By Khaled Diab
This is the text of a talk on media bias towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Khaled Diab gave to a group of Israeli and Jewish fellows.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of the most controversial issues in many parts of the world. This is partly due to the protracted nature of the conflict. Decades of bitter actions and reactions mean that none of the parties can claim to have clean hands, and that all the parties are both guilty and innocent.
Nevertheless, there is a serious polarisation of views, with both sides possessing advocates whose unspoken motto is “our side right or wrong”. This polarisation can manifest itself in the media, fuelling the cycle of distrust and hatred that helps perpetuate the conflict. One camp accuses the media of possessing an anti-Israeli slant, while the other camp alleges an anti-Palestinian bias.
But the media can also help mend fences and build bridges. But this process is fraught with difficulties. The long and bitter history of this conflict has become a battlefield in itself. This means that even the most balanced, fair and well-intentioned reporter, commentator or observer is open to bitter accusations of omission or commission.
Today, I will rush into the minefield where angels fear to tread and assess the credibility of these competing accusations.
Is the media anti-Israeli?
Since I am addressing a group who defines itself as pro-Israeli and your interests are first and foremost related to Israel, I will begin by exploring the allegations of anti-Israeli bias. Many Israelis and their supporters believe that the media takes an unfairly hostile and unbalanced view of Israel – particularly in Europe and the Arab world, but also increasingly in America, which is traditionally seen as safely pro-Israeli.
As an example, let's look at Israel's recent offensive in Gaza. I should point out that Gaza may not be the most telling example, since even some of Israel's most sympathetic supporters felt compelled to oppose the action. Regardless of their sympathy or hostility towards Israel, people across the world found Israel's decision to escalate its blockade of Gaza by bombarding and then invading the Strip to be not only wrong but ill-thought-out, to be against Israel's own interests and detrimental to the prospects for peace.
During the fighting, I wrote:
Just like Lebanon in 2006 and 1982 – as well as the reinvasions of the Palestinian territories following the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada and the election victory of Hamas – the current campaign is unlikely to bring Israelis anything more than a little tense respite.
Like Hamas, which seems incapable of realising the futility of armed struggle and declaring a non-violent peace movement, Israel appears to be completely beholden to the logic of the battering ram.
So, how did the media perform during the Gaza offensive?
Just Journalism, a UK non-profit organisation which aims to promote what it calls “responsible reporting about Israel” in the UK media, monitored the coverage of the recent war in Gaza. Here is a taster of the bias it claims to have found:
- It said that 75% of the conservative Financial Times and 71% of the left-of-centre Guardian's editorials were ‘less favourable' towards Israel's operation, and that neither paper published a ‘favourable' editorial. However, the category ‘unfavourable' did not exist in the report. Meanwhile, it said that the right-of-centre The Times was the daily broadsheet that published the greatest proportion of what it called ‘neutral' editorials.
- Just Journalism also maintained that “The UK media significantly under-represented the nature of Hamas and its policies towards Israel, particularly its use of violence and rejection of Israel's right to exist.”
- Just Journalism also observed that The Guardian and The Independent published five times as many opinion pieces critical of Israel's occupation than supportive. Whether this is a sign of anti-Israeli bias is open to question, since there is a broad international consensus, even among Israel's closest allies, that a crucial pre-requisite for peace is ending the occupation and dismantling the settlements that go along with it.
- It also noted that there were more than three times as many press quotations from Palestinian civilians as Israeli civilians, although it did acknowledge that this disparity was “understandable in some respects”.
Prior to the Gaza conflict, earlier high-profile cases of alleged bias include the death of Muhammad al-Durrah, whose cowering image with his father became the icon of the second intifada. Pro-Israelis claim that the rush to blame Israel for his death without conclusive evidence was a sign of anti-Israeli bias, and that there is evidence to suggest that the boy was killed by Palestinian gunfire. Interestingly, pro-Palestinians allege that the amount of space given to Israeli refutations and criticisms was a sign of pro-Israeli bias.
Another example is what was dubbed ‘Reutersgate' by some. This related to the graphically enhanced, or doctored, image of billowing smoke over Beirut used in an image released by Reuters during Israel's 2006 invasion of Lebanon. The photographer Adnan Hajj claimed not to have intentionally altered the photo but was trying to remove “dust marks”. The news agency itself admitted that “photo editing software was improperly used on this image. A corrected version will immediately follow this advisory. We are sorry for any inconvenience.”
Why all the media interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
I have heard some Israelis and their supporters question why the media lavishes so much more attention on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict compared with some other conflicts which are just as ugly or even uglier.
Some dismiss this as a sign of anti-Semitism. While anti-Jewish prejudice certainly plays a role in some quarters, such allegations can be used as a means of avoiding criticism of Israel's actions, no matter how wrong or destructive. In fact, fear of being called anti-Semitic may lead some to temper and tone down their criticisms of Israel. Similarly, charges of anti-Arabism and Islamophobia can be used for similar ends when it comes to the Palestinians.
To my mind, there is a complex interplay of factors that gives the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a higher profile than many others. The Middle East's geo-strategic importance means that conflicts there are more headline grabbing than those in other parts of the world. Being in this important neighbourhood draws more attention to Israel. Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a media staple, other events in the region routinely eclipse it. Consider the fact that the invasion and occupation of Iraq has, for all intents and purposes, mostly overshadowed Israel and Palestine in the media in recent years.
For Europe and the Arab world, the proximity of the conflict makes its significance greater than wars in distant corners of the globe. Likewise, the duration and apparent insurmountability of the conflict, as well as the periods of hope and despair, makes it a constant subject of public interest.
The fact that there are large and influential Jewish and Arab communities in the West also keeps the conflict centre stage, given its symbolic importance to both Arabs and Jews.
Israel is highly symbolic for Jews. This is partly because it is seen as an expression of their empowerment and quest for self-determination, as well as a safe haven in light of their recent tragic history of pogroms and the holocaust. It is also highly symbolic for Arabs who have traditionally viewed Israel as an “imperial implant” in their midst.
Despite a certain amount of cynical manipulation by certain Arab leaders, the Palestinians occupy a special place in the Arab imagination. Their sad plight first emerged at a time when the Arab world was keenly and optimistically expecting to enjoy the fruits of independence. Although the Arab world's post-colonial experience has had many bitter chapters, the denial of the Palestinian right to self-determination was the first and, hence, most bitter of those experiences.
Is the media Anti-Palestinian?
In the other corner, Palestinians and their supporters also cry foul, accusing the western media of a strong pro-Israeli bias, one fuelled by anti-Arabism, Islamophobia and neo-imperialism. One recent example of this is the BBC's refusal to air an appeal to raise money to help deal with the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza by respected aid agencies – including Action Aid, Save the Children, the British Red Cross, Christian Aid, Islamic Relief and Oxfam.
The BBC argued that showing the appeal could undermine public confidence in its impartiality, but the public outrage that ensued would suggest the inverse was the case. Some commercial broadcasters ultimately broadcasted the appeal, but the BBC and Sky remained steadfast.
The vetoing of the appeal goes against normal practice. Normally, British television channels air appeals by the umbrella Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) free of charge. Since the 1960s, the BBC has aired DEC appeals for the victims of the 1967 war in the Middle East, the Vietnam war, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and the 1990 Gulf war, among others.
To give another example. Arab Media Watch is, like Just Journalism, a media watchdog that defines its objective as “striving for objective British coverage of Arab issues”. It also released a report on the performance of the British media during the Gaza conflict in which it claims to have found that:
- The division of sources, and words attributed to them, on either side demonstrated a greater proportion in favour of Israel.
In addition, a six-month AMW study in 2008 identified that “when the British press represents a party as retaliating in the conflict, that party is Israel almost three-quarters of the time (100% of the time in the tabloids)”. Of course, Israel routinely frames its actions as a “response” to an earlier Palestinian action, as do Palestinian groups. However, in the interest of media balance, retaliatory claims by either side should be approached with professional scepticism because it is both natural and expected that the protagonists will feel that they are responding to some perceived or actual crime committed by the other side. After all, neither side is acting in a vacuum, nor does either side view its actions as lacking motive or justification.
This confirms earlier findings of independent studies, such as one carried out by Glasgow University which found “a preponderance of official Israeli perspectives, particularly on BBC 1”. In addition, the report found that Israeli actions were contextualised, whereas Palestinian ones tended not to be. The failure to include historical background also led to a great deal of confusion in viewers' minds.
The situation in the United States is far more skewed. An earlier study by the progressive American media watchdog Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting monitored the use of the term “retaliation” in the nightly news broadcasts of the three main American networks: CBS, ABC, and NBC. It found that of the 150 occasions when “retaliate” and its variants were used to describe attacks in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, 79% were references to Israel “retaliating” and only 9% were references to Palestinians “retaliating”.
The truth within
So, where does the truth lie? Is the media pro-Israeli? Is it pro-Palestinian? Is it both? Is it neither?
Well, the first thing to acknowledge is that it is difficult to make hard and fast generalisations about the media. After all, the media is not an unchanging monolith – there is a diversity across the media spectrum and even within individual media outlets. In addition, perspectives shift and evolve with time. These may seem like straightforward assertions to make, but many intelligent people overlook this simple fact when surrounded by the fog of conflict or blinded by their partisanship.
That said, certain general patterns are discernible. First, there is geography. In the West, there is something of a transatlantic divide, with the American mainstream media firmly pro-Israeli, while certain segments of the European media are more sympathetic to the Palestinians who are widely regarded as the long-suffering underdog.
Of course, this is a very crude geographical division, since the media in certain countries in Europe tend to be quite firmly pro-Israeli, such as in Germany and Poland, as well as the tabloid press in the UK. Even the BBC, with its reputation for balance, tends to gravitate more towards the Israelis than the Palestinians. There are many historical and cultural reasons for this, including the view of Israel as being “Western”, guilt at the historic persecution of the Jews, and a certain measure of distrust and hostility towards the Arabs.
Even in the US, long seen as Israel's staunchest ally, the picture is not as straightforward as it might appear. While opinion has hardened in favour of Israel in the conservative media, Palestinian perspectives are beginning to make inroads, especially in smaller media outlets and the more liberal end of the media spectrum. Part of the reason for this is the growing engagement of the Arab American community in US politics.
In addition to geography, the Western media's allegiances and sympathies tend to run along political lines, with the conservative and rightwing media tending to be more pro-Israeli, while the more liberal and leftwing media tend to be more sympathetic to the Palestinians.
Middle Eastern media
Now if we switch our attention to the Middle Eastern media, we can observe something of a paradox. In Israel and the Arab world, there has been both a hardening and a softening of media perspectives in recent years.
The relative optimism of the Oslo years led to a shift in the Middle Eastern media landscape, with a higher proportion of nuanced and even positive coverage on both sides of the divide, and a relative dwindling of ideologically driven, simplistic reporting.
However, the collapse of the peace process, increased Israeli militarism, the second intifada and the increase in Palestinian violence it brought, marked a new watershed, with mainstream coverage hardening both in Israel and the Arab world – humanisation has increasingly been replaced by demonisation. Despite the regression that has occurred for most of this decade, certain gains have continued to be registered, and the rhetoric of peace, although it is looking increasingly tattered, lives on.
The explosion of online and satellite media content has made it increasingly difficult for Arabs and Israelis to insulate themselves from the views of the other side to the extent that was once possible. One notable exception has been the most recent Gaza conflict. Within Israel, the media was almost entirely behind the action and no Israeli – or western – journalists were allowed into Gaza to bring an alternative view on the situation.
This was reflected in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Israelis approved of the assault (93%, according to one poll commissioned by the Ma'ariv newspaper). I got a sense of the extent of this support when an Israeli Buddhist we'd encountered in India phoned me to discuss Gaza. Despite being a declared pacifist and the obvious degree to which the carnage in Gaza distressed him, he was entirely convinced that “this time, there was no other option”. The idea of dialogue and removing the blockade strangling the Palestinians didn't seem to have occurred to him.
One of the few chinks in this media armour was the heart-wrenching case of Izz el-Deen Aboul Aish, the gynaecologist and respected peace activist, who lost three of his daughters during an Israeli attack. With the aid of long-time friend and Channel 10 journalist Shlomi Eldar, he recounted the terrifying episode via mobile phone live on Israeli television.
Likewise, the Gaza standoff has led to more insularity among Palestinians, partly because they, particularly in Gaza, have minimal access to the outside world.
Nevertheless, the recent conflagration in Gaza aside, the liberal end of the media spectrum has played a growing role as counterbalance to the prevailing sense of hostility. Although they also often employ unhelpful clichés and stereotypes, they also offer platforms for a broad range of views from the opposite camp and dissenting views from within. Examples include Ha'aretz in Israel, the Daily Star in Lebanon and al-Masry al-Youm in Egypt.
Regional satellite TV has played an important bridging role in these troubled times. For instance, al-Jazeera regularly interviews Israeli officials and invites them on to its talk shows. In addition, it gives air time to the Israeli peace movement which helps to counterbalance perceptions in the Arab world that all Israelis want to perpetuate the conflict.
The recent explosion in media outlets and growing user control over what they view has enabled certain segments of the population to cocoon themselves more from views that run counter to their own. On the plus side, unprecedented accessibility has provided those people who possess a desire to learn more and acquire a more balanced and nuanced view of the complex situation with the tools they need to bridge the divide.
Crossing the divide
I know plenty of Arabs and Israelis who regularly read and watch the media of the opposite camp. In addition, the internet has enabled like-minded Israelis and Arabs to come together and communicate directly through discussion groups, such as Salaam-Shalom, blogs, such as one written by an Israeli woman I know who calls herself Israeli Mom, and social networking sites, such as Facebook.
Personally, I have been a member of several online forums and discussion groups which have provided me with a level of insight into the human dimension that years of research and reading did not quite capture.
This direct access also proved invaluable during my visit to Israel a couple of years ago, because it provided me with the opportunities to get far more intimate with Israeli society than I would've been able to had I just rocked up without acquaintances. For part of my visit, I stayed with a lovely Israeli family I had got to know online who allowed me into their home, introduced me to their friends, arranged unusual excursions and engaged in endless, round-the-clock debate and dialogue. Although on politics we perhaps disagreed more than we agreed, we all came away the richer and the wiser.
We learnt from one another, we saw beyond stereotypes, we recognised more clearly the human angle beyond the politics, and the constant challenging to each other's views changed our perceptions. Above all, it made us realise the unmatchable value of dialogue.
You can learn more about my ‘Without a road map' trip through Israel and Palestine on the blog I wrote while there.
Medium for peace
Now, I'd like to explore what role the media can play in building bridges.
Given its ability to influence and shape people's perceptions, the media has the potential to fuel the conflict by entrenching and confirming negative stereotypes, perpetuating hostility and beating the drums of war. Alternatively, the media can assist the quest for peace by challenging misperceptions and biases, providing a platform for dissenting views, and by becoming a space for dialogue and creative approaches to reducing tensions and reaching a resolution.
Of course, we must be careful not to overestimate the power and reach of the media – either negatively or positively. Although the media can punch above its weight in terms of influence, it is, as I noted earlier, not a monolith and possesses no magical powers. After all, it is only the fourth estate. If other power centres in society have a radically different agenda, then the media's impact may be minimal.
So, what, in concrete terms, can the media do to improve the situation?
The role of opinion
So far, we have largely explored news reporting, but opinion writers play an important role. Column writing is about opinion and opinion is essentially subjective. But subjectivity, if coupled with balance, can be extremely helpful in building understanding, bridging gaps and reducing polarisation in conflict situations. Conversely, opinion shapers can play a major role in derailing the best and most promising efforts.
Personally, I use my column as a platform to humanise both sides of the conflict, uphold consistent values in judging actions, challenge perceptions, think out of the box and reflect the complex human reality of the conflict.
My approach has come under fire from both pro-Israelis and pro-Palestinians, often in reaction to the same text. One example of this was a two-part article entitled The art of peace which challenged Arab political, historical and cultural misperceptions of Israelis and vice-versa.
One commenter wrote: “Yet again another article on Cif which promotes the impression that only the Arabs can be victims. That Zionism is evil and that the West are [sic] to blame.”
Another reader came to a diametrically opposite conclusion: “I think [your article's] first line ought to read ‘We collaborators …', shouldn't it? You, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Mohammed [sic] Abbas, and Salman Rushdie all play bridge together. Don't you?”
In case you are unfamiliar with them, Hirsi Ali is a Dutch politician of Somali extraction whose vitriolic attacks on Islam have made her as unpopular among Muslims – and have even led to death threats from extremists – as she is popular among anti-Muslim conservatives in Europe and the United States.
PA President Mahmoud Abbas, aka Abu Mazen, is regarded as a traitor by some Arabs because he is seen as serving the interests of Israel to the detriment of his own people. And the British novelist Salman Rushdie is hated by some Muslims and Arabs because of his novel The Satanic Verses, even though most of those who have the strongest views about him have not actually read the book. It is ironic that a master of post-colonial literature, which humanises the subjects of imperialism, their plight and history, should be labelled an orientalist stooge.
Despite the entrenched hostility, it is heartening to see that reaching a common ground is possible. As one reader pointed out: “One-sided historical narratives are toxic. In attempting a unified narrative, you're doing good work.” Another added: “Thanks for this encouraging article that can positively challenge everybody's perceptions of this conflict.”
I am often pleasantly surprised by the maturity of the debate that develops between readers of my articles. It can be truly inspiring to see how constructive the voices of the “silent majority” can be when brought into the debate. That is why a more balanced media is essential. If we are to move forward, people should not just fight their own corner.
What the media can do
In more general terms, here are some ideas and suggestions of what the media can do – and which some of it is already doing – to aid the quest for peace:
- Provide a podium for diverse and dissenting views. In my view, The Guardian and Haaretz are good example of this. Although it has a liberal-progressive bent, it provides a platform for a broad spectrum of opinion.
- Be a channel for creative and novel approaches to the conflict. For example, the Common Ground News Service regularly republishes articles that bring new perspectives to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The 5th March edition ran an article on how Jewish, Muslim and Christian religious organisations can advance the quest for peace. In the same issue was an article highlighting the efforts of the Israeli peace movement during the Gaza conflict.
- Highlight positives; don't just fixate on negatives. In the western media, it often seems that the Middle East produces little but violence. The media needs to dedicate more space to reporting positive news about Israel and Palestine, including the little-reported efforts to build understanding. The Arab media needs to dedicate more coverage on Israel to positive stories and stories not directly related to the conflict. The same applies for the Israeli media vis-à-vis the Palestinians and other Arabs. One interesting example I recently reported on was an essay-writing contest for Israeli and Palestinian children. One Israeli kid from Sderot imagined how he single-handedly laid the groundwork for peace when he bombed – or should I say bon-bonned – Gaza with sweets from his radio-controlled model plane.
- Violence makes headlines, but so should non-violence. There is a growing non-violent Palestinian movement, including Mustafa al-Barghouti's Palestinian National Initiative or the village of Bilin's weekly protests against the Israeli wall which have been taking place since 2004. Then, there is the Israeli peace movement and its general opposition to non-violence on the Israeli side.
- Humanise to counteract the demonisation. I attempt to do that with my column, as well as with the blog I wrote while travelling through Israel and the West Bank.
- Be a conduit for dialogue. The online comment sections of newspapers can, if handled correctly, provide a forum for constructive debate and dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as their supporters.
In conclusion, we need more voices who will climb out of their trenches and venture into the no-man's-land and transform it into a common ground, even if it means occasionally getting caught in the crossfire. You all define yourselve as pro-Israeli but I believe that the best service you can provide Israel is to support the cause of justice for both Israelis and Palestinians. If you wish Israel to live in peace with its neighbours, you should support it when it gets things right, but not shy away from criticising it when it is wrong. The first step down that road is to reject any violence from either side because there can be no violent resolution to this conflict.