British media under fire over Israel, Iraq

April 03, 2003

CONTENTS

1. "How can ordinary people elsewhere not end up hating such a country?"
2. "In poisoned English" (Jerusalem Post magazine, March 27, 2003).
3. The BBC becomes the story" (By Douglas Davis, Jerusalem Post, April 2, 2003)
4. "BBC boss admits 'daily' mistakes in Iraq" (Guardian, March 28, 2003)


[Note by Tom Gross]

First the good news, in case you haven't heard already. Matthew McAllester, whom I referred to in my previous dispatch, has been released along with other journalists detained without charge in an Iraqi prison for a week. They are now safely in Jordan. Thank you to those journalists on this list who publicized their plight.

“HOW CAN ORDINARY PEOPLE ELSEWHERE NOT END UP HATING SUCH A COUNTRY?”

I attach three articles relating to media bias and Britain, the first concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the others to Iraq.

In summary:

1. "In poisoned English" (The Jerusalem Post magazine, March 27, 2003). This article, by Ori Golan, relates how anti-Israel coverage in the UK media has sometimes reached hysterical proportions during the last three years. It includes quotes and analysis from Israeli officials, and from various journalists, including BBC reporters who don't want to be named. It also includes several quotes by myself in the last third of the article. These include: "Says Tom Gross, who worked in Israel as a reporter for six years: 'The systematic building up of 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?'"

Golan adds: "So urgent do [Britain's Jewish community] perceive the situation, that they have enlisted the help of two senior American political strategists, Stanley Greenberg and Frank Lunz to counter the general anti-Israel atmosphere that pervades the media circles."

2. "The BBC becomes the story" (By Douglas Davis, Jerusalem Post, April 2, 2003). Since the start of the Iraq war, some critics of the BBC have dubbed it the "Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation." A senior cabinet minister, John Reid, the chairman of the ruling Labor Party, has accused it of behaving as "a friend of Baghdad." "It's almost as if the BBC has its own war plan and if the army don't conform to what they think it should be doing then it's a 'setback'," said one unnamed British government official.

The BBC's own defense correspondent, Paul Adams delivered a devastating critique in a memo to senior BBC executives last week. "I was gobsmacked to hear, in a set of headlines today, that the coalition was suffering 'significant casualties,'" he wrote. "This is simply NOT TRUE. Nor is it true to say ... that coalition forces are fighting 'guerrillas.' It may be guerrilla warfare but they are not guerrillas. And who dreamt up the line that the coalition are achieving 'small victories at a very high price'? The truth is exactly the opposite. The gains are huge and the costs still relatively low. This is real warfare, however one-sided, and losses are to be expected."

3. "BBC boss admits 'daily' mistakes in Iraq" (The Guardian, March 28, 2003). A senior BBC News executive today admitted that the reporting of allied military claims in Iraq that later prove false, such as heralding the fall of Umm Qasr at least nine times, had "left the public feeling less well-informed than it should be". Mark Damazer, the deputy director of BBC News, also admitted the BBC had been making mistakes "on a daily basis" during the first week of the Iraq conflict, but denied there was any deliberate bias towards either the pro or anti-war camps. He said it was also "not good" to open a news bulletin by announcing that the death of two soldiers was the "worst possible news for the armed forces".

-- Tom Gross


FULL ARTICLES

“THERE ARE MANY JOURNALISTS WHO’VE NEVER MET AN ISRAELI IN THEIR LIVES”

In poisoned English
By Ori Golan
The Jerusalem Post magazine
March 27, 2003

The past thirty months' Palestinian-Israeli violence has created fertile ground for anti-Semitism in Britain, and for criticism of Israel's' response to it

On January 27 this year, on Britain's Holocaust Memorial Day, the London-based Independent published a cartoon of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon biting off the head of a Palestinian child as helicopter warships bombard villages and call out "Vote Sharon!" The drawing deeply offended the Jewish community, not least because of its anti-Semitic undertones.

In response to the high volume of complaints from readers, the newspaper published full-page responses from two prominent Jewish public figures: MP Gerald Kaufman and Ned Temko, editor of the Jewish Chronicle. Kaufman insisted that the cartoon was little more than satire and that it was time to tell the Israeli government to "buzz off"; Temko described the cartoon as not only shocking but appalling. Finally, the cartoonist himself, Dave Brown, had his say. It was all allegory, he explained, inspired by Goya's painting, Saturn.

Shuli Davidovich, the Israeli press attach in London, who responds to anti-Israel bias in the British media and fights tirelessly in Israel's corner, lodged a formal complaint to the Press Complaints Commission which has written to the newspaper asking for its response.

Israel's position in Britain has suffered a serious blow since the start of the intifada. Twisted, biased and misleading reports have created a hostile environment and given rise to fierce criticism of Israel. So why has Israel's image in the British press taken such a battering?

"Firstly, there's the issue of morality", says Davidovich. "Israel will only publish photos of terror attack victims after receiving permission from the victim's family and the go-ahead from the photographer... Even though other media outlets publish these horrific scenes without compunction, we will refuse to do so, as a matter of respect to the families.

"On the other hand, Palestinians often invite camera crews to film 'their massacres' and what you get is an unbalanced, distorted picture.

"In terms of substance, Israel is not made up of one official body," Davidovich says. "There is the Prime Minister's Office, the Government Press Office, the police, the Foreign Ministry, and the IDF. This multiplicity of spokesmen can slow down the process before an official statement can be made. Before we can comment on any specific issue or incident, it has to be verified and checked by a chain of command. Unfortunately sometimes, by the time we go through all the channels, the story has done the rounds in the press and we lose the momentum."

In the absence of an Israeli response, Palestinian commentaries fill the airwaves and the newspapers.

One glaring example was the IDF's incursion into Jenin last April. Initially Saeb Erekat, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority, spoke of 3,000 Palestinian dead, then of 500. Meanwhile Palestinian "eyewitnesses" described it as a "massacre of epic proportions." The British media relayed these unverified figures and soon tales of mass murders, cover-ups, common graves, and war crimes began filling the front pages of the newspapers and dominating television and radio airtime.

"We are talking here of massacre, and a cover-up, of genocide," wrote columnist A.N. Wilson, in the Evening Standard, London's main newspaper. By the time a more accurate picture emerged, and it was evident that no massacre had taken place in Jenin, the damage had been done. In the British psyche, Israel had killed, maimed, pillaged and destroyed.

A newspaper reporter who was based in Israel (and asks to remain unnamed) describes the Israeli PR machine as "abysmal."

"More money is spent on promoting Bamba than on promoting Israel's image. The IDF Spokesman's Office personnel are young girls who are unable to cope with the work and unable to supply the goods. Basically, Israel is disabled by the fact that there are no good people responding to what people want in real time. "As a reporter in Israel you learn quickly that a lot of it is about fiefdoms, you can run around all day before you get a comment from an Israeli source. The Palestinians know their stuff. They'd spin us one line and they'd give it immediately."

Some of these sentiments were echoed last October in state comptroller, retired Supreme Court Justice Eliezer Goldberg's report, in which he severely criticized the Foreign Ministry and the Israel Defense Forces for the absence of coordination between them and their inability to explain Israel's side in the conflict with the Palestinians.

Director of the Israel Government Press Office Daniel Seaman, fails to understand what all the fuss is about. In an interview with French writer Yona Dureau he says: "The term: 'hasbara' comes from 'lehasbir'- to explain. Israel has nothing to explain. Why does Israel have to explain itself? Do other countries have to constantly justify themselves?... There is nothing to explain and if other countries don't understand, too bad for them. Israel has nothing to explain."

Winston Pickett, head of external relations for the London-based Institute for Jewish Policy Research (JPR) sounds a shrill warning.

"Israel needs to understand that hasbara is not a luxury or an afterthought. It is a strategic necessity. There is a constant need for hasbara to get the message out in good times as well as bad. It also must not be episodic or crisis-oriented. You cannot expect the media to cover 'your side' of the story when you haven't bothered to cultivate it."

Veteran radio commentator Michael Freedland claims that Israel's image problem is not new, but an issue which has long been overlooked by successive Israeli governments.

"In 1973, shortly after the Yom Kippur war, then-prime minister Golda Meir came to Britain. I was running a Jewish radio program at the time called You don't have to be Jewish, which boasted an audience of 150,000 listeners. I asked her for an interview while she was here. 'Darling,' she said to me, 'I don't have time.' She then spent 10 minutes telling me she didn't have five minutes for an interview.

"The Arabs would appear on British TV and have someone articulate and bright and the Israelis would find a Knesset member who hardly spoke English. There is no doubt that Israel doesn't consider anything outside the US as very important."

Yoav Biran, former ambassador to Britain and director-general of the Foreign Ministry, rebuts these claims.

"I concede that there is a problem with quantity, but not quality. We take the whole issue of 'hasbara' very seriously and have some excellent, eloquent English speakers who are able to put Israel's stand across. It is a sad fact that much of the reporting about Israel lacks context and there are more and more bastions of unfair and unprofessional reporting."

But if the government is taking hasbara seriously, then it is unclear why it is not investing in it. The current budget allocated for this purpose stands at NIS 40 million. This covers all Israeli embassies around the world, including the salaries of paid staff specifically employed in promoting Israel's image. And with this paltry budget about to be cut further, the situation does not look likely to improve.

Despite the pecuniary constraints, Davidovich says that the embassy is making inroads.

"We meet as many journalists, presenters and editors as possible. We put them in touch with officials in Israel, academics and individuals who are affected by the situation. We also offer them ideas and facilitate meetings for them. It's important for us that they get to know us. Whenever there's a debate or interview on television or the radio, we try and get Israel's version also represented. If there is no Israeli side, we will lodge a complaint. Sometimes it works sometimes it doesn't; it's Sisyphean work."

The British Israel Communications and Research Center (BICOM) was set up by members of Britain's Jewish community in the wake of the second intifada. Its aim is to bring speakers who can explain Israel's position, as well as to effect a shift in opinion of Israel among the general public and opinion-formers. So urgent do they perceive the situation, that they have enlisted the help of two senior American political strategists, Stanley Greenberg and Frank Lunz to counter the general anti-Israel atmosphere that pervades the media circles.

But should Israeli policy be undertaken and underwritten by non-Israelis?

Says Biran: "The fact that there are organizations in a number of countries whose aim is to promote Israel's stand in the media, is an expression of concern for Israel, alongside the financial constraints on Israel. I view it as a very positive thing. I wish we could say 'don't worry about us,' but we can't and their help is greatly appreciated."

Professor Barry Kosmin, executive director of JPR takes a different view.

"I think it is more than a little embarrassing and in a public relations sense perhaps, ill-advised to have Israel's only effective strategic communication coming out of a British Jewish communal organization. If I were an Israeli taxpayer I would be incensed that my government has never put sufficient resources, time, or sophistication into this crucial area.

"Israel is one of the few states in modern times that has been engaged in a war without establishing a centralized ministry of information or propaganda. Instead, it has relied on incoherent messages from various ministries controlled by different and often rival political parties. Not being 'on message' is bad. Not having a message at all is patently dangerous. Having numerous and contradictory messages only guarantees a public relations disaster."

BICOM recently carried out research on anti-Israel attitudes in Britain. Its report highlights that much of Israel's negative image in the British media is attributed to presentation. It is not getting its message across. Blunt and unequivocal language, concludes the report, particularly with an Israeli accent, is much too confrontational for British audiences.

"Some of the negative images of Israelis," says a foreign editor of one of the broadsheets, "must be attributed to mentality: when you meet Israelis often they come across as plain rude: they shoot from the hip. They see themselves as being 'dugri' but are perceived as being rude. The Palestinians are more refined; there's a whole protocol they follow. I think it's important to bear these things in mind because it causes antagonism."

Still, accent, age or arrogance cannot fully account for Israel's negative image. At issue is coverage lacking in truth, fairness and context. Many of the Israel-based correspondents are journalists with a minimal knowledge of the area, its history or geography.

Davidovich agrees: "There are many journalists who've never met an Israeli in their lives. Some have no idea how big or even where Israel is. I was once asked by an editor of a magazine about the number of Israeli soldiers manning the Suez Canal. He was surprised to hear that the Suez Canal is no longer part of Israel."

Tom Gross worked in Israel for six years as a reporter for the Sunday Telegraph and other papers. Many journalists, he says, follow a pack mentality, picking up similar views to their colleagues.

"Many don't speak Hebrew and don't have close Israeli acquaintances. As a result, they pick up story leads and ideas from their colleagues.

"In London the majority of BBC producers and editors I know read only the Guardian or the Independent," says Gross. "Because of this they acquire a one-sided picture of events and developments, and this in turn is conveyed to viewers. I remember one features writer from the Daily Mail. He had no particular knowledge of the Middle East or views on the conflict. He was sent to Israel to write a human-interest story on child victims of the conflict. Yet in conversation it turned out he had absolutely no idea that Israeli children had also been killed. He assumed that they were all Palestinian. He had simply picked up this impression from the BBC and others."

While some journalists are careless, sloppy, or ignorant, others are on a crusade. Robert Fisk, the Beirut-based correspondent for the Independent, is a prime example. Israel-bashing has become his stock in trade and he is famed for his biased, often malicious dispatches.

A colleague of Fisk's says: "He [Fisk] is just a person whose mind has been closed. He writes very well; his main trouble is the size of his ego. He makes the facts fit his views and mixes up between reporting and campaigning. It is common knowledge that he plays loose and fast with his facts and his 'eyewitness' accounts."

But it's not just Fisk, or his newspaper.

A BBC reporter, who refuses to be named or identified, recalls reporting from Israel and the territories. "I found a pervasive mindset inside the BBC which dictated that the narrative was that the Israelis were killing the Palestinians.

"There was a failure to give credence to Israeli sources but to believe Palestinian ones. I once filed a story about [a certain incident] which, I found out, was wrong. I immediately called the BBC to tell them that the story wasn't true, but they decided to run it anyway, a number of times that day. Operation Defensive Shield was a huge failure on their part.

"It's not just the BBC of course. Suzanne Goldenberg [former Guardian correspondent in Israel] is a campaigner, not a reporter. Her political opinions were reflected in her reporting. One wonders if the Guardian's choice of a reporter with a Jewish-sounding name was a coincidence or a fig leaf."

Pickett sees the British media as being of vital importance in the electronic war against Israel.

"The global reach of the BBC, for example, must be recognized. Its World Service in dozens of languages is transmitted throughout the Muslim and Third World precisely in those regions where Israel is demonized the most. If Israel wants to counter its negative image there, it has to try to find ways to offset the BBC here."

Indeed, Britain with its integral place in the EU and Nato, its historical links with the Middle East, its special relationship with the US, and its veto power in the UN Security Council is key to redressing the balance. In the war of words, truth, integrity and honesty, are the first casualties. It is in Israel's interest to insist that these are upheld.

SIDE BAR TO THE ABOVE ARTICLE

The subtext

There is a prevailing feeling among the Jewish community of Britain that the anti-Israel bias has an anti-Semitic subtext.

"A lot of it," says a BBC reporter who does not want his name used, "is about bringing down the Jews a peg or two. Until I started working as a correspondent I did not believe for a minute that anti-Israel attitudes in the media were in any way anti-Semitic. Unfortunately, working closely with foreign journalists in the last few years has made me change my mind in some cases.

"The post-Holocaust honeymoon is over for the Jews. No one is suggesting that Israel is perfect, but if you look at the tone of criticism, it is out of all proportion to any rational or objective analysis. I've covered a number of conflicts around the world, but the wholesale dehumanization of Israel makes me very uncomfortable. It also encourages anti-Semitic incidents, which is hardly surprising.

"If Israel is portrayed as a killer of children how can readers not have negative feelings towards Israel and by extension towards Jews? The reporting during the intifada has shown that anti-Semitic attitudes are still ingrained in European societies deeper than many Europeans are themselves aware or prepared to admit."

Leader writer and foreign affairs specialist for The Times, Michael Binyon, rejects the idea of anti-Semitism as a factor in the anti-Israel reporting.

"I don't think anti-Semitism has anything to do with it, nor do I think it's a decisive factor in British life. What does happen is that there's anti-Israel campaigning, which is then transferred to Jewish lobbyists of Israel: Melanie Philips, Barbara Amiel (wife of Hollinger owner Conrad Black) and other commentators who are naturally very sensitive to this. In general, playing the anti-Semitic card gets people annoyed.

"The anti-Israel shift is related to the Likud government. Barak was criticized for wasting chances, but he wasn't seen to be doing the wrong thing. There's tremendous suspicion of Sharon's and Netanyahu's motives. The press department can only do so much, it cannot change government policies. The Palestinian leadership is also bad, but Israel has forced Arafat into a martyr role."

Reporting on a conflict, says Binyon, is a question of getting the balance right.

"This is true not just in Israel but also in Cyprus or Northern Ireland. However, there's particular scrutiny of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict due to its implication: it has gone right across the Muslim world and is causing all kinds of reactions, a lot more than Kashmir. This is because it's one of the few foreign issues which America takes an active interest in, since it's a domestic issue there."

But even if Israel is getting bad publicity in the British press, can it have any serious consequences?

Anti-Semitic incidents in Britain are on the rise. At the same time a number of boycotts have been officially announced against Israel within academic and commercial circles as well as the entertainment industry. Calls for the boycotting of Israeli goods have proliferated; anti-war demonstrations are regularly hijacked by pro-Palestinian supporters waving anti-Israel placards and racist banners; and Israel-bashing has become the "bon ton" at dinner parties.

Says Tom Gross, who worked in Israel as a reporter for six years: "The systematic building up of 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?"

 

“BAGHDAD BROADCASTING CORPORATION”

The BBC becomes the story
By Douglas Davis
The Jerusalem Post
April 2, 2003

The media is a window on the war, but it is also a weapon, as the BBC has demonstrated since the start of the Iraq war. Such is the anger it has generated among some of its critics that this very British institution has been dubbed the "Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation."

Now a senior cabinet minister, John Reid, the chairman of the ruling Labor Party, has joined the band of BBC critics by accusing it of behaving as "a friend of Baghdad."

The BBC's political editor, Andrew Marr, shrugged off the criticism: "Ministers are angry they can control where reporters go but what they cannot control is what they see," he pronounced airily. "Ministers seem to think anyone taking a balanced view is a friend of Baghdad."

Cabinet ministers are indeed troubled that the BBC is projecting a deeply negative image of the allies' performance on the battlefield while ignoring its significant achievements: "It's almost as if the BBC has its own war plan and if the army don't conform to what they think it should be doing then it's a 'setback'," said one unnamed British government official.

This view is supported by none other than the BBC's own defense correspondent, Paul Adams, currently based in the Gulf, who delivered a devastating critique in a memo to senior BBC executives last week.

"I was gobsmacked to hear, in a set of headlines today, that the coalition was suffering 'significant casualties,'" he wrote. "This is simply NOT TRUE. Nor is it true to say ... that coalition forces are fighting 'guerrillas.' It may be guerrilla warfare but they are not guerrillas.

"And who dreamt up the line that the coalition are achieving 'small victories at a very high price'? The truth is exactly the opposite. The gains are huge and the costs still relatively low. This is real warfare, however one-sided, and losses are to be expected."

Commenting on the affair, The Washington Post diplomatically observed that the BBC was "taking flak for its cover-all-sides approach," quoting one of the army of BBC reporters deployed in the region, former Jerusalem correspondent Lyse Doucet: "Many commentators say it's not just Saddam Hussein who is under attack, but Iraq: its dignity and honor and the honor of the entire Arab world." Another BBC reporter boldly read a headline from an Arab newspaper which declared: "A Day of Glorious Losses."

Daily Telegraph columnist Barbara Amiel noted bluntly that "the BBC's News and Current Affairs doesn't bother honoring values of even-handedness. It has become an undisguised opponent of American policies and of Britain's insofar as they coincide with America's. This is especially true of Middle East policy."

None of these accusations of imbalance and inaccuracy, of course, will come as a surprise to media consumers in Israel. What makes the BBC's behavior particularly heinous in the current circumstances is the relentless indulgence of its penchant for what might be politely termed "moral equivalence" at a time when Britain is at war with a brutal enemy and its servicemen are dying on the battlefield (remember, the BBC is a public service broadcaster funded by British taxpayers).

This is not to suggest the BBC should offer a diet of jingoistic reports from the front or prejudice the standards of journalism that other major media organizations strive to maintain.

But nor should it allow its anti-Western petticoat to show as it competes with Al-Jazeera to prove its objectivity and independence.

 

BBC BOSS ADMITS “DAILY” MISTAKES IN IRAQ

BBC boss admits 'daily' mistakes in Iraq
By Jason Deans
The Guardian
March 28, 2003

A senior BBC News executive today admitted that the reporting of allied military claims in Iraq that later prove false, such as heralding the fall of Umm Qasr at least nine times, had "left the public feeling less well-informed than it should be".

Mark Damazer, the deputy director of BBC News, also admitted the BBC had been making mistakes "on a daily basis" during the first week of the Iraq conflict, but denied there was any deliberate bias towards either the pro or anti-war camps.

"I don't deny for a moment that the accumulation of things that have happened in the first week, such as the false claims about the fall of Umm Qasr and the surrender of the Iraqi 51st division, have left the public feeling they are not as well informed as they should be," Mr Damazer said.

"But it's perfectly proper for us to say 'a British defence source has said there's an uprising in Basra' and not report it as gospel truth. We attribute wherever possible to a source. The secret is attribution, qualification and scepticism," he added.

Mr Damazer said allegations by the anti-war lobby that the BBC had become "shackled" by the government and military were "profoundly ill-judged and unfair".

"Although it's unquestionably true that we make mistakes, and on a daily basis, we don't only make them in [a pro-war] direction," he added, speaking last night at a meeting of Media Workers Against the War.

Mr Damazer admitted one of the areas where the BBC had made mistakes was in its use of language, but that it was seeking to put this right.

"If we have used the word 'liberate' in our own journalism, as in 'such and such a place had been liberated by allied forces', that's a mistake," he said.

"That is the wrong language to use without evidence of Iraqi people feeling as though they have been liberated," Mr Damazer added.

He said it was also "not good" to open a news bulletin by announcing that the death of two soldiers was the "worst possible news for the armed forces".

Mr Damazer added that although the death of two soldiers was obviously the "worst possible news for their families", far worse things could happen on the battlefield with far greater loss of life, for which language such as "the worst possible news for the armed forces" would be more appropriate.


All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.