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
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.
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