Robin Shephard, in his analysis of a BBC documentary on Jerusalem, offers us an example of bias and distortion at work.
“Under international law,” [Jane Corbin] tells us earnestly, “East Jerusalem is occupied territory; its status shouldn’t be changed.”
Well, good to know that we haven’t wasted much time before she introduces her very own, and quite definitive, interpretation of international law. But objective versions of the law are soon complemented by a historical narrative which forms the backdrop to the entire programme:
“When the State of Israel was born in 1948, Jerusalem was divided,” says Corbin. “The West of the city became part of Israel and the East was controlled by Jordan. In 1967, Israel annexed East Jerusalem after seizing the West Bank following war with its Arab neighbours.”
And that’s it. That is the broad historical context offered to a prime time British audience on the BBC’s most prestigious weekly documentary programme. Is her version accurate? Well, yes, modern day Israel was formed in 1948 and Jerusalem was indeed divided — Jordan on the one side and Israel on the other. It is also true that “following war” with its Arab neighbours in 1967 East Jerusalem was annexed by Israel.
But as an instance of propagandist methodology in airbrushing out vital context, especially in a documentary about the status of Jews in Jerusalem and the underlying causes of the wider conflict, this really rather takes the biscuit.
Consider another way of phrasing that paragraph which, once again, is vital to the documentary since it serves as the key context for a largely uninitiated British audience. Try this, with the salient points in italics:
“When the State of Israel was born in 1948 — following Arab and Palestinian rejection of a peace agreement accepted by Israel which would have seen the internationalisation of the city — Jerusalem was divided. The West of the city became part of Israel and the East was controlled by Jordan — which expelled Jewish residents and forbade Jews from praying at all of the city’s holy sites. In 1967, Israel annexed East Jerusalem after seizing the West Bank following war with its Arab neighbours. That war was caused by Arab governments and the Palestinians who had the aim of eliminating the state of Israel in its entirety and expelling its Jewish residents.”
Well, that would really cast a different light on things wouldn’t it? [Emphasis added]
The only obfuscation in Shephard’s own language is in “That war was caused,” which obscures (as passive constructions usually do, by omitting the active subject) the fact that it was Israel, literally, that attacked in 1967, but under the factually unchallengeable circumstances that all of Israel’s Arab neighbors (and Iraq) had armies poised on its borders about to strike with the intent of overrunning the tiny state. (Israel’s actions were a supreme historical example of a justifiable preemptive attack.) Every detail Shephard adds is historically factual.
The questions that arise are these:
- In a documentary that proceeds, like all BBC reporting, to be critical of Israel, why are such salient facts not included in the brief background offered?
- What is the impression created – particularly in the context of the whole documentary, but regardless – by the background Corbin offers?
- How is that impression altered by the addition of the information Shephard supplies?
- How would the coherence of the documentary’s reportage as a whole be affected by the inclusion of these facts in the background?
- Is there any objective, reportorial rationale for omitting the additional information that Shephard provides?
- How does a person respond when presented with the information, in context, that Shephard provides?
- How does a person respond upon hearing the claim that the omission of such basic historical information is clearly prejudicial?
- How does a person respond to the argument that an established record of omitting critical historical facts destroys the journalistic credibility on that subject of a news source?
- What is the influence on a viewer of historical reportage that omits such critical historical information?
- What is the influence on a viewer of critical documentary reportage of a subject, and what might that influence be if the viewer knew that all reportage by that journalistic organ was critical of the subject?
- What conclusions may be drawn about a news organization whose reportage on a subject consistently, prejudicially omits critical information that affects perceptions of the subject?
The fundamental point – the question for any person considering complex and contentious issues – is whether one is truly open to all information and to considering all reasonable arguments founded in fact. When facts are omitted, when the omission of facts is rationalized to suit predisposition, when biased presentation is comforting rather discomfiting, then there is no search for truth, but only ideological tendency, and there is no credibility.