Last week brought about the highly symbolic and yet in geopolitical terms meaningless House of Commons vote recognising Palestine as a state. From this came the usual ‘friendly’ warnings about Israel losing public support in the West and being in the last chance salon etc. In turn this brought to mind the somewhat flippant response along the lines of “thanks for this, I really had not noticed there was a growing feeling of antipathy towards Israel in Europe – it all seemed to be going so well!’
I am not seeking to address the merits or otherwise of the vote, not least because I cannot get worked up on something which, other than chiming with the mood music of our times, just means so little. Charitably one might say at least Ed Miliband can remember Palestine even if he forgets our nation’s £100 billion annual budget deficit. Nor do I wish to look at the motivation, political and moral, underpinning Ed Miliband’s decision to three line whip his Parliamentary Party on an issue which has always cut across party lines and has strong views on both sides of the isle. On this my thoughts can be summed up by one word ..’interesting’.
Rather, I’d like to briefly return to the summer’s conflict in Israel/Gaza and given my professional background, the question of media coverage and public discourse in relation to this. It is a very challenging topic because the focus and emotional discharge of media coverage and public/political opinion (the two feeding off each other) seems so much out of sync with the corresponding volume emanating from any other conflict reporting/analysis on our planet. In turn this begs the question why?
To pick this up is not to make light of the tragic loss of life (in particular the young and innocent life) that resulted from last summer’s conflict. It is terrible and heart wrenching. Nor is it to become entrenched in a debate as to morality of each party’s actions and the merits or more aptly lack of, in respect of the popular trend to draw moral equivalence between the actors. Others more knowledgeable than me will address these issues so much better than I can.
Rather the question is why public, media and political distress is so exponentially higher as a result of the actions emanating from State of Israel than it appears from any other current and/or recent conflict on the planet? This is despite the fact that objectively and just taking one example, the estimated 200,000 people whose lives have been tragically lost in Syria this decade and the 2.5 million displaced refugees from that conflict, is significantly much worse. There are many other examples of modern conflicts but perhaps you get the point.
Yet at media discussions and forums I attend and where the multitude of ills of the world are aired, Israel and its actions dominate. It dominates in the thoughts and discussions of people, many journalists, whom one accepts are (in generality) well meaning and intelligent. It dominates because emotionally it the actions of the State of Israel which appear to have the greatest impact. Why?
That it is the State of Israel and not – chose any other country you’d like to name – which causes such angst and emotional discharge within the media and public at large is I think the most interesting question. It certainly interests me.
From seeking an answer we can derive a far more accurate picture about the current state of our public discourse, thinking and motivations which underpins, public and private, here in the West and in particular Europe. It is the question which says much more about us than it does about them, being the middle east protagonists on which there are such passionate and distinct views. It is therefore one which we should be able to address insofar as doing so is not dependant on an examination of the parties to the conflict and the markedly differing views as to narrative and merit.
Instead it is about us and our mindset.
By comparison with the attention given in the public and political spheres to events in Israel/Palestine last summer, the public and political reaction to the terrible death count (primarily civilian) from US/UK bombing in Iraq and Afghanistan upon commencement of our military intervention was relatively mute. We now seem to travelling on a similar road with Syria.
Again I am not seeking to address questions as to whether US/UK actions and intervention in the middle east are futile or for that matter the bombing campaigns and the resulting loss of significant civilian life moral. Sure I have a view but I accept it is complex so will park that debate to those again more knowable about these interventions than I am. Instead what I am calling into question, to use the mot de jour, is that much aired concept of ‘proportionality’.
For so many who passionately question the actions of the State of Israel that word means a great deal – we hear it aired in public discourse all the time.
Hence lets us stay with it but rephrase the use of the word ‘proportionality’. The question of proportionality is not about the military actions of the State of Israel unless in turn one extrapolates the same question to all modern military conflicts on earth (and if one does not – why not?). Rather proportionality is about media and political coverage of the State of Israel and its actions and related to this, the emotional resonance and reaction within the public in the UK and more widely Europe.
Is the coverage and reaction in public and political discourse to Israel/Palestine and matters related proportional? If not, what does it say about us?
Interestingly, it was only the events of Israel/Gaza over the summer which led to Jon Snow, a respected and highly esteemed British journalist of 40 years standing, who in that time has either personally witnessed or reported on countless wars and tragedies, to be so moved by what he saw in Gaza this summer to pronounce in a YouTube appeal from the confines of Channel 4 News Studio …”Gaza is not just about them, it’s about us, too”. Why is that?
The genuine distress of an experienced and battle harden journalist was there for all to see. It was etched on his face and clear from his voice. It was real. The question raised as to whether Jon Snow crossed a line in making such appeal and in so doing editorialised network television news is a secondary one.
Naturally there will be varying views on whether a network news anchor should have done this to say nothing of the fact that his pronouncement and appeal was delivered from the confines of the news studio. My view is that in our world of ever greater multiplicity of news sources and means of dissemination, the public stance of one (albeit well known) television journalist matters does not matter much anyhow.
Arguably our rules in the UK on impartiality and objectivity for television news were defined for a different and now obsolete media and technological landscape. We have analogue rules for a digital era. Perhaps Jon Snow is merely pushing the the UK regulator (OFCOM) to play catch up and in so doing shift openly Channel 4 News into MSNBC territory, this being a defined political and editorial stance which in the US broadly sits opposite Fox News. Perhaps the more surprising observation is that in permitting such appeal to be recorded from the Channel 4 news studio ITN and Channel 4 seem to be comfortable with this.
Still if we accept that the issue of editorialising television news is a distraction, the more interesting and significant question, with the benefit of some time passing since the summer’s events, is twofold.
Firstly, why is it the actions of the State of Israel which have so moved Jon Snow to make an unprecedented appeal to public action as opposed to the countless other terrible and by any objective measure worse conflicts in the world?
Secondly, why is it that such call to action is largely mirrored by the temperature of political and public discourse here in UK and the West as most recently evidenced by the vote in Parliament last week? What is the thinking underpinning this action and cycle? As they would say when I was a kid – answers on a postcard please.
For now I am going to leave the last word on this to Matti Friedman – former Associated Press correspondent in Middle East who has raised generally the issue of media coverage of Israel and last summer’s conflict. The quote below sums up nicely his view on this. It is certainly thought provoking. ‘Today, people in the West tend to believe the ills of the age are racism, colonialism, and militarism. The world’s only Jewish country has done less harm than most countries on earth, and more good—and yet when people went looking for a country that would symbolize the sins of our new post-colonial, post-militaristic, post-ethnic dream-world, the country they chose was this one.’