LONDON, March 18 (JTA) As clashes between Israel and the Palestinians continue for a sixth month, many Jews in the United Kingdom are concerned that Israel is not getting a fair hearing in the British press.
The Guardian newspaper has been the subject of the harshest criticism, but another daily newspaper, The Independent, and the BBC have also raised concern.
In an unusual move, Canadian publishing magnate Conrad Black publicly attacked one of his own columnists for expressing a hatred for Israel that Black described as “irrational and an offense to civilized taste.”
Much of the British Jewish community shares Black’s concerns.
“Israel is portrayed as a brutal regime interested only in hurting Palestinians,” said Hagai Segal of the World Zionist Organization. Segal was a speaker at a recent panel on the topic, “Does Israel get a fair hearing in the media?”
The British press sees “Israel as a superpower and the Palestinians as poor people who want peace, and neither perspective is remotely accurate,” Segal told JTA.
Part of the problem, he said, is that the British press in general tends to side with underdogs.
D.J. Schneeweis, the Israeli press attache in London, agreed.
“There is a tendency in many quarters of the media to go softly on the perceived weaker side in any conflict in this case, the Palestinians,” he said. “The presumption is that if more Palestinians than Israelis are being killed, it must be the Israelis using force.”
Yet emphasizing the number of fatalities without saying which side is initiating the attacks leads to bias in articles, Schneeweis said.
Segal said the problem has gotten worse since the Palestinian uprising broke out at the end of September.
After the Oslo peace process began in 1993 “there was more neutral, balanced, non-emotive reporting,” he said.
“But now it’s like the 1980s again,” he said, when the press was strongly critical of Israeli tactics in the original Palestinian uprising.
The paper that has come in for the strongest condemnation is The Guardian, a London daily that is the choice of the left-leaning intelligentsia. Last month it was the target of an email campaign begun by a group called HonestReporting.com.
Started by a couple of young Londoners last October to monitor what they saw as anti-Israel bias in the press, Honest Reporting was soon taken over by Media Watch International, a new group based in New York.
When the Guardian reported that a man who killed eight Israelis by plowing his bus into a group of soldiers and civilians in mid-February was seen “in the Gaza Strip as a sort of Palestinian everyman who finally snapped,” Honest Reporting encouraged its 12,000 email subscribers to write to the paper to complain.
“It places no blame whatsoever on the Palestinians. In article after article, and editorial after editorial, The Guardian places sole blame on Israel, on Israel’s new prime minister, or on the Israel Defense Force,” the monitoring group charged.
The campaign got an immediate response from the newspaper.
Four days after the Honest Reporting petition went out, The Guardian’s comment editor, David Leigh, wrote an article saying that hundreds of emails had come in from around the world about the bus driver article.
Leigh traced the campaign back to Honest Reporting and Media Watch International. He linked both groups to the Orthodox group Aish HaTorah, which he described as “widely regarded as right-wing extremists, not people entitled to harass the media into what they would call ‘objectivity.’ “
Sharon Tzur, the director of Media Watch International, told JTA that some people associated with her group are also associated with Aish, but there are no institutional links between the organizations.
She also said she was disappointed that Leigh responded with an attack on the messenger rather than to the substance of the group’s complaint.
Leigh did not respond to JTA inquiries. Under Guardian policy, individual journalists are not permitted to speak to the media about the newspaper.
But The Guardian’s editor, Alan Rusbridger, told JTA he found the complaints baseless.
He pointed out that The Guardian has published pieces by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and writers Amos Oz and David Grossman leading leftists who have been highly critical of Israeli policy as well as local Jewish columnists including Linda Grant, Jonathan Freedlander and Ned Temko, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle.
“We are very careful to make sure Jewish and Israeli voices are heard,” he said.
Many British Jews feel The Guardian is particularly problematic when it comes to Middle East reporting.
“Most press bias is accidental, through naivete, not design,” said Segal of the World Zionist Organization. “The exception is The Guardian, which sends biased reporters who make biased reports.”
Israeli press officer Schneeweis does not go that far, but said “the Guardian finds it difficult to share its sympathy around.”
He was particularly upset by the headline on an article describing Ariel Sharon’s first visit to the Western Wall since being electer prime minister last month: “Sharon twists knife in Muslim wounds.”
Pointing out that every new Israeli prime minister has made a symbolic visit to the Western Wall since the Old City was re-captured in 1967, Schneeweis said the headline was the result of either “ignorance or willful disregard for the facts.”
One experienced British foreign correspondent familiar with The Guardian charged that part of the problem is the paper’s Jerusalem correspondent.
The journalist, who asked not to be named, described Jerusalem correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg as “extremely inexperienced, young, leftist, Jewish and overcompensating because she’s Jewish.”
The journalist also said Goldenberg was too new to the Middle East when the Palestinian uprising broke out at the end of September. Goldenberg, who speaks Hebrew, has been in Jerusalem about two years.
Guardian Editor Rusbridger said he stood by his reporter.
“She has proved herself in a number of forums around the world. In no other area has she been complained about,” he said.
The journalist also said some people at The Guardian feel they have a duty to redress alleged pro-Israel bias in the American press: “If Israel has so much of the media on its side, especially in the US, then we’ll be pro-Palestinian.”
Black, the Canadian publishing magnate, meanwhile launched a wide-ranging attack against “large sections of the British media” for being “rabidly anti-Israel.”
Black, owner of the Jerusalem Post and Britain’s Daily Telegraph, wrote an article attacking a columnist at his own The Spectator magazine for anti-Israel bias, widening his criticism to include “most of the relevant sections of the BBC, Independent, Guardian, Evening Standard and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office,” Britain’s equivalent of the U.S. State Department.
Very few people will go so far as to claim that British media are downright anti-Semitic.
“I don’t think there’s a wild anti-Jewish or anti-Israel conspiracy in the British press,” Segal said. The main problem with the BBC, he said, is “carelessness.”
“What Palestinian sources say is taken as fact, whereas Israeli sources are treated with cynicism. They preface statements with ‘Israelis allege that … ‘ “
Schneeweis said he thought some people, especially Jews, are learning to examine media reports critically.
“Most people do buy what they’re told, but many people are aware that they are being fed information through filters.”
That said, media bias remains a significant problem, he said.
“I don’t want to imply that everyone is skeptical of the media,” he said. “It does get under the skin and make a huge impact.”