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Dangerous Disproportion?

Daniel Hochhauser analyses weaknesses in the coverage of the recent war in the Guardian and Independent

Daniel Hochhauser   |  Autumn 2006  -  Number 203


For British Jews who subscribe and feel sympathetic to broadly left/liberal newspapers (by which I mean the Independent and Guardian), reporting and comment on the recent war were particularly problematic. This article is an attempt to address some of the greatest areas of concern.

Robert Fisk’s Independent

Coverage of the Lebanon war by the Independent is easy to summarize. With Robert Fisk’s partisan and strident views dominating all aspects of Middle East coverage, the Independent cannot be regarded as a newspaper in which there is an attempt at objectivity. Indeed, Fisk has written about his belief that there is no role for neutrality in reporting the Middle East conflict, and contempt for fellow journalists not sharing his moral fervour is a frequent theme. Throughout this war, Fisk’s views were given the most prominent position and space in the Independent. These, like those of many journalists, are essentially predictable and could have been foreseen without difficulty before the fighting started. From a position denying that there was any significant concentration of missiles in South Lebanon in 2003, Fisk has taken the line that, following its creation of Hezbollah by Israel, Israel was a destabilizing factor in the region; its intervention was unjustified, brutal and doomed to fail. The Independent allowed dissenting comment, but its position was exemplified by a front-page photograph of celebrities wearing T-shirts calling for an immediate ceasefire. The faux-tabloid front pages and absurd over-presentation of Fisk make reading it a forlorn experience.

The Guardian and Israel

The Guardian is considerably more important and complex. The title is better seen as a media outlet than as a newspaper, particularly as increasing readership of its website (over two million) dwarfs that of the paper. In recent months, the introduction of Comment is Free (CiF) has further expanded the amount of comment available on its website. Although many CiF writers have no defined link with the paper, comments from CiF are promoted, if only for a few hours, to the prominence of the main website.

The Guardian’s coverage has been regarded by many in the Jewish community as slanted against Israel for some years. In 2004, the Israeli journalist Daphna Baram’s book Disenchantment – The Guardian and Israel, on the history of the relationship between the Guardian and Zionism and Israel, was published by Guardian Books. Baram’s qualifications to investigate this difficult issue in an impartial manner are questionable. Her own philosophy is summarized as:

One can fully accept Israel’s legitimacy within the pre-1967 borders while opposing its colonial project beyond the Green Line.

Her subsequent advocacy of the motion ‘Zionism is the enemy of the Jewish people’ at the Cambridge Union and an article entitled ‘Israel is an apartheid state’ give an even clearer idea of her agenda. Unsurprisingly, her book concludes that the Guardian is a well-balanced paper whose agenda reflects the Balfour Declaration.

The book does suggest that some Guardian journalists - in particular the Editor, Alan Rusbridger - have reflected in depth on the issues of fairness of coverage. However it is unclear as to the extent to which the Editor controls the content of the Comment page. From reading the book, the Guardian sees itself as having an attitude which is based on the Balfour Declaration. Thus support for the existence of a national home for the Jewish people is accompanied by a firm view that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.

The Guardian clearly upholds the latter aspiration but, reading its coverage of the Lebanon conflict, it is difficult to see that much significance is placed on the former.

The most striking initial observation about the Comment page is the sheer number of Guardian commenters (estimated at 31 by the paper, although this is increased if one includes the CiF interaction with the main website). The exceptional number of comment pieces illustrates a problem of the Guardian’s approach, the lack of distinction between supposedly analytical and agenda-driven articles. The latter included those by a Hezbollah spokesman and assorted Lebanese academics published early in the conflict which have some intrinsic interest as reflecting the opinion of one side.

Disproportionate, dangerous, destructive Israel

It is critically the role of the leader columns to navigate through this and produce a clear line which can be defined as being that of the Guardian. This was made clear in a series of over 30 editorials published during the conflict. The tone was unambiguous from the start. Under a headline of Disproportionate, dangerous, destructive (14 July) the paper set out the line it followed throughout the crisis: essentially, Hezbollah had provoked Israel, but this provided no justification for Israeli actions. Israel was allowed certain unspecified freedom of reaction, but this was never clarified. In these leaders the Guardian’s own narrative is found. It is considered axiomatic that the Lebanese conflict cannot be solved until the Palestinian conflict is brought to a successful resolution. Israeli intransigence in solving the Palestinian issue led ineluctably to the Lebanese war. Israel’s attempt to intervene in Lebanon will thus be doomed to failure as it fails to recognize the roots of this enmity in the Palestinian issue.

Late in the conflict a further argument was advanced. Despite Israel’s claim that the presence of Hezbollah’s missiles comprised a major threat:

The most fundamental fact is that Hizbullah was, it is pretty generally agreed, on the road toward demilitarization well before this adventure. The logic of Lebanese politics pointed toward a slackening of the movement’s ties with Syria and Iran and the progressive reduction of its military activities (11 August).

Therefore the Israeli response was clear to the Guardian:

In turn, Israel’s logic should have been to put up with the occasional provocation and wait for Lebanon’s internal evolution to bring changes [i.e. the Israelis should have done nothing and awaited the inevitable pacification of Hezbollah].

Thus the Guardian had two radically different interpretations and prescriptions for how to deal with Hezbollah: Israel should solve the Palestinian issue, without which peace could not be expected on any front; and Israel should have sat tight and awaited the inevitable peaceful metamorphosis of Hezbollah.

Throughout the crisis the Guardian noted Israel’s perception of the Iranian threat but did not share it. Iranian missiles and training were essential for Nasrallah’s campaign to attack Israeli civilians. The paper agreed this was a problem: Yet the idea that Iran is totally dedicated to the destruction of Israel . . . is far from the truth (8 August).

The editorial claimed opportunities to improve relationships between the USA and Iran had been sabotaged by the neoconservative agenda. The problem with this line of thinking is Iranian President Ahmadinejad and his frequently expressed view that the Holocaust never happened; if it did happen, Palestinians should not have suffered as a result; and consequently Jews from Israel should be forced to leave for Europe or Canada. The paper’s Iranian expert, Simon Tisdall, has discussed these issues previously, arguing that the supposed major threat to Israel is part of the neoconservative agenda. His view was that Ahmadinejad had been mistranslated and that to ‘eliminate’ is not the same as ‘to wipe out’.

Now the paper argued that although Ahmadinejad was a problem Yet Ahmadinejad is only one figure in the Iranian elite. And there were presumably other more moderate elements in the Iranian regime who could be dealt with. The paper wisely did not elaborate on how this could be achieved or how this ‘one figure’ (who happens to be the President) could be bypassed.

Of course, there is an alternative narrative that might be considered with respect to the underlying issues of the war. It is plausible to suggest that Iran, with the help of Hezbollah and other allies, fully intends to wipe out the State of Israel in time. If Israelis emigrate en masse that would be an acceptable solution, but otherwise physical destruction of the Zionist entity will be planned. Lebanese prisoners, Palestinians, Shebaa farms provide just so many excuses for the struggle to continue. For why else would thousands of missiles have been accumulated and aimed at Israeli cities? If this narrative is accepted, striking hard at Hezbollah becomes essential for Israel to weaken its adversaries, bring international forces to the region and attempt to maintain deterrence. The bitter controversy still under way in Israel (often quoted by Israel’s critics in the Guardian) focuses primarily on deficiencies in strategy and issues such as military and political unpreparedness rather than the ultimate threat of the Hezbollah/Iran axis. The Guardian editorials provide a coherent view but consistently underplay the challenges which Israel faces and which threaten its existential security.

To define the line of the Comment pages could have been more difficult, given the variety of contributors, but in fact is relatively easy. The Guardian’s eccentric line on Israel and Lebanon was noticeable in 2005 when Patrick Seale, known to be close to Syrian governing circles, wrote the only comment on the assassination of Lebanese President Hariri. Seale speculated on ‘Who killed Rafik Hariri?’ and concluded, after long innuendo but no evidence, that (unsurprisingly) it was likely that Israel was to blame. Despite a United Nations report in February of this year concluding that Syria was behind the assassination, no correction or alternative comment was published.

Abuse as comment

After reading the comment pieces on this war, it is difficult to reach any conclusion other than there is a deep animus towards Israel felt by the overwhelming majority of Guardian writers. The need to appear provocative has coloured much of the comment throughout. Consider Tariq Ali. His interpretation of Israeli behaviour is summed up as

an imperial arrogance, a distortion of reality, an awareness of its military superiority, the self-righteousness with which it wrecks the social infrastructure of weaker states, and a belief in its racial superiority (20 July).

Ali argues that Israel aims

to isolate and topple the Syrian regime by securing Lebanon as an Israeli-American protectorate on the Jordanian model.

This argument is unsupported by evidence or logic (how does Jordan count as an Israeli protectorate?) and continues with the familiar tactic of aggressive assertion that is his hallmark. Ali concludes by noting There are 9,000 Palestinian political prisoners in Israeli gulags.

The term ‘gulag’ clearly refers to the use of political prisoners for forced labour in work camps. No one has ever accused Israel of organizing such camps, so why does Ali use this loaded term? It is just one example of the way in which such provocative remarks are strewn throughout Guardian comment pieces. More commonly, the allusion from those who despise Israel is to Nazi precedents; Ali’s originality is manifested in comparisons with the Soviet Union. The aim is simply to provoke.

A similarly dim view of Israeli society is held by Martin Jacques who sees Israel as a western transplant sustained by an American life-support machine (14 August).Leaving aside the issue of why transplants need life-support machines, Jacques’s article brims with condemnation of every aspect of Israeli society such as the root cause of this mentality lies in their sense of racial superiority.

Both Ali and Jacques do not even bother to consider that the presence of thousands of missiles close to the border could pose a genuine threat to Israel. Israel is merely a pawn of US imperialism attempting total hegemony in the region.

It might be worthwhile to dismiss these authors, with their overheated prose, one-dimensional analyses and arrogant styles. Unfortunately they cannot be dismissed, as the Guardian feels their views are worth publishing frequently and prominently. They make no contribution to reasoned debate or analysis, but of course that is not their intention; Ali does not engage in argument so much as dispatch fusillades of ordure at his opponents.

There is a cadre of Guardian writers who specialize in the dogmatic brutal style exemplified by George Galloway, who aspires to bully and bludgeon the reader into agreement. This may also be discovered in the imagery of cartoons. Perhaps encouraged by the Political Cartoon award to Dave Brown in 2003 following his notorious portrayal of Sharon eating children, Martin Rowson portrayed the Israeli response as a knuckleduster emblazoned with a Shield of David pulverising the face of a Lebanese child. Such a cartoon is also not designed to induce critical thinking or reflection; the similarity to Nazi and Soviet imagery is striking.

When it comes to Israel, everybody’s an expert

The crudity of these contributors is not replicated in the comment of regular Guardian journalists, however, who generally have a degree of specialization. Yet Jackie Ashley writes about politics, Polly Toynbee on government and social issues and George Monbiot on environmental issues. When, however, it comes to advising Israel on how to behave or analysing the Middle East, all are experts. Reading through Guardian articles one is struck by the extreme self-confidence of these writers in the correctness of their opinions and prescriptions.

For example, Jackie Ashley, not known for any expertise in the area, complained that

I have friends so angry about Israel’s behaviour that they are beginning to fall for the idea that Hizbullah is an admirable resistance army, a movement of social workers, philosophers and urban guerrillas (7 August). 

One might argue that, given Nasrallah’s statements on Jews, Ashley should enlarge her social circle. She explains that she is unsympathetic to Islamist ideology and recognizes that Hezbollah wants to eradicate Israel. Yet, faced with these opponents, Ashley believes that the right way was found by Jack Straw, who

was reaching out to Tehran . . . He was, modestly, adopting a rhetoric which was not simply Washington’s ‘Israel good, Palestinians bad’ tone. Despite his involvement in the Iraq decision, he was trying to find a middle way.

Thus, according to Ashley, the war in Lebanon becomes part of the battle of ideas in the world today.

This reflects a ubiquitous theme in Guardian thinking. Faced with an Iranian President who honestly states his intention and is clearly seeking nuclear weapons, allied to Hezbollah which fires missiles against Israeli cities, Ashley sees this as a conflict of ideas which must therefore be countered with ideas. Who could be opposed to talking?

Monbiot is another columnist sure that he understands the root of the problem. He is certainly no fan of Hezbollah:

Yes, Hizbullah should have been pulled back from the Israeli border by the Lebanese government and disarmed. Yes, the raid and the rocket attack on July 12 were unjustified, stupid and provocative, like just about everything that has taken place around the border for the past six years. But the suggestion that Hizbullah could launch an invasion of Israel or that it constitutes an existential threat to the state is preposterous (8 August).

Monbiot clearly has no first-hand knowledge of the Middle East, no expertise in the area and yet he presumes to define what constitutes a ‘real’ threat to Israel.

It would be tedious to run through all comment but, throughout, little credence is given to alternative narratives. Opposing perspectives are offered almost exclusively by Israeli writers. The threat of Hezbollah and Iran to Israel is just not considered serious, despite the fact that Iran is a powerful regime which makes no secret of its aim to destroy Israel. There is no unambiguous condemnation of Iranian words or deeds in the Guardian, and these intentions are seen either as manifestations of power struggles within ruling circles or as the fault of the West in failing to engage. In the Guardian’s fantasy world diplomacy will deal with all of these problems. The same applies to discussion of Hezbollah tactics in Guardian leaders. Any condemnatory comments are linked with condemnations of Israeli disproportion. No headlines such as Disproportionate, dangerous, destructive are used with to describe either Hezbollah or Iran. Jackie Ashley doesn’t have friends who want to support Israel, even though thousands of missiles were designed to kill as many civilians as possible.

The road not taken

Among Guardian staff members the only apparent dissenting voice was that of Jonathan Freedland, who succinctly summarized the fears of Israelis and their support for the war as a necessary and critical struggle. He also wrote powerfully about the hypocrisy of the British response, given the high unreported casualty rates in Iraq among civilians. Yet Freedland’s analysis of the causes for the crisis fell back on blaming the USA:

I’m thinking of the US. It is fashionable to blame the US for all the world’s ills, but in this case the sins, both of omission and commission, of the Bush administration genuinely belong at the heart of the trouble (26 July).

The war was a result of the US’s failure to solve the core Middle East crisis, for if this had been dealt with the current crisis would have been unimaginable. Unimaginable? Freedland is genuinely sympathetic to Israeli fears and quandaries and seeks to address them, but even he feels it is not fundamentalist Islam that is ultimately to blame but the US.

There were some other comments which preferred another narrative. It is a terrible and tragic irony that the finest analysis of the root causes of the war in the Guardian, as well as the most penetrating criticism of Israeli policy, came from David Grossman, weeks before his son fell in battle:

Hizbullah is, openly, an Iranian agent in the Middle East, a bridgehead for its murderous plans against Israel. Iran is doubtlessly committed to the Palestinian cause, but its aspirations do not include an equitable peace between Israel and Palestine. Even if Israel and the Palestinians reach a peace agreement, Hizbullah will oppose compromises. It will continue to fight Israel, and will threaten the fragile stability such an agreement achieves (20 July).

Grossman clearly delineates differences between issues confronting Israel with regard to the Palestinians and Hezbollah/Iran. His disapproval of Israeli strategy is accompanied by a realistic understanding of the basic underlying threat. Additionally, his sympathy for the Lebanese people is palpable. No such nuance and understanding of Israeli dilemmas could be found elsewhere in the Guardian throughout the crisis.

In conclusion, it is difficult to believe that the Guardian provided balanced analysis and comment. The stress on Israeli intransigence and disproportionality from the editorial writers was accompanied by a wave of belligerent condemnation by a majority of contributors. There is little point in hoping or expecting reasoned analysis when George Galloway is given top billing to praise the ‘extraordinary victory’ of Hezbollah and echo Yeats in extolling its ‘terrible beauty’ (31 August).

Daniel Hochhauser is Kathleen Ferrier Reader and Consultant in Medical Oncology at University College London.

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