Gaza and a divided media

BY NUPUR BASU| IN Media Practice | 17/08/2014
The UK media's coverage of the conflict has aroused charges of a pro-Israeli bias and re-ignited issues of objectivity.
NUPUR BASU reports on the debate from London. Pix: Jon Snow

Normally, August is the ‘silly season’ in Britain’s media calendar as most newsmakers are on holiday, including the Prime Minister and other cabinet ministers The media has to resort to stories such as Britain’s love of ‘badgers’ or the Downing Street cat and its antics. But July and August 2014 have turned out to be an exception.

As the toll in Gaza crossed 1800, over 150,000 people protested on the streets of London last weekend against the mindless offensive in Gaza by Israel. It was the third national rally in the UK against the government’s defence of Israel and in support of the Palestinians. The crowds at each rally have been swelling.

But as the public outcry increased, the UK media seemed split down the middle on how to cover the Gaza conflict. While some have felt that the conflict required a break the traditional notion of ‘objectivity’, others were happy to self censor and carp about those who had pulled out all the stops to bring the horror of the plight of Palestinians to the readers and viewers. 

Jon Snow, veteran anchor of Channel 4 News, was one of the first to do something very unusual to focus attention on the plight of children in Gaza. He returned from Gaza where he had filmed an account of the terrible suffering he had witnessed and uploaded it on YouTube. His purpose in bringing the plight of children into sharp focus was, as he told viewers, that ‘together we can make a difference’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mR1LGoNg5p4

Excerpts from Snow’s account:

I am back and in the comfort of the studio and it’s hard to imagine I was ever away..I don’t need to imagine though, as what I saw is etched in my mind.  What I never knew and I know now is that those people who live in Gaza are mainly the unbelievably young....the average age is 17.That means that about a quarter of a million are under 10.

If you know any 10 year olds, seven year olds, five year olds, four year olds....the idea that in the looseness of a war zone you can control your children,that they won’t be somewhere where they can be hit....you cannot..So in a very densely packed urban area..if you decide to throw missiles, shells..then undoubtedly you will kill children..and that is what they are doing.”.

There was one specific moment that stood out above all the others...penetrating the third floor of the Al Shifa hospital....one of the two floors dedicated to children...that’s where I met Maha, terribly crippled by shrapnel that had penetrated her spine....that’s where I saw this little two and half year old with panda like wounds..which prevented her eyes opening at all..they were the consequence of a broken skull and a fractured neck.. 

I can’t get those images out of my mind..I don’t think you can either because they have been everywhere..they are the essence of what is happening in Gaza..now of course Hamas for its part was throwing rockets into Israel, designed ideally to kill Israelis..but of course Israel, courtesy American finance, has invented the most brilliant shield that is keeping absolutely everything out..that is the difference...the suffering is among ground troops...mostly 20 year olds ..who go in and get killed. 

So when I spoke to a Norwegian doctor who is dealing with the consequences of the bombing ..when I asked him how many children have been wounded..I was told 1,310 children had been registered. How many children dead?166. But that number is growing all the time..that is what makes this something that everyone of us has to confront.

 

We have to know that in some way we actually share some responsibility for those deaths...because for us it is no priority at all to stop it...our United Nations, our government, our world is not that interested. The fact that you are watching this , that you are motivated to do something..that is the greatest hope that people in Gaza have..we cannot let it go on..if our reporting is worth anything ..if your preparedness to watch, listen and read..has any meaning.. 

Together we can make a difference.”

Snow’s report, delivered in his usual measured and gentle manner, was a coup, with nearly 290,000 hits. It was a bold and moral move to tell a story, as it is, from a conflict zone. And it had the ring of the legendary Ernest Hemingway ‘s war dispatches.

The reasoning for not doing the report for his highly viewed 7 pm news bulletin was that the regulatory authorities could have complained of ’lack of balance’.  By launching his piece on YouTube, Snow was able to bypass the ‘objectivity’ clause.

But others were unhappy, especially some BBC journalists. The BBC’s Afghanistan correspondent ,David Loyn, in an article in The Guardian called “Jon Snow’s Gaza appeal risks reducing reporting to propaganda” wrote: “ Journalists have cried ‘something must be done’ before, but they must avoid emoting.”

 “'The horrors of Gaza have been bravely narrated by reporters fully equipped with compassion and empathy, but not wallowing in their own feelings,” wrote Loyn, criticising both Snow and Guardian columnist Giles Fraser for their reportage.

Loyn went on: “Faced by the horrors of Gaza, Guardian columnist Giles Fraser last week urged reporters to show more emotion, condemning calm rationality in the face of the slaughter as “a particular form of madness”. This is a dangerous path. Emotion is the stuff of propaganda, and news is against propaganda. Reporting should privilege the emotional responses of audiences, not indulge journalists.”

His tone towards Snow became even harsher as he developed his argument.  “Snow’s YouTube appeal carried an implicit message that is more threatening, at least to TV news, than Fraser’s call for emotional reporting. He considered that he could deliver this only online since it might contravene rules governing impartiality in news programmes. It resembled the homilies that used to be delivered by TV anchors such as Walter Cronkite at the end of the nightly news in the US. These could be highly opinionated, especially during the Vietnam War, stretching the bounds of the fairness doctrine that regulated American broadcasting at the time, similar to Britain’s rules on impartiality. Ronald Reagan’s abolition of the fairness doctrine contributed to a significant weakening of TV news in the US, releasing a flood of ignorance – a salutary warning to those campaigning for an end to impartiality rules here in order to encourage reporters to be more emotionally engaged.”

Loyn recalled how his own colleague from the BBC - Martin Bell - had responded 20 years ago in Bosnia by “asking to be relieved of the duties of BBC impartiality, instead wanting a ‘journalism of attachment’.

 “I stand by my journalism” Jon Snow told the Hoot in London.

At a rally in London’s Hyde Park, journalist and author Tariq Ali attacked Israel and bogus objectivity: "When you see images of Israeli citizens standing on the mountains and applauding the bombing, you realise how degenerate Israeli society has become."

In a programme called “Crosstalk - Hearts and Minds” on Russian TV, the consensus was that the “media echo chamber is seen as a tool backing and reinforcing the official line. Corporatisation is dictating coverage”.

As the Snow versus Loyn debate gathered momentum, another crisis erupted over the BBC’s alleged bias on Gaza. In the first week of August, the UK-based Disasters Emergency Committee appealed to all broadcasters and news organisations to run their charity’s appeal for donations and humanitarian assistance to Gaza victims, free of charge.  

ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky TV agreed. The BBC management at first refused. This led to a huge reaction among politicians, the public, and also senior BBC journalists, many of whom were mortified by the decision but contractually prevented from speaking out. Over 3,000 protesters gathered outside the BBC office.  

The Guardian quoted the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, accusing the BBC of "taking sides" and saying: "This situation is akin to that of British military hospitals who treat prisoners of war as a result of their duty under the Geneva Convention. They do so because they identify need rather than cause. This is not an appeal by Hamas asking for arms but by the Disasters Emergency Committee asking for relief. By declining their request, the BBC has already taken sides and forsaken impartiality.”

The paper also quoted Martin Bell, former BBC foreign correspondent, as saying that the BBC should admit it had made a mistake. He claimed that "a culture of timidity had crept" into the corporation. "I am completely appalled," he said. "It is a grave humanitarian crisis and the people who are suffering are children. They have been caught out on this question of balance."

The BBC finally relented and agreed to carry the appeal gratis.

In recent days, the BBC’s crews have moved to Iraq and the plight of the Yazidis, trapped by ISIS. The coverage of Gaza appears to have virtually fallen off the BBC and even off CNN, another channel which has shown a pro-Israel bias in its coverage according to media watchers. Al Jazeera and Russian TV seem to be the only channels consistently reporting on the killings of civilians in Gaza.

Despite the fact that 150,000 people in London protested against the UK’s arms supplies to Israel outside the Israeli High Commission in Kensington, the protests were not fairly reflected in the mainstream broadcast media, including the BBC.

The Guardian published a letter signed by six Nobel Peace Laureates calling for an immediate military embargo against Israel. They were Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Adolfo Peres Esquivel, Jody Williams, Mairead Maguire, Rigoberta Menchú and Betty Williams. Other well known signatories included Noam Chomsky and Roger Waters from Pink Floyd.

In fact, as other recent crises across the world have shown, social media has played a more proactive role in highlighting the Gaza conflict. On the discussion on Russian TV, it was pointed out that at a time when most campaigns and views are being aired on social media platforms, the mainstream media stand to be marginalised if they do not have a finger on the pulse of public opinion.

“Social media mobilisation is a reality that is impacting policy,” said an activist during the discussion Another panellist disagreed, playing down the role of social media, saying: ”Social media is just one part of the jigsaw”.

As the violence in Gaza escalates, the global campaign group, Avaaz, has called on corporations profiting from the Israeli occupation to pull out their funding. The campaign targets Hewlett Packard, G4S, Caterpillar, ABP and Veolia, which are either directly or indirectly financing activities in the occupied territories which have Israeli settlements that are deemed to be illegal under international law. It is also targets Barclays, which manages investments for clients in Israel’s defence sector.

 Richard Lee, media director of Avaaz, told the Hoot in London: “The divestment campaign is the biggest of its kind in history now, with over 1.6 million people, including Archbishop Tutu, joining the campaign.”  

Archbishop Tutu, in a statement supporting the disinvestment campaign, said: "The crisis we are witnessing in Gaza today is not a Jewish or a Muslim crisis. It is a human crisis. Gaza is going to test those who believe in the worth of human beings."

As the Gaza conflict continues, the mainstream media’s coverage will remain under scrutiny in the coming days.

 

Nupur Basu  is an independent journalist. She was formerly with NDTV and the  Indian Express.

 

 

 

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