Lawyer takes on BBC over “bias”; The Guardian reflects

May 26, 2002


1. "War and pieces" (Guardian, May 18, 2002)
2. "Open door: Balancing act" (Guardian, May 25, 2002)
3. The New York Times responds to boycott (New York Times, May 23, 2002)
4. "'Israelis kill Palestinians' is less of a story these days than 'Israelis DON'T kill Palestinians'." (Daily Telegraph, May 24, 2002)
5. "Lawyer takes on BBC over 'bias'" (Jewish Chronicle, May 24, 2002)


[Note by Tom Gross]

I attach five pieces concerning media reporting of Israel. The first three from the (London) Guardian and New York Times show that these influential and often anti-Israeli dailies on respective sides of the Atlantic, are making an attempt to listen to the criticism leveled at them.

Have we "been anti-Semitic" asks the Guardian?

"Intense public reaction to coverage of the violence of the Middle East conflict has prompted unusually harsh attacks on... and has led to a boycott of The New York Times," admits the New York Times, some weeks into the current boycott.

The last two items, from the British publications the Daily Telegraph and the Jewish Chronicle concern the BBC, which has not admitted any bias against Israel. The first item concerns an email about Jenin sent by the BBC's editor for live political programs to fellow BBC staff. The second is a story about a London lawyer who claims that in its sustained misreporting about Israel, the British government-owned BBC has failed to follow its own policy guidelines on accuracy and impartiality.

I would like to thank all of you who wrote concerning my recent piece "Jeningrad: What the British media said." I don't have time to reply to everyone individually. Among those who wrote to me was the editor in chief of The Guardian, a paper I criticized in the article. While he was critical of my piece in some respects he also acknowledged that I had "some good points." To read this article please see the dispatch Jeningrad What the British media said (May 13, 2002).

-- Tom Gross




War and pieces [First of two parts. Second part next Saturday]
The readers' editor on... criticism of our Middle East coverage
By Ian Mayes
The Guardian
May 18, 2002

This week I circulated Guardian staff, and not just the journalists, with the following questionnaire: Do you think the Guardian's Middle East coverage has been fair or unfair to the Israeli side? Has it been fair or unfair to the Palestinians? Has it been anti-semitic? Has it been anti-Islam (or anti- Palestinian). Do you think the coverage has changed in any way in recent weeks?

General comments were invited and many of the 30 or so who responded chose to give me their views entirely in this form and to ignore the questionnaire so I cannot give you tabulated results. The intention, in any case, was simply to let you in on some of the thinking inside the Guardian. I tried to put the questions in a way that did not suggest a particular response. The majority of those who answered believe the coverage has been good and generally fair.

First, here are the views of a non-journalist colleague who believes it has been unfair to the Israeli side, anti-semitic and indulgent to the Palestinians: "I am sure I will be the lone voice in criticising [the] treatment of the conflict, but without exception my friends (and not all of them are supportive of Sharon) feel the paper is virulently anti-Israel (and anti-semitic) and not one of them would consider buying it. My own family were loyal Guardian readers but stopped in the 1990s because of its relentless hostility towards Israel... [Now I] try very hard not to read articles about the conflict as they only succeed in disappointing me with their blatant anti-Israel sentiments and the plain inaccuracy of the reporting."

She lists examples, with Jenin at the head. "I was utterly disgusted at the front page headline 'Massacre' regarding Jenin. The newspaper has a responsibility, especially given how delicate the situation is, not to report such damaging accusations unless it has the proof to back it up. Where was the bold headline saying, 'Lies, there was no massacre'?"

The comments I have quoted strongly reflect complaints from Jewish, or pro-Israeli readers, which far outweigh complaints from pro-Palestinian or other sources.

In fact the Guardian has not at any time applied the word "massacre" to the events at Jenin. On Wednesday April 17, it carried the following headline across the front page: Israel faces rage over 'massacre'. The word was enclosed in single quotation marks a subtlety lost in the passions generated. The accompanying report, beneath the bylines of three staff journalists, recorded the Commons debate in which Gerald Kaufman denounced Mr Sharon as a "war criminal". It did not attribute the term "massacre" to Mr Kaufman. It made it clear that it came from a leading Palestinian, Nabil Shaath. It also quoted an Israeli government spokesman dismissing the allegations as "ridiculous".

The sensitivity is easily understood. But it cannot be said too often that the coverage should be judged over a period. A senior correspondent and commentator, who believes the coverage in general has been "pretty good and pretty balanced", felt that the paper's overall reporting of Jenin showed its skill in getting the facts and "getting them from both sides". A piece featuring Palestinian anger and distress should be seen against a contrasting report "about Israel soldiers' anger that the restraint they showed in the Jenin operation was not recognised". He believes the Guardian made it clear from the start that "there was no real likelihood of a Jenin massacre and kept the larger picture in view better than other journals".

He made this point, however, about balance. "It does not mean what some insist on, namely that every time Sharon is criticised there must be a sideswipe at Arafat, or that every time Israeli operations are mentioned, the most recent suicide bombings must be recalled in considerable detail.

"Balance does not mean that blame must be equally apportioned much of the American coverage that is, up to a point, critical of Israel suffers from this false symmetry... We do not normally fall into the trap of this deeply unbalanced balance." One colleague, not involved in the Middle East coverage said, "I am fed up with being reproached every time I tell any active member of the Jewish community that I work for the Guardian." He did feel there was cause for concern. He felt, for instance, that to revert to Jenin the use of the word "massacre", even in inverted commas, was "extremely prejudicial... A day later we were writing that there was no evidence of a massacre at all."

I shall continue this next week, with more comments and the views of the editor and foreign editor.




Open door: Balancing act
The readers' editor on.... charges that the paper has been anti-semitic
By Ian Mayes
The Guardian
May 25, 2002

Many of the Guardian journalists who responded to my invitation to give their views on the paper's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict commented on accusations, levelled in correspondence from Jewish readers, that it has been anti-semitic.

One or two thought there had been occasional lapses which might have encouraged an inclination to see it that way a reference to "the comparative wealth and position of Britain's Jewish community", was one phrase cited and compared with a piece which referred to Jewish control of Hollywood and the media. (The latter was 18 months ago and I responded to it then by saying it contained statements which were understandably construed as anti-semitic.) Another journalist, citing similar examples, thought that a few months ago the coverage was "so anti-Israeli it was embarrassing".

There was a strong rejection by practically everyone of the suggestion that the coverage was permeated by anti-semitism, an impression that sometimes appears to have been formed remotely: "My Jewish family think we only publish pro-Palestinian pieces and opinions because that's what they read in the Jewish press." Many read only selected articles circulated to them by lobbies.

One of the paper's leading commentators believes the perception of anti-semitism among the Jewish readership derives more from tone and a sense that the Guardian sees humanity only on the Palestinian side, that it will explain Palestinian action in a way less readily afforded to the Israelis. Jewish readers, he said, "are telling us loud and clear an inconvenient truth: that they see Israel as a version of themselves, that an attack on the Jewish state is an attack on Jews, whether we like it or not.

"The Guardian is a progressive paper with a noble history: we were first in the British press to realise the persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany and we were an early backer of the Zionist project. But now we are seen as a paper that is hostile to the Jews, one even liberal Jews cannot read any more."

One journalist insisted:"It is not anti-semitic to criticise the brutal and racist regime of Ariel Sharon... it is not anti-semitic to hear the voices of the Palestinians; it is not anti-semitic to see Palestinians as the victims of a situation in which they are overwhelmingly the underdog."

A senior Guardian journalist said: "One of the biggest problems for reporters [has been] to withstand the clearly orchestrated pressure to equate any criticism of Israeli government action with anti-semitism... The blackmail of making one feel ashamed to criticise Israeli actions... [can lead] to immeasurable damage."

A running criticism of the range of comment in the Guardian was, in fact, that it was short of articulate Palestinian and Muslim voices, some of which among the latter would be critical of the Palestinians.

The foreign editor believes that throughout the Guardian far more space has been devoted to the conflict than in other newspapers some think too much, at the expense of other parts of the world whose problems seem devalued by disproportion. He thinks this may be partly because of the Guardian's role mentioned earlier.

"We were part of Israel's foundation and it is a part of our history... The problem for our Jewish readers is that this time round we are perceived as not supporting Israel. That is a misconception. We support Israel but we do not support this government... we are committed to telling the story, to showing the terror caused by suicide bombing but also to showing the oppression I think that is the correct word of the Palestinians. We will not be browbeaten into being bland."

The editor of the Guardian says: "The situation is very grave, very violent on both sides and the difficulties of reporting it are horrendous your reporter being shot at by Israeli forces on the ground.

"The Israelis' information network and monitoring of the press is much more active and professional than the Palestinians'. We have a role in articulating their case giving a voice to the voiceless is how I put it but not disproportionately or uncritically.

"Our leader line has been very critical of the Sharon government which is, in our view, in a cul-de-sac. We think that to identify Israel with Bush's war on terrorism is a grossly simplified reading of the situation. We have also said that Arafat is a busted flush and criticised the surrounding Arab nations for their failure to play any constructive role. But, in the end, we think friends of Israel should not shy away from criticising the behaviour of a government which, in our view, is harming the cause of Israel itself."

Next week's column will be devoted to readers' responses to this and last week's column. Readers may contact the office of the readers' editor by telephoning 0845 451 9589 between 11am and 5pm Monday to Friday (all calls are charged at local rate). Mail to Readers' editor, The Guardian, 119 Farringdon Road, London EC1R 3ER. Fax 020-7239 9997. Email:



The New York Times responds to boycott
By Felicicty Barringer
New York Times
May 23, 2002

Intense public reaction to coverage of the violence of the Middle East conflict has prompted unusually harsh attacks on several news media outlets and has led to boycotts of The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post.

Broadcast news operations, including CNN and National Public Radio, have also been criticized. The general manager of one public radio station, WBUR-FM in Boston, said it had lost more than $1 million in underwriting and pledges this year nearly 4 percent of its annual budget because some supporters of Israel encouraged people not to give.

The criticism has come largely from supporters of Israel, and it reached a climax in recent weeks in the aftermath of the suicide bombing at a Passover seder in Netanya, which killed 28 Israelis, and the subsequent incursion by Israeli troops into West Bank cities like Ramallah, Bethelehem and Jenin, where the destruction of homes and loss of life among Palestinians was highly visible.

The swift communications of the Internet era apparently help fan the intensity of the criticism.

For instance, an account of supposedly anti-Israel remarks made by a CNN correspondent in Jerusalem was widely circulated, despite what Eason Jordan, the chief news executive of CNN, said were denials by the correspondent. Mr. Jordan said he could find up to 6,000 e-mail messages protesting coverage in his in-box in a single day.

The network, Mr. Jordan said, has as high a household penetration in Israel as anywhere in the world. It is being more closely watched right now, when, he said, Israeli sympathizers believe "that Israel is literally in a fight for its life." He added, "One of the only things that Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon have in common is they both think CNN is biased toward the opposite side."

The coverage by The New York Times has been condemned by rabbis in several congregations.

Pictures, headlines and photo captions have all been denounced, but the boycotters' most fundamental complaints are that in their view The Times creates a false equivalence between the sides in the conflict and gives disproportionate attention to Palestinian suffering.

Critics of The Times dispatched hundreds of e-mail messages and angry commentary earlier this month when it published a front-page photograph of the Salute to Israel parade in Manhattan that showed a small group of pro-Palestinian counterdemonstrators in the foreground and pro-Israeli marchers and their supporters in the background.

Since the pro-Israeli marchers and supporters numbered in the hundreds of thousands, and the pro-Palestinian group in the hundreds, the photograph and a pair of related photographs in the Metro section reinforced the critics' impression that The Times was straining to create a sense of equivalence.

An editors' note the next day said, "In fairness the total picture presentation should have better reflected The Times's reporting on the scope of the event, including the disparity in the turnouts."

The boycott of The Times began on May 1 and is planned to last until the end of the month. Readers were urged by American Jewish figures critical of The Times' coverage to cancel subscriptions for a month.

Catherine Mathis, a spokeswoman for The New York Times Company, said the boycott had resulted in cancellations, but would not say how many.

Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, who is one of the organizers of the boycott, said in an interview this week, "Pictures appeared in The Times day after day, especially during Operation Defensive Shield, of suffering Palestinians, with no comparative pictures about suffering Israelis."

He added, "Is it O.K. to keep writing things on suffering Palestinians who are suffering because of the terrorism of their colleagues and not to give sufficient attention to the victims of terror?"

Avi Weiss, the senior rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, said articles like the one detailing the lives of both a teenage Palestinian suicide bomber and the teenage Israeli woman who was her victim reflected a skewed moral equivalence.

"The Times may feel this is necessary to present balance," he said. "I would suggest there is no moral equivalence between cold-blooded murder and self-defense."

Howell Raines, executive editor of The Times, responding to the boycott, said: "We respect our readers' right to express their opinion. We are unhappy whenever we lose a single reader."

He added: "Our plan for future coverage is to continue it within The Times's traditions of fairness and balance. We feel that the coverage thus far has met our standards in this regard, and we will remain vigilant to make sure that continues to be the case."

Gary Rosenblatt, the editor of The Jewish Week, is a critic of The Times's coverage. But in a May 10 editorial in his paper, which has tens of thousands of subscribers, he opposed the boycott.

"We need more constructive criticism, more marshaling of information, more voices speaking out for fair reporting," he wrote, "not a call to shut ourselves off from reporting and opinions we don't want to deal with."

Other newspapers face similar criticism. A portion of the Web site, which is encouraging a one-week boycott of The Washington Post in June, complained that the newspaper "presents both sides of the conflict as if each were equally valid and credible."

A brief boycott of The Los Angeles Times in April resulted in the one-day stoppage of 1,200 deliveries, according to Martha Goldstein, a spokeswoman for the newspaper.

At other newspapers, editors agree that the intensity of the criticism has steadily increased. James O'Shea, the managing editor of The Chicago Tribune, said: "It's not looking at coverage over all over a period of months and asking, 'Is there balance?' It's finding headlines, pictures, looking at the placement of a story and picking apart those elements."

While the the pro-Israeli Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America, or Camera, studies newpapers for evidence of bias, Palestine Media Watch has been monitoring the coverage of newspapers like The Philadelphia Inquirer, The New York Times and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Like pro-Israeli critics, the pro-Palestian groups focus on issues of balance and equivalence and on common vocabulary. Ahmed T. Bouzid, the president of Palestine Media Watch, argued, among other things, that the word retaliation was often used about Israeli attacks on Palestinian targets, which, he said, "frames it as a reaction to something, not an action initiated by Israelis." He said he was pushing to eliminate mediocre journalism, not charging bias.

James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, echoed such criticism, but said he would not encourage a boycott. To do "what the Jewish community has done, to incite their members to boycott, to feel so injured that people work themselves into a lather over press coverage does damage to the possibility of discourse," he said.



Daily Telegraph diary item
The Daily Telegraph (London)
May 24, 2002

Douglas Davis, the London correspondent of the Jerusalem Post who writes in the Spectator of the BBC's "unchallenged diatribe" against Israel, is not the only one fuelling accusations of anti-semitism at the corporation. BBC staff are managing to do it themselves. As the Jewish Chronicle reveals today, Gareth Butler, the BBC's editor for live political programmes, e-mailed colleagues urging them to interview his girlfriend, a human rights activist visiting Jenin. "If you were interested in a couple of minutes of vivid reportage, she's right there on the front line," he said, concluding: "Then again, as I explained to her, 'Israelis kill Palestinians' is less of a story these days than 'Israelis DON'T kill Palestinians'." The BBC admits the e-mail was "poorly phrased" but says it has no reason to doubt Butler's "professional integrity".



Lawyer takes on BBC over 'bias'
By Joseph Millis
The Jewish Chronicle (London)
May 24, 2002

A London lawyer has compiled a 43-page report in support of a claim of anti-Israel bias in the BBC's Middle East reporting.

Trevor Asserson contends that the corporation has not followed its own policy guidelines on accuracy and impartiality, at times appearing to "invent material to suit its own bias."

The BBC, defending its coverage, said its journalists made great efforts, often under difficult circumstances, to present a balanced picture.

Mr Asserson, 45, head of commercial litigation at the law firm Bird & Bird, wrote the "critical study" with the help of an Israeli lawyer, Elisheva Mironi. While not citing specific BBC journalists or news items, it says that generally, by "selection or omission of facts," BBC reports can convey "the very opposite of the truth."

The study takes issue with the description of West Bank settlements as "illegal," and alleges that while Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon is often "treated with undisguised hostility" on the BBC, Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat is portrayed as "a noble, dignified and courageous statesman."

In reply, a BBC spokesman said "great pains" were taken to present a balanced picture. He noted that BBC journalists worked at "considerable personal risk" in the knowledge that "any report they compile will be seen as one-sided or weighted for its lack of inclusion of a phrase, fact, or bit of history by a partisan viewer. And let us be clear from that perspective, there are many truths."

Saying there were also complaints from "the other side," and rejecting Mr Asserson's claim policy guidelines had been breached, the spokesman said the BBC was "constantly reviewing Middle East coverage... with our very experienced team in the region, who are well aware of the sensitivity of some of the words and phrases they must employ."

Disappointed by what he termed the corporation's "blanket denial," Mr Asserson told the JC: "I have set up a group, BBCwatch, which will monitor the corporation over its clear obligation to be fair."

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