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Take my word for it

After the screening of Gazas Tårer (Tears of Gaza) at the 2011 London Palestine Film Festival, someone from the audience asked filmmakers Vibeke Løkkeberg and Terje Kristiansen why they didn’t show ‘the other side’ (Israel’s) in their emotionally devastating account of Israel’s 2008-09 war on Gaza. For ‘balance’, in the name of ‘truth’, you see.

Løkkeberg and Kristiansen replied that theirs was a film about the people of Gaza during those weeks of war being raged against them; that it was a human story, not a military one; and that they hadn’t noticed much of a mention of ‘the other side’ in media coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict, mostly just Israel’s version of it.

The other ‘other side’ is often airbrushed, hidden away from the public conscience and buried alive in a macabre international campaign against the truth. There is a new book about it, More Bad News from Israel (it’s a new edition of Bad News from Israel – the updated title is self-explanatory) by Greg Philo and Mike Berry. It was launched last week by Professor Philo and journalist John Pilger.

Transmitting. Photo by Ángel Raúl Ravelo Rodríguez under a CC licence.

Israel’s PR problem

‘Israel’s PR problem – that’s how Palestine is reported, at best,’ Pilger said. The tendency in Western media’s news reports about the Israel-Palestine conflict is to simplify, distort and/or hide facts; focus on day-to-day events instead of providing history and context, and emphasize Israel’s perspective. The many articulate, knowledgeable Palestinians and Arabs are simply not invited to TV studios, while pro-Israeli voices are heard loud and clear.

In short, the mainstream Western media is biased in its reporting on the Israel-Palestine issue. As for the taxpayer-financed BBC, Pilger said, ‘Biased is a very nice term. It’s not biased. It’s much more than that.’ It’s much worse: Pilger calls it ‘wilful indifference’.

There’s also the constant demonization and dehumanization of the Palestinian people. While every Israeli victim has their personal story told in detail, the deaths of Palestinians are often reported as simple facts. ‘Palestinians are almost never names. They are numbers,’ said Pilger. Their tragedies are presented as a norm – horrific, yes, but ‘inevitable’.

Passing by. Photo by Steve Bowbrick under a CC licence.

Words that work

The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary is a very – how shall we call it – interesting document. Commissioned by the rightwing Israeli lobby group The Israel Project, it sets out a strategy (with concrete examples) for how to promote ‘Israel’s side of the story’. With all its DOs and DON’Ts, it’s a proper propaganda manual. Philo described it as ‘pages and pages… of “Words That Work” and “More Words That Work”.’

And so it goes on. From advice on ‘KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) and tell and tell again and again’ (p.15) to useful phrases (‘Nobody has to leave their homes: This is the most winning phrase in the lexicon of settlements’, p.20) and strict orders (‘Don’t talk about religion: Americans who use the bible as their sourcebook on foreign affairs are already supporters of Israel’), the document, which was leaked to Newsweek in 2009 (and has since disappeared from its website), works.

It works – because it’s being preached, both intentionally and subconsciously, non-stop. Having conducted hundreds of interviews for the book, Philo says that often, ‘when you talk to the people, they repeat what they’ve been told [in the media]. They talk straight out of the manual.’ And yet most believe their opinions are genuinely their own. Additionally, since the Palestinian struggle is thrown into doubt, it becomes invisible. ‘Absences in the news parallel absences in public understanding,’ Philo said.

What’s more, wrote veteran Middle East reporter Tim Llewellyn, ‘Cause and effect… are misreported.’ The cycle is ‘always shown as Palestinian attack and Israeli reprisal,’ failing to mention the context of the degrading reality under occupation and Israel’s other provocations. This, Philo said, is ‘a classic PR strategy – to control people’s understanding of the sequence of events.’ The key is to control the narrative by which people make sense of the world.

There is also a very dangerous tendency to use Israel’s propagandist terminology as default. Without anyone noticing, this kind of language has entered mainstream media and, through it, the public mind. That’s how colonies on Palestinian land become known as ‘settlements’ or even – as in the rightwing US media – ‘neighborhoods’; that’s how oppressed people who resist occupation by a foreign military power are referred to as ‘terrorists’, and their struggle ‘illegitimate’; and that’s how massacres of unarmed civilians become ‘clashes’ at best – but usually just irrelevant in the public mind. Pilger calls this ‘ethnic cleansing of language, as well as people.’

These tactics aren’t new – many aggressors have successfully used them and still do. What’s really shocking is the supposedly ‘free’ Western media’s extraordinary complicity in this dirty affair.  

Broadcasting. Photo by Luis Alberto Martinez Riancho under a CC licence.

‘It’s worse’

After presenting the book’s findings to a bunch of top BBC newspeople, Philo overheard the following conversation:

News editor 1: ‘It can’t be as bad as Greg says.’

News editor 2: ‘It’s worse.’

So it’s not as if journalists don’t know what’s happening. Many of them do. But the whole atmosphere of silence and fact distortion, propaganda and bullying creates a state of complicity which is very hard to challenge. There’s also the pressure to report in a certain way, also known as censorship. As in the BBC newsroom: ‘We wait in fear for the phone call from Israel.’ It never fails – the question is, from how high up it will come this time, and to whom.

But what about those brave individuals who dare to stick their heads out of the sand? ‘Even if they do, when the roof falls down on them, their first question is, “Who’s going to defend me?”’ says Philo. You’re on your own, so the path of complying is a much safer option.

It’s funny, isn’t it, said Pilger, that it’s us in ‘civilized’, well-educated Western societies who are being conned. As one commentator on Al Jazeera pointed out, the Western media is not much freer than its counterparts elsewhere – the difference is, it’s controlled by powerful business and political interests, not self-important dictators.

Hope always dies last. Change is possible. As Pilger said, to applause from the audience: ‘Look what’s happening in the Arab world. Shall we have a little bit of that?’

Greg Philo, Mike Berry, More Bad News from Israel, Pluto Press, 2011.

A truth-telling book – John Pilger