Behind the Headlines British Press Accused of Mideast Bias

A new spate of accusations of bias over the Middle East has been levelled against the British press from both sides of the Arab-Israel conflict. The more common charges are that the press is pro-Arab. The Israel ambassador, Avraham Kidron, rarely loses the opportunity of a meeting with British journalists to complain bitterly about their alleged lack of understanding for his country’s position.

The latest allegation of pro-Israeli bias comes, paradoxically, from a prominent British journalist. George Gale, a former editor of The Spectator, said in a radio talk show that most British national papers sympathized with Israel and, he claimed, this was because of the number of Jews who held influential positions in the press.

Gale himself has often been outspokenly critical of Israel and, not surprisingly, his remark elicited heated complaints from Jewish organizations to the London broadcasting company for whom he works.

Regardless of whether Gale was right or wrong–which I shall discuss shortly–in one major respect he was realistic. For the tone of British press comment and news presentation probably depends as much on the journalists employed by newspapers as on the commercial interests and policy of the big businessmen who own them. This is particularly true of the quality papers which report foreign affairs in depth and breadth as opposed to popular papers which contain more domestic news and gossip.

JEWISH JOURNALISTS ARE VICTIMS

Jewish journalists here, in contrast with the United States, are not very numerous on foreign news desks of national papers. And in the Middle East departments, which help to dictate the tone of their papers’ Middle East coverage, there are no identifiable Jews at all, except for those stationed in Israel.

So most of the influential Jewish journalists who have caught Gale’s attention must have been employed elsewhere in the press. The reasons for this are not hard to fathom. But it shows that Jewish journalists are far more likely to be victims of Middle East bias than agents of it.

One of the leading Jewish foreign correspondents working for a British newspaper is Eric Silver, The Guardian’s man in Jerusalem. A few years ago, one of his own colleagues was reported as questioning Silver’s capacity to write objectively about Israel simply because he was Jewish. Michael Elkins, of the BBC, has also been frequently sniped at by the Arab lobby here for the same reason. And yet the Arab lobby counts several non-Jewish Middle East specialists among its avowed sympathizers.

But what of the allegations of bias by the press as a whole? The mere fact that the press is 50 often assailed by the opposing sides in the conflict indicates that it is reasonably neutral. And this, in turn, can only be because the journalists involved are too professional to allow their personal preferences to ruin their sense of news judgment.

INFLUENCE OF PRO-ARAB SENTIMENT

Nevertheless, there should be no illusions about the strength of pro-Arab sentiment in some influential circles on Fleet Street. For just as older journalists were often influenced in favor of Zionism by the events of World War II, so their successors are more likely to be swayed by the claims of the Palestinian Arabs.

One Middle East commentator–whose work has been quoted all over the world–has told friends that he opposes in principle the existence of a Jewish State. This journalist recently gave a startling personal interpretation of the statement, by Israeli Agriculture Minister Ariel Sharon, that two million Jews would one day inhabit the Jordan Valley.

Sharon’s vision could only mean, the journalist said, that the “Zionists” planned to stimulate Jewish immigration from the United States by stirring up a wave of Nazi anti-Semitism there. Needless to say, this interesting theory has not yet appeared in the journalist’s own newspaper. Although this person is more outspoken in his pro-Arabism than other Middle East specialists on Fleet Street, most of them appear to be more at ease on the Arab side of the fence.

The influence of this group is, moreover, reinforced by the existence of several Arab-oriented specialist periodicals for which these people write, in addition to their own journals. Possibly, they would also contribute to serious Israeli-oriented publications, if they existed here.

Jewish and Zionist organizations seem to regard independent publishing ventures as a thing of the past, and prefer to invest solely in public relations and information drives, usually aimed at the converted, with little impact on the national medic. But that is another story….

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