Bad News from Israel
Reviewed by Inayat Bunglawala
This is a book that comes highly recommended. The veteran investigative journalist John Pilger has praised its authors as "pioneers in their field" and insisted that "every journalist should read this book; every student of journalism ought to be assigned it" (New Statesman, 28 June 2004).
In a remarkable and scientific study of the manner in which the main UK terrestrial news broadcasters (BBC and ITV) cover the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Professor Greg Philo and Dr Mike Berry of the Glasgow University Media Group, have detailed how that news coverage tends to promote the Israeli perspective while ensuring that viewers remain ignorant of the actual causes that lie behind that long-running tragedy.
To compile their data, the authors brought journalists, academics and ordinary viewers together to study the influence of news on public understanding. More than 800 people were interviewed and researchers examined around 200 news bulletins.
According to the authors, television news is the main source of information on the Israel-Palestine conflict for about 80% of the population. Their research found that on British television, particularly on BBC1, there was a preponderance of official 'Israeli perspectives'. Israelis were interviewed or reported more than twice as much as Palestinians. There were also a large number of statements broadcast from US politicians who tended to strongly support Israel. These in turn were interviewed twice as much as politicians from Britain, with the strange result being that many British viewers will perhaps have come to know more about the US position on the Middle East than their own government's position.
The most important of the omissions the authors found was the almost total lack of context and history in the reporting. Scant effort was made to provide information about the motives or rationale behind the actions of either side. The research reveals that television viewers - and one wonders, perhaps many British Muslims - are largely unaware of the origins of the conflict and are therefore confused by what they are told and see in nightly reports. There are substantial gaps in their knowledge, with few showing any awareness of the 1967 occupation let alone the 1948 founding of the Israeli state on Palestinian lands. Some viewers told the researchers they saw today's conflict as a border dispute between two countries instead of a modern regional superpower that had dispossessed much of the indigenous population and had been grabbing more Palestinian territory ever since.
How did this situation arise where dedicated news organisations have failed to impart the most basic information to their viewers? Senior BBC journalists told Philo and Berry that they were explicitly instructed by their news editors at TV Centre in Wood Lane, London, not to give explanations about the causes of the conflict - the focus was to be on "bang-bang action" (p102).
Because no historical background is provided - such as the Palestinians having lost their homes - in much of the news coverage there was a tendency for viewers to see the Palestinians as initiating trouble and the Israelis are then presented as "responding" or "retaliating" (p162).
The viewers are not told about Israel's ongoing illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, the increasing number of illegal Jewish settlements that are designed to exert military and strategic control over the Palestinians or the hardship caused by the Israeli expropriation of scarce water resources. There is little mention of the daily humiliations and economic deprivation endured by the Palestinians.
During a focus group discussion a middle class male from Glasgow explains how shocked he was when he heard that the illegal Jewish settlements controlled over 40 percent of the West Bank: "I had absolutely no idea it was that percentage. I was gob-smacked when I heard it. I saw them as small, embattled and surrounded by hostile Palestinians - that's entirely thanks to watching the TV news" (p220).
The authors also found a strong emphasis on Israeli casualties on the news, relative to Palestinians (even though the Palestinians had suffered around three times the number of deaths as the Israelis). In one week in March 2002 which the BBC reported as having the most Palestinian casualties since the start of the second Intifada, there was actually more coverage on the news of Israeli deaths.
In a passionately argued comment piece for The Observer (20 June 2004), the former BBC Middle East correspondent, Tim Llewellyn, excoriated the BBC News Management saying that: "The [BBC news management] is, by turns, schmoozed and pestered by the Israeli embassy. The pressure by this hyperactive, skilful mission – and by Israel's many influential and well-organized friends - is unremitting and productive."
The consequence, Llewellyn says, is widespread viewer ignorance about the predicament of the Palestinians.
"That 37 years of military occupation, the violation of the Palestinians' human, political and civil rights and the continuing theft of their land might have triggered this crisis is a concept either lost or underplayed. Nor are we told much about how Israel was created, the epochal dilemma of the refugees, the roots of the disaster...The result is that the Israelis have identity, existence, a story the viewer understands. The Palestinians are anonymous, alien, their personalities and their views buried under their burden of plight and the vernacular of 'terror'. I am not confident of change. The reasons for this tentative, unbalanced attitude to the central Middle East story are powerful...The general BBC and ITN attitude is to bow to the strongest pressure. The Arabs have little clout in Britain, and their governments and supporters have much responsibility to bear for not presenting their side of the story and for abysmal public relations."
Philo and Berry point out, however, that the reporting is not universally biased in favour of Israel and single out Channel Four News for its attempts to tell a more balanced story to its viewers. The BBC correspondent, Orla Guerin, too, has been the target of pro-Israeli lobby groups for daring to give airtime to show images of Palestinian suffering.
The publication of Bad News From Israel has predictably attracted the ire of Zionists. In a dismissive review, the Jerusalem Post described the book as "a modest study conducted by an unknown academic" (2 July 2004). Apart from the honourable exceptions of The Guardian and The Observer, most of the UK press seem to have taken the decision to ignore this book's publication. In fact, this book represents the largest study ever undertaken in this area. Also, Professor Philo has been with the Glasgow Media Group for over 25 years and is the author of a number of publications including Market Killing (Longman, 2000).
In an area where there is so much disinformation and even calculated attempts to prevent the truth being given an airing, this is a vitally important book that will help remove the scales from a lot of peoples' eyes. Indeed, in an added bonus, the first ninety pages of this book are devoted to a superb concise history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the perspective of both Israeli and Palestinian sources. It is a gripping and frequently shocking read.
Pilger got it slightly wrong. EVERYONE who wants to know why the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to generate such heat should buy this book. An essential and truly enlightening guide to arguably the world's most important conflict and the way it has been presented to us by TV news. You will never watch another TV news bulletin in the same way again. You may even decide to do something about the pro-Israel bias in much of the British media. Now that would really upset the Zionists.
Inayat Bunglawala, Secretary, Media Committee, The Muslim Council of Britain
'Bad News Fom Israel', Greg Philo & Mike Berry, 2004, Pluto
Press, pp315, ISBN 0-7453-2061-9 Available from http://www.plutobooks.com/
Last updated 03/08/2004