How the media cover for Israel
by John Pilger
International Socialist Review, August 2002
If you got your news only from the television, you would have
no idea of the roots of the Middle East conflict, or that the
Palestinians are victims of an illegal military occupation.
In May, the Glasgow University Media Group, distinguished
for its pioneering media analysis, published a study of the reporting
of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It ought to be required reading
in newsrooms and media schools. The research showed that the public's
lack of understanding of the conflict and its origins was compounded
by news reporting, especially on television.
Viewers, says the study, are rarely told that the Palestinians
are victims of an illegal military occupation. The term "occupied
territories" is almost never explained. Indeed, only 9 per
cent of young people interviewed knew that the Israelis were the
occupiers and the "settlers" were Israeli. The selective
use of language is important. The study found that words such
as "murder," "atrocity," "lynching,"
and "savage, cold-blooded killing" were used only to
describe Israeli deaths. "The extent to which some journalism
assumes the Israeli perspective," wrote Professor Greg Philo,
"can be seen if the statements are 'reversed' and presented
as Palestinian actions. [We] did not find any [news] reports stating
that 'The Palestinian attacks were in retaliation for the murder
of those resisting the illegal Israeli occupation."'
Given that the central truth of the conflict is routinely
obscured, none of this is surprising. News and current affairs
programs seldom, if ever, remind viewers that Israel was established
largely by force on 78 percent of historic Palestine and, since
1967, has illegally occupied and imposed various forms of military
rule on the remaining 22 percent. The media "coverage"
has long reversed the roles of oppressor and victim. Is- lsraelis
are never called terrorists. Correspondents who break this | taboo
are often intimidated with slurs of anti-Semitism-a bleak irony,
as Palestinians are Semites, too.
Having long ago recognized Israel's "right" to more
than two-thirds of their country, the Palestinian leadership has
contorted itself in order to accommodate a maze of mostly American
plans designed to deny true independence and ensure Israel's enduring
power and control. Until recently, this was reported uncritically
as "the peace process." When ordinary Palestinians cried
"enough!" and rose up in the second intifada, armed
mostly with slingshots, they were put down by snipers with high-velocity
weapons and with tanks and Apache gunships, supplied by the United
And now, in their despair, as some are turning to suicide
attacks, the Palestinians appear on the news only as bombers and
rioters, which, as the Glasgow study points out, "is, of
course, the view of the Israeli government." The latest euphemism,
"incursion," is from the vocabulary of lies coined in
Vietnam. It means assaulting human beings with tanks and planes.
"Cycle of violence" is similar. It suggests, at best,
two equal sides, never that the Palestinians are resisting violent
oppression with violence. A Channel 4 Dispatches recently "balanced"
the Israeli assault on the Jenin refugee camp with a Palestinian
attack on a "settlement." There was no explanation that
these are not settlements at all, but armed, illegal fortresses
that are central to a policy of imposing strategic and military
On June 9, the Correspondent series on BBC Television broadcast
a report about the recent siege of the Church of the Nativity
in Bethlehem. This was an exemplar of the problems identified
in the Glasgow research. It was, in effect, an Israeli occupation
propaganda film put out by the BBC. It was made as a co-production
with an American channel, and the credits listed the producer
as Israel Goldvicht, who runs an Israeli production company. That
would have been fine had the filmmakers made any attempt to challenge
the Israeli military with whom they had ingratiated themselves.
"The Israelis were determined not to damage the buildings,"
began the narrator. "The international press were cleared
from Manger Square, but we were allowed to stay and observe the
Israeli operation..." With this "unique access"
unexplained to the viewers, the film presented one Colonel Lior
as the star good guy, guaranteeing "medical treatment to
anyone wounded," saying a cheery hello on a mobile phone
to a friend in Oxford Street and, like any colonial officer, speaking
about and on behalf of the Palestinians.
"Killers" were described by the colonel without
challenge by the BBC/Israel Goldvicht team. They were "terrorists"
and "gunmen," not those resisting the invasion of their
homeland. Israel's right to "arrest" foreign peace protesters
drew no query from the BBC. Not a single Palestinian was interviewed.
As the sun set on his fine profile, the last word went to the
good colonel. The issues between the Israelis and Palestinians,
he said, "were personal points of view."
Well, no. The brutal subjugation of the Palestinians is, under
any interpretation of the law, an epic injustice, a crime in which
the colonel plays a leading part. The BBC has always provided
the best, most sophisticated propaganda service in the world,
because matters of justice and injustice, right and wrong are
simply usurped either by "balance" or by liberal sophistry;
one is either "pro-Israeli" or "pro-Palestinian."
Fiona Murch, the executive producer of Correspondent, told me
that Israel Goldvicht Productions would not have won the "trust"
of the Israeli army had the producer asked real journalistic questions.
That was the way of "fly on the wall": a candid admission.
"It was breaking a stereotype," she said. "It was
about a good, decent man" (the colonel). She said I ought
to have seen an earlier Correspondent series, which had Palestinians
I think she was trying to offer that as "balance"
for "The Siege of Bethlehem"-a film that might be dismissed
as cheap PR, were it not for its complicity with a regime that
uses ethnic difference to deny human rights, imprisons people
without charge or trial, and murders and tortures "systematically,"
Goebbels would have approved.
John Pilger is a filmmaker, journalist, and the author of
several books, including The New Rulers of the World (Verso),
which he also made into a film.