False witnesses: A shot across the bow of mainstream media

False witnesses

ITC approval of John Pilger’s documentary is a shot across the bows of mainstream Middle East coverage

Tim Llewellyn
Thursday January 16, 2003
The Guardian

Since the creation of Israel in 1948, its supporters have been highly successful in ensuring that Israel’s version of its and its neighbours’ histories has been accepted as received truth. Dents have been made, notably by Israel’s own historians as they have had greater access to official documents, in the Zionist myths. But they have usually been hammered out with alacrity, both by Israel and our domestic broadcasters.

Whenever Israel has been exposed as an aggressor - in Lebanon in 1978 and 1982, or during the first intifada of the late 1980s - its media doldrums have been temporary. The efforts of its spin doctors, the US government and media, in conjunction with a weak Arab communications operation, have usually combined to make Israel’s broad version of events prevail.

These continue to give the impression of a struggle between equal forces: a beleaguered and misunderstood Israel, occasionally forced into excessive measures to clamp down on “terror”, versus hordes of recalcitrant Palestinians careless of “western” values and endemically suicidal for obscure religious reasons. “Equivalence” is at the heart of Britain’s misreporting of the crisis.

The fact of Palestinian resistance against a foreign occupying power is rarely emphasised. TV news viewers would have been unaware that last month Israeli soldiers killed 75 Palestinians, 14 of them children under 18. Then, two suicide bombers attacked Tel Aviv - the first such attack for six weeks. It was only when it had this “peg” that the BBC reported the rate of Palestinian casualties. Thus, suicide bombs are made to appear as the beginning of a new “cycle of violence”, rather than an outcome of the occupation.

It was not until late one Monday night last year, when the ITV company Carlton put out John Pilger’s Palestine Is Still the Issue, that TV viewers were presented with an unalloyed account of the savagery and misery that informs the daily life of the Palestinians in Israeli-occupied territory. Pilger is known as an opinionated journalist with an appetite for upsetting authority. But this programme was not “campaigning” journalism. It was a painstaking portrayal of the humiliation Israel’s soldiers and politicians visit daily on the Palestinians: not just the deaths, injuries and arrests, but the intrusions of the military into every aspect of a Palestinian’s life.

In response, Israel and its supporters went into over drive. Hundreds of complaints flowed in to Carlton and ITV. Carlton’s chairman, Michael Green, took the unprecedented step of condemning his own company’s output, calling the Pilger documentary “a tragedy for Israel as far as accuracy is concerned”. An official complaint was made to the Independent Television Commission.

The ITC’s ruling this week that the programme “was not in breach of the ITC programme code … Adequate opportunity was given to a pro-Israeli government perspective” is a serious setback for Israel’s struggle to present itself as the victim of violence rather than its progenitor.

Most significantly the ITC found that “due impartiality”, as dictated by the 1990 Broadcasting Act, is not the same as “absolute neutrality”. The ITC said: “Programme makers can come at subject matter from particular directions so long as facts are respected and opposing viewpoints represented.” They were in Pilger’s documentary. He used a long and revealing interview with Dore Gold, one of Ariel Sharon’s leading spokesmen.

The BBC will try to find vindication in the phrase “particular directions” for a misleading film it put out last June, The Siege of Bethlehem. An Israeli TV team gained access to the army negotiators at the siege of the Church of the Nativity, and the BBC ran the film without caveat, context, explanation or the necessary distancing that an insider project of this nature demands. The Palestinians in the film were under-represented and inarticulate. The general effect was to suggest that Israeli soldiers were doing everything they could to make life easier for terrorists inside the church. The fact that military occupation of a Palestinian-controlled area had detonated the Bethlehem affair went unremarked.

So the ITC ruling is a shot across the bows of both the BBC and ITN news managers, approving a reporter’s account of a violation of human rights that mainstream bulletins and current affairs discussions routinely duck.

The Glasgow University Media Group, which is to publish later this year a highly critical analysis of BBC and ITN Israel/Palestine coverage, has already found reporting so short on explanation that many viewers were not sure whether it was the Palestinians or the Israelis who were the settlers or the refugees.

The vociferousness of the Israeli embassy, charges of anti-semitism, dithering by the Blair government in its attitude to Israel’s violations of international law, cultural “drift” in newsrooms that encourages editors to buy the idea that Israelis, unlike Palestinians, are western “people like us”, so more deserving of sympathy, all of these militate against the willingness of journalists to present the issue for what it is: desperate resistance against a military occupation.

· Tim Llewellyn is a former BBC Middle East correspondent