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Why is UK reporting of events in Israel so distorted?

Dr Colin L Leci- Thursday 7th Feb 2002

It had always been assumed that the media presented a balanced view of events in Israel, but we have found to our cost that this is not the case.

The root cause of what influences the reporting of events from Israel must be addressed. We need to question whether the reporters have any pre conceived ideas or notions, their ability to communicate and understand the Hebrew news media or their reliance on staffer translators who feed them with material that they think suitable or which the reporter would like to use. Of course the cultural differences are alien to them and hard to accept - Shabbat observance where there are neither newspapers nor buses or Kashrut observance in major hotels and restaurants under ecclesiastical supervision where they are unable to order cheese or coffee with milk with a meat course, besides the use of different cutlery and tablecloths. Whilst they will happily take off their shoes on entering a mosque or cover their heads in the case of women reporters, as we have witnessed in Afghanistan, in the main they are very unlikely to respect such rudimentary requirements of Jewish observance, even at the Western Wall. Perhaps, above all, are there are governmental or business / economic influences at play, having probably been briefed, unofficially of course, by UK nameless spokesmen, they will attempt to frame their reports to coincide with those of the UK, the EU and the UN which they will then happily describe as the International Community.

Initially, it is necessary to question news information sources available in Israel. Most of the breaking news emanates from state run Israel Radio and Television as well as the IDF's Galei Tzahal. Whilst Israel Radio (Kol Yisrael) broadcasts domestically in Ivrit it also provides a half hour news and comment programme in English twice a day as well as a 15 minute early morning bulletin and a 5 minute update at lunch time. Over the last fifty years the broadcasts have radically changed from depicting self-pride and achievement to those of today projecting an image of self deprecation apart from giving air time to the voices of the PLO and the PA in the very restricted period available.

Israel Television services are dominated by two Hebrew channels, Channel One and Channel Two, as well as international Cable. The television news from Kol Yisrael is in Hebrew apart from a current quarter of an hour news slot in English early evening. Instead of being devoted to local and Jewish news, the English news slot coverage incorporates international as well.

Whilst this English service claims to present a balanced viewpoint it is in the extreme worse than the BBC in its presentation of events in Israel. There are more interviews with the PA personnel than with Israeli Government Members, Spokesmen and Opposition. The newscasters refer to "the Israeli Government" rather than Our Government or The Government as if they were totally remote from the country. Emphasis is given to non-Jewish festivals such as Xmas which take precedence over Chanukah and recently the coverage of the latter festival has been restricted to one night out of a total of eight. The service maintains that currently due to severe budgetary restrictions it has to source its material from the cheapest available, which inevitably includes a considerable amount of material from Arab sources operating in PA areas. The service does not receive material from internal Kol Yisrael Hebrew sources but provides its own. Thus, a reporter whose native tongue is English and lacks understanding of Hebrew, is fed a diet from this slot with news which contains a considerable amount of material which denigrates the State and its institutions.

There are two daily (6 days) English language newspapers.
The Jerusalem Post attempts to provide a centre view point but at the same time makes space available to the PLO/PA in its op-ed columns as well as employing Arab journalists. Over the years the original Histadrut owned paper founded in 1932 as the Palestine Post has gone from Left to Right to Left of Centre. The majority of its long-standing and internationally highly respected reporters and columnists were dismissed several years ago and it now runs with a vastly reduced editorial/reporting staff. In addition, it has associated itself with the USA based Wall Street Journal and incorporates some of the material as its Israeli Edition.
The Ha'aretz English Language newspaper has only been on the scene in the last few years but it does not present an exact mirror image of the Hebrew edition. It is associated with the USA International Herald Tribune and like the Jerusalem Post incorporates some of the material as its Israeli Edition. Certain key articles are missed out. The paper is politically left wing, anti religious and secular in outlook. But, for some peculiar reason whenever the world press quotes Ha'aretz, it states that it is a respected Liberal paper but the reality is that it is the intellectual mouthpiece of the Labour Left.

So where do the international media obtain their information from if they do not speak Hebrew? They usually have stringers and a staff of translators who provide them with what the translator considers newsworthy. Stories are also gleaned from AP/UPI/AFP/Reuters, etc., news agencies. A vast majority of the reporters glean material from the daily fix at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem that is associated with the PLO. Indeed, the reporters are befriended by the Arabs who help them and socialise with them, to the extent that they are on first name and social visiting terms. Whilst foreign reporters have a tendency to like working from Israel because of the facilities offered such as the hotels, restaurants and entertainment. However, the majority do not stay in Israeli hotels because of Kashrut observance and hence, in Jerusalem, they venture out to Arab establishments where they are given the Red Carpet treatment. When they venture out into the field they do not display that they represent the press using standard internationally accepted official press signs, but stick parcel tape over their vehicles in 35 cm high letters, TV as if this is their press card to prevent them being shot at by the PLO/PA and allow them free passage through road blocks.
The Israeli Government Press Office provides visiting journalists with a temporary Press Card that permits them access to certain restricted areas and also provides daily bulletins of extracts from the Hebrew newspapers. Whilst a visiting reporters Press Pack is available few chose to avail themselves of this facility.
The Government has a number of spokesmen who provide the official viewpoint at various departmental press conferences. However, unfortunately whilst the Prime Minister's Office states one thing, the Foreign Office speaks a different tongue. As a result, most of the hasbara or information activities that currently are under the Foreign Office do not present an accurate picture and the government is seen as speaking with two tongues. The Foreign Minister made it clear, when he accepted the position, that he was not interested in hasbara and refused to the appointment of a Minister within his Ministry for that purpose. The information budget within the Foreign Ministry is only NIS 47m.(£8m) out of a total Foreign Ministry budget of NIS 1.2bn. As a result, activities have been severely restricted. Recently, an independent minister without portfolio was given the responsibilities for information but unfortunately whilst the Minister have poor command of English, statements emanating from this office are incorrect, requiring several modifications. Additionally problems are the command of English by the spokesman, when giving interviews to the English-speaking media. There are very few spokesmen and Government Ministers capable of putting on the correct spin that is required.

What about the PA/PLO? They have their official spokesmen and Arabic newspapers. Apart from social contact with the reporters, they also have their own television station which broadcasts in English in a half hour slot at 10.30 p.m. (GMT + 2 hours). This provides an adequate source for a reporter from the UK to file his up to date copy in the UK before the press closes. Whilst the English is poor on the programme, it is understandable. There is a total emphasis on events concerning the PA locally and internationally but no international news. All PA Arabs are referred to as PA citizens including those in the police or military - no distinction made. As a backdrop to the newscaster there is always a picture of the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. Any reference to the IDF is made in the terms of the Israeli Occupation Forces with emphasis on the Occupation. All inhabitants of PA areas are called citizens whereas Israelis are termed military including women and children. Of course Arafat is called President. At the end of this programme there is an inciteful propaganda programme in Arabic that lasts from between 15 mins and 45 mins every evening without fail that encourages its viewers to become martyrs for the cause.

A picture is worth a thousand pages, thus if the written word is ignored the coverage of Israel is totally out of proportion to the size and population of the country on UK TV. Thus the BBC, prior to September 2000, had a staff of 10 including one Israeli and one Arab, currently has tripled their total complement. Their coverage as such is vast from all corners of the country.

Not only do TV teams push themselves to the front line and endanger their lives, but also they tend to blame Israel and issue formal complaints. Besides using their own camera teams, they purchase a vast amount of material from Israel Television and provide a voiceover which gives rise to a lot of subjective rather than objective reporting - one only needs to compare three UK TV news channels and the same film is used with different commentary. It is a curious fact that there is always footage of an IDF response and one must question how fast the cameras were put in place or where they there in the first place. In a vast majority of cases the incidents are staged to portray Israeli oppression of the Arabs. It is most noticeable that when Israelis are attacked or bombed no reporter is present to describe the scene but only the aftermath is seen and reported. So concerned about the unacceptable visual image being portrayed by the media, the Israeli Foreign Ministry recently initiated a monitoring program of English language news items transmitted on Cable in Israel. Unfortunately, because of their lack of knowledge, they did not realise that the Cable News received in Israel is not identical to that broadcast in the home country. Furthermore, the population of the EU is much larger than that of the USA and the UK combined, but there is no monitoring of European Cable broadcast in Israel despite citizens who made aliyah from all these countries.

In analysing the BBC, there are 6 different media sources identified. There is domestic radio, TV and Ceefax, whilst internationally there is the World Service Radio financed by the British Foreign Office as is World Service Cable TV which is also regionalised and the Internet - BBC Online.

Only the first two services come under the Broadcasting Standards Commission and the BBC only accept complaints regarding these services. For the other services, there is no recourse and complaints submitted to the BBC Complaints Unit are rejected, as they do not come within its remit.

In many of the reports from the field, the TV cameras are usually located behind the demonstrators so that the cameras must have been in place before the incident was initiated but this is not observed when Israelis are attacked because only post incident film is shown, hence it would appear that the cameramen have been tipped off that an incident was going to occur or in some cases could have very well promoted the incident as was done post the six day war in 1967. However, on one occasion recently, a BBC Reporter in Bethlehem was beaten up by the PLO/PA because he was mistaken for an Israeli after an incident, with the BBC hushed this up.

The Hadera suicide attack at the Armon David (David's Palace) Hall in mid January provided an insight in to the BBC operation in Israel. During a two-hour period following the incident no less than three BBC reporters broadcast live TV reports and analysis from Israel. At 22 hours there was James Reynolds, son of the infamous Paul Reynolds of yesteryear, followed at 23 hours by David Lawrence and them at 23.20hours by James Cooke. In the latter case the self opinionated reporter who generally provides a considerable amount of subjective comment biased against Israel was still, in a live report, maintaining the incident took place at a wedding and that Israel's Red Cross had reported details of the injured. All other news channels were reporting that the incident occurred at a Bat Mitzvah. Of course, Israel does not have a Red Cross organisation but Magen David Adom (Red Shield of David) as vividly indicated on the outside of every ambulance in both Hebrew and English, including the donor's names! Had Cooke been in an Arab country he would without doubt have reported it was the Red Crescent organisation so as not to give offence to the countries inhabitants, but no such consideration is given to offending and misreporting from Israel. Cooke has been in Israel long enough and seen hundreds of ambulances in his time there and thus his ability to report detail is questionable. Indeed, the BBC reported Hadera as being not far from the line (inferring separation between Israel and PA areas) as a new phenomena as well as being in Northern Israel.

To exacerbate the situation, when the BBC is apparently lost for material from Israel they resort to a different tactic by recreating old news. A prime example was on 2 February 2002, BBC TV News24 had a report by James Reynolds on the proposed construction of a mosque in Nazareth, interviewing both Muslim and Christian leaders, in that order. The item concluded with a picture of the Knesset and the comment that it was the Jews who would decide. What was wrong with this report - it's timing. On 9 January 2002 the government of Israel appointed Security Cabinet set up a commission charged to "re-examine the past decisions of the Ministerial committees in view of all relevant circumstances and considerations", "the committee will hear from Christians and Muslims within the framework of its work" and in the meantime ordered the construction of the ILLEGAL work at the disputed site to be halted . Furthermore, there was nothing in the report to indicate that the Vatican had come out publicly against construction of the mosque . Additionally, why did the BBC fail to mention the Vatican pressure?

None of the BBC reporters from Israel are experts, they chop and change and base their SUBJECTIVE rather than objective comments on what they have learned from their predecessors who were also not Middle Eastern experts. Indeed, a substantial amount of their reporting is plain bias conjecture. In many cases they have a tendency to miss out key words and emphasise others such as "occupied" rather than disputed and "occupied east Jerusalem" rather than Jerusalem. In the latter case, in purely geographic terms, there is no residential area of any substance that could be described as east of the Old City if the later is taken as central.
The task facing Anglo Jewry is immense and dauntless. Current key issues are Jerusalem and the return of people who claim refugee status in perpetuity. The media is not neutral but projects a UK/EU/USA line and thus we rarely permitted a balanced view. The biggest offender by far is the BBC as so vividly illustrated in September 1996 when a door was installed at the end of the 2000 year old tunnel extending northward from the Western Wall exiting on the Via Dolorosa which the BBC repeated claimed for over 72 hours was under the Al Aqsa mosque. When the Israeli government spokesman, Mr. David Bar Ilan, told the reporters to go and see for themselves, they did not do so but continually reported the innuendo. Indeed several years later they were still repeating the same inaccurate facts even though they had been the target of complaints on this issue from both the Israeli Embassy and Anglo Jewry.

What has been Anglo Jewry's communal and organisational response? Poor would be too generous. Within weeks of the current insurrection due to the biased anti Israel material appearing in the media, on radio and television, a group composed of the "impartial" Zionist Federation (not representing all Zionist groups but those left of centre) , Board of Deputies of British Jews (BOD - representative council of most, but not all, of the Jewish community), the UJIA (United Jewish Israel Appeal), Labour Friends of Israel, Conservative Friends of Israel, Office of the Chief Rabbi and the Israeli Embassy set up an organisation, known as the ECG (Emergency Co-ordinating Group) with a budget of £0.25m to counter the bias in the media . It was staffed in the main by young volunteers without experience and overseen by a semi professional seconded from one of the sponsoring groups. It operated from October 2000 to February 2001without much, if any credible success. None of the major Zionist organisations or their members with some experience in hasbara were even approached. This latter group contained a wealth of experienced letter writers and broadcasters responding to radio programmes, many with experience going back as far as the Sinai Campaign in 1956. The damage had been done and British public opinion was clearly on the Arab side, in some cases veering towards Anti - Semitism as was subsequently confirmed.
When ECG was disbanded, it was decided by both the BOD and the UJIA to establish yet another organisation with a wider brief than the ECG run by top "professionals", known as BICOM. The organisation established in February 2001 immediately set about organising funding from various sources and had secured funding for several years operation reported recently as in the region of £0.4m per annum . They advertised for an executive director and after several months drew up a short list, finally offering the position to a non - Jew who promptly turned down the offer. Some eight months later a director was finally recruited who was previously a BBC editor - one year almost to the day of the commencement of the insurrection. After several months of recruiting additional staff, from the marketing and PR areas, the operation finally got under way. BICOM issues a five-day rolling email briefing in addition to a weekly brief. The former is sectioned into a brief review of previous day's events in Israel, a media summary of the press, headlines from the world press with links to the respective web sites, Bicom's assessment of events behind the news, a review of pertinent comment and opinion, quotes of the day and a semi political review which is insufficiently neutral. Whilst there have been numerous daily incidents occurring in Yesha no such information appears in any BICOM material. The whole operation is both too little, too late and provides information that any experienced internet user could readily obtain on their own.
Independent observers and monitors such as Camera in the USA and Honest Reporting clearly confirm that little has changed with the bias exhibited by the BBC since BICOM has been functioning. Indeed, there is no review to be found in BICOM briefs of EITHER BBC television news OR BBC radio news reports, opinion and commentary. Clearly, UK public opinion is, to a large degree, driven by what is seen on television and heard on the radio, rather than the printed word simply because the brain is more receptive to both sound and sight. Unfortunately, this aspect continues to be neglected.

Where do we go from here? Firstly, the Jewish community is outnumbered by 10:1 by those of the Islamic faith, thus we have to make ten times the effort to ensure an effective counterbalance. Because of the biased reporting since September 11th there has been a considerable rise in anti-Semitism which has become more prevalent in the last months. To counter this the community must know its facts Vis a vis Israel and be prepared as individuals to counter and question reports in the press or media. First and foremost is the need to know the facts. Unfortunately, modern Jewish history is not taught in the schools to the level required and the generation of post '67 have little idea of what it was to not be able to go to the Western Wall or the Old City of Jerusalem, never mind the country being only 9 miles wide east of Netanya.
It is essential to know your facts and be prepared to challenge the media immediately - time is running out.

Dr Colin Leci is a commentator with extensive knowledge of the Middle East affairs.



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