Friday, 4 June 2010

Balance as a propaganda tool in the Middle East

There is no such thing as balance in reporting.

Even if one tries, scrupulously, to be impartial and to tell both sides of the story, there will be bias. If this doesn't come out in the actual wording of the report or article, it will in the presentation. The choice of facts, quotes, even pictures - which to use, which to shelve betrays bias. As Howard Zinn once noted, "you can't be neutral on a moving train."

Thus, calls for "balance" are not only misleading but actively serve a propaganda function. This flak emerges when the media is perceived as deviating too far from established assumptions, and thus rather than challenging bias is part of the propaganda model that enforces it in favour of established power.

We have recently seen this in relation to the Israeli attack on the lead ship of the Gaza Freedom Flotilla.

Take the following analysis from the flak machine Honest Reporting;
Will the media report accurately and fairly as anti-Israel activists violently resist an IDF naval boarding with tragic results?
Immediately, we have a display of balance from a body seeking accuracy and fairness. The neutral term "naval boarding" applied to the IDF actions versus the loaded "violently resist" applied to those on the boat. The implicit connection between the activists' "violently resist[ing]" and the "tragic results," as though the "naval boarding" was entirely incidental. The presumption that supporting the people of Gaza equates to being "anti-Israel." Indeed, the presumption that the phrase "anti-Israel" is itself anything other than flak to silence criticism of Israel.*

Going further in Honest Reporting's "Special Alert," the agenda becomes very clear;
Israel's critics have been quick to condemn the incident, using it to inflame anti-Israel sentiment. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has already termed what is undoubtedly a serious incident as a "massacre". Will this be the latest in a long list of incidents that have been distorted and misrepresented to cause Israel the maximum amount of damage to its image?
The idea that Israeli PR is the main casualty of a raid which saw up to twenty civilians killed is the absurd assumption pushed by pro-Israeli bloggers. For example, Reb Mordechai blames Defence Minister Ehud Barak for "hand[ing] a propaganda gift on a silver platter to Hamas and all the hostile world media." The actual casualties are irrelevant.

Honest Reporting continues by saying that "primary objective of this flotilla was not to deliver aid packages to Gaza but to spread anti-Israel propaganda in cooperation with Gaza's Hamas rulers."

As purported "proof" of this, it mentions the "central role in the flotilla" played by "the Turkish IHH organization," which "a supporter of radical Islamic networks, including Hamas, and at least in the past, even global jihad elements."

It is true that IHH's links are at the least questionable, and as such they shouldn't have been involved. The waters in the Israel-Palestine conflict are already muddy, and more needs to be done to distinguish between genuine aid organisations and terror fronts. Those who genuinely support the people of Palestine would not side with anti-semites or neo-Nazis, so why should we side with Islamists?

Nonetheless, this doesn't alter the fact that the IHH were a minority on the flotilla, the majority being peace activists. Nor does it remove charges, voiced by Reuven Pedatzur in Haaretz, that the raid was an abysmal failure;
The inefficiency and the panic that overwhelmed the commandos, leading to the deaths of so many, raises worrying questions about their skillfulness and operational capability.
Again, the focus here is narrow, on how well or poorly the operation was conducted rather than whether it should have been. But even within this framework, the leading article in Haaretz opines that this was "the price of a flawed policy" in Gaza and that Israel needs to set "up a state inquiry committee to investigate the decision-making process, and to decide who should pay for this dangerous policy."

This may simply amount to hanging an individual out to dry for crimes of state, but it demonstrates that at least part of the Israeli media recognises the folly in this act. Not every critic can be comfortably written off as terrorists or anti-Israel propagandists.

The other organisation singled out for accusations by Honest Reporting is the International Solidarity Movement (ISM). They adhere to "nonviolent, direct-action methods and principles," yet for the flak machine this amounts to "placing foreign nationals in danger through encouraging 'direct action'." After all, the death of activists such as Rachel Corrie cannot be blamed on the army bulldozer that crushed her but the nonviolent organisation she was a part of. The idea that attempts to dismantle the Israeli security barrier amount to "violent protests against" it are laughable and unworthy of comment.

What is woth commenting on it the idea that "ISM's extreme ideology was underscored when terrorists, originating from the UK, used ISM as a cover to attack Mike's Place bar in Tel Aviv, murdering three people." Yes, the attack was a horrendous one and those involved clearly had an "extreme ideology." But can we really claim, in all seriousness, that terrorists using a nonviolent organisation to establish their cover is proof that the nonviolent organisation supports terrorism? This, as Greg has explained in the context of the recent Thai troubles, amounts to lazy thinking and an error of logic.

I could go on fisking this one article, but the truth is that there is no need. By insisting that "it is the duty of the international media to report fairly and accurately" whilst criticising those who "do not paint Israel in a positive light," the intent of this and other organs of flak is clear. If you make Israel look bad, we'll tear you apart with accusations of bias. In fact, if you simply don't do a good enough job of making Israel look good, we'll do it anyway.

Hence the frantic efforts of media institutions to show off their "balance."

To use the BBC as an example, we see an entire page dedicated to Israeli reactions. Or, rather, to those Israeli reactions which support the IDF. Likewise, the media daily view "balances" six pro-Israeli views (including Mad Mel) against five commentators who question only tactics, and just three who openly criticised the raid beyond the acceptable framework. Then we have headlines such as "Israel 'had no choice' over raid" and a page dedicated to IDF soldiers' accounts of the raid. And still, the BBC is accused of bias against Israel.

This is the media propaganda model at work: reducing a murderous raid by soldiers against civilians to a question of tactics, and denouncing anything that isn't rabidly pro-Israel as biased against it. The point is to enclose debate within parameters acceptable to established power.

If we want to end injustices such as the one now ongoing in Gaza, then one thing is clear. We need to find a way to smash the propaganda filters on the media.
*Interestingly, as Noam Chomsky points out, that very phrase "was used in the Bible by King Ahab, the epitome of evil, to condemn those who sought justice as "anti-Israel" ("ocher Yisrael," in the original Hebrew, roughly "hater of Israel," or "disturber of Israel"). His specific target was Elijah."