Too Toxic to Handle?

On November 17, we sent out a media alert that highlighted the corporate media’s lack of interest in official documents revealing Israel’s deliberate policy of near-starvation for Gaza.

The documents had been obtained by Gisha, an Israeli human rights group, which won a legal battle in October to compel the Israeli government to release the information. The state policy relates to the transfer of goods into Gaza prior to the May 31, 2010 attack on the peace flotilla in which nine people were killed by Israeli forces. Israel still refuses to release documents on the current blockade policy, now supposedly “eased” following worldwide condemnation of the flotilla attack.

We, and many of our readers, emailed broadcasters and newspapers asking why the release of these documents was not reported in October. Were journalists simply unaware of the documents and their significance? For the BBC in particular, with all its huge resources for monitoring developments in the Middle East, this is surely implausible.

Two readers pointed out to us that the BBC had published one online story about the legal battle over the release of the documents back in May. However, BBC journalist Tim Franks accepted the Israeli assertion that the then secret documents “were not used for policy-making.”

The BBC obviously thought the story was newsworthy at the time, just as it should have last month. Indeed, the news is all the more compelling now that the documents have been released, despite the efforts of the Israeli government to block their publication. It is of major significance that explicit Israeli calculations for the amount of food, animal feed and poultry to be allowed into Gaza can be seen, starkly laid out in black and white. One of the calculated quantities is “breathing space”: the number of days that supplies will last in Gaza. The concept of “breathing space” for Gaza, dictated by the Israelis, is chilling; yet, the media appear happy to look the other way.

Finally, almost two weeks after our alert went out, an article about the Gaza blockade appeared on the BBC website in response to a new report by Amnesty, Oxfam, Save the Children and eighteen other groups. The main spin of the BBC article was that the NGOs had found “little improvement” for the people of Gaza since Israel’s claimed “easing” of the blockade which, said the groups, was “crippling” the Gaza economy. But the web article failed to emphasise the call by the NGOs for “an immediate, unconditional and complete lifting” of the illegal blockade. Tucked away at the bottom of the piece, fleeting reference was finally made to the previously secret Israeli documents:

Last month, the Israeli government was forced to reveal that the blockade was not only imposed for security reasons.

After a freedom of information request by the Israeli human rights organisation Gisha, the Israeli government released documents saying the blockade was originally tightened as part of a policy of ‘deliberately reducing’ basic goods for people in Gaza in order to put pressure on Hamas.

There was no reference to the explicit Israeli calculations on supplies of food, poultry and animal feed, or the uncomfortable truth that the Israelis had previously denied the existence of the documents; or, putting the grisly facts in context, that the documents confirmed the infamous Israeli threat that: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” (‘Hamas readies for government, Israel prepares sanctions’, Agence France Presse, February 16, 2006)

However, even a tiny mention is something, and it may well have been the result of public pressure. The fact that nobody from the BBC responded directly to the many people submitting articulate and polite challenges, and in some cases emailing follow-up queries about the corporation’s failure to reply, may in itself be significant. Perhaps BBC editors and managers realised they had been caught red-handed neglecting to report awkward facts about the Middle East.

C4 News and The Guardian: The Best Of The Rest?

The public also challenged the Guardian, the Telegraph, The Times, the Independent, ITV, Channel 4 News and Sky. Again, an amazing near-uniform silence persists (we present the two sole exceptions below).

First, Jon Snow of Channel 4 News had told one of our readers (who had emailed Snow in response to our alert) that he would be interviewing Professor Richard Falk on Monday, November 22. Falk is an expert in international affairs at Princeton University and is the UN Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. The interview was confirmed in advance that day in Jon Snow’s ‘Snowmail’ bulletin which is emailed to subscribers. After Falk did not, in fact, appear on C4 News that evening, we emailed Snow and asked what had happened. In a friendly exchange, he admitted that he had “cocked up”: the interview was due to take place the following Monday, i.e. November 29. We thanked Snow and encouraged him to discuss the Israeli documents with Falk and, at some stage, to confront an Israeli government spokesperson about the policy revelations:  

… if you’re able to do anything to shed light on these documents, and to ask the Israeli spokesman some tough questions whenever you get the chance, you could be doing the public audience a huge service – and maybe, just maybe, making a real difference to reduce human suffering.” (Email from Media Lens to Jon Snow, November 23, 2010)

As it happened, C4 News of Monday, November 29 again had no interview with Richard Falk. Jon Snow did not respond to our email asking about it.

As well as the BBC contacts mentioned in our earlier alert, we also emailed Harriet Sherwood, the Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent; Jonathan Freedland, a prominent Guardian commentator; Donald Macintyre, the Independent’s Jerusalem correspondent; and Matthew Bayley, the Daily Telegraph’s news editor.

Only the Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood responded to our email:

I’m planning to go to Gaza in early December so I may have a look at this then. I have to say that from previous trips there is no evidence of a shortage of food in Gaza although there is clearly an issue about affordability for some sections of the population.” (Email, November 18, 2010)

We invited the independent journalist Jonathan Cook to comment on Sherwood’s response. Cook is a former Guardian and Observer journalist, now based in Nazareth, and he writes regularly on Israel-Palestine. He kindly sent us the following astute observations:

I can no longer access Gaza myself because I have Israeli residency through marriage. But I do rely on what colleagues living in, rather than briefly visiting, Gaza tell me, and then try to use some common sense. My colleagues too say there is not an obvious shortage of food. But the problem is more complicated than simply assessing the ‘weight’ of visible food in Gaza.

First, it is important to remember that Gaza’s most pressing problems are to be found in other areas: in freedom of movement, particularly for students and the ill, in and out of Gaza; in the ability of businesses to export goods and revive the economy; in severe fuel and electricity shortages; and in shortages of raw materials needed for construction, especially given the rampant destruction caused by Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 – January 2009.

Regarding food, much of the population, given their status as refugees, are entitled to subsistence foods from UNRWA [the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East]. But they can only receive proper nutrition by buying in extra foods and diversifying their diet. Israel’s control of the flow of food means that the restrictions have pushed up prices, making most food on the open market very expensive for families living on $2 a day. This long-term, poor diet is the reason for the high levels of malnutrition diseases among children being recorded. This is a man-made slow starvation, the very thing the Gisha documents highlight.

Also, I think there’s a dangerous journalistic practice exemplified in Harriet’s comments that we are all guilty of. As reporters, we regard it as our job to walk along local streets, soaking up the atmosphere. We assume that in this way we witness and understand the problems. When we see grocery shops stuffed with tomatoes and apples, we assume things aren’t too bad. But there are flaws to this approach:

First, we may only be seeing the few shops that sell now-luxury items but not noticing that there were once many more shops. If there are shortages, many shops close either because of the lack of goods entering Gaza or because the demand has fallen as these goods have become too expensive for most Gazans. Remember that in Palestinian areas, people turn their front rooms into shops or sell from stands in the street – so there’s no obvious evidence when they close their business.

Second, the very fact, for example, that there are lots of fruit and veg in the shops that remain may in itself be evidence of the shortages. Shortages create price rises, which means fewer people can afford the goods, which in turn means they sell more slowly and ‘stay on the shelf’ longer.

So rather than relying on our ‘sense’ as journalists of what is happening, we should rely on the best scientific evidence we have available:

a) We know from Israel’s own figures that imports into Gaza during the period to which these documents relate was about a quarter of what they were in 2007 (although this includes all goods, not just food). We also know that, after the changes, imports currently stand at only 40% of the earlier figure. This means that Gazans have been and are living off much less than they were at a time when there were already restrictions.

b) We know from medical studies that there has been a gradual and steady rise in malnutrition rates. 

c) We also know from these documents that the Israeli government had a policy during this period to impose a minimum diet on Gazans, and is now refusing to divulge its new policy.

Taken together, that is very good evidence that Israel wanted to slowly starve Gaza and in fact did so. In those circumstances, the impressions of Harriet and other journalists are largely irrelevant.” (Email from Jonathan Cook, November 18, 2010)

We put these points to Harriet Sherwood of the Guardian. We also referred back to her email in which she said: “I’m planning to go to Gaza in early December so I may have a look at this then.”

We suggested to Sherwood that her casual wording implies that she does not find the release of these important Israeli state documents newsworthy. We reminded her that the existence of these documents had been previously denied by Israel; not surprising, given that they document a deliberate and systematic policy of collective punishment of the entire population of Gaza. (Email to Harriet Sherwood, November 18, 2010)

We have not heard back from the Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent.

Note again Sherwood’s sanguine observation: “I have to say that from previous trips there is no evidence of a shortage of food in Gaza although there is clearly an issue about affordability for some sections of the population.”

Jonathan Cook pointed out to us in a second email:

Actually her response simply sets out the conundrum rather than answers it.

If there is no shortage of food, why has it become unaffordable for some sections of the population? True, some Gazans are probably poorer, but, even taking this factor into account, we also know prices have risen substantially. How do we explain these rises when the population is actually poorer? How do we make sense of it?

It worries me that as journalists we make these kinds of statements without thinking through the logic of our own assumptions.” (Email from Jonathan Cook, November 18, 2010)

Concluding Remarks

In almost ten years of observing the media and writing alerts for Media Lens, we still sometimes find ourselves amazed by the efficiency of the corporate blanking of uncomfortable truths. There is no need for organised obstructionism here; no requirement for orders from above, or ruthless spiking of news stories.

As George Orwell noted in an unpublished preface to Animal Farm:

The sinister fact about literary censorship […] is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without any need for any official ban.

In drawing our attention to Orwell’s remarks, Noam Chomsky describes the mechanism of achieving this dark silence as “the internalisation of the values of subordination and conformity.” (Noam Chomsky, Powers and Prospects, Pluto Press, 1996, p. 68)

“A good education and immersion in the dominant intellectual culture”, adds Chomsky, instils in policy-makers, commentators and academics a “general tacit agreement that ‘it wouldn’t do’ to mention that particular fact.”  

But the public has the power to ensure that “particular facts” do get mentioned. And, crucially, we have the power to make Western governments end the oppression of people in Gaza, and around the world.

Media Lens is a UK-based media watchdog group headed by David Edwards and David Cromwell. The most recent Media Lens book, Propaganda Blitz by David Edwards and David Cromwell, was published in 2018 by Pluto Press. Read other articles by Media Lens, or visit Media Lens's website.

2 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on December 5th, 2010 at 7:54am #

    An amusing attempt to wriggle out of the previous “screw-up”, where our two stalwart watchdogs barked wildly up the wrong tree! But the problem remains: the underlying thesis of these two gents is that only they have the intelligence to see through biased reporting in the media and the rest of us have to be protected from our own primitive ignorance.

  2. bozh said on December 5th, 2010 at 12:18pm #

    media does not exist in isolation from govts, laws, constitution, or even system of rule.
    so, substituting the label “media” with u.s or u.k law, govt, congress, parliament, cia, imparts same protreptic value.
    each part lies to its gills. the moment media’s smbuddy says: media repports say…i immediately defend self, by saying govt says….
    there appears no difference between what a columnist or a pol says. they all glorify supremacism or american god. tnx