Thursday, 15 July 2004

The story TV news won't tell

For 10 years Tim Llewellyn was the BBC's Middle East correspondent. In this passionately argued polemic he accuses British broadcasters, including his former employer, of systematic bias in covering the Arab-Israeli conflict, giving undue prominence to the views of Jerusalem while disregarding the roots of the crisis

Since the Palestinians began their armed uprising against Israel's military occupation three years and eight months ago, British television and radio's reporting of it has been, in the main, dishonest - in concept, approach and execution.

In my judgment as a journalist and Middle East specialist, the broadcasters' language favours the occupying soldiers over the occupied Arabs, depicting the latter, essentially, as alien tribes threatening the survival of Israel, rather than vice versa. The struggle between Israel and the Palestinians is shown, most especially on mainstream bulletins, as a battle between two 'forces', possessed equally of right and wrong and responsibility. It is the tyranny of spurious equivalence.

That 37 years of military occupation, the violation of the Palestinians' human, political and civil rights and the continuing theft of their land might have triggered this crisis is a concept either lost or underplayed. Nor are we told much about how Israel was created, the epochal dilemma of the refugees, the roots of the disaster.

Legions of critics have formed similar views and put them to the BBC and ITN, to no avail. In my case, the BBC, who employed me for many years in the Middle East, was no doubt able to categorise me as a veteran journalist who had spent too long in the region, though executives are always polite and prompt in their replies. Even making such criticisms carried the risk of my being labelled parti pris. (BBC producers are instructed not to mention that I was a BBC Middle East correspondent on air, in case my views might be associated with the BBC.)

Now comes hard evidence to support these views, gathered by Greg Philo and his Glasgow University Media Group, who have monitored and analysed four separate periods of BBC and ITN coverage between late 2000 and the spring of 2002. Bad News From Israel makes the scientifically based case that the main news and current affairs programmes - with the rare exception, usually on Channel 4 - are failing to tell us the real story and the reasons behind it. They use a distorted lens.

The result is that the Israelis have identity, existence, a story the viewer understands. The Palestinians are anonymous, alien, their personalities and their views buried under their burden of plight and the vernacular of 'terror'.

The Israeli view, the study finds, dominates the coverage. There is far more coverage of Israeli deaths than Palestinian, even though far more Palestinians have died, and they have the evidence that unerringly shows it. Israeli violence is tempered not only by the weight of coverage but by the very language used to describe incidents.

One example is a template for hundreds: when Israeli police killed 13 Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin in October 2000, inside Israel, soon after the armed uprising in the occupied territories began, BBC and ITN coverage was a fifth of that given to the Palestinians who stormed a police station in Ramallah a day later and murdered two captured Israeli soldiers. These Palestinians were 'a frenzied [lynch] mob... baying for blood'. No such lurid prose was used to describe the Israeli killing of their own citizen Arabs.

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