The story TV news won't tell
10 years Tim Llewellyn was the BBC's Middle East correspondent. In this
passionately argued polemic he accuses British broadcasters, including
his former employer, of systematic bias in covering the Arab-Israeli
conflict, giving undue prominence to the views of Jerusalem while
disregarding the roots of the crisis
- 20 June 2004: Since
the Palestinians began their armed uprising against Israel's military
occupation three years and eight months ago, British television and
radio's reporting of it has been, in the main, dishonest - in concept,
approach and execution.
my judgment as a journalist and Middle East specialist, the
broadcasters' language favours the occupying soldiers over the occupied
Arabs, depicting the latter, essentially, as alien tribes threatening
the survival of Israel, rather than vice versa. The struggle between
Israel and the Palestinians is shown, most especially on mainstream
bulletins, as a battle between two 'forces', possessed equally of right
and wrong and responsibility. It is the tyranny of spurious
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.
of critics have formed similar views and put them to the BBC and ITN,
to no avail. In my case, the BBC, who employed me for many years in the
Middle East, was no doubt able to categorise me as a veteran journalist
who had spent too long in the region, though executives are always
polite and prompt in their replies. Even making such criticisms carried
the risk of my being labelled parti pris. (BBC producers are instructed
not to mention that I was a BBC Middle East correspondent on air, in
case my views might be associated with the BBC.)
comes hard evidence to support these views, gathered by Greg Philo and
his Glasgow University Media Group, who have monitored and analysed
four separate periods of BBC and ITN coverage between late 2000 and the
spring of 2002. Bad News From Israel makes the scientifically based
case that the main news and current affairs programmes - with the rare
exception, usually on Channel 4 - are failing to tell us the real story
and the reasons behind it. They use a distorted lens.
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'.
Israeli view, the study finds, dominates the coverage. There is far
more coverage of Israeli deaths than Palestinian, even though far more
Palestinians have died, and they have the evidence that unerringly
shows it. Israeli violence is tempered not only by the weight of
coverage but by the very language used to describe incidents.
example is a template for hundreds: when Israeli police killed 13
Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin in October 2000, inside Israel,
soon after the armed uprising in the occupied territories began, BBC
and ITN coverage was a fifth of that given to the Palestinians who
stormed a police station in Ramallah a day later and murdered two
captured Israeli soldiers. These Palestinians were 'a frenzied [lynch]
mob... baying for blood'. No such lurid prose was used to describe the
Israeli killing of their own citizen Arabs.
Israeli reprisals that followed the Ramallah killings, ITV said the
Israelis were 'abandoning their restraint'. This was after two weeks in
which Israeli forces had killed 100 Palestinians, most of them
and effect, the Philo team finds, are misreported. Why does the 'cycle
of violence' start, for example? In October 2002, the BBC repeatedly
referred to the killing of the Israeli tourist minister as the reason
for Israeli army reprisals against Palestinian towns and villages. It
did not mention the fact that the Popular Front for the Liberation of
Palestine had killed the minister in reprisal for the Israeli
assassination of its leader.
Philo shows, the cycle is always shown as Palestinian attack and
Israeli reprisal. Broadcasters consistently fail to suggest that it
might be the military occupation that engenders armed resistance, or
that Israeli actions may be such as to provoke Palestinian violence.
The study finds that the daily despairing and degrading consequences of
living under military occupation are rarely reported.
while there is constant reference to Israeli security and Israel's
right to exist, there is little mention of Palestinians' security or
their right to exist.
former news agency bureau chief, based in Jerusalem, sums it up:
'[British TV] cover the day-to-day action but not the human inequities,
the essential imbalances of the occupation, the humiliations of the
Palestinians.' He also quotes a BBC journalist, who tells him TV centre
does not want 'explainers... it's all bang-bang stuff'.
as importantly, the Glasgow volume also shows the results of this
coverage and how badly it serves the public who pays for it. The team
interviewed many people, of different backgrounds, regions and ages
(the study explains fully its focus group methods and practices), whose
views of the conflict, as seen through TV, are closely analysed. Two
examples: of groups of British students interviewed in 2001 and 2002
only about 10 per cent knew it was Israel that occupied Palestine -
most believed the Palestinians were the settlers and it was they who
occupied Israel. In 2002, only 35 per cent of the British students
questioned knew that the Palestinians had suffered far greater
casualties than the Israelis.
ignorance among people who rely on TV for their information about the
world is not surprising: Bad News reveals that between 28 September and
16 October 2000 BBC1 and ITN devoted 3,500 lines of text to the crisis
in Israel/Palestine - 17 of which were devoted to the history of the
Philo and his team finished their analysis, little has changed. So far,
criticism has been deflected. Mostly as a result of pro-Israeli
pressure, a Middle East ombudsman has been appointed by the BBC, who
will report by the end of the year; and organisations such as Reporting
the World try professionally, by example and by discussion, to suggest
how the TV companies might improve their coverage.
am not confident of change. The reasons for this tentative, unbalanced
attitude to the central Middle East story are powerful. BBC news
management is by turns schmoozed and pestered by the Israeli embassy.
The pressure by this hyperactive, skillful mission and by Israel's many
influential and well organised friends is unremitting and productive,
especially now that accusations of anti-Semitism can be so wildly
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.
Hutton, the BBC's tendency to sniff the wind from Downing Street on
such a sensitive foreign story, where the line is taken from
Washington, has been intensified.
is still an inbuilt cultural tendency in broadcasting newsrooms, easily
exploited, to see the world in terms of 'them' and 'us', the carnage in
an Israeli shopping mall still somehow more evocative and impressive in
news terms than the bomb that devastates the shabby apartments in an
Arab slum. The events of 11 September 2001 reinforced this endemic
bias. It is easier to invoke Islamic extremism or al-Qaeda or ask why
there is no democracy in Palestine than go to the awkward heart of the
TV companies' reluctance to view the crisis, as they once did, from
inside and across the Arab world as well as from Israel, and their
failure to base a senior and credible team in the occupied territories,
mean that the crisis is consistently viewed from the ambience of
Israeli west Jerusalem. Here, it is easy for Israelis to shape the
views of the western journalists who live among them, or, conversely,
threaten those who step out of line.
Guerin, the BBC's fearless and candid Middle East correspondent, drew
on herself not for the first time unwarranted Israeli wrath recently
when she reported how the Israeli army had kept a Palestinian boy in a
bomb belt waiting at his, and everyone else's, peril while the camera
crews showed up. She told viewers, 'these are the pictures the Israelis
wanted the world to see'. The Israelis did, of course, but they did not
want such frank exposure of their cynicism.
before the invasion of Iraq last year, a BBC current affairs
documentary (not mainstream news) exposed Israel's unadmitted nuclear
weapons programme, a rare if very late-evening example of the
corporation risking Israel's displeasure. The Israeli authorities
threatened to expel the BBC's Jerusalem bureau and boycotted its news
teams, only lifting their strictures when BBC management appointed a
monitor of all the corporation's Middle East coverage. His findings
will appear later this year, but there is no doubt he exists as a
result of pressure from Israel and its powerful friends in Britain.
is currently also froideur between the BBC and Israel's government over
an interview aired on 30 May with the nuclear weapons whistleblower,
Mordechai Vanunu. A foreign ministry spokesman has accused the BBC of
breaking Israeli law because Vanunu's freedom depended on his having no
contact with foreigners. Here, Israel may well have gone over the top.
hysterical reactions to frank and critical reporting show the
uselessness of British broadcasters' trying to appease Israel by
constraining and falsely 'balancing' coverage. Spin doctors and media
bullies must be seen off whether they are in Westminster or west
Jerusalem. Nervousness in London has caused tension between reporters
on the ground and their managements as the news teams try to survive
the trigger-happy Israeli army, a paranoid Israel government and their
own masters' tentativeness.
thoughtful Glasgow study does offer some hope. It found that the images
of this crisis, of tanks, jet fighters and helicopter gun-ships in
lethal pursuit of terrified civilians, many of them women and children,
have brought home to viewers that a grave injustice is being committed
in Palestine. They are just not quite sure what it is. The words our
broadcasters so often use to explain those images stand in the way of
of them, as if to try to block them or ameliorate them, rather than
tell of the horror they signify.
'Bad News From Israel: television news and public understanding of the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict', by Greg Philo and the Glasgow University
Media Group, is published by Pluto Press (£10.99) on Tuesday.