Can we halt anti-Israel bias in Britain?

Israeli and British flags (Jewish News)
Israeli and British flags (Jewish News)

Coverage of the Trump Middle East peace plan – particularly by the BBC, but basically by most media – brought to mind a book I reviewed light years ago. The book, “Publish It Not; the Middle East Cover-up” was about bias in the British media. Bias at the BBC, ITN and in newspapers that is, because when this book was published in 1976 that was all there was.

Ironically, that book is relevant today. “Ironically” because its authors were the fervent anti-Zionists, Labour MP Christopher Mayhew and Times journalist Michael Adams. Both men were leading figures in CAABU, the Council for the Advancement of Arab British Understanding, and claimed that British media was biased. Biased, that is, in favour of Israel and against Arabs. (Okay, those of you aged under-50 and now in paroxysms of laughter, please pick yourselves up off the floor and get a grip.)

Apart from claiming general bias, a key allegation centred on two Jewish journalists working in Israel. The authors contended that Jewish journalists were incapable of objectivity and therefore could not be trusted to report from Israel. By which I think we can assume they meant those journalists could not be trusted to report in a way that favoured the Arab and Palestinian side, but maybe I’m just an old cynic.

The Jewish journalists were Michael Elkins of the BBC and Eric Silver who worked for – wait for it – The Guardian. Yes, indeed, in the 1970s, two of the UK’s most ardent anti-Zionists believed The Guardian was biased in favour of Israel.(Once again, those of you aged under 50 please pick yourselves up off the floor.)

Mayhew and Adams fretted over other journalists but they had the BBC and The Guardian in their sights. As an aside, Adams’ well-known devotion to the Arab cause was not deemed an impediment to his objectivity or to his employment as diplomatic editor of The Times.

In hindsight, I believe the British media of the 70s was pretty balanced on the Middle East. There were probably small pockets of pro-Israel bias, but these were cancelled out by small pockets of pro-Arab bias, creating overall balance, fairness and neutrality.

But overall balance, fairness and neutrality were not enough for Mayhew and Adams. They wanted to eliminate the faintest hint of a possibility of pro-Israel sentiment. They wanted total capitulation to the Palestinian narrative and, if possible, to the Arab cause.

With this objective in mind, Jews were the low-hanging fruit. Elkins and Silver vigorously denied bias “If anyone can find a pattern of bias, let him say so,” said Elkins. But “evidence” was not needed. It was enough for Mayhew and Adams to smear Jews; to assert the idea that Jews, by definition, must be biased. Neither Elkins nor Silver was fired instantly, but both swiftly found themselves sidelined from hard news.

While that may have been less than Mayhew and Adams hoped for, it was sufficient to dramatically change the media landscape over the long-term. The idea of Jews being incapable of objectivity entered the bloodstream of British media and guaranteed that the criteria set by Mayhew and Adams for “fairness” would be firmly adhered to when the BBC, The Guardian (and all UK media) were appointing journalists.

This might have been completely fair except that the book’s publication neatly coincided with a highly effective campaign on British universities when Palestinian propaganda was flooding campuses. This almost guaranteed (and I realise this makes me sound mildly paranoid) that entry-level journalists had been immersed in Arab propaganda. At best, these journalists would perceive Israel as an aggressor and the architect of the Palestine tragedy and at worst they would be well placed to actively disseminate that message.

I have not brought up this book to demonstrate a retentive memory (nor to expose my paranoia) but to highlight the long-term consequences of its central thesis and how that has played into coverage of the Middle East,. And that brings me to the BBC.

Despite the overt anti-Israel bias of Orla Guerin and others, I do not believe that the BBC is institutionally biased against Israel. The BBC is the sum of its parts and I believe a majority of those “parts” are decent, humane journalists and broadcasters groping towards the light. However, rather too many of them are at best poorly informed on the historical truth of the Arab-Israel conflict and, at worst, in thrall to the Palestinian narrative constructed from lies, half-truths and omissions. (The same, of course, is true for other news outlets in Britain and around the globe.).

But even if the bias is unintended and even if it is motivated by compassion, it is unacceptable because it has distorted reality and helped generate implacable hostility to Israel leading to, among other consequences, a rise in anti-Semitism.

When Mayhew and Adams claimed anti-Arab bias they had no evidence and no real justification. They used smears, conspiracy, and innuendo. By contrast, today’s UK Jewish community could offer plenty of evidence (and could say with full justification) that sections of the British press demonstrate significant bias against Israel. Indeed, the UK Jewish community could have made the same claim in any year since roughly 1980. (The same is true for Jewish communities around the world, though in American media, the anti-Israel bias is a more recent phenomenon)..

Perhaps it is time for the UK Jewish community to complain loudly and publicly about the blatant and outrageous bias of some journalists, publications and news outlets. Perhaps the community could sponsor a book, ‘Publish It Not; the NEW Middle East Cover-up’ about anti-Israel bias in British media…

Naturally, there would be an entire chapter on Orla Guerin, who is so incapable of hiding her sympathies that she even took a swipe at Israel while reporting recently on the 75th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, but there would be no attempt to smear Muslim journalists by claiming that they are incapable of objectivity simply because they are Muslim. However, Muslim journalists who peddle an untrue narrative on national platforms may find their record under examination…

So, how about it: “Publish It Not; the NEW Middle East Cover-up” about bias in the British media 1980 to 2020…

About the Author
Jan Shure held senior editorial roles at the Jewis Chronicle for three decades. and previously served as deputy editor of the Jewish Observer. She is an author and freelance writer and wrote regularly for the Huffington Post until 2018. In 2012 she took a break from journalism to be a web entrepreneur.