Writing in the Independent last week, Robert Fisk commented on the BBC’s refusal to broadcast an appeal for Gaza by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC):
“The BBC’s refusal to handle an advertisement for Palestinian aid was highly instructive. It was the BBC’s ‘impartiality’ that might be called into question. In other words, the protection of an institution was more important than the lives of children.”
(http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/ commentators/fisk/robert-fiskrsquos-world- when-did-we-stop-caring-about-civilian-deaths-during- wartime-1521708.html)
Even taken at face value, then, the BBC’s decision was monstrous. But the idea that it was primarily motivated by a commitment to impartiality makes little sense.
In 1999, the corporation allowed its own high profile newsreader, Jill Dando, to present a DEC appeal for Kosovo at the height of NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia. This, also, was an ongoing and highly controversial conflict, one that involved fraudulent US-UK government and media claims of a Serbian “genocide” in Kosovo (claims which have since been quietly abandoned).
Shortly after broadcasting the appeal, with bombing still underway, the BBC reported:
“Millions of pounds of donations have been flooding in to help the Kosovo refugees after a national television appeal for funds.” (‘UK Millions pour in to Kosovo appeal,’ BBC online, April 6, 1999. See David Bracewell’s excellent work on this in our forum.)
This article linked to related reports on the conflict, which included comments from then prime minister Tony Blair:
“This will be a daily pounding until he [Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic] comes into line with the terms that Nato has laid down.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/312024.stm)
The BBC apparently had no concerns that this might damage its alleged reputation for impartiality.
The BBC argument is also made absurd by its consistent and very obvious pro-Israeli bias. An early version of a January 28 BBC online article (since amended) commented:
“Israel has carried out an air attack in the Gaza Strip and launched an incursion with tanks and bulldozers across the border… The incursion follows a bomb attack which killed one Israeli soldier and wounded three near the Gaza border.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi /world/middle_east/7853803.stm)
As usual, this presented the Israeli attack as a response to Palestinian violence. The BBC’s Middle East correspondent, Jeremy Bowen, told one Media Lens reader that this was reasonable since the killing of the Israeli soldier “is the most serious incident since the ceasefire because it is the first loss of life on either side since then.” (Media Lens message board, January 27, 2009)
This was the standard view for anyone uninterested in the facts – most mainstream journalists. Alison Weir noted on Counterpunch:
“Virtually every media outlet reported this action as a major breach in the ceasefire that had begun on January 18th: CNN, AP, NPR, the New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox News, ABC, CBS, the Christian Science Monitor, the LA Times, the McClatchy Newspapers, etc, all pinned the resumption of violence on Palestinians.”
“There’s just one problem. Israeli forces had already violated the ceasefire at least seven times:
“Israeli forces killed a Palestinian farmer in Khuza’a east of Khan Yunis on Jan 18
“Israeli forces killed a Palestinian farmer east of Jabalia on Jan. 19
“Israeli naval gunboats shelled the Gaza coastline, causing damage to civilian structures
“Israeli troops shot and injured a child east of Gaza City on Jan 22
“Israeli gunboat fire injured 4-7 Palestinian fishermen on Jan 22
“Israeli shelling set a Palestinian house on fire on Jan 22
“Israeli tanks fired on the border town of Al Faraheen, causing damage to homes and farms on Jan 24.” (Weir, ‘Killing Palestinians Doesn’t Count,’ Counterpunch, January 29, 2009; http://www.counterpunch.org/ weir01292009.html)
Senior BBC journalists and managers like to claim that the high volume of complaints from both sides of the debate indicates that they are getting the balance about right. But complaints sent by pro-Israeli individuals and groups (fiercely active in Israel and the US) defending their own perceived interests do not have the same credibility as emails sent by people arguing that Palestinians should not be subordinated to those interests. Of course self-interest also promoted pro-Palestinian complaints. But of the 22,000 emails sent to the BBC in complaint, we received hundreds from individuals whose only concern was the protection of human life. The difference is real and matters.
The letters page of the latest issue of Ariel, the BBC’s internal staff magazine, featured ten letters on the BBC’s refusal to air the Gaza appeal: all were critical of the decision. Jonathan Renouf, a BBC series producer, commented courageously:
“There is a smell of fear about this decision – fear of controversy, fear of criticism, fear of repercussions. Perhaps this is the true fallout from the Hutton report, Queengate and Jonathan Ross; an organisation so mired in fear that it finds itself able to sacrifice aid to the victims of war for a principle that nobody (outside the BBC higher echelons) seems to believe was at stake.”
The title of the BBC’s letters page was “In blocking Gaza appeal we are taking sides.” As the Roman proverb tells us:
“The Senate is a beast, the senators are good men.”
The Impartiality Delusion
God and love aside, it seems to us that more nonsense has been written about “impartiality” than any other issue.
The legendary Guardian editor C.P. Scott righteously observed: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” (Manchester Guardian, May 5, 1921)
But facts are not sacred, pristine, untouchable. They are gathered by human beings on the basis of imperfect, worldly, often compromised motives. And anyway, to mention ‘this’ fact over ‘that’ fact is already to express an opinion. To highlight ‘this’ fact over ‘that’ fact is to comment. Facts are comment!
The media would have us believe that news reporting is an almost technical task. Journalists are presented as collecting ‘hard facts’ on the ground much as a geologist collects rocks for research. In reality, journalists report on a world controlled, and harmed, by the same powerful interests. The harm needs to be exposed; but the control makes it a simple matter to punish those who would do the exposing.
This is why journalistic truth-telling requires far more than mere professional competence. Success depends on quite rare human qualities: compassion, independence of thought; the willingness to disobey authority, to disregard the carrots of conformity (status, wealth, power).
An honest journalist is someone who instinctively reviles the notion that he should take his side (his corporation, his class, his country, his career interests) at the expense of others. She agonises about, feels wounded by, the thought that she might be subordinating someone else’s interests to her own. The honest journalist does not merely believe, but +feels+ that all happiness is of equal value, that all suffering is equal. He or she will be moved by the words of the Buddhist sage Shantideva:
“Mine and other’s pain – how are they different?
Simply, then, since pain is pain, I will dispel it.
What grounds have you for all your strong distinctions?” (Shantideva, The Way Of The Bodhisattva, Shambhala, 1997, p.124)
We, also, have written for the mainstream. And we have experienced the moments of moral crisis: ‘This needs to be said. But if I say it, I might not be invited back.’ A reassuring set of thoughts is always on hand: ‘I can do more good on the inside than on the outside – why take a chance? Nobody will notice. How much difference would it make anyway?’ We have thought exactly these thoughts even though we have faced utterly trivial temptations by mainstream standards. How willing would you be to risk alienating powerful groups allied to your proprietor, or parent company, if you were paid a six-figure salary to type out a few hundred words every week?
Nobody ever talks about these choices but everyone is aware of them, on some level, all the time. Everyone knows that there are things that you just do not say about the host newspaper, the owner, the editor, the advertisers, the government, the government’s allies. BBC journalists know what they should and should not say about Israel.
For some, these moments of crisis will barely reach awareness. They will be experienced as a vague sense of unease, easily ignored. Successful corporate journalists may wonder why anyone would even waste time on such nonsense. They know the barriers, the taboos (how else could they avoid them with such precision?), and they simply play by the rules. They may have convinced themselves that the ‘rules’ are for the best in the long run anyway (because our society is fundamentally benevolent in an otherwise primitive and threatening world).
This all casts a different light on a question posed to us last month by MA student Steve Roberts of the Open University:
“Do you think that blogs and websites such as ‘medialens’, ‘Digg’ and ‘Twitter’ provide a viable alternative to ‘mainstream media news’?”
In our view, the question should be reversed: Do the mainstream media provide a viable alternative to non-corporate sources of news and commentary? The answer is they do not and never have.
Consider, for example, that it is an unwritten rule of corporate reporting that very ugly motives cannot be imputed to our government or its leading allies. They may err and blunder, but it is unthinkable that they would kill thousands, or millions, of people because it was in the best interests of elite power. It is unthinkable that they would deliberately kill the poor to terrorise other poor people to accept poverty. It is unthinkable that they would actively seek to promote violent conflicts because they have a monopoly on violence. It is unthinkable that they would seek to create enemies because doing so has multiple benefits in pacifying the domestic population, justifying arms budgets, and providing a rationale for attacking poor people overseas.
One might speculate as to why these possibilities are deemed beyond the pale of ‘respectable’, expressible views, given that journalism is supposed to be a coldly clinical, technical task. An underlying rationalisation (again, not openly discussed) assumes that the media should serve the status quo called “democracy”. Serving democracy, naturally, does not extend to ‘undermining’ a government ‘freely’ elected by the British electorate. This is implicit in the whole notion of professional media ‘balance’. If it is the role of the media, to fairly represent the Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat view of the world, why would it be the role of the media to suggest that these views are fraudulent, hiding much darker truths?
Bearing these comments in mind, the Israeli attack on Gaza that began on December 27, 2008 provides a good test for Steve Roberts’ question. How did the mainstream and “alternative” media answer this simple question: Why did the Israeli army massacre hundreds of Palestinian civilians?
As we will see, hundreds of well-resourced journalists across the media failed to provide a credible explanation. We had to turn to a single article by a single author on an internet website to discover the answer.
The BBC has no doubts about the aims of Israel’s 22-day offensive in Gaza:
“The operation was launched to halt or significantly reduce rocket fire from Gaza, and to degrade the military capability of the Hamas militant group that controls the territory.” (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/ world/middle_east/7866426.stm)
These really were the goals, notice, not the declared goals. Some translation is required: the “operation” was in fact a massacre. The “Hamas militant group” that “controls the territory” is the democratically elected government of the Palestinian people.
On December 31, a Guardian leader commented of Israel: “there must be growing doubts as to whether it can achieve by military means even the modest objective it has set itself: the ending of rocket fire on southern Israel.” (Leader, ‘Gaza: Quiet of the grave,’ The Guardian, December 31, 2008)
The Guardian, then, was also happy to accept Israel’s claim that it was “targeting Hamas” with a view to ensuring “the ending of rocket fire”.
For the Times, the intention was clear:
“The goal for Israel in targeting Hamas is to hamper the ability of terrorist groups to operate.” (Leader, ‘Security Dilemmas in Gaza – Israel is entitled to defend its civilians against rocket attacks, but its military options are constrained and shrewd diplomacy would serve its interests,’ The Times, December 31, 2008)
It was of course inconceivable that the Israeli Defence Force – then terrorising the entire civilian population of Gaza – could be deemed a “terrorist group”, just is it could not be considered a “militant group”.
The rest of the media followed the same pattern of reporting.
But this mainstream version of events did not explain the sadistic destruction of civilians and civilian infrastructure: the targeting of medical facilities, UN buildings and schools, apartment blocks, farmland. The Observer reports that between 35% and 60% of the agriculture industry in Gaza was wrecked by the Israeli attack. Scores, perhaps hundreds, of wells and water sources were damaged and several hundred greenhouses flattened, as well as severe damage inflicted on between a third and one-half of Gaza’s farmable land. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/ world/2009/feb/01/gaza-food-crisis)
The mainstream explanation is also strongly counter-intuitive. We know from any number of imperial and colonial wars – not least the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq – that while high-tech military force can certainly terrorise civilians it is a blunt instrument against insurgents. Resistance fighters melt away into civilian populations, into residential areas – there are few military “assets” to target with laser-guided bombs and missiles.
The fact is that, despite the input of hundreds of journalists working for numerous large, well-resourced corporations, we were unable to find a mainstream account that made sense of what was happening in Gaza. For a detailed credible explanation, we had to turn to a lone, non-corporate source: Noam Chomsky.
Pre-Planned – “Go Crazy”
Chomsky presented his explanation in an article on Znet, ‘”Exterminate all the Brutes”: Gaza 2009,’ on January 19 (http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/20316).
He commented on Israel’s offensive:
“The planning had two components: military and propaganda. It was based on the lessons of Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon, which was considered to be poorly planned and badly advertised. We may, therefore, be fairly confident that most of what has been done and said was pre-planned and intended.
“That surely includes the timing of the assault: shortly before noon, when children were returning from school and crowds were milling in the streets of densely populated Gaza City. It took only a few minutes to kill over 225 people and wound 700, an auspicious opening to the mass slaughter of defenseless civilians trapped in a tiny cage with nowhere to flee.” (Ibid.)
Chomsky was suggesting that Israeli leaders had actually +intended+ to kill large numbers of Palestinian civilians for reasons which, from their perspective, were entirely rational. In support of this claim, Chomsky quoted an article by the New York Times correspondent Ethan Bronner, ‘Parsing gains of Gaza War.’ Bronner argued that Israel calculated that it would be advantageous to appear to “go crazy,” by causing massive destruction:
“The Israeli theory of what it tried to do here is summed up in a Hebrew phrase heard across Israel and throughout the military in the past weeks: ‘baal habayit hishtageya,’ or ‘the boss has lost it.’ It evokes the image of a madman who cannot be controlled.
“‘This phrase means that if our civilians are attacked by you, we are not going to respond in proportion but will use all means we have to cause you such damage that you will think twice in the future,’ said Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser.” (Bronner, ‘Parsing gains of Gaza war,’ New York Times, January 18, 2009)
“The Palestinians in Gaza got the message on the first day when Israeli warplanes struck numerous targets simultaneously in the middle of a Saturday morning. Some 200 were killed instantly, shocking Hamas and indeed all of Gaza.” (Ibid.)
Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had earlier said that the offensive had “restored Israel’s deterrence… Hamas now understands that when you fire on its citizens it responds by going wild – and this is a good thing”. (Kim Sungupta and Donald Macintyre, ‘Israeli cabinet divided over fresh Gaza surge,’ The Independent, January 13, 2009; http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/ israeli-cabinet-divided-over-fresh-gaza-surge-1332024.html)
An Israeli soldier who gave only his first name, Alon, provided a first-hand account of Israel’s military tactics to the Times:
“I’m not a newcomer in the army. Both my brothers served in combat units that saw action in Gaza. And I can say that this is the most aggressive line that we have ever taken towards fighting the Palestinians. As you say in English, the gloves were off.” (Sheera Frenkel, ‘Gaza: Israeli troops reveal ruthless tactics against Hamas,’ The Times, January 14, 2009; http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/ world/middle_east/article5512123.ece)
Alon said he was shocked by some of the scenes inside Gaza, describing how whole neighbourhoods had been razed to the ground:
“It doesn’t look like we’ve been there a few weeks – it looks destroyed, demolished, like we were bombing it for years. You can’t imagine what damage we have done.” (Ibid.)
The tactic of “going crazy” appears to have been successful, Bronner concluded in the New York Times, with “limited indications that the people of Gaza felt such pain from this war that they will seek to rein in Hamas”. (Bronner, op. cit)
This is the “mad man” theory of international relations in action. In a key document from 1995, the US Strategic Command (STRATCOM) advised that American planners should not portray themselves “as too fully rational and cool-headed”. Instead, the impression that the US “may become irrational and vindictive if its vital interests are attacked should be a part of the national persona we project.” It is “beneficial” for our strategic posture if “some elements may appear to be potentially ‘out of control.'” (Quoted, Chomsky, ‘Hegemony Or Survival,’ Hamish Hamilton, 2003, p.218)
Intolerable Acts Of Diplomacy
Chomsky cited another example of Israel deliberately going “crazy”. In June 1982, the Israeli invasion of Lebanon opened with the bombing of the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila:
“The bombing hit the local hospital – the Gaza hospital – and killed over 200 people, according to the eyewitness account of an American Middle East academic specialist. The massacre was the opening act in an invasion that slaughtered some 15-20,000 people and destroyed much of southern Lebanon and Beirut, proceeding with crucial US military and diplomatic support.” (Chomsky, ‘”Exterminate all the Brutes”: Gaza 2009,’ op. cit)
Thirty years ago, Israeli Chief of Staff Mordechai Gur commented that since 1948, “we have been fighting against a population that lives in villages and cities.” Israel’s most prominent military analyst, Zeev Schiff, summarised Gur’s remarks: “the Israeli Army has always struck civilian populations, purposely and consciously… the Army, he said, has never distinguished civilian [from military] targets…[but] purposely attacked civilian targets.” (Ibid.)
The reasons for the brutality were explained by the Israeli statesman Abba Eban: “there was a rational prospect, ultimately fulfilled, that affected populations would exert pressure for the cessation of hostilities.” (Ibid.)
In commenting, Chomsky made the key point in his analysis:
“The effect, as Eban well understood, would be to allow Israel to implement, undisturbed, its programs of illegal expansion and harsh repression. Eban was commenting on a review of Labor government attacks against civilians by Prime Minister Begin, presenting a picture, Eban said, ‘of an Israel wantonly inflicting every possible measure of death and anguish on civilian populations in a mood reminiscent of regimes which neither Mr. Begin nor I would dare to mention by name.'” (Ibid.)
In other words, Israel has repeatedly and deliberately set out to kill Palestinian and other civilians in order to terrorise them into abandoning their efforts to resist Israeli expansion. But why not pacify the same people with concessions, diplomacy and agreement?
Chomsky argued that the 1982 Israeli attack on Lebanon had nothing to do with responding to “intolerable acts of terror,” as claimed at the time. Instead, it had to do with “intolerable acts: of diplomacy.” Shortly after the invasion began, Israel’s leading academic specialist on the Palestinians, Yehoshua Porath, wrote that PLO leader Yasser Arafat’s success in maintaining a ceasefire represented “a veritable catastrophe in the eyes of the Israeli government,” since it opened the way to a political settlement. The government hoped that the PLO would resort to terrorism, undermining the threat that it would be “a legitimate negotiating partner for future political accommodations.” (Ibid.)
Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir stated that Israel went to war because there was “a terrible danger… Not so much a military one as a political one.” Historian Benny Morris recognised that the PLO had observed the ceasefire, and explained that “the war’s inevitability rested on the PLO as a political threat to Israel and to Israel’s hold on the occupied territories.” (Ibid.)
Similarly, Chomsky noted that Israel’s breaking of the ceasefire on November 4, killing six Palestinians, happened at a significant time. The attack came shortly before a key meeting in Cairo when Hamas and its political rival Fatah were to hold talks on “reconciling their differences and creating a single, unified government,” the Guardian reported. It would have been the first meeting at such a high level since the near civil war of 2007. (http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2008/ nov/05/israelandthepalestinians)
Chomsky wrote that the meeting “would have been a significant step towards advancing diplomatic efforts. There is a long history of Israel provocations to deter the threat of diplomacy, some already mentioned. This may have been another one.” (Chomsky, ‘”Exterminate all the Brutes”: Gaza 2009,’ op. cit)
The attack also came on the day of the US presidential elections. Israeli leaders knew the world would be focusing elsewhere – this would help obscure the fact that Israel, not Hamas, had broken the ceasefire. It would also help provide a rationale for the slaughter planned for later in the month and clearly timed to end just before Obama’s inauguration.
Chomsky summarised the appalling truth:
“The effort to delay political accommodation has always made perfect sense… It is hard to think of another way to take over land where you are not wanted.” (Ibid.)
Israel, then, consistently shows a preference “for expansion over security.” Peace is actually a threat to a programme of illegal expansion that can be achieved only through violence under cover of conflict and war.
And so, from this perspective, inflicting horrific violence on a defenceless civilian population makes perfect sense. When a high-tech military power demolishes schools, mosques and medical centres it enrages, divides and demolishes the “political threat” of peaceful negotiation.
So while it is true that Israel’s bombs were intended to destroy Hamas and to stop the rockets, they also had a much uglier aim. And although, as we have seen, there is serious evidence in support of this argument, it cannot be found in the mainstream press.
During the latest crisis, the Independent’s Robert Fisk has not proposed Chomsky’s argument in any of his numerous articles on Gaza. Instead, he commented:
“Hamas is not Hizbollah. Jerusalem is not Beirut. And Israeli soldiers cannot take revenge for their 2006 defeat in Lebanon by attacking Hamas in Gaza – not even to help Ms Livni in the Israeli elections.” (Fisk, ‘The self delusion that plagues both sides in this bloody conflict,’ The Independent, December 31, 2008)
But according to Chomsky, the massacre was about far more than revenge, electoral success and restoring military credibility.
Similarly, the Guardian’s Seumas Milne cited Israeli journalist Amos Harel who commented that, “little or no weight was apparently devoted to the question of harming innocent civilians”. (Milne, ‘Israel’s onslaught on Gaza is a crime that cannot succeed,’ The Guardian, December 30, 2008)
Again, the evidence suggests that the question of harming civilians had been carefully considered.
Only John Pilger offered essentially the same argument as Chomsky in his January 8 article in the small circulation New Statesman magazine. Pilger wrote:
“Every subsequent ‘war’ [since 1947] Israel has waged has had the same objective: the expulsion of the native people and the theft of more and more land.” (Pilger, ‘Gaza under fire,’ New Statesman, January 8, 2009; http://www.newstatesman.com/middle -east/2009/01/pilger-israel-gaza-palestine)
The above analysis, then, answers the question posed to us by Steve Roberts’ of the Open University (See Part 1):
“Do you think that blogs and websites such as ‘medialens’, ‘Digg’ and ‘Twitter’ provide a viable alternative to ‘mainstream media news’?”
As discussed, the question should be reversed. The mainstream media will never provide a viable alternative to honest, compassionate individuals writing as free human beings outside the corporate machine.
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.
Please consider donating to the DEC appeal for Gaza:
Write to Jeremy Bowen
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Write to Helen Boaden, director of BBC News
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Mark Thompson, BBC Director-General
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David Mannion, ITV news editor in chief
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Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian
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Roger Alton, editor of the Independent
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