Review Rating: 4/5
The elimination of the Palestinian narrative from mainstream media is not a new phenomenon. Peter Manning’s study, Representing Palestine. Media and Journalism in Australia since World War I (IB Tauris, 2018) explores this tactic through an in-depth analysis of Australia’s oldest newspaper, the Sydney Morning Herald.
Manning’s research involved an examination of 567 editions of the Herald, focusing on peak coverage pertaining to the First World War, the 1947 UN Partition Plan and post-Partition with the 1948 Nakba and its aftermath. These periods were split by the author into sub periods and keywords from a range of articles were analysed to gain an understanding of how the media portrayed Palestine and the Palestinians. As the research is explained meticulously, it is possible for the reader to discern a prevailing commitment to upholding British imperialism throughout, while the Herald’s editorial line fluctuated in accordance with the unfolding events.
Throughout the book, however, the reader cannot help but notice how the newspaper rendered Palestinians absent from news coverage. To draw attention to this fact, Manning juxtaposes this absence of Palestinian narratives to documented history of the same period, showing that the omission was intentional and in line with the political motives of the British Empire.
The author takes us through the main events affecting Palestine and the Palestinians, as well as the political intricacies of British imperialism and how this was supported in terms of governance, diplomacy and the media. The First World War provides the foundations for this study, revealing how Australian troops were fighting against “people defending their land”, thus aiding the British colonial interests by suppressing the Arab revolts in the region.
This backdrop enabled the Sydney Morning Herald to shape its editorial slant, alongside the censorship employed to protect the interests of the British War Office, the Australian government and the military. It also enabled an almost constant framing of the colonial projects in the Middle East, in particular with regard to Palestine, “in terms of historic and religious symbols.”
Manning states, “Readers of the [Sydney Morning Herald] could not fail to see the newspaper’s framing of the war in imperial terms during this period of Australia’s involvement in Palestine.”
About censorship, Manning cites the Herald’s editor, Thomas Harvey: “The censorship took itself with the most deadly seriousness; it treated the leading and the most devoted organs of public opinion as if they were all vehemently suspect, and as if they necessarily desired to publish dangerous material.”
The media’s positioning in favour of the British Empire resulted in the dissemination of a variation of the Zionist myth about the land of Palestine being barren. Manning points out the precedents for such an outlook adopted by the Herald, reminding the reader that Lord Arthur Balfour declined to make any mention of Palestinians by using the term “non-Jewish communities” in his infamous 1917 eponymous declaration. The Herald employed the tactic of mentioning Palestine by name when reporting, but only in terms of territory. “The non-existence of the Palestinian presence, of course, has considerable symbolic importance,” notes Manning.
Indigenous rights were not a priority in the reporting of the Sydney Morning Herald and using the term “natives” when referring to Palestinians encouraged a perpetuation of the colonial narrative. “If Palestinians are not identified as a people in Australian reporting,” Manning tells us, “it is much easier to see Palestinians as a blank space awaiting redemption by occupying powers.”
The “blank space” as described by the author was compounded by obstacles with regard to reliance upon cables for news items and the absence of a Herald staff correspondent on the ground in Palestine. While the newspaper does blame Zionists for violence, it does so with concern at such violence harming British troops. Palestinians are classified as “Arabs”, thus communicating the colonial denial of their claims to their land. Manning also notes differences in reporting between the Herald’s special correspondent in Palestine and the newspaper’s staff correspondent. The former is found to have reported inaccurately or avoided context in order to appeal to a Western audience. The staff correspondent, who arrived on the scene later, contradicted the special correspondent’s claims that Palestinians were using starvation against Jews in Jerusalem as a weapon of war, yet failed to report the narratives of the Palestinian refugees displaced in 1948. “By the time the [Herald’s] own man arrived,” remarks Manning, “the Palestinians had become the minor story.”
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Throughout the book there are many indications of Palestinians being coerced into “the minor story”. Apart from the Herald’s imperialist and orientalist approach to Palestine and the Palestinians, the paper missed, or neglected, the opportunity to give context to the Palestinian Nakba of 1948. Manning points out that the displacement of Palestinians was either relegated to brief paragraphs, or else omitted altogether. The same goes for the ethnic cleansing of Palestinian towns and villages; Jewish paramilitary troops and terror groups were left out of the picture, thus removing the instigators of violence from the atrocities they committed. Furthermore, Manning observes, the newspaper ignored Palestine outside Jerusalem, Haifa and Jaffa: “More than four times out of five, the [Sydney Morning Herald] failed to report the key events of the Nakba.”
The author also notes the consequences of removing Palestinians from their narratives in terms of their right to land and resistance against colonialism. “It makes the use of resistance against such a process all the more perplexing, the use of violence irrational and somehow endemic to ‘primitive’ people.”
What Manning terms “the absence of the Nakba” is evident throughout the book and has persisted in Australia from 1948 onwards. The Sydney Morning Herald’s portrayal of Palestinians as “having lost a war for their country” is misleading and has fuelled narratives which prioritise the removal of Palestinians from their own history, thus moving beyond the symbolism which Manning identifies earlier on in his study. Decades later, the same tactics employed by the Herald through its own editorial policies, as well as due to censorship and allegiances to British imperial interests in that era, remain entrenched in media practices to this day.