On Thursday 18th October, the Middle East Monitor (MEMO) and the Cordoba Foundation co-hosted the book launch of The Battle for Public Opinion in Europe: Changing perceptions of the Palestine-Israel conflict. On the panel to discuss themes contained within the book were former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn; Al Jazeera English correspondent Jacky Rowland; and Seumas Milne of the Guardian. The event was chaired by the Independent’s Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
In her introductory remarks, the chair pointed out that there was a valid concern with claims that Israel is always picked upon; although that may well be the case, she conceded that this should not be used as a means of stifling debate.
Tim Llewellyn spoke first. He pointed out that the Palestinian question was the most widely covered issue of our time and as such it deserves a thorough debate. Moreover, he cited Britain’s role in creating the problem in the first place through the UK’s support for the quest for a “Jewish national home in Palestine” with the Balfour Declaration of 1917. Llewellyn said that apart from the Guardian and Financial Times, the British media invariably adopt an uncritical approach to the two-state solution. He described the BBC as being feeble and accused the corporation of misrepresenting the situation. He attributed to the intense pressure brought to bear on the national broadcaster since the start of the millennium. He also pointed to the organised campaign of the pro-Israel lobby within the political establishment and business world. He acknowledged that the debate of Palestine in the media is often “angry, intense and violent” and in an effort to achieve a “spurious balance” he alleged that the BBC engages in a clear form of self-censorship.
Referring to the BBC coverage of the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008, Llewellyn pointed out that the corporation never referred to the fact that Israel had broken its truce with Hamas and initiated the assault on a civilian population. Moreover, while BBC news offered easy and continuous access to Israeli spokesmen, there were no Palestinian voices to advance their case; here he referred to Abdel Bari Atwan, Editor-in-Chief of Al Quds Al ‘Arabi newspaper in London, who was never asked to appear throughout the three week period, despite being a Palestinian from Gaza and someone well-used by the media on other occasions. Llewellyn attributed this approach to what he called “racist feelings” which cause the British media to view Israel as “us” and Arabs as the “other” in a “dismissive attitude”. Additionally, he expressed his belief that the BBC has not only failed to inform the public but it has violated its charter and is breaching the trust of British licence-payers.
Jacky Rowland approached the subject of the book from the point of view of a journalist who has spent four and half years as the Al Jazeera English Jerusalem correspondent. She told the audience that, unfortunately, the Arab Spring had removed Palestine from the media agenda. This served the interests of the right wing factions among settlers in the occupied West Bank because no news is often seen as good news. She admitted that there is a need for background information and context in dealing with the Palestinian issue, but it is not always possible to achieve this on television when time for news reports is limited. One way of addressing this problem is to choose a single story and take small snippets or “vignettes” to highlight the realities on the ground and make those into a story to reflect the underlying discrimination against Palestinians. She gave the example of a set of traffic lights in occupied East Jerusalem to illustrate Israeli discrimination; the green light would operate more frequently and for longer for traffic to and from a Jewish settlement, whereas traffic from a Palestinian suburb was held up for longer period by the red light, thus making it harder to Palestinians to move around the city. Another story highlighting concerns about discrimination revolved around the light railway, built on occupied land, linking Jerusalem to illegal settlements.
Rowland highlighted some positive developments in Europe, particularly in Sweden, where pro-Palestinian activists lobbied for lucrative contracts to be cancelled with Alstom and Veolia, two companies involved in stocking and running the light railway. Both companies were shown to be failing to adhere to the highest ethical standards required of them.
The final speaker was Seumas Milne, who began his summing up by referring to Prime Minster David Cameron’s intention to spend £40 million to commemorate the First World War; the Balfour Declaration was one of the unfortunate consequences of that catastrophic conflict. He said British responsibility for the tragedy in Palestine is serious and should be taken seriously.
Britain, said Milne, has been the main state behind the injustice which has now led to the permanent occupation of Palestinian land. In a more recent context he highlighted the roles of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, in suppressing democracy and popular representation in Palestine; this was revealed in the “Palestine Papers” in 2011. He also referred to the plight of the Palestinian refugees, who after 64 years are still denied the right of return, and compared this with former Prime Minister Tony Blair’s promise to expedite the repatriation of displaced people in the Balkans.
Milne believes that the Palestinian conflict is “toxic”, not least because Israel is a nuclear state. He insisted that there is no equivalence between the occupied and the occupier. He is also encouraged by developments in Europe, noting that the balance of public opinion has shifted dramatically across the continent.
The media, claimed Milne, it generally follows government policies on foreign affairs, and the British media is no exception. For many years, for example, Burma was isolated by governments and the media tended to demonise the country. Now that governments have changed their policies, the media has fallen into line and adopted a more favourable approach. The local embassy or consulate is the first port of call for journalists on new overseas assignments, he said. In fact, they are usually briefed by the foreign affairs ministry before they leave their own country. “This is a problem for fair coverage,” he said, “because the media coverage reflects the priorities of the government.”
While it is true that the pro-Israel lobby exercises immense influence, Milne believes that we should not be overawed by it. However, pro-Palestinian organisations have to be on the case “round the clock”. Ultimately, it is events on the ground that will drive forward the debate and the struggle for justice will be decided in Palestine. Europeans can only play a supportive role, but there is no doubt that the Palestinian cause is a truly global one, the world community has realised that a terrible injustice has been done and everything possible should be done to address it.
As the event was over-running, the time for questions was limited. Yasmin Alibhai-Brown closed proceedings by thanking everyone on the panel and in the audience for conducting the discussion in an orderly manner.