Jonathan Cook On The Limits of Reporting on Israel-Palestine
Probably like many other journalists, at some point in my childhood I fell in love with the idea of the crusading, fearless reporter — unafraid of bullying figures of authority and always looking out for the little guy. This image was fed by the greatest of all myth-making movies about journalism: All the President's Men, the glamorous coupling of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the daring Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein who exposed the corruption of the Nixon presidency in Watergate.
Life, of course, has proved to be less simple. Who is the bully andwho the little guy? I, like more notable reporters who preceded me, would find that conundrum expressed most powerfully in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the mid-1990s, I arrived in Jerusalem for the first time — then as a tourist— with another potent Western myth at the front of my consciousness: that of Israel as "a light unto the nations", the plucky underdog facing a menacing Arab world ranged against it. A series of later professional shocks as a freelance journalist reporting on Israel would shatter my assumptions about both Israel and courageous reporters.
My awakening to the realities of serious limits on honest reporting originated in the early stages of the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in late 2000. I was then writing for the Guardian, first as a staff journalist based in the foreign department at its head office in London, and then later as a freelance journalist in Nazareth. I regularly travelled to the Middle East, dispatching reports for the Guardian. Normally there was no problem. But whenever I offered articles about Israel, or the Israel-Palestine conflict, I sensed a reluctance, even a resistance, to publishing them. The standard of proof required to print anything critical of Israel, it became apparent to me, was far higher than with other countries.
Despite the Guardian's international reputation as the Western newspaper most savagely critical of Israel's actions, I quickly realised that there were, in fact, very clear, and highly unusual, limitations on what could be written about Israel.
Consider the following examples. One is an account I submitted based on my investigations of an apparent shoot-to-kill policy by the Israeli police against its own Palestinian citizens at the start of the second intifada. The article was sat on for months by the paper.
Finally, after I made repeated queries, I was informed by the features editor that the article could not be used because it was no longer "fresh".
There was also a report I submitted to the Guardian about the suspected use by Israel of a new experimental type of tear gas against schoolchildren near Bethlehem, and earlier in Gaza. I had gathered eyewitness testimony from respected French doctors working in local hospitals who believed the gas was causing the children nerve damage – a suspicion shared by a leading international human rights organization. The piece was rejected: my foreign editor at the Guardian dismissed the evidence as "inadequate".
The foreign editor also told me that he was concerned that no other journalist had reported the story. The episode led me to wonder for the first time in my career whether newspapers were actually interested in exclusives.
The most disturbing example followed my investigation into the death of a United Nations worker, and British citizen, Iain Hook, in Jenin refugee camp at the hands of an Israeli sniper in 2002. I was the only journalist to have entered the UN compound in Jenin in the immediate aftermath of Hook's death. I spoke with Palestinian witnesses and was able to piece together what had happened. Later I obtained access to details of a suppressed UN report into the killing.
When I offered the investigation to the Guardian's foreign editor, he sounded worried. Again I was told, as if in admonition, that no other media had covered the story. But it seemed to me that this time even the foreign editor realized he was offering excuses rather than reasons for not publishing. As I argued my case, he agreed to publish a small article looking at the diplomatic fall-out from Hook's killing, and the mounting pressure on the UN. He had bought me off.
Eventually, under pressure from Chris McGreal, their local bureau chief, the Guardian editors relented and reserved a page for my investigation. When the story was published, however, it was only half the promised length. It had also lost a map that demonstrated the implausibility of Israel's account of Hook's killing. The foreign editors later claimed that they had been forced to accept a half-page advertisement on the same page at the very last moment. I had worked in the foreign department for many years and cannot recall anyinstance where an ad change was made so close to the deadline. The editors had cut the second half of the story, the part that contained the evidence I had unearthed.
I was encountering similar difficulties with other mainstream papers where I submitted articles. Indeed, my first three years as a freelance journalist based in Israel were a rapid lesson in the limits of the permissible in reporting and commenting on the conflict. As I began to gain a deeper understanding of the issues, and as I became a better reporter (according to everything I had been taught about the standards of "good professional journalism"), the less interest the mainstream media showed in my work. It became more and more difficult to place my reports in newspapers — to the point where I was spending more time arguing the case for a story with an editor (and then defending it afterwards), than I was researching and writing the story.
Propaganda War – And The Occupation's End?
The bigger picture of my experiences above is of a propaganda war in which Israel is investing ever larger efforts into controlling the narrative of the Israel-Palestine conflict, focusing flak chiefly on the main Western news organizations and their local sources of information. This propaganda war is being fought on multiple fronts; but all with one central goal: to limit criticism of Israel's conduct and evidence of its oppression of the Palestinians in the international media and especially in the United States, where Israel's lobbyists are at their most muscular. Israel needs to maintain its credibility in the US because that is the source of its strength. It depends on billions of dollars in aid and military hardware, almost blanket political support from Congress, the White House's veto of critical resolutions at the United Nations, and Washington's role as a dishonest broker in sponsoring intermittent talks propping up a peace process that in reality offers no hope of a just resolution. The occupation would end in short order without US financial, diplomatic and military support.
In the New York Times, perhaps the world's most influential newspaper, the tilt towards Israel is clear and consistent. If Americans Knew, a US institute for disseminating information about the Middle East, has exposed systematic distortions in the paper's coverage. Some notable examples of pro-Israeli bias are the fact that international reports on Israel's human right abuses are covered at a rate 19 times lower than those documenting abuses by Palestinians; and Israeli children's deaths are seven times more likely to be reported than Palestinian children's. The NYT, like other US media, reports often on the plight of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held in Gaza, while rarely mentioning the 7,000 or so Palestinians — including many women and children, and hundreds who have never been charged — held in Israel's prisons.
There are, however, some promising developments in countering Israel's propaganda offensive. Since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, there has been a rapid rise in English-language information about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories produced by Israeli human rights groups, such as B'Tselem, Gisha, Adalah and the Association of Civil Rights. There are now often same-day English translations of the Hebrew press, notably the liberal-leaning Ha'aretz. And dissident Israeli bloggers and journalists, including Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, have a greater outreach thanks to the internet.
The BBC Moving In Precisely The Opposite Direction To The Public Mood
I believe that the popular mood in Britain has turned rapidly against Israel over the past decade. Israel appears to have been initially fearful that the BBC might reflect such sentiments. But after considerable secretive pressure from the Israeli foreign ministry and its lobbyists, the BBC has moved in precisely the opposite direction.
Most notable was its refusal in 2009 to broadcast an appeal for that year's selected charitable cause – helping the homeless and sick in Gaza after Israel's 2008-2009 winter attack. The BBC claimed for the first time in more than 20 years of running such appeals – part of its public service remit – that doing so would compromise the organisation's "neutrality".
Other signs of the BBC's loss of nerve are its abandonment of truly independent documentaries on Israel. Instead in recent years it has accepted "soft" documentaries from Israeli production crews. Israeli film-makers have had great success offering as their chief selling-point to the BBC various dubious "exclusives" – typically, "rare" interviews with senior military people and views inside Israel's war rooms "for the first time ever". Israeli film-maker Noam Shalev, who has specialized in these kinds of productions, has made faux-documentaries like the 2006 "Will Israel bomb Iran?" that have offered little more than Israeli foreign ministry propaganda.
Perhaps the most notorious recent example is "Death in the Med", the BBC's Panorama programme in August 2010 into the killing of nine passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara. The much-touted BBC investigation followed the same compromised format as mentioned above, but this time presented by a supposedly impartial BBC journalist, Jane Corbin. With a largely Israeli crew, Corbin again offered several "exclusives", including being present during a training exercise by the "secretive" commando unit that stormed the Marmara, and interviews with the commandos themselves. The illegality of invading a ship in international waters was not discussed, nor was Israel's theft of the passengers' media equipment. There was no warning that video footage shown in the documentary was selectively edited by the Israeli government. Audio tape of passengers telling the Israeli commandos to
"Go back to Auschwitz" that Israel is known to have doctored was presented as authentic, with Corbin even stating that the insults were "a warning sign".
Even as Israel's grip on the narrative coming directly out the region weakens, it will fight harder to ensure that reporters of all kinds covering the conflict come under intensified pressure. Israel will focus on selling its image and discredited myths to those least in a position to question or doubt them. Be warned that editors from the overseas news organizations should be among those who can be more easily swayed.
The Media Response?
Media Lens invited a number of journalists at the Independent, the Guardian and the BBC to comment on Jonathan Cook's full-length article. Not one replied; perhaps not surprisingly.
But one journalist who reports from the region for another major media organisation, and who wishes to remain anonymous, told us:
"In a decade of living here, I struggle to think of a time I wasn't in complete agreement with Cook. He's as solid as they come." The journalist added that the "dominant theme" of Cook's article, that "the reality on the ground is absurdly represented, is of course the truth". He concluded by expressing support for Media Lens, noting that this "dominant theme" is one that "your organization so clearly confronts." (Email, November 26, 2010)
Professor Greg Philo of the Glasgow University Media Group, told John Pilger in the recent documentary 'The War You Don't See', broadcast on ITV in December:
"I think what it comes down to is a basic knowledge that journalists have, which is quite simply that if they criticise Israel then it's potentially trouble, if they criticise the Palestinians, then it's, there is much less of a problem."
Philo related a discussion he had with senior producers on television news, including the BBC, one of whom said to him candidly: "We wait in fear for the telephone call from the Israelis."
Harriet Sherwood, Guardian Jerusalem correspondent
Donald Macintyre, Jerusalem correspondent, Independent
Jonathan Freedland, commentator, Guardian
Jeremy Bowen, BBC News Middle East editor