29 March 2008

The danger of making war appear normal

By Juliette Harkin


I was in Amman a few summers ago during the Israeli military strikes on Gaza. I was deeply disturbed in switching to Sky News to hear attempts to reassure viewers that the Israeli missiles being launched would not do a lot of harm. More disturbingly the reporter suggested that violence was the norm for the Middle East and so we shouldn't be alarmed.

As viewers we need, sadly, to be more alert than ever. The journalist in this instance singularly failed to give us the basic facts: namely that these Israeli military strikes were on a densely-populated civilian area and that there were civilian casualties and deaths. If he did not yet have figures for deaths, he should not have reverted to misleading generalities about "how things are in the Middle East".

Once again, recent media coverage of the Israeli military strikes on Gaza and the West Bank and the rocket strikes from Gaza raises fundamental questions about the ways in which journalists are reporting an ongoing military occupation and the resistance to it.

Central to any reasoned debate about the performance of the media, particularly in covering conflict, should surely be a clear understanding of what exactly the role of the journalist is in a democratic society.

Journalists have traditionally been the ears and eyes of the people. Bearing witness and bringing first-hand accounts of new events has been the stock-in trade of the reporter. Journalism at its best has exposed the worst excesses of those we have elected to hold power and office as our representatives.

As Media Lens recently reported, the BBC's Jeremy Bowen attempted to counter its findings that "Israeli deaths matter more" in BBC coverage of deaths of Palestinians and Israelis, by stating that the BBC would not "be a cheerleader for anyone" and simply reported "with balance" both sides of the conflict. Balanced reporting is fine in theory, but journalists need to be more aware of the dangers of using the language put out by slick and well-funded government and military press operations.

One difficulty in reporting the Israel / Palestine conflict is that, as Khalid Hroub said at Oxford University in March, we have come to accept the Israeli domination and occupation of Palestinians as "normal" and necessary because of the "fruits of anti-Arab propaganda" over a period of time. Factual reporting is thus passed over by time-pressed (and sometimes military-embedded) journalists in favour of old clich├ęs about Arab "terrorism", "extremism", "anger", "violence", "rebellion" and "recalcitrance".

In the UK, studies such as that by the Glasgow University Media Group (Bad News from Israel) have illustrated how TV news in the UK uses different language to cover Israeli and Palestinian victims of violence (be it state or non-state) to the detriment of our understanding of the Palestinians living under occupation.

Israeli journalist Yonatan Mendel writing in the London Review of Books this month has very carefully set out how Israeli journalists and the media community in Israel have created what David Grossman called a "new vocabulary" that no longer "describes reality, but attempts, instead to conceal it".

The Israeli media never reports "killings" or "murders" of Palestinian activists or civilians but talk only about "targets" and "assassinations". The Israeli media has earned a good reputation of highlighting corruption and injustice on the domestic front. But when it comes to looking at its neighbours in Palestine its critical faculties fail and the media become "actors within the Zionist movement, not as critical outsiders" according to Tamar Liebes, the director of Smart Institute of Communication at the Hebrew University.

When the Israeli and indeed western media reports a Palestinian death or injury it is often put as a "claim" or "allegation" whereas when the Israeli army announces a death or injury it is cited as a "confirmation" or "statement" - as if the Palestinian party to this conflict is inherently untrustworthy and suspicious and the Israeli army is an authoritative source. This is not about splitting hairs on the use of words in the media and it is not about taking sides.

I don't necessarily agree with the Media Lens conclusion that the BBC is merely spouting Israeli propaganda, but I believe that for a number of reasons the BBC and other British domestic coverage of the conflict is skewed against Palestine and in line with Establishment, and therefore pro-Israeli, positions on the conflict. If the Israeli people, the Americans and we all had access to the facts, we would no longer think that what Israel is doing is 'normal' or acceptable.