Are the U.K. Media Partial Toward Israel?

Shipra Dingare is an adviser to Arab Media Watch , an independent, nonprofit watchdog set up in 2000 to strive for objective coverage of Arab issues in the British media. She is the author of the group's new study entitled "The British Media & 'Retaliation' in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict."

The current row over the refusal by the BBC and Sky News to air a humanitarian appeal for Gaza, on the grounds that doing so would compromise their impartiality, brings to the fore the problematical question of what constitutes "impartiality" in British media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While the BBC has been bluntly criticized for its implicit suggestion that even to acknowledge the present suffering of the Gaza population (56 percent of whom are children according to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs) would constitute pro-Palestinian "bias," a new Arab Media Watch study reveals that such bizarre interpretations of "impartiality" are not confined to the BBC, but rather, are endemic in the British press.

The study is the first to examine the representation of "retaliation" in British press coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and examined coverage during the first half of 2008. It reveals that when the British press represents one party as retaliating, that party is Israel almost three-quarters of the time.

The tabloid press was even more slanted, portraying Israel as retaliating 100 percent of the time. Yet even within those outlets perceived as "sympathetic" to the Palestinians, Israel was disproportionately portrayed as the "retaliating" party, 80 percent of the time in The Independent and 59 percent of the time in The Guardian. No newspaper, and only 20 percent of reporters and commentators, portrayed the "retaliating" party as Palestinian more often than Israel.

While violent actions by Israel -- including airstrikes, raids, assassinations and the Gaza offensive of February 2008 -- were portrayed both as "retaliations" by Israel and as "provocations" to Palestinians, Israeli violence tended to be portrayed as "retaliation" three times more often than it was portrayed as "provocation."

The blockade of Gaza, described by U.N. special rapporteur Richard Falk as a "crime against humanity," was given comparatively little coverage as a "provocation" to Palestinians; Palestinian rocket attacks were portrayed as a provocation to Israel over five times more often than the blockade was represented as a provocation to Palestinians. Forty-one years of occupation were portrayed as a provocation to Palestinians on only one occasion, and settlement building on two.

Inevitably, these trends in reporting leave Palestinian violence largely unexplained, causing it to appear as unwarranted "aggression." Palestinian rocket attacks were portrayed as provoking Israel or triggering Israeli retaliation four times more often than they were portrayed as retaliation, whether in response to the blockade of Gaza or to Israeli attacks and assassinations.

The results demonstrate that the British press has adopted a vision of the conflict in which Palestinians instigate violence and Israelis react to attacks. Rejecting the competing narratives of "cycle of violence" or "occupation and resistance," they have settled on an understanding of the conflict that is sympathetic toward Israel, i.e., Israel's actions are "self-defense," and criticism of Israel focuses on whether action taken in "self-defense" is "proportionate."

This was all too apparent in the recent coverage of Israel's Gaza offensive. Blinded by the media blockade on Gaza, Western news outlets continued to perpetuate a narrative in which the Israeli operation, which killed around 1,300 Palestinians -- according to John Holmes, U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs -- was a "response" to rocket attacks.

Consistent with the findings of the Arab Media Watch study, rocket attacks were the focus of the coverage, while the 18-month blockade was given comparatively little coverage, both as a violation of the cease-fire and as a factor in provoking rocket attacks.

Similarly, the Israeli raid Nov. 4, 2008, which killed six Hamas militants, was rarely mentioned or identified as the reason behind the renewal of rocket attacks, which had almost completely ceased by October 2008 (when only one mortar and one rocket were fired).

Such double standards are deemed "impartial" by the British press while covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Similarly, the BBC's refusal to air the humanitarian aid appeal for Gaza, though it has aired similar appeals to benefit the civilian populations of conflict-stricken Congo and Sudan, is yet another example of how treating Palestinians differently passes for "impartiality" in the eyes of the British media.

The decision dehumanizes the Palestinian population, suggesting that a child in Gaza whose home has been destroyed and is without water, is somehow different from a child in those circumstances in any other conflict-stricken region.

Double standards in the portrayal of Israeli and Palestinian violence as "retaliation" also dehumanize the Palestinian people, rationalizing and legitimizing Israeli violence, while effectively portraying Palestinian violence as the product of an inherently barbaric and savage nature.

These double standards are nothing new. Eight years ago, after the outbreak of the second intifada, Robert Fisk, writing in the British newspaper The Independent, wrote of "the biased reporting that makes killing acceptable", which he characterized as adopting the Israeli line that Palestinians are responsible for the violence, in which Palestinians "die" in "clashes" while Israelis are "killed" by Palestinian gunmen. Ten years on, the double standards endure, perpetuating the conflict.