Tuesday 16 September 2014

Media and the Middle East (continued)

Following on from Sue's post - and in anticipation of Hadar at BBC Watch and Alan at Biased BBC's takes on John Lloyd's Archive on 4 - I'd like to present my own precis of the historical portion of that particular programme.

Before doing so I'd like to say that I found it an interesting programme. Parts of it were genuinely thought-provoking - so thought-provoking that I intend to expand on some of its points over the coming days (time permitting). 

I'd also like to register the point that any programme about media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which places some emphasis on the issue of media bias inevitably open itself up to allegations of bias too.

Presenter John Lloyd of the FT (whose work I'd admired for many a year) is extremely unlikely not to have realised that his own biases (however unconscious) are bound to be questioned by bloggers like me, Sue, Hadar and Alan; indeed, his closing comments affirmed that we are right to do so. So here goes!

As Sue keeps telling me (and she's quite right), we're all biased. John Lloyd may try to be impartial in presenting a programme about media bias, and I may try to be just as impartial in providing a precis of part of his programme, but, in truth, neither of us are likely to be dispassionate on this particular issue and our biases will out.

That said I will try to provide a fair and accurate summary of the historical portion of this programme. Like John Lloyd's narrative, however, my narrative will inevitably betray its own biases - and so be it.

[My biases, of course, are 'good biases' in that they are factually correct and beyond reproach!]


All narratives have selective starting points and John Lloyd chose the British media's reporting of "the terror tactics of bombs and assassinations" deployed by armed Jewish guerrilla groups against a British army "deployed to keep the peace in Palestine" in the years leading up to Israel becoming a state. The British media at the time unambiguously described the likes of the Stern Gang and the Irgun as "criminals", "terrorists" and "desperadoes" and the programme's first archive report focused on the bombing of the King David Hotel and compared the results of that "dastardly crime" to the Blitz at its worst.  

"But the media mood soon changed when Israeli statehood was declared in 1948," said John. "The event was seen by the Western media as a triumph - the young men seen as pioneers, the terror gangs swiftly forgotten".  

"They didn't come to an empty land", continued John Lloyd, noting that Arabs greatly outnumbered Jews at the start of the "tragic 20th Century". He then cited liberal Israeli journalist Ari Shavit writing about his grandfather, a British Jew coming to Palestine for the first time in 1897, who "did not see that there is another people occupying the land of his ancestors...They were hardly noticeable to a Victorian gentleman. He simply cannot see non-whites as equals". 

The next chosen archive clip heard the BBC narrator of the time describing how "nearly a million harmless Arab villagers have been made homeless a result of war in the Holy Land" and saying that it is "of the same kind" as "the refugee crisis of Hitler's Europe". 

The Western media in the late 1940s and 1950s, John continued, presented Israel as "a new, thrusting, ambitious land with European values and systems brought by the settlers" but "the Arabs, conquered and driven out, are at least the potential enemy".

British historian David Cesarani, a liberal Jewish supporter of the Israel peace movement, said that the tone of the reporting mirrored the geo-politics of the time. British reporting was "over-determined by the threat of Arab Nationalism", he said, culminating in the collusion between Britain, France and Israel during the Suez Crisis:
And the fact that Britain got a bloody nose in the Suez Affair in some ways reinforced the admiration for Israel. Israel became a strategic partner in the region for Britain and France, so it's no surprise that during that period there was very little attention paid to Palestinian Arabs. 
John Lloyd then introduced his second 'talking head', Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab, who "sees the same blindness to Palestinians, and the Palestinians themselves, as Cesarani does." Daoud described what coverage there was as "colonial" and "paternalistic": 
There was not any kind of attempt to show equality of that there is an indigenous Palestinian national movement that was desiring to have its own state.
John Lloyd's next archive clip was a 1954 BBC report full of "admiring sympathy" for the farmer-soldiers guarding Israel's borders, "without explanation of the reasons for their weapons". Such commentaries, he said, were "one-sided" but "not wrong", as "the Israelis did bring a revolution to the land in scientifically-planned agriculture...and technologies unseen on the land before, in raising a standard of living not just for the Jews but for the Arabs who remained as well". "The coverage often reached into the Bible for phrases to adequately describe this transformation," he said, before introducing a Pathe News clip: 
The film and broadcast coverage gave a steadily upbeat account of brave endeavour bolstered by modern science and technology transforming a barren land never, it seemed from the commentary, cultivated before.
For British broadcasters, the Palestinians "were a threat, or victims of an unexplained tragedy", John said, before reintroducing Daoud Kuttab. Daoud said the Palestinians were "voiceless, faceless" in their coverage, repeating his earlier complaint about their being a failure to mention the existence of an indigenous Palestinian national movement that was desiring to have its own state. 

John Lloyd continued:
The climax of this style of [pro-Israeli] reporting, close to propaganda, was during and after the Six Day War in 1967...It was a feat of arms which drew forth a journalism which, whatever its protestations, didn't try to be objective. 
The 1973 War marked the "important break point", according to John's narrative. [We heard a clip of the young Martin Bell reporting for the BBC at this point, questioning an Israeli officer about who broke a particular ceasefire and the fate of the trapped Egyptian army.] David Cesarani said:
Well, I think that from 1948 until the Yom Yippur War in 1973 the template was 'Small plucky Israel, David versus the Arab Goliath' and I don't think the media really appreciated the extent to which, after 1967, Israel was a regional superpower.
John Lloyd reinforced the point, describing 1973 as the moment when "plucky little Israel suffered a shift in perception from little to large, from plucky to oppressive" before both he and David Cesarani described another shift at that time, when a new generation of Palestinians [led by Yasser Arafat and the PLO] "found their voice" and began to "fashion their narrative" for themselves and the Western media "by a combination of terrorism that grabbed the headlines and by savvy media efforts" and finding a receptive audience. 

The 1973 War was preceded by the Palestinian abduction of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The "bungled" rescue operation resulted in eleven Israeli deaths. "Western reporters were in no doubt", said John Lloyd. "The Palestinians were terrorists".

The programme's third 'talking head' - Anton La Guardia of The Economist [who sees himself as dispassionate and impartial] - said that Palestinians, as a result, burst into Western people's lives, but were seen as "a problem, an uncomfortable problem that many people disliked" - as people who disrupted their lives and who made travelling by plane seem unsafe.

Munich and the Yom Kippur War also changed Israeli politics, John said. It became "polarised", "tougher", and the right-wing Likud broke Labor's hegemony and then began encouraging settlement on the West Bank, "settlements which became and remained a major element in critical media coverage" - a point immediately amplified by Palestinian journalist Daoud Kuttab (appearing for the third time) talking of another narrative-changer: The Israelis "digging in deeper" and their "occupation becoming more permanent".

As a sign of the shift, the next archive clip was of a 1978 BBC report interviewing a female Palestinian activist. "She isn't merely a victim, but a person in her own right", says John Lloyd. [She denounces the settlers and Israeli occupation]. John Lloyd continued:
Israel's actions were no longer given a free pass.
Next up was Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the coverage of the Sabra and Shatila massacre by a Lebanese Christian militia while the Israeli army "stood by". "This too was a major break", said John before introducing his fourth 'talking head' -  Lisa Goldman of 972 Magazine [the kind of progressive magazine that is happy to accuse Israel of "apartheid" policies], an ultra-liberal Jewish voice [to 'balance' the liberal Jewish voice of David Cesarani]. Lisa said that Israel's bombardment of West Beirut started "the more critical coverage...in the European and English language media".

"The coverage, simply by being factual, was damning," said John Lloyd.

We then heard another archive BBC clip, this time an interview between presenter Gordon Clough and then-BBC reporter Tim Llewellyn. Tim Llewellyn told Gordon that he was setting out "the facts", and those facts (about Sabra and Shatila) showed that the Israelis "must have" known what was going on and "they did nothing" for a long period of time. "I know", said Tim Llewellyn, that Israeli tanks were positioned very close and yet...He then quoted a diplomat damning Israel.  

John Lloyd added:
Tim Llewellyn, no longer a BBC correspondent, is now an outspoken critic of his old employer, believing it to be influenced by what he terms 'the Jewish lobby' - the corporation refusing to understand that Israel is an occupier and the Palestinians its victims.
David Cesarani then echoed Lisa Goldman is seeing 1982 as "a watershed in media coverage":
The invasion of Lebanon in 1982 and the siege of Beirut that went on and on and on was also covered intensively by the media and was on television every night. Israeli jets bombing Palestinian refugee camps. The protracted nature of that coverage, the powerful images, the apparent one-sidedness of the conflict, was, I think, a turning point in media coverage because it created a new template. We went from Israel, the plucky little state, David v Goliath, to the bullying regional superpower crushing, relentlessly, the Palestinian people, dispossessed refugees, turning all the might of a modern military force on people who could barely fight back. And I think for a generation of people who watched those images Israel was never the same again.
Then came the 1987 First Intifada, and the BBC's Margaret Gilmore (archived) reporting on one of the clashes, reporting Palestinians being killed by Israeli security forces [without context]. 

John Lloyd marked this as a time "when greater balance began to be built into the coverage". [In contrast, I believe his is the time when pro-Israeli people began noticing an anti-Israel bias. I began being interested in politics and became pro-Israel at that very time. Even in my late teens/even twenties I felt the BBC was not being balanced about Israel, but was overly sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.] Still, Daoud Kuttab (appearing for the fourth time) complained about the impotence of the Palestinians, media-wise, at the time, complaining that (in the 1980s), Palestinian victims of violence were merely reported as, say, crying women, "faceless people", while Israeli victims of violence were given a "big feature", a "human interest story". 

[The next 'talking head' was the BBC's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen. I'll return to his contribution and the surrounding discussion in a later post (as it deserves its own post).]

1993. A peace deal in Oslo. A handshake on the White House lawn between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. An archive clip of the BBC's Alex Brodie [who now, were you wondering, brews ale in Cumbria] "grasped and trumpeted the significance of the gesture", doubting Israeli sceptics' claims that they won't be watching that handshake with the man "they've been led to believe is their bogeyman".  

A following clip, featuring Stephen Sackur, introduced Hamas. Hamas supporters stoned pro-PLO, pro-peace demonstators, putting Stephen Sackur himself at considerable risk. He called Hamas a "rejectionalist, fundamentalist group".

The assassination of Mr Rabin by a Jewish extremist brought an interview by Stephen Sackur with a West Bank settler, "an early appearance by a West Bank settler, a figure [John Lloyd said] to loom larger in subsequent reporting". Stephen's (archive) report said that terrorism was previously thought to be Arab-on-Jew now it was Jews doing the terrorism against Jews. The settler featured didn't condone the assassination of Mr Rabin but gave a "warning" to acting PM Shimon Peres not to push the minority's point of view at the expense of the majority's view. 

The coverage "much of its supportive of the peace process" went "dark, once more".

[Jeremy Bowen appeared again at this point - as mentioned by Sue - but his contribution again deserves a separate post, as it's somewhat aslant to this particular post.]

A BBC new clip [George Aligiah? and Hilary Andersson] introduced the Second Intifada, stating that the clashes were "sparked" by "the right-wing Israeli politician Ariel Sharon" after he "visited one of Islam's holiest sites in Jerusalem". John Lloyd's narration put it thus:
As the century turned the Second Intifada broke out and by now Palestinians were able to argue that they were the underdogs. 'David and Goliath' had been Israel as David, the Palestinians with their tens of millions [and the rest!] of Arab supporters the Goliath. 
Chris Doyle of the pro-Palestinian Caabu (the Council for Arab-British Understanding) was the next 'talking head' amplified this point, stating that the media's 'framing' argument lacks the necessary point that "Israel is the occupying power", that Israel has a brilliant media strategy and huge resources while the "fragmented" Palestinians lack such resources. 

[The programme then moved on beyond historical matters to other matters which need further posts and gave us a final 'talking head', Toby Greene of the pro-Israel organisation Bicom, who was then counterpointed with Chris Doyle on various issues - again which demand further posts (as they are of great interest in their own right).]


I'm quite sure that people with more much intimate knowledge of this subject than me (like Hadar at BBC Watch) will be able to do as Sue hopes she will do and fill in all the evasions and gaps in John Lloyd's account.

All I can say is, given the limited resources which comprise my brain, that John Lloyd's historical journey presented a restricted view - a view whose sympathies very clearly inclined more towards the ill-done-by Palestinians than to the Israelis. In other words, a biased view - and a view biased in the way that pro-Israel critics of the BBC say it's biased.

My evidence for that - other than everything I've just written?

Well, just look at the choice of 'talking heads' to amplify the chosen narrative: Two liberal Jewish voices from outside of the Israeli mainstream (one of them ultra-liberal, and way off it), a Palestinian voice and an Economist journalist (who doesn't even claim to be a pro-Israel voice), plus the BBC's Jeremy Bowen (who isn't a pro-Israel voice either) - not one of them putting the case that most pro-Israeli listeners would want to hear. [Toby Greene's contribution lay apart from this historical aspect of the programme and wasn't part of that central narrative, so can't be taken as counter-evidence].

John Lloyd's narrative, boiled down to its essence, presented the image of a Western media - and a BBC - presenting propaganda for Israel until 1973 then 'becoming balanced' by no longer giving Israel 'a free pass' and giving voice to the Palestinians. It was a justification of/defence of the modern BBC's reporting.

It also, to my mind, gave a decidedly jaundiced take on Israel and a somewhat bleeding heart take on the Palestinians - though there were nuances too.

But I'm biased, of course - though not necessarily wrong.


As an aside, there's been little Twitter coverage of this programme. The few enthusiastic comments I've seen have come from pro-Palestinians (including a PSC group). The only critic I've seen was someone wondering why on earth the programme failed to mention the Balen Report. 

That suggests something, doesn't it?


It is interesting that the programme didn't mention the Balen Report, isn't it?


The best bits of the programme lay around this skewed historical survey. I think I'm on stronger ground in reviewing them in some detail, so will try to do so in the coming days.


  1. "...giving voice to the Palestinians."

    Yes. This is BBC journalism in a nutshell. That's truly what they believe their job is, and nothing more. Reporting the facts as they occur is entirely beside the point.

  2. Oh! History is so slippery. Thank goodness for you, Craig, and your calm, even-handed (I would say that wouldn’t I) objective and readable approach.

    Obviously there are certain things that jump out.

    1.) At least Lloyd did mention that the King David Hotel was a military headquarters. Not a Lot of People Know that. (When I say ‘Know’ I mean ‘bother to mention’)

    A couple of infamous quotes loom large. A land without a people etc.
    That’s a slippery one - the implication being that the Jews disregarded the indigenous Arabs. Of course, that interpretation suits the anti-Israel brigade, whereas

    “The phrase did not evidently mean to imply that there were no people living in Palestine. It did not say "A land without people." The intent of the phrase was apparently that there was no nation or nationalist entity other than the Jews who claimed Palestine as its homeland, as the Arabs of Palestine identified themselves variously as Arabs, Syrians, Nabulsi, Qudsi etc. and did not have a concept of Palestinian Arab nationhood or any Palestinian national organizations at that time. That this was the intent is shown by Lord Shaftesbury's version of the slogan, "There is a country without a nation; and God now in his wisdom and mercy, directs us to a nation without a country."

    is the interpretation that the Israel-bashers don’t bother with.
    Also the infamous Golda Mier quote that people love to bring to the table in order to prove that the Jews are spawn of the Devil.

    Oh how many times that one has been pulled out of the hat, and used later as evidence against the good intentions of the Zionists.

    Anyway these are the sort of things that must have been at the back of the minds of the architects of this programme.

    I won’t even mention “ex-BBC man” Tim Llewellyn, so rabid an Israel-basher that it is an understatement to say describing him (“no longer a BBC correspondent, [...]outspoken critic of his old employer,) is in itself an understatement, which is also an understatement. (Into infinity and beyond)

    I disagree that ‘plucky little Israel’ was the predominant attitude from 1948 till 1973. It was more of a brief flicker, perhaps after 1948 and again after 1967. In between, not so much.

    Sabra and Shatila has been used and abused by Israel-bashers as has Ariel Sharon’s infamous visit to the Al Aqsa Mosque to “justify” the second intifada. And this.

    So how can we expect a one-hour programme to please all of the people all of the time? Answer is we can’t. The trouble is that the anti-Israel narrative has been given undue credence over time so that the mantra “We must be getting it about right” is as ridiculous as insisting on a cube-shaped world. (To satisfy believers in the globe shaped globe and all those passionate flat-earthers)

  3. isthebbcbiased? If you need an answer to that question you haven't read a book on British media called "Power without Responsibility", by two professors, Curran and Seaton. On page 117, about the 1926 General Strike - which was a formative episode in the BBC's history and corporate culture, it states and I quote: "Another effect of the General Strike was that the BBC invented modern propaganda in its British form." ... "Reith [General Manager of the then BB Company] argued that the trust gained by 'authentic impartial news' could then be used. It was not an end in itself."
    In fact Reith was on the side of the Government and even edited some of the PM's speeches, so when he refers to 'authentic impartial news' its hard to define what he actually means other than that required to gain audience trust and promote BBC interests and/or values.

  4. Joan Peters "From Time Immemorial" published in 1982 is more relevant than ever to read today. Her 10 years of research shows how history has been re- written and this is the point of quoting here .
    from Al Thura 1976( the Palestinian official magazine) from another author. .
    "The Arab armies entered Palestine to protect the Palestinians ...but, instead they abandoned them forced them to emigrate....imposed upon them a political and ideological blockade and threw them into prisons similar to the ghettos in which the Jews lived in Europe"
    It is from none other than Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) !


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