By Harriet Fildes
The United Kingdom has been one of Israel’s greatest allies since the state’s inception in 1948, a result of the British Balfour Declaration. The recent escalation of violence has largely been blamed on Hamas by the British media and government, with William Hague, Britain’s Foreign Secretary declaring that Hamas bore “principal responsibility” for the attacks.
In Western states and Britain in particular, coverage and context regarding the roots of the broader conflict and in particular, the recent events leading up to Hamas firing rockets into Israel are conspicuously lacking. Professor Richard Jackson argued in a statement to the Journal of Turkish Weekly that “There is no doubt that there is a broad level of bias in mainstream media reporting, particularly of foreign security issues, in the UK and other western states.”
He further asserted that “the mainstream news media operates within a set of simplistic frames and narratives which they use to structure stories, and a broader acceptance of core ideas of national identity. Combined, these factors mean that Western mainstream media are often not best positioned to give unbiased, accurate or even meaningful interpretation to breaking news.”
Greg Philo’s 2004 study on British media reporting of Palestine found that the majority of the British public thought “occupied land” referred to Palestinian’s occupying Israeli land and that they received this knowledge from the media. By 2012 Al-Jazeera found the number to be lower at 22% across Europe, still highlighting a worrying lack of public knowledge on this issue.
However, the impact of recent changes such as the expansion of social media on the way we receive news cannot be negated. The public are becoming increasingly aware of the situation in Gaza, highlighted by Al-Jazeera’s findings that 60% of the European public are aware that the 2008 invasion of Gaza was illegal with 40% citing Israeli settlements as the largest barrier to peace in the Middle East.
Such transformation in public opinion and levels of understanding can largely be attributed the memory of Operation Cast Lead, which remains firmly in the public and political imagination and to the expansion of social media according to Professor Jackson, “Fortunately, the internet has resulted in a pluralisation of media, and the public are becoming increasingly sophisticated at finding multiple sources online which allow them to get more in-depth and nuanced information for interpreting breaking stories.”
The British ambassador to Israel warned that the tides of public opinion in Britain were turning against Israel as a result of increasingly draconian policies towards Palestine. According to Mr Gould, “the British public may not be expert but they are not stupid and they see a stream of announcements about new building in settlements, they read stories about what’s going on the West Bank, they read about restrictions in Gaza.” Furthermore, he advised the Israeli government that centrist MP’s were increasingly frustrated with the stagnant peace process which is leading to changing attitudes in Britain regarding Israel.
One of the more detrimental bastions of British media coverage is the labelling of Hamas as a “terrorist” organisation that cannot be negotiated with under any circumstances, a view which undoubtedly informs both public opinion on this matter, and implicitly, foreign-policy.
Certainly, and as Sir Gerald Kaufman, British MP, argued after the 2008 war; “Hamas is a deeply nasty organisation, but it was democratically elected, and is the only game in town”. Sir Gerald believes that continual refusal to engage with Hamas has undoubtedly hindered peace talks, a “culpable error” which urgently needs addressing, a warning which hopefully sinking in given the recent negotiations with Hamas during cease-fire talks in Egypt.
There is a crucial responsibility for both the media and the government to ensure the public are better informed regarding this conflict. Misinformation and subjective news reporting continues to leave the public confused over crucial issues such as who is “occupying” the land or the legality of Israeli settlements, allowing the government carte blanche in terms of public accountability regarding their policies in the Middle East.