The propaganda battle over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has reached a new level of intensity. In 2004 the Glasgow University Media Group published a major study on TV coverage of the Second Intifada and its impact on public understanding. We analysed about 200 programmes and questioned more than 800 people. Our conclusion: reporting was dominated by Israeli accounts. Since then we have been contacted by many journalists, especially from the BBC, and told of the intense pressures they are under that limit criticism of Israel. They asked us to raise the issue in public because they can’t. They speak of “waiting in fear for the phone call from the Israelis” (meaning the embassy or higher), of the BBC’s Jerusalem bureau having been “leant on by the Americans”, of being “guilty of self-censorship” and of “urgently needing an external arbiter”. Yet the public response of the BBC is to avoid reporting our latest findings. Those in control have the power to say what is not going to be the news.
For their part, the Israelis have increased their PR effort. The Arab spring has put demands for democracy and freedom at the heart of Middle East politics, and new technology has created more problems for the spin doctors. The most graphic images of war can now be brought immediately into public view, including the deaths of women and children. When Israel planned its attack on Gaza in December 2008, it developed a new National Information Directorate, and the supply of possible material was limited by stopping reporters from entering Gaza during the fighting. In 2010, when Israel attacked the Gaza aid flotilla, it issued edited footage with its own captions about what was supposed to have happened. This highly contested account was nonetheless largely swallowed by TV news programmes. A UN-sponsored report, which later refuted the account, was barely covered.
These new public relations were designed to co-ordinate specific messages across all information sources, repeated by every Israeli speaker. Each time a grim visual image appeared, the Israeli explanation would be alongside it. In the US, messages were exhaustively analysed by The Israel Project, a US-based group that, according to Shimon Peres, “has given Israel new tools in the battle to win the hearts and minds of the world”. In a document of more than 100 pages (labelled “not for publication or distribution”) an enormous range of possible statements about Israel was sorted into categories of “words that work” and “words that will turn listeners off”. There are strictures about what should be said and how to say it: avoid religion, Israeli messages should focus on security and peace, make sure you distinguish between the Palestinian people and Hamas (even though Hamas was elected). There is a remarkable likeness between these and the content of TV news headlines. Many journalists bought the message. Hamas was being attacked, and somehow not the Palestinians: “The bombardment continues on Hamas targets” (BBC1, 31 December 2008); “The offensive against Hamas enters its second week” (BBC1, 3 January 2009).
There were terrible images of Palestinian casualties but the message from Israel was relentless. Its attack was a necessary “response” to the firing of rockets by Palestinians. It was the Palestinian action that had started the trouble. In a new project, we have analysed more than 4,000 lines of text from the main UK news bulletins of the attack, but there was no coverage in these of the killing by the Israelis of more than 1,000 Palestinians, including hundreds of children, in the three years before it. In the TV news coverage, Israeli statements on the causes of action overwhelmed those of the Palestinians by more than three to one. Palestinian statements tended to be only that they would seek revenge on Israel. The underlying reasons for the conflict were absent, such as being driven from their homes and land when Israel was created.
Journalists tended to stay on the firmest ground in reporting, such as the images of “innocent victims”, and there was little said about why Palestinians were fighting Israel. We interviewed audience groups and found the gaps in their knowledge closely paralleled absences in the news. A majority believed Palestinians broke the ceasefire that existed before the December attack and did not know Israel had attacked Gaza during it, in November 2008, killing six Palestinians. Members of the public expressed sorrow for the plight of Palestinians but, because of the Israeli message so firmly carried by TV, they thought the Palestinians had somehow brought it on themselves. As one put it: “When I saw the pictures of the dead children it was dreadful, I was in tears but it didn’t make me feel that the Palestinians and Hamas were right … I think the Palestinians haven’t taken the chance to work towards a peaceful solution. Hamas called an end to the last ceasefire.” This participant was surprised to hear Hamas was reported to have said it would have stopped the rockets if Israel had agreed to lift its economic siege. The source was Ephraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad intelligence service.
Images of suffering do not now in themselves affect how audiences see the validity of actions in war. People see the images as tragic, but judgments as to who is right and wrong are now firmly in the hands of the spin doctors.
By Greg Philo, the research director of Glasgow University Media Unit.