British/European Media Bias and Jenin

The fundamental principles of journalism require, among other things, that there be independent verification of information, an open mind on any given subject, and no rush to judgement (or to press) until the facts put the issue(s) to rest. Failure to practice the profession in accordance with these accepted principles invariably leads to rumors, false accusations, shoddy reporting and, at worst, propaganda.

Viewed in that light, British and European coverage of the “Jenin massacre myth” reflected a blatently cavalier attitude towards these principles. By any journalistic standard, their coverage of the Jenin ” massacre that never was” was not only sloppy, but unprofessional bordering on irresponsible.

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For six weeks in April and early May, the BBC, once known for its otherwise objective reporting in all arenas, emerged as one of the most biased anti-Israel media organizations in the world. Reporters such as Orla Guerin, BBC’s Middle East correspondent, fed the British and overseas public with a steady stream of anti-Israel propaganda day after day while complaints to the BBC about their Middle East coverage were routinely rejected. This cavalier attitude carried over into the British and European press (and, in some cases, even into the American media, specifically CNN). The British/European media bias against Israel (which traditionally highlights the suffering of the Palestinians and ignores the Israeli victims of Palestinian terrorism – particularly the BBS and Reuters) constantly referred to Palestinian suicide bombers as “Palestinian militants”, and to Palestinian terrorism as “resistance to occupation.”

Thus, it was no surprise that during the April-early May fighting in the Jenin refugee camp, the British/European media devoted huge amounts of ink to unsubstantiated Palestinian tales of “staggering brutality”, conspiracy, cover up, mass murder, summary executions of unarmed, half-naked Palestinians, common graves and war crimes.

For six weeks, the most distinguished British newspapers succumbed to the “Big Lie” syndrome – that if a lie is repeated enough times, over and over again, it will be believed. In so doing, the British/European media, wittingly or not, stoked the fires of anti-Semitism in Europe (according to Conrad Black of the London magazine The Spectator).

Page after page, day after day, the most respected, influential British newspapers The Independent, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Times of London and The Evening Standard gave thousands of column inches to unreliable and misleading reports and innuendoes that compared Israelis to Nazis, to al Qa’eda, and to the Taliban. One report even compared the “missing” Palestinians to the “disappeared” of Argentina in the 70’s. Arafat’s claim that the Palestinians had suffered a “Jeningrad” (a play on the word “Leningrad” where 800,000 Russians died in the 900-day Nazi siege of Leningrad) was not even questioned.

– Israel’s actions in Jenin were “every bit as repellent” as Osama bin Laden’s attack on New York on September 11th, wrote Britain’s The Guardian in its lead editorial on April 17th.

Its headline on May 6 announced unashamedly “How the Jenin Battle Became a Massacre.” The Guardian’s Chief Jerusalem correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg wrote, “The scale (of destruction) is almost beyond imagination,” and parallels between Israel and South Africa (during the apartheid era) were made almost daily.

– “We are talking here of massacre, and a cover-up of genocide,” said a leading columnist for The Evening Standard, London’s main evening newspaper, on April 15th. Israelis were accused, without any credible evidence, of poisoning Palestinian water supplies (a libel dangerously suggestive of ancient anti-Semitic myths and the type of drivel that properly belonged in the Nazi propaganda sheet “Der Sturmer”). The paper conjured up imaginary witnesses to speak of Israel’s “staggering brutality and callous murders.”

A. N. Wilson, writing on April 15th, attempted to pit Christians against Jews by accusing Israel of “the willful burning of several church buildings”, and making the incredible assertion that “many young Muslims in Palestine are the children of Anglican Christians, educated at St. Georges Jerusalem, who felt that their parents’ mild faith was not enough to fight the (Israeli) oppressor.”

– “Rarely, in more than a decade of war reporting from Bosnia, Chechnya, Sierra Leone and Kosovo have I seen such deliberate destruction, such disrespect for human life,” reported Janine di Giovanni, the London Times correspondent in Jenin, on April 16th. She suggested that Israel’s mission to destroy suicide bomb-making factories in Jenin was an excuse by Ariel Sharon to contaminate Palestinian drinking water with smallpox.

– Phil Reeves in the London Independent (April 16th ) in his editorial titled “Amid the Ruins – Grisly Evidence of a War Crime,” compared Jenin to the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia (where between 1 million and 3 million people were slaughtered between 1975 and 1978). “A monstrous war crime that Israel has tried to cover up for a fortnight has finally been exposed…. The sweet and ghastly reek of rotting human bodies is everywhere, evidence that it is a human tomb. The people say there are hundreds of corpses entombed beneath the dust.”

Other commentators threw in the Holocaust, turning it against Israel. Yasmin Alibhai Brown, a leading columnist for the paper wrote (April 15) “I would suggest that Ariel Sharon be tried for crimes against humanity.”

– BBC News headlined a report on April 18th as “Jenin Massacre Evidence Growing.”

– The cover of the New Statesman showed the Star of David stabbing the Union Jack.

– In the Daily Telegraph, David Blair, in his April 15th story, took a Palestinian “detailed account” at face value and wrote, “Israeli troops had executed nine men…who were stripped to their underwear…searched, bound hand and foot, placed against a wall, and killed with single shots to the head…..Hundreds of victims were buried by bulldozers in a mass grave.”

These newspapers all quoted the same identical source – a lone 28 year-old Palestinian named Kamal Anis, who had said that he had seen “Israeli soldiers pile 30 bodies beneath a half-wrecked house. When the pile was complete, they bulldozed the building, bringing its ruins down on the corpses. Then they flattened the area with a tank”. What occurred thereafter in Britain and European newspapers represented coverage that was grossly exaggerated, wildly inaccurate and reflected a sweeping rush to judgement against an entire nation (Israel) and, by inference, to the ethnic group (Jews) who identified with it.

British and European journalists saw essentially what they wanted to see, believed exactly what they wanted to believe, and reinforced each others’ inaccurate perceptions of events in Jenin with ever increasingly vitriolic reports of “atrocities and massacres.” Setting aside the fact that the credibility of Palestinian “witnesses” was barely questioned (despite the horrific Palestinian history of fabricating false stories), and the fact that equal space was never given to Israeli spokesmen to present their case regarding Jenin, a “conspiracy frenzy” ensued.

The consequences of this reporting would have a dramatic impact on world reaction.

How Did the Massacre Myth Become “Fact”?

How does one explain media bias of this nature and magnitude in an unbiased fashion?

According to an analysis conducted by United Press International (UPI) and other media analysts who subsequently examined the events surrounding the coverage of “the massacre that never was”, one of the principal reasons given for the bias was that many European correspondents sent to cover the Middle East do not perceive that they are in Israel, but in “occupied Palestine”, and have little or no knowledge of Israel’s history, Jewish holy sites or Jewish history.

Whereas many pride themselves on knowing some Arabic, few European journalists make any effort to learn Hebrew. As a result, they are detached from Israeli life. Their encounters with Israelis are mainly with government and army spokesmen, and other kinds of bureaucrats – being asked irritating questions at airports, being kept in line renewing visas, and so on. The fault lies in the European News Services themselves. Most would never send correspondents to Paris without a working knowledge of French, or to Cairo without a working knowledge of Arabic, or to Moscow without Russian. But for Israel, they were.

Moreover, the workings of Israeli democracy are rarely if ever mentioned in the British or European media. Every Israeli newpaper, without exception, has regular and comprehensive reporting about life in Gaza. Senior advisors to Arafat, and even spokespersons for Hamas are regularly interviewed on Israeli television and radio. Israeli Arabs play a significant role in the Israeli media. The fact that Israel is a democracy with an unfettered free press, and that the Palestinian Authority allows its press to report only that which has been previously authorized to be printed is rarely, if ever, broadcast or noted in print.

Furthermore, it appears that virtually none of the British reporters who covered Jenin were experts on the military and operational problems involved in “urban warfare” (such as that which occurred in Lebanon and Northern Ireland in the late 70’s and early 80’s; in Hue, Vietnam in 1968; or in Moghadishu, Somalia). Few, if any, were veteran journalists. British and European correspondents simply had no idea nor any experience in covering the difficulties encountered by the Israelis in confronting guerilla tactics in an urban environment – an enemy lying in wait; homes systematically booby-trapped with explosives placed in closets, cupboards and under sinks; and an enemy that wore no uniforms and that shielded itself within a civilian population.

The result was a tendency to exaggerate both the level of destruction that took place and the numbers of deaths. Correspondents equated the destruction of booby-trapped homes (most of which were limited to a small area in the center of Jenin roughly equivalent to the size of a football field) with the destruction of Palestinian lives despite the fact that no evidence whatsoever existed to substantiate that belief – except in the tales of the Palestinian propagandists. One British reporter shockingly wrote “of the stench of hundreds of dead bodies buried beneath the rubble” ……….even as the Palestinian Authority was publicly revising its death count to less than 60!

The hyperbole of correspondent Janine di Giovanni’s report in the Times of London (April 16) comparing the death and destruction in Bosnia, Chechnya or Sierra Leone (where hundreds of thousands of innocents were butchered) to Jenin would have been ludicrous to experienced veteran wartime journalists.

Another finding disclosed that in Britain and France and the smaller European countries (unlike in America), a small well-entrenched left-wing European media elite has been historically hostile to Israel and to its policies for decades. The Jenin incursion allowed such hostility “journalistic expression”. The existence and control exercised by this monopolistic elite resulted and continues to result in a cozy, unchallenged left-wing bureaucratic dominance over British/European broadcast news organizations and also determines the news and news analyses for the entire British/European media environment.

In America, the diversity of left, right and center broadcast voices make it virtually impossible for a single network to dominate news coverage (much as they may wish to do so). In America, media coverage perceived as being biased provokes strong outcries from pressure groups on either the left or the right. Not so in Europe. There, an entire echelon of left-wing editors and executives were willing to accept, uncritically, the fierce, unsubstantiated and hysterical reports emanating from their Jenin correspondents. Even the skepticism and cautious warnings voiced by Le Monde (France) and Il Foglio (Rome) could not dissuade them. In the end, it would be these latter newspapers that would gain the greatest credibility when the truth about “the massacre that never was” finally surfaced.

In addition, the reports from Jenin tended to be far more partisan and sympathetic to the Palestinian claim of “massacre” because the traditional practice of journalism in Europe remains far more partisan and unashamedly subjective than in the United States. The Europeans were and still are prepared to believe the worst of Israel because of events dating back to Sabra and Shatilla 20 years ago. To the Europeans, it appeared credible that Israel could commit such atrocities. So the reports from their correspondents not merely created the “massacre myth”, but actually confirmed it.

British media coverage of the “Jenin massacre myth” raises troubling and far-reaching questions about the reliability of the mass media and press in war situations. The practice of reporting on war is a dirty business at any time given the chaotic situation inherent both for those who wage it and for those who cover it. But the coverage of Jenin was unique in its wild and remarkably uniform hysteria.

The “massacre myth” is especially astonishing, given the subdued international media reaction to the barbarism of the past 25 years (including the estimated 250,000 deaths caused by Bosnian Serb paramilitary groups between 1990-1995; the estimated 1 million Tutsi tribesmen macheted to death by the Hutu tribal majority in Rwanda in 1994; not to mention the Killing Fields of Pol Pot in the late 1970s) since the death toll on both sides in Jenin was virtually negligible by any standard of war. Yet, when these European, African and Asian massacres occurred, there were no mass rallies nor protests across Western Europe. No boycotts were threatened, nor were minorities and their religious institutions targeted for violence.

Such was not the case, however, in the aftermath of the “Jenin massacre myth.”

The Consequences of Media Irresponsibility

Which leads to the question – does media bias really matter?

It does…….and not just because the truth was swept aside in Jenin. Public opinion shapes public policy. Defamatory news coverage can threaten nations, destroy lives, and even alter the course of history. By fostering false impressions of Israel and Jewish history, media distortions fuelled anti-Semitism in Europe. The unruly mobs of Arab thugs, the defamations, the drive-by shootings, the synagogue bombings, beating up Jewish kids playing soccer, harassing old folks ambling along the street, the snide comments overheard at a fancy dinner party last December hosted by Daily Telegraph owner Lord Black when the French ambassador to the Court of St. James described Israel as “that shitty little country,” and the acts of anti-Semitic vandalism in France, Belgium, Britain, Italy and Germany that arose in the wake of the “massacre of Jenin” showed the silent anti-Semitic underbelly of European society and, to many, provided “justification” for their hatred of Jews and Israel.

The “Jenin massacre myth” pried open Europe’s “Pandora’s Box”, and the world got a brief look at what was inside. And it was pretty ugly. Jewish organizations in Europe and beyond can confirm that there was linkage between inflammatory reporting about Israel and physical attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions in the countries where those reports were published or broadcast. Correspondents may not realize it, but in their unfair reporting of “the massacre that never was”, they played into pre-existing anti-Semitic feelings across the European continent.

For one thing, when “news of the Jenin massacre” hit the front pages of the British and European dailies, several European countries threatened to cease buying Israeli products; Germany imposed an embargo on parts for the Israeli Mercava tank; and the European Union threatened sanctions. Norway’s largest labor union (representing 800,000 workers from a population of just under 5 million) called for a boycott of all Israeli goods.

For another, the biased media coverage only served to harden Israeli positions thereby further reducing the prospects for peace. That is because 90% of Israeli homes get both CNN and the BBC. The coverage of the Jenin incursion “confirmed” (in their mind) what the Israelis had come to believe – that the world really “hates” them. It reinforced their already existing belief that Israel, in the end, must go it alone and trust its security to no one.

The systemic building up of a false, biased picture of Israel as an aggressor and the deliberate murderer of Palestinian babies and children by the British/European media is slowly chipping away at Israel’s legitimacy. Because the Big Lie works. After all, how can ordinary people the world over not end up hating such a country?

Contrary to the perceptions of some, Israel is not a major power that can withstand such international antagonism indefinitely. It cannot. More importantly, it should not have to. As history has taught only too well, acts of wholesale destruction and genocide do not just spring forth in a vacuum. They are the product of a climate of cultivated, calculated libels, false legends and unforgiving hatred.

For this, the British and European news media must bear a great responsibility…and in the case of the “myth of the Jenin massacre”, the British and European media betrayed more than just their own journalistic standards.

They brought shame to their profession.