Don't mention the occupation: BBC Newsnight on Palestinian Application for Non-state Observer Status

Peter Allen, 3 April 2013 | 2 Comments

Categories: Israel | Palestine | BBC Newsnight | War |

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In my previous article on Newsnight's coverage of Israel/Palestine I looked at the discussion of a possible Israeli invasion of Gaza - in a report responding to fast moving events - and how an Israeli perspective was used to structure it. This time, I am going to analyse a different kind of report where the Newsnight team take the opportunity of the Palestinian application to the UN for non-state observer status to look at some of the background to current events.

As before, I will be using a method called Critical Discourse Analysis. This can be applied to analyse media output (texts) in terms of media practices (institutional context) and the role of the state (social context). For reasons of space I will once again be concentrating on the text, but my full analysis (conducted for my MA dissertation) is available online. This report was broadcast on 27 November 2012 and can be viewed online. A full transcript is also available.

CDA is a flexible approach which can analyse a number of aspects of a text – grammar, vocabulary, discourses (such as metaphors), genres and so on, with the aim of revealing the underlying presuppositions and discovering what has been left out. The results can help to illuminate the ideology of the producer. But in this case I want to mainly focus on one important aspect of the report – the way in which the voices of different participants have been integrated in order to construct a particular argument.

In this kind of report the topic is normally set up by the studio presenter in a brief introduction before an edited package plays out incorporating footage shot on location and interviews with individuals. It is constructed to appear to tell a natural story, but there is nothing `natural’ about it. The reporter must know what he/she wants to say, and then ensure that footage is shot and the `right’ people are interviewed. They are asked particular questions to elicit `relevant’ answers, and then the material is edited together (usually leaving out the reporter’s questions) to tell a story. This process is highly ideological. For example, how is the narrative decided upon? Why are those interviewees selected and not others? How are they presented to the viewer and why? Which questions, and which responses, are selected and why?

In this case, Jeremy Paxman introduces the report from the studio and asks the very relevant question `would it ever be possible to disentangle things to make a proper Palestinian state feasible’ (line 15-17 of the transcript). Although very relevant, the reporter - Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban – proceeds to completely ignore the question. We then get a recurring visual motif in the report, footage of walls and watchtowers in Bethlehem. `Aha’ you cry, Newsnight is going to give us background about the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land – wrong.

It is a remarkable feature of Urban’s commentary that he never mentions the occupation once. Part of Palestine has been occupied ever since the establishment of Israel in 1948. The rest was occupied after the `six-day war’ of 1967, and Israel has ever since ignored UN calls to return to pre-June 1967 borders to allow for a two-state solution. Millions of Palestinians have become refugees and have since suffered constant Israeli repression and violence (if in any doubt please see Noam Chomsky’s Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel & The Palestinians – a must-read). Yet Urban refers to the walls and watchtowers seen on the screen only as `intended to obstruct violence’ (l.20). This mealy-mouthed formulation begs a question never addressed by Urban, intended to obstruct violence by who against whom for what reason – a question he prefers not even to raise.

However, the main ideological work of this piece is done by the way in which the voices of four different people – two Palestinian, two Israeli – are incorporated. In television news different types of interviewee tend to have differential speaking rights. Ordinary people may well be asked how they feel about something, but it is far less common for them to be asked what they think. Their contributions are there for emotional impact, their thoughts are viewed as less important. As such their comments normally go unchallenged. For considered opinions we see interviews with authority figures such as politicians, who however usually have to justify what they have to say. So the way in which interviewees are represented is likely to mean that their contributions are treated differently, as we shall see. In this report we apparently have two authority figures and two members of their local communities.

On the Israeli side there is a brief interview with an Israeli political figure, Gilead Sher; and then with a Palestinian activist, Diana Buttu. Buttu is allowed to make a very clear and well-argued statement supporting the Palestinian cause. This kind of television report isn’t usually completely one-sided – that would probably make it less effective. But Urban’s intended message only becomes clear when we analyse the contributions of the two `community’ figures. Urban clearly intends us to regard them as similar as he introduces them as `separate people doing the same job a mile or two apart’ (l.20-21). They are named as Afra Sa’d, a Palestinian teacher (in Bethlehem), and Shlomo Riskin `who runs a religious college in the Jewish settlement of Efrat’ (l.22-24). However, there is one immediate difference between them. Only one of them lives in an illegal settlement on occupied Palestinian land. I’m afraid you’ll just have to guess which one this is as Urban unaccountably neglects to mention such a small matter.

We have clearly been set up to understand these two as similar representatives of their local communities. And it does seem to be the case that Afra Sa’d is exactly what she has been presented as. Googling her name turns up her work as a teacher in Bethlehem. Her contribution is very much what we should expect from someone set up to voice the experience of her community. She talks about the two messages that children get (l.37-44) and also about the effects of the UN vote (l.96-102). Of course we don’t hear the questions she is asked to elicit these responses, and that is unfortunate as it seems by his responses that Shlomo Riskin was asked a very different set of questions.

Riskin’s comments, by contrast, are highly political. He states an outright lie in claiming that the reason for the separation of the two communities is the attitude of the Palestinian Authority (l.25-31). He makes the thoroughly dishonest claim that `from the beginning we have been in favour of a two-state solution’ (l.112-113) when Israel has rejected every attempt to negotiate this, and states that `they [the Palestinian leadership] still do not recognise Israel as a Jewish state’ (l.114-115). He neglects to point out that in recognising Israel as a Jewish state the Palestinians would be consigning all non-Jewish Israelis to the status of second-class citizens in an apartheid state – apparently a matter of no importance. And, most significantly, as a supposed `community’ voice contributing his `experience’ Riskin’s contributions are allowed to end the report without any challenge at all. If a politician made the same outrageous claims they would be much more open to interrogation, but as a `voice of the community’ Riskin’s baloney sails through with nary a word from Urban.

The most ridiculous thing about this is that Riskin is much more than just head of a college in Efrat – he is a highly political figure. Apparently, his `contributions to Israel and world Jewry over the course of the past 35 years have been instrumental in shaping today’s Modern Orthodox society’. He has also been described as `one of the noisier chauvinist protestors’ who believes that Israelis have a biblical right to the land of Palestine. Yet Urban sets up Sa’d and Riskin as similar voices of their communities, and therefore treats their comments in the same way, which allows Riskin’s highly contentious political claims to go unchallenged. Is Urban so incompetent that he is unaware of this, or is he so slapdash that he just doesn’t care, or is he deliberately trying to plant straightforward propaganda in the mind of the viewer? Whatever the reason this is an outstandingly dishonest piece of `journalism’ from the BBC.

Although this report is an extraordinarily shoddy piece of work, I believe that the reasons for the BBC’s blatant dishonesty in reporting the Middle East is not to do with individual bias, but is due to the BBC’s relationship with the British state. Although it is semi-independent, the BBC knows full well there are red lines it must not cross if it is not to suffer a political assault, probably including attacks on the licence fee. Because of the British political class’s slavish obeisance to Washington, Israeli treatment of the Palestinians is one of those untouchable issues (if interested you can read more about this in my original research). This means the BBC is unlikely to produce honest reporting on the Middle East any time soon. So it is all the more important that we point out what they are up to and let as many people know as possible. It is only through public pressure that dishonest journalism can be combated.

Peter Allen can be contacted at

Categories in which this article appears: Israel | Palestine | BBC Newsnight | War |

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Comments (2)

1. Tim Hart10 April 2013 18:00

This kind of analysis and critique is similar to that of Media Lens and as such is another important voice in helping to combat propaganda and media bias. However the technique of critical discourse analysis is new to me. Potentially its academic underpinning gives it added credence and effectiveness. I hope the technique gets widely used and hopefully it can be easily applied by 'laymen'.

2. Peter Allen12 April 2013 13:20

Thanks Tim. For anyone interested in Critical Discourse Analysis the main theorist (although by no means the only one) is Professor Norman Fairclough, who has written a number of important works on the topic (please see the bibliography in my dissertation (link in text) for more information). He is keen for more people to use the technique and it would be great to see programmes like Newsnight regularly subjected to it. So I would argue the more people that take it up, the better for us all.

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