is clearly an attempt to strike a blow at the very heart of the peace process.” (Jon Smith, Press Association, ‘Brown: massacre “strikes at heart of peace”‘, March 7, 2008)
Foreign Secretary David Miliband described the slaughter as “an arrow aimed at the heart of the peace process so recently revived.” (Donald Macintyre and Eric Silver, ‘Massacre in the heart of Jerusalem’, The Independent, March 7, 2008)
The Guardian’s front page declared: “the descent into violence in the Middle East accelerated last night” in a “dramatic escalation”. (Rory McCarthy, ‘Eight dead as gunman hits Jerusalem religious school’, The Guardian, March 7, 2008). A Daily Mirror headline read: ‘Kids Murdered In The Library’ (Allison Martin, March 7, 2008). The Telegraph asserted that the attack “is likely to be remembered as the moment the Middle East peace process died.” (Tim Butcher, ‘Hopes of peace in the Middle East are blown away in a hail of bullets’, Daily Telegraph, March 7, 2008)
The contrast to reactions to the killing of over 120 Palestinians, including many women and children, in occupied Gaza the previous week could hardly be more striking. On one day alone, 60 people died in a hail of Israeli firepower using F-16 planes, Apache helicopter gunships, tanks, armoured bulldozers and ground troops.
No Western leader was heard condemning the Israeli assault on Gaza as “an attempt to strike a blow at the very heart of the peace process.” To our knowledge, no reporter suggested that “the peace process” had now “died”. No headlines screamed of Palestinian babies “murdered” in their beds. In short, news reports from the Gazan bloodbath typically lacked the anguished details and tone that suffused the reporting from Jerusalem less than a week later.
Nor was there the same heightened pitch and intensity of news coverage following Israel’s deadly ‘incursion’ into Gaza in mid-January. 17 Palestinians were killed in one day, and around 50 injured, while President Bush was visiting the region. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, said:
“What happened today is a massacre, a slaughter against the Palestinian people.
“Our people cannot keep silent over these massacres. These massacres cannot bring peace.” (Al-Jazeera, ‘Abbas: Israeli raid “a massacre” ’, January 15, 2008; http://english.aljazeera.net/NR/ exeres/0787158A-D180-44F4-9327- 7BE8DBBB197D.htm)
But for the Western media the massacres that really matter, the ones which “strike a blow at the very heart of the peace process”, are those inflicted on Israelis.
The BBC’s Propaganda Role
The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is now at its worst since the occupation by Israel began in 1967. More Gazans are dependent on food aid than ever before: fully 1.1 million out of a population of 1.5 million. Hospitals are suffering the longest power cuts yet experienced, record levels of raw sewage are being pumped into the sea, and the economy is at its most dire with unemployment set to exceed 50 per cent. (‘The Gaza Strip: A Humanitarian Implosion’, March 6, 2008; http://christianaid.org.uk/images/gazareport.pdf). Is it any wonder that the people of Gaza are in despair?
Our alert of March 3 highlighted the lack of attention given to the latest assessment by John Dugard, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Occupied Territories. Palestinian terrorism, while abhorrent, is the “inevitable consequence” of Israeli occupation, noted Dugard. He warned: “the collective punishment of Gaza by Israel is expressly prohibited by international humanitarian law.” (Media Lens media alert, ‘Israel’s Illegal Assault On The Gaza “Prison”’)
The BBC’s official response to our challenge about its neglect of Dugard’s vital analysis was telling:
“We missed the original publication of John Dugard’s report, but are intending to write about its formal presentation to the UN later today. “
Mr Dugard has, of course, repeatedly made very critical comments about Israel, some of which we have reported: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7044148.stm
“It is fair to point out however that Mr Dugard’s views are not those of the UN. Under international law, an occupied community is not allowed to adopt terrorist methods against the civilian population of its occupier. Occupied people remain under an obligation to conduct themselves according to the laws of war. So, while terrorism may be an ‘inevitable consequence’ of the occupation, that does not mean it is somehow legitimate. The UN, including the secretary general and the security council, have repeatedly condemned suicide bombings and rocket fire from Gaza: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi /middle_east/7273444.stm ” (Email from “The BBC News website” [no name provided], March 6, 2008)
This response is noteworthy, even for the BBC’s usual shameful record. There was no mention of Israel’s responsibilities as the occupying power, or its repeated and brutal transgressions of international and humanitarian law over forty years. Human rights groups, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem in Israel, have documented many grave breaches of the Fourth Geneva Convention, constituting war crimes. Little of this fundamental context ever makes it into BBC news reports.
Instead, the BBC focused exclusively in its reply on the obligations of “an occupied community” which has been continually attacked and impoverished by an Israeli state that is massively supported – financially, militarily, diplomatically – by Washington. The anonymous BBC official who wrote that “while terrorism may be an ‘inevitable consequence’ of the occupation, that does not mean it is somehow legitimate” was answering a strawman argument of his or her own invention. Neither Media Lens nor the UN Special Rapporteur claimed that Palestinian terrorism was “legitimate.” Indeed, had the BBC employee read the report, he/she would have seen that Dugard had condemned Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel’s civilians as “war crimes”.
As promised, the BBC news website did indeed write about the Dugard report; it devoted all of 168 words at the bottom of a short news item. The item noted blandly that unspecified “scheduling problems” meant that the report would now be presented to the UN in June rather than this month. (BBC Online, ‘UN alarm at Gaza-Israel violence’, March 6, 2008; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/ middle_east/7281711.stm). For the Special Rapporteur’s assessment to be shunted to one side by the ‘international community’, even as the slaughter in the Middle East continued, was horribly ironic. The possibility that power politics might have been at play in the alleged “scheduling problems” appears to have eluded the media’s scrutiny.
The Eternal BBC Claim: “We Will Not Be Cheerleaders For Anybody”
Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East news editor, received numerous emails that were copied to us. Many were in direct response to our alert, but others were sent spontaneously by people appalled at the coverage they were seeing and hearing from the publicly-funded broadcaster. After the killings at the Jewish seminary, Bowen defended the corporation’s recent unbalanced news coverage from the region:
“In the last week, we have reported very fully from inside Gaza as well as from Sderot and Ashkelon. We will continue to report on the Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. But we will also report fully from the Israeli side. The BBC’s reporting will be as impartial as we can make it. We will not be cheerleaders for anybody.” (Email, March 6, 2008)
Bowen’s assertion simply does not stand up to scrutiny. In our March 3 alert, we cited the testimony of former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn who pointed out that ‘balance’ is “the BBC’s crudely applied device for avoiding trouble”. This inevitably leads to a clear news bias towards the viewpoint of power residing in Israel, Washington and London.
The public can see for themselves the ‘neutral’ media language used to describe Israeli actions: ‘incursion’, ‘retaliation’, ‘military operations’. By contrast, Israel endures ‘terrorist attacks’, ‘slaughter’, ‘a bloodbath’. Careful analysis by Greg Philo and Mike Berry, of the Glasgow University Media Group, found a persistent, ugly pattern:
“In our samples of news content, words such as ‘mass murder’, ‘savage cold-blooded killing’ and ‘lynching’ were used by journalists to describe Israeli deaths but not those of Palestinians/Arabs. The word ‘terrorist’ was used to describe Palestinians, but when an Israeli group was reported as trying to bomb a Palestinian school, they were referred to as ‘extremists’ or ‘vigilantes’.” (Philo and Berry, ‘Bad News From Israel’, Pluto Press, London, 2004, p. 259)
The reality is that by devoting disproportionate coverage to Israeli deaths over Palestinian deaths, the BBC’s claims to “impartial” reporting are simply demolished. With great consistency, lives in the ‘Third World’ are presented as being of far less importance than those who are ‘like us’. At its most brutal, we see a deeply racist attitude that also underpins the culture of killing in the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Major General Bargewell’s report into the massacre of 24 Iraqi civilians in Haditha by U.S. marines gave a glimpse of the prevailing mindset:
“Iraqi civilian lives are not as important as US lives, their deaths are just the cost of doing business…” (Josh White, ‘Report On Haditha Condemns Marines; Signs of Misconduct Were Ignored, U.S. General Says,’ Washington Post, April 21, 2007)
And while the BBC and other news media continue to pump out propaganda about the Middle East, the “cost of doing business” is only too obvious to the victims and anyone who cares about them.
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to: Jeremy Bowen, BBC’s Middle East news editor
Email: [email protected]
Write to Helen Boaden, BBC news director
Email: [email protected]