Gaza-Israel war: Is the Western media still biased?
For decades, Palestinians and their supporters have claimed that Western mainstream media are considerably biased in favour of Israel.
Hamas’ surprise attack on Israel and the consequent Israeli military assault on Gaza has revived this debate.
Many media analysts backed with data and empirical evidence agree that there's a bias, even in household names such as the BBC, despite recent improvements and increased space for voices reflecting the Palestinian perspective.
On Sunday, Channel 4 News journalist Cathy Newman spoke to Palestinian Ambassador to the UK Husam Zomlot immediately after she interviewed an Israeli Likud politician. The very first question Newman asked Zomlot was if he would condemn Hamas' actions. The Fatah envoy refused to answer the question, explaining:
“The business of always being obsessed with blaming the victim, the occupied, the colonised, the besieged, when in fact I didn’t see you asking her [the Likud politician] to condemn … with your first question the killing of an entire family [in Gaza] that your reporter just mentioned.”
The question Newman asked is one that is often presented to Palestinians in the Western media. In the past, as hundreds of Palestinians have been killed by Israeli air strikes, Western media outlets have focused on Hamas rockets -- even at times when they have killed no one.
Palestinians, even those not affiliated with Hamas, are asked to condemn alleged crimes carried out by other Palestinians, while a politician who is a member of the ruling party of Israel isn’t asked to condemn the alleged crimes carried out by Israel.
Sins of Omission
Another accusation levelled at the Western media on Israel and Palestine is that it omits context that is vital to understand teh conflict. George Orwell, when discussing propaganda in general terms, likened it to a clock starting and stopping.
For many Western outlets, the moment of a Hamas strike is when the clock starts, so to speak – or, as the presenter puts it, it was simply an “unprovoked attack” by Hamas that emerged from nowhere.
Critics say that this becomes the sole focus of the media’s attention, framing Hamas in simple terms as the sole antagonist, with all wider and immediate political context removed.
As analysts have pointed out, there is a myriad of factors that occurred before the media “started the clock”.
Once the situation is resolved, such as in the past when Israel has stopped bombarding Gaza, the clock is stopped again by the media and focus goes elsewhere.
This creates a timeline of events that begins with Palestinian provocation and ends with Israeli retribution.
In the Channel 4 News interview with Zomlot, these omissions by the presenter presented a skewed picture of the situation. The context of Israel, as a nuclear-armed US-supported regional superpower that illegally occupies, besieges and carries out daily documented crimes against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, is completely erased.
Zomlot exposes the de-politicised narrative when the presenter continues to push for him to denounce and focus on Hamas for taking hostages.
“Do you know, Cathy, Israel has taken 2 million people [referring to the siege on Gaza] hostage for 16 years … yet there is no outcry … quite ironically it’s hostages taking hostages”, he replies.
The Language Dynamic: Israel's 'right to defend itself' vs Palestinian 'terrorism'
It also factors into the language of the media. Following the attack, The Guardian led with an editorial referring to “the murderous rampage carried out by Hamas”. Similarly, The Economist referred to “the bloodthirsty attack by Hamas.
While such language may or may not be appropriate, the fact is that it would never be used by Western media outlets to describe Israeli crimes of a similar or even worse magnitude. These outlets would never describe Israel killing thousands of civilians in Gaza as a “murderous Israeli rampage” or a “bloodthirsty Israeli attack”.
The skewed dynamic portrayed by the Western media is that when Israel is bombing houses, hospitals and schools in Gaza it has a "right to defend itself", but any act of violence by a Palestinian is "terrorism".
The word "terrorist" is exclusively used by the media and politicians to refer to Hamas due to it targeting civilians, but it would never be applied to Israel when it has been found to have deliberately targeted civilians in Gaza. Or when it collectively punishes Palestinians, as it has done for the last 16 years in Gaza through its crippling siege. Critics argue that these are acts of state terror and ought to be described as such, and many are clear war crimes even in the description of the United Nations.
But why the bias?
Many analysts argue that the reason for the perceived bias lies precisely in the massively imbalanced power relations between Palestinians and Israel.
Israel is a recognised state with strong trade, military and diplomatic relations with the West, while it is often considered to be a Western democracy amidst the 'oriental' autocracies of the Arabo-Islamic world, despite it being an occupying power and keeping millions of Palestinians in a state described by non-partisan rights groups, the UN and even Israeli critics as 'apartheid'. Palestinians often don't even have basic rights, let alone the advanced individual rights associated with Western liberal democracy.
On the other hand, Palestinians have no state and must operate under the confines of Israeli occupation. Israel can provide sophisticated state propaganda and politically influential briefings and can therefore better control and shape the narrative, while Palestinians are mired in the conditions of the oppressed – poverty, factionalism and a lack of viable representation.
For these reasons, the pro-Israel biases of the Western media are considered to be reflective of the wider political association of Israel with Western governments and are thus endemic. While it's impossible to calculate the effects of these alleged biases, critics argue that they wittingly or unwittingly aid Israel in getting away with crimes that are not even recognised as crimes.
In this round of violence, there are some Palestinian voices being represented in Western media outlets. More space is given to context that is critical to separating Israeli propaganda from what media outlets often report as fact, such as the New York Times, known for its open pro-Israel stance, showing the pictures and publishing the names of 67 Palestinian children killed by Israel during Israeli air strikes on Gaza in 2021.
Over the weekend, General Secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative Mustafa Barghouti was allowed time on CNN to put forward the perspective of Palestinians and establish the political context of the recent violence without being interrupted or cut off.
But the pro-Israel bias remains systematic, a feature, not a bug in mainstream Western media.