3 June 2011

Israel and the British Media - Winning the Propaganda War

New Left Project | By Greg Philo, Tom Mills | 03.06.2011 | NEDERLANDS

Greg Philo is Research Director of the Glasgow Media Group and co-author with Mike Berry of More Bad News From Israel, a new edition of their seminal study Bad News From Israel.  The book further examines the portrayal of the Israel-Palestine conflict in British television news and its impact on public understanding and includes news material on the Gaza attack of December 2008 to January 2009 and the attack on the Gaza Flotilla in May last year.  In an interview with NLP’s Tom Mills, Professor Philo began by describing the crucial role that explanation and context plays in the understanding of violent conflict.

One of the key issues now in terms of public relations and propaganda is that the immediacy of the new technology means that the most disturbing, terrible images come immediately from the front into people’s living rooms and they come potentially onto their computers and it means that there’s a greater accessibility, both in time terms, but also in terms of the graphic nature of the imaginary.  So you can see the day after the (Gaza) attack – or as they attack – you can see the consequences.  And of course that involves civilian casualties, it involves children, women, people who would be seen absolutely as innocent victims of it.  And those images are very disturbing.  The Israelis already had a very sophisticated public relations operation but they then reorganised the whole thing in the beginning of 2008 as the National Information Directorate.  The idea was to coordinate the same message across all their potential speakers and in essence what they did was to ensure that each time a visual image appeared of the consequences of their attack there would be alongside it an account by their spokesperson, or by journalists saying why this had happened.  So people would see terrible images and terrible suffering of the Palestinians and each time it would be explained as a necessary consequence of the actions of Palestinians – that Palestinians have started the trouble, that the origins of the violence was the Palestinians, they didn’t want peace, the Israelis wanted peace….

Then when you go out to look at focus groups and you interview them and ask ‘What do you think when you see these pictures?  What impact does it have on you?’  you find that audience members are saying things like, ‘When I saw the pictures they were very sad, it made me cry when I saw the dead babies.  But it didn’t make me sympathise with the Palestinians because the Palestinians don’t want peace, they keep missing the opportunities for peace, they won’t sit down with Israel’.  What you also find is that the gaps in the news parallel the gaps in public understanding – where people don’t know about the origins of the conflict from the Palestinian perspective, those are all the absences in the news.  There’s nothing in the news we analysed on the history of the Palestinians losing their homes and their land.  There’ll be a huge amount of coverage of rockets fired by Palestinians and they’ll say, ‘After the rockets the Palestinians were attacked and Palestinians were killed.’  But they didn’t say, ‘Israelis have killed one and a half thousand Palestinians and hundreds of children in the years before the attack.’  That is missing.

What you’re talking about now is the more recent content analysis you did, for More Bad News from Israel.  Was there a noticeable difference in your first set, for Bad News from Israel, and your second set, for the new book, in terms of how well the Israelis were getting their message across?  You described the PR operation getting more sophisticated – did that have a discernable impact do you think?

I think it was already quite well developed but I think it was a question of polishing and refining what they had done before and in a situation where they were killing very many more Palestinians than Israelis were killed.  At the time of the first book approximately two to three Palestinians died for each Israeli.  By the time they attacked Gaza the ratio was one hundred to one, so for every Israeli that died there were a hundred Palestinians who died.  Thus in essence what the Israelis had to deal with was a bigger problem because they had comparatively a very small number of casualties themselves and at the same time they were killing very large numbers of the Palestinians.  And in that context they were extraordinarily successful, I would say, because when we went to the focus groups we found that people had heard this line so relentlessly about the rockets, the Israeli line about the causes of it, without the Palestinian account or explanation, so that you would find people (including people who had sympathy for the Palestinians) saying things like, ‘It’s very sad, I understand that Palestinians are being treated badly.  If only they’d stop firing the rockets, they’re bringing this on themselves.’  Things like this.  In the random samples that we were taking there was actually less sympathy.  The Israelis had done an extraordinary job really in promoting their own message.  I was surprised.  If you stay with the fifteen or twenty per cent of the population who are into those sorts of things, those people tend to deflect the news and they would not have been so affected by it.  But once you get out of that into the population as a whole, they really are relying on the BBC news and they simply don’t hear the other side.  They don’t hear the Palestinian argument.  I can remember one particular interviewee said that she was so sad to see the Palestinians but it didn’t make her feel that they were right.  When she learned that Hamas had offered to stop the rockets in exchange for a lifting of the blockade she was really quite shocked and she said, ‘How could that be?  How have I not heard that?  That’s ridiculous.  Who’s saying that?  If I had heard something like that I would want to know who’s saying it.’  And I said, ‘Well actually it was the ex-head of Mossad, the Israeli secret service.’

So that is exactly the issue.  The journalists are under tremendous pressure to not criticise Israel.  As soon as they start to criticise Israel from the Palestinian point of view they get into all sorts of problems.  If they do that it’s very difficult.  So what they tend to do is to stay on the strongest ground, or what they see as the strongest ground, which is civilian casualties.  They would show lots of Palestinian civilian casualties and that would be their version of the Palestinian side and against that they would give the Israeli point of view of why it was all happening.  And of course that means that people in a sense become inured to the casualties and say, ‘Oh yes it’s sad isn’t it, but if only the Palestinians would stop starting the trouble’.

That is an important change in how people understand the media because up until now people had seen pictures as in some way telling the story.  You know a weak nation being attacked by a strong one like in Vietnam.  People look back to classic images, obviously the girl with the napalm, a terrible picture.  But the one I was thinking of was the GI setting using a Zippo lighter to set alight to a village.  This had a huge impact in America: ‘How could GIs be setting alight to peoples’ homes?’  But now you’d have a public relations expert saying, ‘Well, that village was wired for mines,’ and ‘We think that there were arms in that hut,’ and ‘What was happening was we were protecting the people because if they’d gone back to those village huts they would have been in danger.’  They would have a PR person explain it all away.  It wouldn’t matter what you were showing. 

And it didn’t matter how grotesque the images were.  That particular woman – the one who was so shocked to hear of the Hamas ceasefire offer – had seen a line of dead babies and she said it made her cry, appalling images which were not actually shown on the BBC.  This suggests that arguments about sanitation are not especially relevant – people have argued, ‘We don’t see the terrible images.  They are sanitised.’  But I think that people are now more used to it.  They just assume that war is going to generate absolutely awful things.  The images really don’t make such a difference anymore.  It’s the control of explanation that is crucial.

Regarding the journalists themselves, certainly from the BBC, I’ve read responses to criticisms where they’ve said, ‘We have shown civilian casualties.’  I was thinking of Iraq, but journalists tend to point to images of casualties and also the reporting of setbacks and say, ‘Well look, we are showing these things; we are not doing the government’s bidding.’

That’s right.

The Israel lobby or the groups that pressure the BBC and other media in these directions –  including parts of the right-wing media: they protest that the BBC is anti-Israeli.

Well people always say that but I think it’s part of the nature of contemporary public relations that you are always criticising.  Nothing is ever going to be enough.  It’s part of the game to always criticise.  Having said that, if you are in a position where you believe that your opponents have absolutely nothing to say at all and you really do believe that they want to kill you – and I think there are Zionists who believe that the only future for Israel is to fight, because its opponents only want to destroy them – then anything that says anything different from that is going to be seen as liberal and unacceptable.

I think it’s also fair to say that this is not a personal issue with journalists.  I’ve seen pieces of coverage where the journalist was quite clearly prejudiced in favour of Israel, if you want to put it that way – very sympathetic to the Israeli position, adopted the language.  On the other hand I’ve seen journalists who are clearly more critical and you can see that they are trying to raise criticism of the Israeli position.  But it’s not an issue of the personal susceptibility of journalists.  All the journalists are working within structures which put limits on what they can actually do.  The ones who are sympathetic to Israel, well it doesn’t affect them so much. But if you start to criticise Israel from the Palestinian point of view then the sky falls in on you.  And that is the difference.  And I think the bulk of them are not particularly committed either way.  They just do their job.  They don’t want a fight with anyone, but can still be aware of the pressure.  Journalists have said to me when I’m interviewed on the radio or whatever, ‘Make sure you talk about the pressure we are under.’  They would say to me, ‘I can’t raise it.  I can’t even mention it in my questions but you make sure you get it into your answers!’

To what extent is this to do with pressure from the Israel lobby?  In the book you point to another significant factor, which is Britain’s relationship with America and Israel.

Oh yes, I don’t think it’s just the Israel lobby.  There’s a political culture where Britain’s main ally is America, where America’s key ally in the Middle East is Israel.  You have a huge pressure on American politics from pro-Israel groups in America, both Christian right and Zionist groups, AIPAC particularly.  And their impact on Congress means that you have support for Israel.  And American politicians are interviewed a lot in Britain.  When we measured it we found that there were twice as many American politicians on TV as British politicians talking about this.  You have Blair who was very pro-Israel.  You have the Conservative Party – I don’t know if you saw that programme The Israel Lobby in which 80% of Conservative MPs were in Conservative Friends of Israel.  There’s also a Labour Friends of Israel.  All the way across the political spectrum in Britain and in America there’s this strong support.  So if you’re the journalist who sticks their head up and says something different then this is the question which is raised: ‘Who is going to defend me in this political climate?’  You’ve got the press which is also pushing very hard, I mean the bulk of it.  The Telegraph has historically been very supportive of Israel, also much of the Murdoch media.  So that is the whole milieu in which you work, politically, commercially, culturally, and at the same time you are being pushed by people phoning, by the public relations people.  There’s a quote which we put in the new book from a BBC journalist, an editor of the news, saying to us, ‘We wait in fear for the phone call from the Israelis.’  The only issue, he said, is how high up in their organisation is it coming from and how high up the BBC has it gone?  Has it gone to the Director-General, the Board of Governors, the Trust, or whatever?  There is a sort of knowledge of that that goes right the way through.  Pilger raised it and said it in his documentary, The War You Don’t See.  The BBC response was, ‘Welcome to the world of journalism’.

In the book you say that the BBC was far less critical of the Israeli narrative, recently, on the Gaza Flotilla attack, than ITV was.

Yes.  ITV had a bit more of the criticism, of the Palestinian narrative.  The BBC was extraordinary.

What do you think were the factors at work there that made the differences between the two broadcasters? 

I’m not sure there always is a difference.  In that case there was.  Not in our earlier studies.  I think not at all in our earlier studies and I think it might be that particular week.  What I would say is that ITV is probably not under the same sort of pressure as the BBC because it’s not got the kind of reach that the BBC has.  The BBC is the World Service, it’s BBC World.  It’s the major national institution and it’s the one that many people go to first for reliable information and it has a huge impact.  So I don’t think ITV gets the same attention.  When people are attacking the media, when pro Israel groups attack the media, they tend to focus on the BBC because it is powerful and because it’s symbolic in the country and in the world.  Compare Channel 4 News – it does get criticised but it’s not the focus of so much activity and it interprets its role as being there to give an alternative perspective anyway and will defend itself in that way.  If you look at the Mavi Marmara, when the main BBC news had left out for example the autopsy reports and later on, the UN Commission on Human Rights – their report on the nature of the killings and the origin of the events that was very different from the Israeli narrative – the main BBC news just didn’t cover it.  While on Channel 4, at one point they used the phrase, ‘when Israeli commando boarded, guns blazing.’

Some people have suggested that the BBC has become more risk averse post-Hutton.  You don’t see that as being a factor?

Well that is what Tim Llewellyn said.  He said that people have suggested the BBC is like a whipped dog after Hutton and it hasn’t really recovered.  But I think the issue is particularly difficult.  Because there’s so much political involvement and a lot of commercial involvement as well as the press (the Guardian and the Independent are exceptions), but really overall the BBC are working in a structure where the power is with the Israel lobby and I think that makes it particularly hard for them as an area.

You say in a few places in the book that your role as an academic is not to take sides.  What do you see as the proper role of an academic?  Is objectivity possible or desirable?

I think if you talk of objectivity as being outside of society, I don’t think that’s possible.  I think we are all part of the value systems of society.  We all have interests, purposes, we all believe in certain kinds of values and that covers what we do, what we pick, the subject areas we choose.  The fact that you might want to stand up for truth and objectivity if you want to use those terms, or truth and accuracy, is itself a kind of value system.  So we are not outside the values of society.

So a couple of things about academics.  Firstly, I think their work should inform public debate.  I think academics should be an additional estate.  I think universities should be areas where people can go to for trustworthy knowledge.  They should know that academics are using the best methodologies, that you are measuring what you claim to measure, that your results ought in principle to be replicable by other people.  All those criteria are very important and at the same time I think that academics ought to be informing public debate.  I don’t think an academic in Britain can say definitively ‘This ought to be the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,’ or ‘What the Israelis should do is this,’ or ‘What the Palestinians should do is that.’  I think at the end of the day the people involved in the conflict have got to resolve it.  But what I would say is that we can certainly lay out the possible alternatives.  We can say, ‘These are the ways in which the conflict is explained.  These are the potential range of causes for it.  This is the evidence that does or doesn’t support these particular arguments.’  To have a proper debate about peace or how to resolve this issue you need this accurate information.  And academics can provide that and inform the public and inform the parties about what the range of possible outcomes is, what the range of possible solutions are and how they have featured in the public debate.  What we have said is that the constriction of debate in the end makes it harder to have a sensible discussion about what could potentially be done.  And to treat public understanding as one of the objects of the war just makes the conflict go on longer and longer.  It just does nothing, it just spreads confusion and misunderstanding with the intention of one side trying to gain an advantage.  That helps nobody and in the end means that the war just goes on forever.  The role of academics is to try and cut through that and to develop a more rational debate based on good and reliable evidence.

Finally, what role do you think academics and politically engaged people can have in trying to address some of the problems you’ve identified in media coverage?  Do you think that writing to journalists can have a positive effect?

Yes.  I think that the methods that we’ve used should in principle be replicable and I think people can look at the media and use what we’ve written and the way in which we’ve produced the results and produce quite coherent accounts of what’s present or absent in the media.  And I think very many people should be intervening and writing and phoning and complaining and talking to journalists and arguing about what’s absent in the coverage.  That is something that academics can contribute to and they can model their work on the kind of methods that we have used.  We need a better and more active public debate about the nature of media, the quality of media, and the development of alternative media.  If you think, in the last 15 years there’s so much more available now and when programmes come out that are distorted and are very bad accounts of what’s happening, people are very quick now to be in touch with the media.  The grass roots organisations that spend a lot of time just arguing with people in the street and giving out leaflets and whatever else are trying to open up a public debate and all of that is progressive in a democracy.  I think that’s what people should be doing.  And there’s also a huge amount of debate in universities, in classes, in lectures and I think all of that is part of the process of democracy.  Opening up a public debate about what could be done in all this is very important.

Tony Benn accused the BBC on air of capitualating to the Israeli Government by refusing to air an appeal for the Gazan people by the Disaster Emergency Commitee (DEC) he then broadcasts the Address himself much to the consternation of the interviewer (2009)

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