“THE INTERNATIONAL MEDIA IS NOT AN INNOCENT BYSTANDER IN THIS AFFAIR”
[Note by Tom Gross]
In conjunction with my other dispatch of today (The Guardian discovers modern anti-Semitism) I attach an in-depth essay on the Intifada and the media which I wrote in July 2001, shortly after I gave a tour round parts of Bethlehem and southern Jerusalem to the editor in chief of The Guardian, and to the paper's features editor.
It was published in the National Review Online in the fall of 2001. I believe it is still relevant today. It was also republished in several other web sites in 2001. This version is from HonestReporting.
More than 2000 people in over 35 countries have joined my email list since then, so many of you will not have read it before.
-- Tom Gross
EUROPEAN MEDIA AND ANTI-ISRAEL BIAS
European Media and Anti-Israel Bias
By Tom Gross
Last May, I escorted the editor of London's Guardian newspaper, Alan Rusbridger, and his features editor, Ian Katz, round West Jerusalem and into Palestinian-controlled Bethlehem. It was Rusbridger's first trip to Israel. His paper had been singled out by critics of press coverage of Israel – even in the context of highly selective and biased reporting across virtually the entire European media – as one of the most unfair.
Unlike many other journalists who have climbed aboard the anti-Israeli bandwagon over the last months without having ever even been to Israel, Rusbridger – to his credit – took five days off work to see the situation for himself. He is, after all, heir to the great C.P. Scott, editor of The Guardian for 57 years, who (in Rusbridger's words) "fought tirelessly alongside Chaim Weizmann for the creation of the state of Israel." (Indeed it was Scott who introduced Weizmann to Arthur Balfour).
A few days before our meeting, the Guardian's chief Jerusalem correspondent, Suzanne Goldenberg, had been presented with Britain's prestigious Edgar Wallace Trophy by Prime Minister Tony Blair in London. In a front-page announcement, The Guardian said that the London Press Club had decided to award her the prize, for her "courageous and objective journalism."
Even though the prize is meant to cover reporting in general, and has no particular connection with the Middle East, the runner-up was another media crusader against Israel, Robert Fisk, of the Independent newspaper. Goldenberg's news report in the Guardian on the morning the prize was announced, was titled "Mutilated Children of a Crippled Palestine," which gives a flavor of the kind of writing which had so impressed her fellow journalists.
Rusbridger, Katz and I crossed by car into Bethlehem. It wasn't clear whether it was safe to go there that morning. The mutilated bodies of two 13-year-old Israeli boys had been found in a nearby cave just hours earlier, and tension was high. My car had Israeli, not Palestinian, license plates, and over the previous weeks several motorists had been shot dead for just such an offence.
Two Israeli soldiers, aged about 18, were standing guard on the Israeli side of the border. When we showed our journalist identity cards and asked if we could cross, one of them said in English "But of course if you are journalists you must come in." Then he added, with a wry smile, "You are the bodyguard of democracy, after all." Rusbridger jotted down the soldier's observation in his notebook.
"Is it safe to go in this morning?" I asked the soldier. "Yes, the Palestinians don't start shooting until lunchtime these days," he replied. Katz was worried: "You mean they have shooting here!"
We were pressed for time, so our foray into Bethlehem was a short one. But it was long enough for Rusbridger and Katz – a contemporary of mine at Oxford who told me that he hadn't been to Israel "since his bar mitzvah" – to see with their own eyes that the Israeli soldiers were courteous and polite to Palestinians. They saw that Palestinians were allowed to cross the checkpoint by both car and foot in a matter of seconds. And they saw by contrast how the same soldiers were refusing religious Jews, who wished to go and pray at the nearby holy site of Rachel's Tomb, entry to Bethlehem.
On our drive down one of Bethlehem's main streets, we passed Palestinian-owned cars of a similar standard to those we had just seen being driven by Israelis in Jerusalem. Rusbridger and Katz also had a chance to observe that the local Arab shops were well stocked. And when we drove back out from Bethlehem into Israel, they could see that Palestinians were allowed to pass quickly – in about the same time it takes an average Israeli to enter a Tel Aviv shopping mall or movie theatre, as his bags are searched for explosive devices. At the same time the religious Jews we had seen before were still on the other side of the road, still pleading with the soldiers to be allowed entry to Bethlehem.
DIS-INFORMING THE PUBLIC
Two weeks later, Rusbridger wrote about his trip in a cover story for the Spectator magazine in London. The Spectator was an unexpected choice. It is owned by Conrad Black, one of the few prominent non-Jews in the West to have openly denounced media coverage of Israel. "The BBC, Independent, Guardian, Evening Standard and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are rabidly anti-Israel," Black had written in The Spectator a few weeks earlier, "and wittingly or not, are stoking the inferno of anti-Semitism."
Rusbridger began his Spectator article as follows: "In the last, dying days of apartheid I visited South Africa... A couple of weeks ago I made my first trip to another much-written about country, Israel. As with my earlier journey I found a lot that was shocking, but this time I was genuinely surprised. Nothing had prepared me for finding quite so many echoes of the worst days of South Africa in modern Israel."
He went on to give some examples – taken out of context – of shooting incidents, and of Palestinian poverty he had witnessed in what he called the "large prison" of Gaza. He wrote of the "endless humiliating queues waiting to pass through Israeli army checkpoints." There was no mention of our very different experience crossing into the "occupied West Bank."
Not content with drawing analogies with South Africa, Rusbridger also made a comparison with Northern Ireland, implying that the situation is worse in Israel because Israelis don't know what's going on. He wrote – mistakenly – that "The difference in Israel is that almost no Jewish-Israeli journalists ever report firsthand on life and death on the West Bank or Gaza today... The exceptions – I think there are three – are brave and, by and large, despised by Jewish Israelis."
He seemed to have forgotten our conversation about the workings of Israeli democracy, in which I had pointed out that every Israeli newspaper – without exception – has regular and comprehensive reporting about life in Gaza, some of it highly critical of Israel; that both national Israeli TV channels have correspondents in Gaza; that senior advisors to Yasser Arafat, and even spokespersons for Hamas, are regularly interviewed on Israeli television and radio; and that Israeli Arabs play a significant role in the Israeli media. Indeed, as I had told Rusbridger, probably the single most influential journalist in Israel, Rafik Halaby, the Director of News at Israel's state-run Channel One TV, is an Arab.
In his article Rusbridger also made no reference to the many progressive elements of Israeli Jewish society which we had discussed in some detail. I had asked him why, if Israel is "an affront to civilization" – the headline given to a comment piece written by a former British Defense Secretary in The Guardian's sister paper, the Observer, a few days before Rusbridger's visit – the Jewish state should, for example, have some of the most liberal laws in the world for homosexuals, far more liberal than those in the US and Britain.
As for his claim that "nothing had prepared me for finding quite so many echoes of the worst days of South Africa in modern Israel", it made me wonder, for a moment, how carefully he reads his own paper, given that comparisons between present day Israel and South Africa in the apartheid era have become part of the Guardian's stock in trade.
Take, for example, Goldenberg's report of Saturday June 3, 2000. It was headlined, "Palestinians feel the heat as police enforce beach apartheid: With peace looming, Israel is keen to establish areas for Jews only", and the article itself began: "In these early days of a sweltering summer, the long palm-dotted beaches of Tel Aviv are a natural escape. But if you are a Palestinian, a family day out can mean a night in jail. As Israeli Jews lolled on the sand yesterday, the Tel Aviv police were out in force in a zealous enforcement of beach apartheid... [an] operation to create Jewish-only beaches. Palestinians were arrested near the dolphinarium before they could even set foot on the sand..."
As someone who lives in Tel Aviv, and goes to the beach most days, I have never seen anything of the kind. Jews and Arabs mix freely on the beach, and did so when the article was written in June 2000, as any resident of Tel Aviv will confirm. This includes the area around the dolphinarium, site of a deadly Palestinian suicide bomb at a beachfront teenage disco exactly a year after Goldenberg wrote her piece.
About the same time that Rusbridger published his Spectator article, he wrote a massive editorial in The Guardian, running to well over 2,000 words, entitled "Between Heaven and Hell." A pull quote was reproduced in large type in a box on The Guardian's front page. It read:
"We are forced to confront some uncomfortable truths about how the dream of a sanctuary for the Jewish people in the very land in which their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped has come to be poisoned. The establishment of this sanctuary has been bought at a very high cost in human rights and human lives. It must be apparent that the international community cannot support this cost indefinitely."
In spite of all this Rusbridger seems to me to be a divided man. From what I know of him, and from what I have heard from others, remains friendlier to the Jewish state in private than many in the British media. When it comes to public pronouncements, however, he usually seems unable to resist the prevailing tide of "enlightened" opinion in Europe – a tide which can only encourage attempts to destroy Israel.
Much of this is a relatively new phenomenon. While some distorted reporting such as that of the notorious Robert Fisk of the Independent, is the result of a systematic anti-Israel bias of long standing, most of it seems more a question of fashion and vague or unexamined "progressive" assumptions.
Some diatribes go well beyond political criticism, however, and carry a deeper, more ancient prejudice. One example is the Sunday Observer's "Poem of the Week" (February 18, 2001) by Oxford academic Tom Paulin which accuses the "Zionist SS" of deliberately gunning down Palestinian children; another is the Economist magazine's description of Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres as a pair of "artful dodgers" (May 5, 2001) – "artful dodgers" as in Oliver Twist, with clear overtones of Fagin.
A fair amount of the venom comes from Jews themselves. For example, Alexei Sayle, a columnist for the Independent [of London], writes at the top of the paper's "Comment" page (October 3, 2000): "If the Zionists wanted a homeland, why didn't they take a piece of Germany? The answer is of course, that Arabs then and now were not considered fully human by the Zionists... and therefore could be murdered without qualms... I am Jewish, which should make me immune to the charges of anti-Semitism that fanatical Zionists trot out whenever anybody suggests that Israel's constant use of torture and ethnic cleansing might be a bit wrong."
There are exceptions to all this prejudice – the editorials (but not the news reports) on the Middle East in some conservative-leaning papers in Europe are often well balanced, for example – and some of the criticism leveled at Israel is of course justified. Nor should one forget that the media is full of stereotypes and mistakes about other issues. Yet when every allowance has been made, the sustained bias against Israel is in a league of its own.
Many readers with a good knowledge of the Middle East are aware that there is a good deal of bias against Israel in the American media, despite certain cherished myths to the contrary. But what they may not fully realize is that any American bias pales in comparison to what can currently be seen in Europe.
One area in which the 15 member Europe Union have largely managed to coordinate their policy in the last few years is foreign affairs, and in particular their approach to the Middle East. In the old days, some countries – France, Greece, Spain – stood out for their pro-Palestinian bias. Nowadays, the slanted policy reaches across the EU. Whereas states such as Belgium, Holland, Sweden and Denmark have recently been leading the way in pressing for increased pressure on Israel, even those European leaders who might wish to adopt a more sympathetic approach to Israel – notably Tony Blair of Britain and Gerhard Schroeder of Germany – find they are not as free to do so as they were in the past.
JEWS IN JACKBOOTS
The European media, too, tend to adopt a single line on Israel. This article focuses on bias – not because the British reporting is worse (it is not) – but to show how even in a country that still has an international reputation for "fair play," and whose prime minister has shown marked philo-Semitic attitudes, the media has been swept along in an almost unstoppable anti-Israel European tide.
If the misreporting and virulent bias were limited to one or two newspapers or television programs in each country, one might perhaps shrug them off. But they are not. They can be found in news reports, cartoons, and comment columns, through virtually the entire European print and broadcast media. Bashing Israel even extends to local papers that don't usually cover foreign affairs, such as the recent double page spread entitled "Jews in jackboots" in "Luton on Sunday." (Luton is an industrial town in the south of England.) That a handful of papers sometimes carry pro-Israel editorial pieces hardly balances things out.
Regarding Britain, we have already seen how The Guardian, and it Sunday sister paper, The Observer, are slanted against Israel. Although its circulation is not particularly high, The Guardian is highly influential: it is overwhelmingly the paper of choice for those who work in education and the media.
But what is choice for those Britons who don't wish to read The Guardian? There are three other main British broadsheets (in addition to The Financial Times, whose readership is now mainly international). Here, to give a flavor, are extracts from the Rupert Murdoch-owned Times, the Conrad Black-owned Daily Telegraph, and the Independent, which claims to be independent and centrist. They are not isolated examples. On 12 October 2000, Phil Reeves, the Jerusalem correspondent of the Independent, began his news report:
"The little boy is lying under a pink flowery sheet, his bandaged head tilted to one side and his cheeks still streaked with a mix of blood and Gaza dust. His pathetically small chest pumps away steadily – up, down, up down – a human bellows driven by an artificial respirator. His closed eye-lids, sealed by long lashes, are swollen; so are his lips, twisted by the battery of pipes and wires that connect his mouth to the beeping and buzzing life support system at his bedside.
Officially, Sami Abu Jazar – a 12-year-old Palestinian who looks no more than nine – is still alive. His heart pounds doggedly on. But, in every other sense, he is dead – "clinically dead", as the doctors put it – because of the Israeli bullet buried in his skull. He never had a hope."
Then, having noted that the death of another Palestinian 12-year-old, Mohammed al-Durra, was caught on camera for the world to see, Reeves comments: "Unfortunately, Sami's death was not filmed".
(For the record, Israel claims that a gun battle started by the Palestinians was in progress at the time Sami was shot, and it is unclear whose bullets hit him. The Palestinians, too, admit there was an ongoing confrontation at the time.)
Much of the anti-Israel tone predates the current Intifada. For example, on May 30, 2000, following Israel's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Sam Kiley, Jerusalem correspondent for the Times of London, began his article:
"A bearded man in a green hat pressed his cheek against the barbed wire and wept... Refugees yesterday descended on the area in the hope of meeting long-lost relatives who had stayed behind during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and "Operation Cleanse the Galilee" – when an estimated 250 Palestinian villages were leveled or taken over by Jewish settlers... About 150 people gathered on each side of the fence. Israeli soldiers let through small groups to meet their relatives. Palestinians living in Israel, known as 'Israeli Arabs,' offered them glasses of water and soft drinks."
I have never seen terms such as "Operation Cleanse the Galilee" used in any other western news report, or indeed in an editorial. Kiley seems to be imposing terminology from more recent times – the phrase "ethnic cleansing" didn't enter the world's political vocabulary until the 1990s – and from utterly different contexts.
Even the Daily Telegraph has not been immune. According to a rival British paper, "under [Conrad] Black's proprietorship, serious critical reporting of Israel is not tolerated", and some anti-Semites have taken to referring to the paper as the "Daily Telavivgraph." Yet the Telegraph has in fact had its fair share of slanted reporting. On October 17, 2000, Patrick Bishop, formerly the paper's foreign editor, and now their roving chief foreign correspondent, began his piece:
"There was no flash, no bang as the young man flopped to the ground. The silent Israeli sniper had claimed another victim... His targets were a crowd of young men and boys whose stones and slingshots bounced harmlessly in the road." He continues: "The Israelis are putting their faith in bullets... There is plenty of killing to be done yet."
These examples aren't taken from comment articles or letters to the editor. They come from news reports, all of them accompanied by heart-wrenching photos of Palestinians. If there were comparable reports about Israeli victims of Palestinian attacks, written in the same vein, it might be another story. But there seldom are.
MURDERED JEWISH BABY
Compare, for instance, the case of Sami Abu Jazar with that of Yehuda Shoham, a five-month old Israeli baby who was left with severe brain damage following a Palestinian stoning ambush on June 5. As with little Sami before him, the doctors said (on June 5) that there was no hope of saving Yehuda's life and that he would be dead within days. (He did in fact die on June 11). At that time, Yehuda was the youngest Israeli victim of the conflict – born at the beginning of 2001 and murdered before the year was half over – and his attack was the lead story in all the Israeli press on June 6. Yet it was hard to find any news about Yehuda in Europe's press that day.
Instead the Daily Telegraph lead the first page of its "World news" section with a story stretching across seven columns, entitled "Family of 'martyred' Palestinian donates organs to let three Israelis live." The story implied that the Palestinian in question, Mazen Joulani, a 33-year-old pharmacist, had been shot dead in Jerusalem in a "revenge attack" (the paper's words) by Israel. But there have been virtually no deliberate killings of innocent Arabs by Israelis during the Intifada, and it subsequently transpired that Joulani – as was hinted at the very end of the article, for those who got that far – was shot by another Palestinian in a criminal act unrelated to the Intifada.
Nor did The Guardian mention any Jewish baby on June 6. Neither did the Independent. It, too, ran a story (albeit much shorter than the one in Daily Telegraph) entitled "Palestinian's organs go to Israelis." (Incidentally, I haven't seen similar articles when Israelis helped Palestinians – such as the donation on June 12 of the cornea of a teenager murdered in the Tel Aviv disco bomb, which restored the sight of an 11-year-old Arab girl.)
When Yehuda was mentioned in the Daily Telegraph the following day, June 7 ("West Bank violence after baby is injured") the story was accompanied not by a photo of Yehuda's mother keeping vigil over her dying baby, but by an enormous picture – about four times bigger than the text of the story – of an angry-looking bearded settler, gun in hand. A reader who looked at the photo and read only the headline of the piece and the photo caption would be forgiven for thinking that an Arab baby had been brain damaged by Jewish settlers, rather than the other way round. A reader who read the full text would have learned that settlers damaged a Palestinian greenhouse, before Yehuda's name was even mentioned.
On June 7, The Guardian carried two articles, "Israel slices through the low road to Gaza" and "US creeps back into Middle East." Yehuda was mentioned (although not by name) in half a sentence in the penultimate paragraph of the second of these articles, again only in the context of first mentioning that angry settlers had damaged Palestinian property. Do Israeli settlers have to riot in order to get the Western media to report on murdered Israeli babies?
When, on June 12, the Independent finally carried news about Yehuda, following his death the day before, its correspondent in effect acknowledged – perhaps inadvertently – that the case had not roused much international interest by telling his readers in the second sentence: "The case of Yehuda Shoham, and his six-day battle for life, has made headlines in Israel."
In contrast the same correspondent's reports about Palestinian victims such as Sami (whom he tells us was just a school kid whose "dream was to make a living growing flowers"), he had little sympathy to spare for Yehuda or his parents.
On the rare occasions when British papers do attempt to give "settler" victims an identity, they often get it wrong. The Independent, for example, reporting on the murder of Assaf Hershkovitz as he drove home from work by (as the Independent would have it) "Hamas guerillas... avenging Israeli death squads," inserted the wrong photo, that of an unknown bearded man. (Hershkovitz did not have a beard.) No doubt a mistake, but one that may well point to the subconscious stereotypes of settlers that the desk editors in London have picked up from the correspondents in Jerusalem.
Yehuda Shoham was not alone in having his plight ignored. When, on March 26, 10-month-old Shalhevet Pass was shot dead in her pram by a Fatah sniper perched on a Hebron rooftop, the Israeli foreign ministry says it took six hours to persuade CNN to show a photo of Shalhevet. Israeli government officials – who had to supply the photo themselves (journalists didn't seem very interested in requesting one from the family) – say they literally had to plead with CNN to use the photo, intervening at "the highest levels" before CNN finally agreed to do so.
It is difficult to decide which European country has the most anti-Israel media, but Jewish leaders in France claim it is theirs. One said recently, "Sometimes it is so hard to tell the difference between the reporting on Israel in France and reporting in Syria that you would think France was applying to chair the Arab League." In June, a number of Jewish readers of Le Monde – widely regarded as France's most serious daily paper – cancelled their subscriptions following reports which they said effectively blamed the Tel Aviv disco bomb on Israelis.
The bias in the Spanish media strikes me as even more blatant than that in France. The Spanish media is less cautious in trying to disguise its hostility than for example, the Danish or the Dutch media, where the bias is equally strong, but more subtle. (Spaniards, it should be noted, play a disproportionately important role in formulating Middle East policy for the whole EU. Both Xavier Solana the EU's high representative for foreign policy – Europe's de facto foreign minister – and Miguel Moratinos, the longtime Europe special envoy on the Middle East, are from Spain).
As an example of the Spanish approach, consider some recent cartoons from the Spanish press, culled over a two-week period in late May and early June. On June 4, 2001 (three days after a Palestinian suicide bomber killed 21 young Israelis at a disco, and wounded over 100 others, all in the midst of a unilateral Israeli ceasefire), the liberal weekly Cambio 16, published (on page 3) a cartoon of a hook-nosed Sharon, wearing a yarmulke on his head, sporting a swastika inside a star of David on his chest, and proclaiming: "At least Hitler taught me how to invade a country and destroy every living insect."
On May 23, El Pais (the "New York Times of Spain") published on page 10, a picture of an allegorical figure carrying a small rectangular-shaped black moustache, flying through the air towards Sharon's upper lip. The caption read: "Clio, the muse of history, puts Hitler's moustache on Ariel Sharon". Was this El Pais's way of telling its readers that on May 22, Sharon had taken the courageous decision to declare a unilateral ceasefire in spite of over a dozen bomb attacks and attempted bomb attacks against Israeli civilians during the previous week?
On May 25, the daily La Vanguardia published a large cartoon at the top of page 22. On the left side of the picture, there was an imposing building, with a large sign outside reading "Museo del Holocausto Judio" (Museum of the Jewish Holocaust). On the right there was a half-constructed building, with a crane busy at work in the background, and a sign in front, reading "Futuro Museo del Holocausto Palestino" (Future Museum of the Palestinian Holocaust").
On June 2, while Israeli teenagers were fighting for their lives in hospital with shards of glass and ball bearings imbedded in their brains following the Tel Aviv suicide bomb the day before, the cartoon on page 8 of La Razon, another Spanish daily, shows an Israeli soldier, with a star on his helmet, and large gun in hand, standing by barbed wire (presumably a border fence), with a large sign reading "To Rent: A kibbutz with the view of the genocide."
On June 7, the cartoon in La Razon (page 16) showed pretty houses and a bright sky on the left side (with the caption "Jewish settlements"), and a dark night with a cemetery of crosses stretching into the distance on the right side (with the caption "Palestinian settlements").
It would could easy to fill a whole issue of this publication with similar examples from across Europe. Mixed in with the general Jew-hatred and compulsive attempts to draw a parallel with the Holocaust, is a specifically Christian-based anti-Semitism. Although the overwhelming majority of Palestinians are Moslem, many of the cartoons (like the one in La Razon), and many of the headlines and news reports use Christian imagery. Phrases such as the "Palestinians' Via Dolorosa" and "the cross the Palestinians have to bear" are common in countries like France and Italy.
Anti-Semitism drawing on Christian traditions can be found on TV, too. For example, the BBC's chief Jerusalem correspondent Hillary Anderson began one recent report on the deaths of Palestinian children by saying: "Deep underground in Bethlehem are the remnants of an atrocity so vile, so far back in history, King Herod's slaughter of the innocents." (The camera meanwhile showed a pile of skulls.) Then she moved on to the deaths of the Palestinian children, evoking Herod's Massacre of the Innocents, to remind the viewer that Jews, who tried to kill the infant Christ, are busy killing innocent children once again.
The allegation that Israel has deliberately tried to kill Palestinian children is horrible and deeply upsetting. But equally upsetting is the possibility that Hillary Anderson and her producers at the BBC, do not know that the myth of Herod's slaughter is the original anti-Semitic blood libel, which arguably gave rise to centuries of persecution and pogroms, culminating in the Holocaust?
Anderson's reports, it should be added, appear not only on the British domestic BBC channels (the example above was on BBC 2's influential "Newsnight" show), but on BBC World – "The BBC's 24 Hour Global TV News Channel". In the last few years, BBC World has become required viewing across the world for those interested in current affairs, to rival CNN International, and is particularly popular in Europe, as English fast becomes the must-know language of young people across the continent. The channel's reporting on the Middle East has been riddled with slanted and inaccurate reporting, and has been widely criticized across the entire political spectrum in Israel.
Internationally, certain programs have attracted particular criticism, such as the flagship "Panorama" documentary in late June, entitled "The Accused" – the program singled out Ariel Sharon from among all the world's leaders and asked whether he should be indicted for war crimes. But in fact, the "Panorama" episode – which was aired four times in a single weekend by BBC World and has since been repeatedly hailed in the Arab media as a "brilliant piece of journalism" – is only the tip of the iceberg of the misreporting which the BBC puts out about Israel. (The reports by Anderson and other BBC correspondents also air on BBC World Service Radio, which attracts 153 million listeners daily.)
Some of the media's "mistakes" are easily spottable to those who know Israel. When the Guardian writes that "The [Israeli] gunships struck just hours after militants had sent mortar shells crashing into the Jewish settlement of Sderot, near Gaza" (April 17, 2001), many will know that Sderot is not a "settlement " but a sleepy town in Israel's Negev desert.
Much more insidious from Israel's point of view is that in many cases the misreporting will not be apparent to even well-informed readers outside Israel, because they will simply not know what the media has omitted. When, for example, on November 12, shots were fired at the car of UN Human Rights Commissioner Mary Robinson, as she toured Hebron, practically the entire world media rushed to blame Israel. The Danish police were then brought in to investigate, as impartial outsiders. Yet when the investigation concluded that the tracer bullet was fired from a Kalashnikov assault rifle of a type used by Palestinian forces, and from the Arab-run part of the city, it was hard to find any mention of the fact in the international media.
Often the "mistakes are small. The Daily Telegraph, for example, wrote on July 3 that "An Israeli settler was shot dead by Palestinian gunmen near the West Bank city of Tulkarm," when in fact the man in question, Aharon Abidan, was a resident of the central Israeli town of Zichron Ya'akov, and he was killed while going to the market in an Arab-Israeli town in the Galilee. But taken together such misleading references add up to paint a false picture.
A good deal of the selective reporting derives from the fact that both the print and broadcast media rely heavily on Associated Press and Reuters to provide the text, photos and film footage from the West Bank and Gaza. In turn, the news agencies are heavily dependent on a whole network of Palestinian stringers, freelancers and fixers all over the territories to provide instant reports or footage of events.
As Ehud Ya'ari, Israel television's foremost expert on Palestinian affairs, put it recently: "The vast majority of information of every type coming out of the area is being filtered through Palestinian eyes. Cameras are angled to show a tainted view of the Israeli army's actions and never focus on the Palestinian gunmen. Written reports focus on the Palestinian version of events. And even those Palestinians who don't support the Intifada dare not show or describe anything embarrassing to the Palestinian Authority, for fear they may provoke the wrath of Yasser Arafat's security forces."
Sometimes the local Palestinians admit their bias. For example, Fayad Abu Shamala, the BBC's Gaza correspondent for the past ten years, told a Hamas rally on May 6 that "journalists and media organizations [are] waging the campaign shoulder-to-shoulder together with the Palestinian people." Yet no British paper (apart from the local Anglo-Jewish press) agreed to publicize these remarks. The best the BBC could do in response to requests from Israel that they distance themselves from these remarks, was to issue a statement saying, "Fayad's remarks were made in a private capacity. His reports have always matched the best standards of balance required by the BBC."
The principal reason for the bias, however, is that many western correspondents sent to cover the Middle East are not in effect living in Israel, but in occupied Palestine, as they perceive it. Whereas many pride themselves on knowing some Arabic, few make any effort to learn Hebrew. As a result, they are detached from Israeli life. Their encounters with Israelis are mainly with government and army spokespeople, or other kinds of bureaucrats – being asked irritating questions at airports, being kept in line renewing visas, and so on.
The fault here ultimately lies with the bureaus themselves. Most would not send correspondents to Paris without French, or to Cairo without Arabic, or to Moscow without Russian. Even in Prague, where I worked for three years, the foreign reporters all spent many months learning Czech.
Occasionally, the media has responded in print to Jewish concerns over Western media reporting. They have not been sympathetic. David Leigh, the Guardian's comment editor (in an article headlined "Media Manipulators,") dismissed Jews who had criticized the paper's Israel coverage as "right-wing extremists." Another Guardian columnist wrote that at least some of the protests were "sinister" and directed by "a shadowy ultra-orthodox Jewish group."
A senior figure in the British media (a Jew) told me: " When Indians and Pakistanis in Britain have raised complaints about reporting in our newspaper, their concerns were treated with some respect, and often they received an apology. But when Jews complained, they were shrugged off or treated with contempt for even suggesting bias. England seems to be a country where to accuse somebody of anti-Semitism is far more impolite than being one."
Again, when the deputy director of Israel's foreign ministry said that the BBC's coverage of Israel is "tinged with anti-Semitism," BBC special correspondent Fergal Keane said this was a "contemptible" and "ludicrous" charge.
Was world chess champion Gary Kasparov also being "ludicrous" when he wrote an op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal specifically citing the BBC coverage and then concluding "the international press is stirring anti-Semitism with its one-sided reports on Israel"? Was Neville Nagler, a distinguished man who heads the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and has written about the media's "gross distortions of the truth", also "ludicrous"? Was Ehud Barak's foreign minister, the urbane and academic Shlomo Ben Ami, also being "ludicrous" when he said, in connection with the BBC and other European broadcasters, that "The Western cultural consciousness is too burdened by its role in the persecution of Jews to give Israel a fair hearing"?
DOES IT MATTER?
Does the bias, in the end, matter? In my view, it does, and not just because the truth is always important.
For one thing, it is clear that inaccurate reporting is influencing international diplomatic efforts. A distorted picture of events is helping to produce correspondingly distorted policies, particularly in Europe.
Then, as Shimon Peres pointed out recently, there are cases where media bias bears a direct responsibility for encouraging acts of violence. Peres cited the example of a local Fatah leader caught by an Israeli army camera saying, "Don't start the stoning yet. I have just been told that CNN crew is stuck in traffic near Ramallah."
In addition, as Jewish organizations in Europe and beyond can confirm, there is a clear link between inflammatory reporting about Israel and physical attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in the countries where the reports are published or broadcast. Correspondents may not realize it, but their unfair reporting plays into pre-existing anti-Semitic feelings.
Meanwhile the imbalanced media coverage – and 90 percent of Israeli homes get CNN and the BBC – has only served to harden positions, thereby reducing further the prospects for peace. Many Israeli liberals have told me that they hadn't realized how much the world hates them. Again and again I have heard words to the effect that "I never supported the Likud before, but I see now the necessity of fortifying Israel further."
The systematic building up a false picture of Israel as aggressor, and deliberate killer of babies and children, is helping to slowly chip away at Israel's legitimacy. How can ordinary people elsewhere not end up hating such a country? And contrary to the perceptions of some, Israel is not a big tough major power that can withstand such international antagonism indefinitely. As the Jews have learnt only too well, acts of wholesale destruction and ultimately genocide did not just spring forth in a vacuum: they were the product of a climate. The international media is not an innocent bystander in this affair.
[Tom Gross reported from the Middle East for major international newspapers for the past six years, and previously served as a United Nations human-rights adviser on Czech Roma (Gypsies).]