Tilting Towards Israel

Journalist Jonathan Cook Reveals The Bias In ‘Balance’ On Israel-Palestine

Towards the end of last year, we sent out two media alerts – Put The Palestinians On A Diet and Too Toxic To Handle? – about the corporate media’s failure to report the release of documents detailing Israel’s deliberate policy of near-starvation for Gaza. “The idea”, explained a senior Israeli official, “is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.” The human rights group Gisha published explicit Israeli formulas for the amount of food, animal feed and poultry to be allowed into Gaza, and the cold calculation of “breathing space”: the number of days before these essential supplies would run out.

We exposed the near-uniform silence of the media to these shocking revelations, as well as the media’s failure to respond to many impassioned and articulate emails from the public. A rare exception, triggered by Media Lens’ revelations, was provided by Mehdi Hasan in the small-circulation New Statesman last week.

This whole episode is yet another example of the supposed truth seekers of the fourth estate being both supine to power and dismissive of the public. For a better understanding of why this might happen in the case of Israel-Palestine, we are fortunate to be able to turn to the authentic insight and bravery of a journalist like Jonathan Cook. He is rare indeed: someone with inside knowledge of how the media operates who is prepared to speak out. A recent Cook article gives a superb account of his experiences in trying to report honestly on the Middle East, first for the Guardian, and later as an independent journalist based in Nazareth (full unabridged version).

His article will be painfully awkward reading for corporate editors and journalists; not least for those at his former employers, the Guardian. But also for the BBC whose managers and editors constantly proclaim the “impartiality” of their reporting from the Middle East. For the rest of us, Cook’s analysis is a welcome blast of sunlight illuminating many dark corners of the media propaganda system.

Jonathan Cook very kindly provided Media Lens with an edited version of his article for this guest media alert. He begins by explaining why he was attracted to journalism in the first place.

Jonathan Cook On The Limits of Reporting on Israel-Palestine

Probably like many other journalists, at some point in my childhood I fell in love with the idea of the crusading, fearless reporter — unafraid of bullying figures of authority and always looking out for the little guy. This image was fed by the greatest of all myth-making movies about journalism: All the President’s Men, the glamorous coupling of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the daring Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein who exposed the corruption of the Nixon presidency in Watergate.

Life, of course, has proved to be less simple. Who is the bully and who the little guy? I, like more notable reporters who preceded me, would find that conundrum expressed most powerfully in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the mid-1990s, I arrived in Jerusalem for the first time — then as a tourist— with another potent Western myth at the front of my consciousness: that of Israel as “a light unto the nations”, the plucky underdog facing a menacing Arab world ranged against it. A series of later professional shocks as a freelance journalist reporting on Israel would shatter my assumptions about both Israel and courageous reporters.

My awakening to the realities of serious limits on honest reporting originated in the early stages of the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising that began in late 2000. I was then writing for the Guardian, first as a staff journalist based in the foreign department at its head office in London, and then later as a freelance journalist in Nazareth. I regularly travelled to the Middle East, dispatching reports for the Guardian. Normally there was no problem. But whenever I offered articles about Israel, or the Israel-Palestine conflict, I sensed a reluctance, even a resistance, to publishing them. The standard of proof required to print anything critical of Israel, it became apparent to me, was far higher than with other countries.

Despite the Guardian’s international reputation as the Western newspaper most savagely critical of Israel’s actions, I quickly realised that there were, in fact, very clear, and highly unusual, limitations on what could be written about Israel.

Consider the following examples. One is an account I submitted based on my investigations of an apparent shoot-to-kill policy by the Israeli police against its own Palestinian citizens at the start of the second intifada. The article was sat on for months by the paper. Finally, after I made repeated queries, I was informed by the features editor that the article could not be used because it was no longer “fresh”.

There was also a report I submitted to the Guardian about the suspected use by Israel of a new experimental type of tear gas against schoolchildren near Bethlehem, and earlier in Gaza. I had gathered eyewitness testimony from respected French doctors working in local hospitals who believed the gas was causing the children nerve damage – a suspicion shared by a leading international human rights organization. The piece was rejected: my foreign editor at the Guardian dismissed the evidence as “inadequate”.

The foreign editor also told me that he was concerned that no other journalist had reported the story. The episode led me to wonder for the first time in my career whether newspapers were actually interested in exclusives.

The most disturbing example followed my investigation into the death of a United Nations worker, and British citizen, Iain Hook, in Jenin refugee camp at the hands of an Israeli sniper in 2002. I was the only journalist to have entered the UN compound in Jenin in the immediate aftermath of Hook’s death. I spoke with Palestinian witnesses and was able to piece together what had happened. Later I obtained access to details of a suppressed UN report into the killing.

When I offered the investigation to the Guardian’s foreign editor, he sounded worried. Again I was told, as if in admonition, that no other media had covered the story. But it seemed to me that this time even the foreign editor realized he was offering excuses rather than reasons for not publishing. As I argued my case, he agreed to publish a small article looking at the diplomatic fall-out from Hook’s killing, and the mounting pressure on the UN. He had bought me off.

Eventually, under pressure from Chris McGreal, their local bureau chief, the Guardian editors relented and reserved a page for my investigation. When the story was published, however, it was only half the promised length. It had also lost a map that demonstrated the implausibility of Israel’s account of Hook’s killing. The foreign editors later claimed that they had been forced to accept a half-page advertisement on the same page at the very last moment. I had worked in the foreign department for many years and cannot recall any instance where an ad change was made so close to the deadline. The editors had cut the second half of the story, the part that contained the evidence I had unearthed.

I was encountering similar difficulties with other mainstream papers where I submitted articles. Indeed, my first three years as a freelance journalist based in Israel were a rapid lesson in the limits of the permissible in reporting and commenting on the conflict. As I began to gain a deeper understanding of the issues, and as I became a better reporter (according to everything I had been taught about the standards of “good professional journalism”), the less interest the mainstream media showed in my work. It became more and more difficult to place my reports in newspapers — to the point where I was spending more time arguing the case for a story with an editor (and then defending it afterwards), than I was researching and writing the story.

Propaganda War – And The Occupation’s End?

The bigger picture of my experiences above is of a propaganda war in which Israel is investing ever larger efforts into controlling the narrative of the Israel-Palestine conflict, focusing flak chiefly on the main Western news organizations and their local sources of information. This propaganda war is being fought on multiple fronts; but all with one central goal: to limit criticism of Israel’s conduct and evidence of its oppression of the Palestinians in the international media and especially in the United States, where Israel’s lobbyists are at their most muscular. Israel needs to maintain its credibility in the US because that is the source of its strength. It depends on billions of dollars in aid and military hardware, almost blanket political support from Congress, the White House’s veto of critical resolutions at the United Nations, and Washington’s role as a dishonest broker in sponsoring intermittent talks propping up a peace process that in reality offers no hope of a just resolution. The occupation would end in short order without US financial, diplomatic and military support.

In the New York Times, perhaps the world’s most influential newspaper, the tilt towards Israel is clear and consistent. If Americans Knew, a US institute for disseminating information about the Middle East, has exposed systematic distortions in the paper’s coverage. Some notable examples of pro-Israeli bias are the fact that international reports on Israel’s human right abuses are covered at a rate 19 times lower than those documenting abuses by Palestinians; and Israeli children’s deaths are seven times more likely to be reported than Palestinian children’s. The NYT, like other US media, reports often on the plight of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier held in Gaza, while rarely mentioning the 7,000 or so Palestinians — including many women and children, and hundreds who have never been charged — held in Israel’s prisons.

There are, however, some promising developments in countering Israel’s propaganda offensive. Since the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, there has been a rapid rise in English-language information about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories produced by Israeli human rights groups, such as B’Tselem, Gisha, Adalah and the Association of Civil Rights. There are now often same-day English translations of the Hebrew press, notably the liberal-leaning Ha’aretz. And dissident Israeli bloggers and journalists, including Amira Hass and Gideon Levy, have a greater outreach thanks to the internet.

The BBC Moving In Precisely The Opposite Direction To The Public Mood

I believe that the popular mood in Britain has turned rapidly against Israel over the past decade. Israel appears to have been initially fearful that the BBC might reflect such sentiments. But after considerable secretive pressure from the Israeli foreign ministry and its lobbyists, the BBC has moved in precisely the opposite direction.

Most notable was its refusal in 2009 to broadcast an appeal for that year’s selected charitable cause – helping the homeless and sick in Gaza after Israel’s 2008-2009 winter attack. The BBC claimed for the first time in more than 20 years of running such appeals – part of its public service remit – that doing so would compromise the organisation’s “neutrality”.

Other signs of the BBC’s loss of nerve are its abandonment of truly independent documentaries on Israel. Instead in recent years it has accepted “soft” documentaries from Israeli production crews. Israeli film-makers have had great success offering as their chief selling-point to the BBC various dubious “exclusives” – typically, “rare” interviews with senior military people and views inside Israel’s war rooms “for the first time ever”. Israeli film-maker Noam Shalev, who has specialized in these kinds of productions, has made faux-documentaries like the 2006 “Will Israel bomb Iran?” that have offered little more than Israeli foreign ministry propaganda.

Perhaps the most notorious recent example is Death in the Med, the BBC’s Panorama programme in August 2010 into the killing of nine passengers aboard the Mavi Marmara. The much-touted BBC investigation followed the same compromised format as mentioned above, but this time presented by a supposedly impartial BBC journalist, Jane Corbin. With a largely Israeli crew, Corbin again offered several “exclusives”, including being present during a training exercise by the “secretive” commando unit that stormed the Marmara, and interviews with the commandos themselves. The illegality of invading a ship in international waters was not discussed, nor was Israel’s theft of the passengers’ media equipment. There was no warning that video footage shown in the documentary was selectively edited by the Israeli government. Audio tape of passengers telling the Israeli commandos to “Go back to Auschwitz” that Israel is known to have doctored was presented as authentic, with Corbin even stating that the insults were “a warning sign”.

Even as Israel’s grip on the narrative coming directly out the region weakens, it will fight harder to ensure that reporters of all kinds covering the conflict come under intensified pressure. Israel will focus on selling its image and discredited myths to those least in a position to question or doubt them. Be warned that editors from the overseas news organizations should be among those who can be more easily swayed.

Jonathan Cook

The Media Response?

Media Lens invited a number of journalists at the Independent, the Guardian and the BBC to comment on Jonathan Cook’s full-length article. Not one replied; perhaps not surprisingly.

But one journalist who reports from the region for another major media organisation, and who wishes to remain anonymous, told us:

“In a decade of living here, I struggle to think of a time I wasn’t in complete agreement with Cook. He’s as solid as they come.”

The journalist added that the “dominant theme” of Cook’s article, that “the reality on the ground is absurdly represented, is of course the truth”. He concluded by expressing support for Media Lens, noting that this “dominant theme” is one that “your organization so clearly confronts.” (Email, November 26, 2010)

Tim Llewellyn, who was a BBC Middle East correspondent for ten years, also told us he agreed with Cook’s analysis. He provided a thoughtful and in-depth response:

“This is an important, and rare, honest piece of journalism about the self-censorship and spurious ‘balance’ that serves to favour Israel and seriously underplay the unanswerable Palestinian case in the British media. It is all the more important in that it is by a journalist with long and direct experience of working and living in Palestine and Israel, who also has personal knowledge of the inside workings of a British newspaper, the Guardian, normally thought to be a model of its kind in liberal Western reporting.” (Email, November 27, 2010)

Llewellyn also offered his insider perspective from his many years at the BBC: “these allegedly fair and liberal organisations are suffering a critical failure of nerve when it comes to Israel/Palestine.”

He added:

Most recently, there is the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s long struggle for redress and satisfaction with the BBC and its appalling Panorama whitewash of the Israeli commandos’ lethal and illegal attack on the Turkish aid flotilla, the Mavi Marmara affair, now moving up the BBC Trust Editorial Standards appeal stage. This is yet another indication – as with the BBC’s refusal to broadcast the Gaza appeal last year – of how resolutely the BBC defends indefensible positions when it comes to the reporting of or dealing with anything critical of Israel, or that might even be construed to be so.

As far as I know, no enraged phalanx of Zionist commissars sits in on BBC editorial decision-making and care-and-control, but it might as well.

Llewellyn’s view of the work of BBC Middle East correspondents today is that it:

is forever being checked, amended and often self-censored to ensure broadcast, always to make sure that whatever the story the Israeli case is forcefully put and we are forcibly reminded of it, even when the story is of violation of Palestinian rights, lives, personal safety, work, freedom of movement, of worship and of assembly. We have incessantly to be reminded by the BBC that whatever the violation of the Palestinians, Israel has a hard time too – as if Israeli citizens were just as vulnerable and oppressed as Palestinians, and that this explains why occasionally they are forced to behave so badly. This is what I call the deliberate confusion of aggressed with aggressor.

As an example, he pointed to a piece on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme the previous week (on Thursday, November 25, 2010) in which:

Hugh Sykes, normally a reporter sensitive to and versed in Middle East matters, persists in saying that Palestinians ‘claim’ or ‘say’ that activist Israeli Jews and settlers and the military are seizing their property or attacking them personally, when these are known and observable facts that need no caveat or sourcing.

Llewellyn summed up:

There is still no real attempt by the BBC to use Palestinians and Palestinian experts either in Palestine or Israel or outside adequately to counter the remorseless spiel we see and hear from the well-financed state Israeli organs, Israel’s myriad supporters and sympathisers and the host of so-called experts from British and American political ranks who merely parrot a ‘middle’ line that effectively avoids the question of Israeli state theft, aggression, violence and repeated violation of international laws and conventions and UN Security Resolutions.

Professor Greg Philo of the Glasgow University Media Group, told John Pilger in the recent documentary The War You Don’t See, broadcast on ITV in December:

“I think what it comes down to is a basic knowledge that journalists have, which is quite simply that if they criticise Israel then it’s potentially trouble, if they criticise the Palestinians, then it’s, there is much less of a problem.”

Philo related a discussion he had with senior producers on television news, including the BBC, one of whom said to him candidly:

“We wait in fear for the telephone call from the Israelis.”

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.

12 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. MichaelKenny said on January 6th, 2011 at 7:57am #

    “We wait in fear for the telephone call from the Israelis”.
    Now that’s a huge climbdown! Suddenly, the BBC is no longer the willing servant of the Israelis, it is the victim of intimidation. It is the wrongdoer, not his victim, who is to be criticised. Basically, Mr Media and Mr Lens have backed away from every criticism they’ve ever made and have rallied to the argument put forward by Mearsheimer and Walt, namely, that there is something which they called the “Israel Lobby” which “controls the discourse” in the media by various means, one of which is intimidation. That the Lobby has means of intimidation which stretch as far as Europe, and is forced to use them, is hardly surprising, particularly given Europe’s position astride the most direct route from Israel to its American bully and the manifest reluctance of Europeans to fight for Israel or have terrorism brought down on their heads for Israel’s sake.More good news for the Palestinians!

  2. mary said on January 6th, 2011 at 8:28am #

    Disregarding the irrelevance of the previous comment and the gross inaccuracy within, I would like to say what a good piece this is featuring the writing of Jonathan Cook from within the belly of the beast as we say.

    This latest news has just been reported by the Media Lens editors, together with a comment from one of the contributors.

    BBC: Israel kills two Palestinian men near Gaza Strip border
    Posted by The Editors on January 6, 2011, 1:47 pm

    6 January 2011 Last updated at 13:11

    Israel kills two Palestinian men near Gaza Strip border

    Israeli troops have shot dead two Palestinian men they say were trying to cross the border fence separating the northern Gaza Strip from Israel.

    The deaths come after a month of increased tension along the border with frequent exchanges of fire.

    Israel has carried out regular air strikes and there has been an increase in rocket fire from Palestinian militants.

    Palestinian doctors retrieved the bodies of the men on Thursday morning.

    The Israeli army says the men were targeted as they tried to climb the security fence in northern Gaza. This could not be independently confirmed.

    Israel regularly fires on Palestinians close to the border. It says this is necessary to enforce what it calls a buffer or security zone.

    In the past year, the United Nations says more than 70 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli action in Gaza.

    During the same period, one Thai farm worker in Israel has been killed by rocket fire from Palestinian militants.
    Link: {http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-12129024}

    lazy reporting
    Posted by Kebz on January 6, 2011, 2:19 pm, in reply to “BBC: Israel kills two Palestinian men near Gaza Strip border”

    This report is obviously hashed up by cutting and pasting sentences from several other articles in the past few months. It is virtually indistinguisable to an article I read about ten days ago.

    So long as the BBC continue to frame these murders from an Israeli perspective, they maintain the violation of their own mythical stated principles of balanced coverage.

    The BBC coverage is shambolic and is relevant only because it misleads and misinforms such a huge number of people.

  3. Ismail Zayid said on January 6th, 2011 at 8:56am #

    Jonathan Cook sums it up perfectly. The incredible bias for Israel, and the extraordinary control by Israeli supporters, in the media, including the Guardian and BBC, is blatant and evident in many ways. I still recall how the distinguished journalist and author Michael Adams, who was The Guardian’s chief correspondent in the Middle East reported in 1967 on the Israeli demolition of the three villages in the Latroun area, Imwas, Yalu and Beit Nuba [my own hometown]. These three villages were erased from the face of the earth in June 1967, without a single shot being fired in the occupation of these villages. The Guardian refused to publish his report, and he, promptly, resigned from his position in The Guardian. His article titled: ” Zeita…Beit Nuba..Yalu,,,and how the Israelis have erased them from the Holy Land” was later published in The Sunday Times, June 16, 1968.

    This was just an example of the bias and distortion of the news that we see in our media, which some, erroneously, credit them with fair reporting.

  4. MichaelKenny said on January 6th, 2011 at 9:44am #

    Poor “Mary”! He/she is constantly running around in circles trying frantically to prove that Israel always wins and that Britain is in Israel’s pocket!

  5. bozh said on January 6th, 2011 at 9:55am #

    lying is legal in all supremacistic societies and their respective systems of rule.

    lying is not ever punishable if lying defends a style of rule. so, what some journalists fear is really fearing own system of rule and not israel.

    u.s journalist fear u.s governance. a system of rule which grabs land, slaughters people, spreads lies, etc.

    this behavior appears rabidly supported by at least 20% of u.s pop; most of which hold many shares or ‘give-takewaway’ jobs.

    true, one can fear ‘jewish’ ‘job givers’ [be owners of people] more than latino ‘job givers’, but it is still part of a governance.

    and as long basic structure of any inegalitarian governance stays the same and 99% vote for it [in u.s], lying-deceiving, promotion of servitude, waging wars-ignorance-poverty will continue in equal or greater zeal!
    elementary, my dears!

    an aside:
    i wonder if people who speak about capitalism, include in it some of its traits as i do now: lying-deceiving, ‘job giving’, laws, constitution? or do they think that capitalism exists apart from a governance? or even people?

    please don’t waste my time defining capitalism— all u need to do is list its salient traits. choose ur own, if u please!
    this caveat pertains also to zionism, democracy, laws, cults, personality cult or admiration for people, [eg, john waine, clooney, MLK. ghandi], schooling, media, etcetc. tnx

  6. 3bancan said on January 6th, 2011 at 10:05am #

    MichaelKenny said on January 6th, 2011 at 9:44am #
    “Poor “Mary”! He/she is constantly running around in circles trying frantically to prove that Israel always wins and that Britain is in Israel’s pocket!”
    There’s no need to prove that. For everybody that is the obvious truth. Ie, for nearly everybody, as there are still a couple of people around – No. 1 being MichaelKenny – who keep calling their lies the ultimate truth…

  7. mary said on January 6th, 2011 at 10:52am #

    He/she/it obviously doesn’t like to be reminded of Israel’s many crimes. Wonder why that is? The two MK comments are as boring and repetitive as per usual.

  8. hayate said on January 6th, 2011 at 3:13pm #

    Whether disguised as a michaelkenny, maxshields, catguyoo, bohz, etc., it’s all the same hasbara.

    And not worth wasting one’s time reading.

  9. jayn0t said on January 6th, 2011 at 5:58pm #

    “We wait in fear for the telephone call from the Israelis” – the BBC

    What earth-shattering revelation can we expect next from Jonathan Cook? The Pope is a Catholic?

    Mr. Cook sums up the attitude of the Western media well. But WHY? Is it because Israel is a valuable asset of Western imperialism, or is it because of Jewish influence?

    ‘Palestinian children arrested and violently interrogated’… ‘Israeli human rights violations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory’… ‘Israelis seized 86 per cent of east Jerusalem’… http://www.israel-palestinenews.org

    But you won’t find any analysis of Jewish power on sites like Israel Palestine News, If Americans Knew, or Media Lens – just the repetition of the evidence for it. What’s needed is a discussion of how this power works, and what changes we need to make in order to reduce it.

  10. Deadbeat said on January 7th, 2011 at 1:36am #

    jaynot writes …

    What’s needed is a discussion of how [Jewish] power works, and what changes we need to make in order to reduce it.

    Absolutely agree and why I respect Dr. James Petras for going deeper and openly discussing and analyzing the Zionist Power Configuration (ZPC).

  11. Rehmat said on January 7th, 2011 at 6:03am #

    Well – if the Americans who have been on Israeli diet (emptying taxpayers’ pockets worth US$3,000 billion + recent US$11.7 trillion bailout) and even with military humiliations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Lebanon – they still survived since 1950s – Why cannot 1.5 million Natives in Gaza survive Israeli diet?

    I bet they will…..


  12. hayate said on January 9th, 2011 at 12:09pm #

    Google Acquires Quiksee

    Taking advantage of Israel’s creativity and innovation [gag], Google may soon be able to quickly see any place, any one, at any time.


    Israel to join YouTube-Google advertising pilot program
    11/17/2010 14:25

    “Google Israel head: It’s “a major honor that Israel was the 7th country chosen to participate,” anticipates strengthening of video sector.

    Google wants to capture the video advertising market in Israel as well.

    Sources have informed ‘Globes’ that Israel will take part in a pilot program set up by Google-owned video sharing site YouTube, with participation from Israeli advertising agencies. The goal is to encourage Israeli advertisers to allocate more resources to advertising on Google’s video platform….”


    Good ole zionist infiltration.