The underlying thread of British media coverage of the Gaza crisis so far was summed up for me on Sunday, after the first 24 hours of an unprecedented breakout by the resistance forces of Hamas: a BBC Radio Four presenter asked an Israeli spokesman to comment on Hamas’ “unprovoked attack.”
These were BBC words. The former senior Labour cabinet minister, Jack Straw, used the same “unprovoked” formula the next day, unchallenged, on the BBC Radio 4 programme PM.
Most of the mainstream media coverage, print and broadcast, in the UK from then on can be seen in this light. After 56 years of widening military occupation of Palestinian land, and 75 years after the Nakba created the refugee bulk of the now 2.3 million strong Gaza population, our best and brightest British pundits and broadcasters still don’t get it.
Armed occupation breeds resistance; armed resistance is both inevitable, legal and very often very bloody, though no bloodier than what the Israeli forces have carried out since 1967. Hamas kidnaps, of course, while Israel captures, in British newspeak.
Wherever one looked this past week, the main theme was senseless “terrorism” and its results.
For the popular and rightwing media, most of the debate was about the word itself. Should the BBC use it? (Thankfully, not yet, unless in the mouths of others).
The King used the word, said the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, why not the BBC?
Unfortunately, the crassness of these arguments dominated much of the written media and had to be reflected by the broadcasters.
This first week has been dominated by the phenomenal Israeli civilian and military casualties near Gaza. With media access to Gaza itself severely restricted and waves of gullible Western reporters in the clutches of the Israeli press relations system it has been no surprise that the phoney story of beheaded babies, still unconfirmed, has dominated headlines and coverage.
The Times of London used its columns to cast Palestinians and their supporters as “hate merchants”. If you wave a Palestinian flag you are apparently in favor of chopping babies’ heads off.
Inevitably there has been scaremongering talk of anti-Semitism, with Jew-hating hordes stalking our British streets — “celebrating the atrocities” committed by Hamas terrorists.
This lunatic phase will pass, however, for al-Jazeera ( to which most British who want proper TV coverage have to turn) but also the BBC, Channel 4, ITV, Sky, and even the more sober broadsheets are looking ahead to the Israeli onslaught that has already taken more than 1,000 Gaza lives, and will take many more at unknowable cost and intensity.
Some are, like the Financial Times, already asking why?
Some media matters have improved: Agence France Presse has a large bureau in Gaza, as does al-Jazeera, but the BBC, ITN, Channel 4, Reuter and AP are also strong there, their news teams all Palestinian, all incredibly brave, and all of them measured, implacable and accurate , in contrast to the hysterical tone of much of the broadcasting, editorialising and commentary in Israel and in the West.
As for our crass political leaders, they have so far uttered nothing one couldn’t read in a Daily Mail or Sun rant. Their emphasis on Israeli suffering without mention of Palestinian death and destruction should have been picked up by the UK media, but was not, anywhere. With what must unfold in Gaza this must surely change, for it is immoral and pigheaded.
Sense on Gaza can be found in the newspapers. Peter Beaumont, in The Guardian, a former Jerusalem correspondent, writes intelligently about Hamas’s rise and its recent turn to a policy of “all-out war”.
Also in The Guardian, an Israeli commentator blames the Palestinians for wrecking the peace process — a major feat of counter-intuition. But on Tuesday, the same newspaper published a brilliant piece by the Israeli-British writer and comedian Daphna Baram, who did answer the question, why?
She was in Jerusalem at the weekend, she wrote, as the catastrophe unfolded, and noted “what we couldn’t imagine, but always knew: that if you keep 2 million people in the largest concentration camp on Earth and bomb to death thousands of them on occasion, you create a volcano that is bound to erupt in your face one day, causing horrific atrocities in its wake.”
Baram drew our attention to the crisis to come, for Gaza, but also now for Israel, which faces for the first time the facts of its own inadequacy, insecurity , and lack of any serious purpose other than to take more and more Palestinian land and keep it.
Much of the reporting of the British media, including the BBC, has been sensible and even profound, albeit hidden behind the screech and screen of pro-Israeli sensationalism and fear-mongering.
In the days ahead we shall see, hear and read better and more balanced coverage as these epochal events envelop all the people of Palestine and Israel, raising questions of state, security and morality that no-one yet has asked, let alone tried to answer.
Tim Llewellyn is a former BBC Middle East Correspondent. He lives in London.