How the Western media's Middle East coverage has changed

By John Lloyd
Presenter, Media and the Middle East

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionIsrael, led by David Ben Gurion (left), was initially seen as the plucky underdog

The representation of Israel in the Western news media is as contested a form of journalism as any in the world. Why is so much attention given to this small Middle Eastern state? The answers touch on some of the deepest issues not only of the Middle East, but of humanity.

The long and at times bloody quarrel the Israeli Jews have with the Palestinians and with the wider Arab world is often portrayed as a clash between the oldest - Judaism - and the youngest - Islam - monotheistic faiths.

It is rooted in ancestral and clashing claims for the same piece of land, which both Jews and Palestinians hold to be their own.

And it springs from two primal tragedies.

Jews from Central and Eastern Europe, plagued by pogroms and militant anti-Semitism, began to move in significant numbers to Palestine in the late 19th Century. Nazism and the Holocaust convinced tens of thousands that they needed a safe haven, and that Europeans could not be trusted.

Though slowed by the British, who held the mandate for Palestine after World War One and sought a balance between Jews and Arabs, the Jews' need was greater than the efforts to stop or return them.

The more numerous Palestinian Arabs increasingly resented, then militantly opposed, the growing power of the new settlers as they arrived in Mandate Palestine in ever greater numbers.

Opposition turned to war, large-scale after the state of Israel was declared in 1948.

Victory for Israel meant more than 700,000 Palestinians had fled or were evicted by the Israelis by the 1950s. More than 800,000 Jews fled Arab countries in four years after the State of Israel was created, according to official Israeli figures. Most settled in Israel.

These two savage memories, desperate need and summary loss of homeland, pulse still beneath the people of the area, and through the Arab/Muslim world.

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image captionJewish refugees arrive in Palestine with a banner proclaiming: "The Germans destroyed our families and homes - don't you destroy our hopes"

How are they represented in journalism, which is by its nature brief, by habit rich in stereotypes?

Badly, for much of the early period.

In the closing years of World War Two and in the three years after it, the Jewish Irgun and Stern gangs who sought to force the British out of Palestine carried out a series of bloody attacks on British soldiers and officials.

Jews were labelled by the British as "terrorists".

The US press was much more muted, even sympathetic to the cause on anti-imperialist grounds.

Yet once the state was declared, the coverage in broadcasts, in the cinema newsreels and in the newspapers was mainly supportive - at times close to propagandist.

Cameras lingered on strong young men and comely young women, with rifles slung over their backs, working the fields and digging the ditches to "make the desert bloom".

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image captionIn the 1950s and 1960s, Israel - and especially the kibbutz - was seen as a utopian society by many in the West

Palestinians might be seen in the background.

The 1967 war between Israel and Egypt, Syria and Jordan was also clearly presented with sympathy and support.

Much of the TV coverage was shot from the Israeli side, though there was more nuanced coverage in British newspapers, some of which was critical.

The war of 1973, which saw major reverses for Israel before it pushed the attacking armies back, saw a more detached Western media - still positioned largely on the Israeli side, but more questioning on both tactics and context.

It was in the 1970s that a series of developments began to shift coverage to greater balance - and into a zone of greater contest from both sides on the objectivity of the journalism.

image copyrightAFP
image captionLikud’s Menachem Begin came to power in 1977 and the Camp David Agreement with Egypt followed but peace in the Middle East remained a mirage

A new generation of Palestinians, some growing up in the camps, became at once more militant and more savvy. Some were educated at universities in the Middle East or abroad; a few were hired by Western media companies, and brought their own perspectives into newsrooms which previously had had just one.

Second, the left's support for Israel - seen as in its first two decades as a socialist state in the making - was reduced, as a new left claimed it was one of the colonial, imperialist powers on the level of the apartheid regime in South Africa.

Though the main left-of-centre parities in the US, the UK and Germany remained in - sometimes critical - support, leftists and liberals became increasingly uninhibited in their attacks on the state.

Third, the long hegemony of Israel's Labour Party was broken in 1977 when the Likud Party's Menachem Begin succeeded Yitzhak Rabin.

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image captionPowerful imagery of confrontations between Israeli troops and Palestinian civilians in the 1980s and 1990s changed perceptions of Israel

Though Labour, and Rabin himself, came back into power in succeeding decades, a harder-edged right emerged, seen by many outsiders as less committed to an agreement with the Palestinians and more committed to settlement-building in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

As they increased they became more and more the negative lens through which coverage of Israel was viewed by Western journalists, particularly as the US - especially during the Obama presidency - voiced strong opposition to their growth.

The premierships of Benjamin Netanyahu - 1996-99 and 2009-present - have been treated, especially by liberal news media, as hawkish and confrontational.

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image captionIsraeli settlements became a focus for international condemnation as they continued to spread

In the present day, the coverage in the West is polarised, sometimes severely: with right-wing journalism usually in support of Israel and the left wing opposing or sceptical.

In conflicts like that in Gaza this year, television news, with its penchant for drama and simple story lines, showed the effects of Israeli attacks, especially on children: it was a common view that Israel was the Goliath in this conflict and had been bested in the public relations stakes by the David of Gaza's Hamas regime.

At its best, coverage does no harm to either side's position: that demands a rigour of analysis and objectivity hard to achieve and maintain.

The Israeli-Palestinian issue is not just the crucible of conflicts ancient and modern: it is the testing ground of a journalism that takes seriously what is the trade's noblest claim - that it succeeds in giving a sketch of events which those of open mind can recognise as the truth.

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