Bad News From Israel
By Greg Philo and Mike Berry
Review by Zulaikha Abdullah, Middle East Monitor, (MEMO), London
Bad News from Israel is an authoritative, eye-opening and highly readable empirical study by the world renowned Glasgow University Media Group. It tackles and supports long standing lamentations about modern news values and practices such as its failure to explain and analyze more fully; its use of official voices as sources of information; its strategic use of language and its often one sided account of events to name but a few. It highlights the tremendous impact of such failings by means of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict; possibly the most intractable and intensely disputed conflict of modern times with boundless ramifications vis-à-vis international relations and the so called clash of civilizations.
It comprehensively illustrates the centrality of the media to the exercise of power through its ability to set agendas; its influence on how we see and understand the world and the construction of public knowledge and thus public opinion. Bad News inadvertently challenges the widely assumed impartiality and objectivity of British television news and raises serious questions about its moral responsibility while clearly demonstrating how the existing political order is nurtured and upheld through the dissemination of misinformation, ambiguity, confusion and political ignorance packaged as ‘news’.
For approximately 80% of the British public, television news is the primary sources of information on world and current affairs, nevertheless, it simply fails to inform. The systematic and insidious dominance of the Israeli perspective within British news is variously explained by reference to factors in production; logistical pressures that divert focus away from audience comprehension to an emphasis on sensationalism. Real content and ethical journalism gives way to ‘bang bang’ reporting and hot, live action as a way of retaining audiences and keeping up viewing figures and which ultimately leaves viewers confused. Of course, this alone is insufficient to explain the pervasiveness of this trend and why the narrative we receive via our television screens is firmly filtered through an Israeli prism. Whole systems of interlinking causes conspire to create the status quo – from the tireless and intense campaigns of powerful pro-Zionist lobby groups, to the ties between the UK and the USA, patterns of ownership and factually incorrect reporting. Even something seemingly as benign as the fact that many journalists usually live in Israel while reporting on the conflict, means they are more likely to acquire information from the highly efficient Israeli public relations machinery and in this way effectively become mouthpieces for the government. In addition it is both difficult and dangerous to make inquiries on the Palestinian side. They are faced with deliberate killing and intimidation from the army, a lack of available information from the Palestinians and so resort to the ‘routine supply’ of information.
The study has two key dimensions. A ‘Content analysis’; a behavioral critique of news coverage based on broad analysis which seeks to highlight and classify patterns in the dominant Israeli perspective and an ‘Audience study’ which explores links and trends between how these patterns of explanations and the information garnered from them translates into public understanding of the conflict. It begins with a potted history of the conflict which forms a basis for the Content analysis by providing the contextual information that news coverage should be making audiences aware of; a difficult task given that almost every aspect of this complex history is fiercely contested. Nevertheless, they manage to do an admirable job in providing a balanced and well referenced account that gives voice to both sides. It begins from the period of the British Mandate over Palestine; including the Balfour Declaration and first waves of Jewish immigration, through to the creation of the state and the refugee crisis, the major wars, occupation, the intifadas and attempts at peace.
In any conflict, the opposing sides will have competing base ideologies and ways of describing events and their histories in order to support and justify a position. How the media reports such debates influence public belief. The pattern of coverage and the subjects that are highlighted may assume the explanations of the conflict without it being directly stated and carry with them assumptions about cause, responsibility, consequence and legitimacy that link to wider social values. Thus, by studying bulletins, it is possible to determine the explanations of the conflict being endorsed. The method used by the Media group was to identify the range of possible explanations or descriptions about any issue and then to analyze news content to show which are given prominence, downgraded or excluded.
In analyzing 189 news bulletins from British terrestrial news channels (BBC and ITV), the study showed that in instances where there were competing perspectives, the Israeli one invariably dominated. They were allowed more air time to justify their motives and rationalize their positions; their interviews were more prominent, and headlines were worded in their favor. The places information is sought, how interviews are conducted, questions that are or aren’t asked and the comparisons that are made all contribute to promoting a particular perspective.
The analysis of a series of events which resulted in casualties from both sides exposes major differences in the way the actions and motives of Israelis and Palestinians are presented as well as a difference in their semantic treatment. Thus, Palestinians are portrayed as always initiating violence as opposed to resisting occupation and repression and Israel is portrayed as exercising restraint and only retaliating after being goaded as opposed to being a belligerent occupation that practices both colonialism and apartheid in the occupied territories.
This was an extensive study and included more than 800 participants from the UK, the USA and Germany, including prominent senior journalists. It was carried out using a range of methods and is possibly the most important section of the study as it analyses the public response to the messages they are fed in television news; whether they understand what they are told; the judgments and beliefs they form; whether they accepted or rejected what they are being told; what they understand about the reasons and manner in which they were informed and how all this relates to levels of interest and attention.
The bankruptcy of explanations and historical context appeared to have the most marked effect. There was common confusion as to who the occupiers and the occupied were; what a settlement was and the legality of its status. Settlers were seen as small, embattled communities surrounded by hostile Palestinians while their key role within the occupation was completely lost. Most were unaware of the plethora of human rights violations; the UN resolutions; the inequitable and immoral distribution of water or even the fact that Palestinians had been driven out of their homes and dispossessed of their lands. Consequently, the often fragmented, glib reporting on the conflict which assumes a level of audience knowledge that just isn’t there is as such meaningless to many viewers and makes it easy to form completely flawed, skewed perspectives of the conflict.
Notwithstanding the lack of alternatives to the Israeli narrative and its portrayal of itself as vulnerable, often audiences rejected what they were shown on the news and had different beliefs about what was ‘really happening.’ Despite journalist’s emphasis on a tit-for-tat endless cycle of ‘Palestinian attacks and Israeli retaliation’ that led some to believe there were equal numbers of casualties, or even that there were higher numbers of Israeli victims, others were able to logically deduce from visual images of Israeli dominance; from its military might and the sophistry of its weaponry, that this was unrealistic.
Cultural identification and empathy was also seen to have an effect on public perceptions. Israelis were sometimes seen as ‘people like us’, with similar lifestyles, customs and manners and Israel is described as an ‘island of democracy’ and a bastion of western values. It is also seen and presents itself as an ally in the ‘War on terror.’ The predominant identification was, however, with universal values such as concern with human suffering. Nevertheless value judgments were dependant on a range of factors including how events were presented by the media.
The dire and immense consequence of this situation to Palestinians is patent. The justice of their cause is being denied a voice; suffering, oppression, theft, murder and war crimes are all systematically concealed and thus allowed to continue unchallenged. It is a damaging indictment of journalism and how conflicts are covered. Whether intentional or not it is disturbing to note that the British media has become complicit in the censorship of both the Palestinian and the British people.
The complex and serious nature of the issues raised by this study along with its comprehensiveness will hopefully make a meaningful contribution to public debate and to eliciting a remedial response.
Review by Zulaikha Abdullah, Middle East Monitor, (MEMO), London