Thursday, 2 April 2015

A review of June to December 2014 coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict on Irish television – Part Three: TV3’s coverage

This article is the third part of an extended study of Irish television coverage of the Israeli-Arab conflict, during the latter part of 2014. Part One introduces and summarises the study, whilst Part Two provides specific examples of bias on Ireland's public service broadcaster RTE.

TV3 is RTE’s chief competitor in the Irish broadcasting industry, for television-based news coverage. RTE, as the Irish State Broadcaster, obtains funding from a mix of tax revenue and advertising. Due to RTE’s broad monopoly, TV3 has complained that it is a challenge to compete in the broadcasting environment, because it relies solely on advertising revenue, for which it has to compete with RTE.

The ‘5.30 News’ reports, on the TV3 channel, during the 2014 Gaza war (‘Operation Protective Edge’), often followed a fairly straightforward narrative, that did not tend to strongly favour one side, e.g. Steven Murphy’s 23rd July segment, which did not shy away from strong content but still presented both perspectives. This may be surprising, in view of TV3’s modest budget for news content, compared to that of RTE, and because news coverage on the TV3/3e channels tend to focus less so on hard-news.

The quality of content seems to diverge to some extent, one variable perhaps being the programme makers. TV3’s ‘Ireland AM’, with presenter Mark Cagney, often favours anti-Israel perspectives, while an extended ‘FYI’ documentary (1st August, 3e), for young adult audiences, was deemed to have given fair voice to both sides. By contrast, RTE’s reportage seemed to become more overtly prejudicial as the war in Gaza progressed.

Tom McGurk (left), Israeli Ambassador to Ireland, Dr. Boaz Modai (middle), and
Palestinian ambassadorial representative to Ireland, Dr. Ahmad Abdelrazek (right). TV3, July 17th, 2014

Tom McGurk tackles Israel’s Ambassador

TV3’s news reporting focuses on entertainment and sport above politics. This may suggest the channel is less weighed down by ideologically driven analysis of the news. Unfortunately however, TV3’s primary current affairs vehicle, the ‘Vincent Browne Show’ proved to be the complete opposite.

In one extended 17th July segment, the harshness of the questioning directed by guest host Tom McGurk, toward the Israeli Ambassador to Ireland, Doctor Boaz Modai, was extraordinary. One might expect presenters to try to calm feelings when attempting to discuss emotive topics, but McGurk used highly dramatic language, gestured wildly during his argument with Modai, and obsessed about the IDF invading Gaza at night when common sense would indicate such a legitimate measure was used to reduce Hamas’ capacity to strike. He also forwarded a number of notable inaccuracies. McGurk is a journalist, ex-rugby player and RTE sports pundit.

Challenging questioning should be expected, but the presenter displayed a stark favouritism with respect to his treatment of the Palestinian ambassadorial representative to Ireland, Doctor Ahmad Abdelrazek, who he seemingly agreed with completely. McGurk did not challenge Abdelrazek’s overt falsehoods, such as a denial that Hamas fires at Israelis indiscriminately, and seeks Israel’s destruction.

Tom McGurk did not appear to take any questions or issues arising from Modai’s points, whilst directly leading the questioning from the PA representative’s points, on several occasions. McGurk insisted that Hamas are the legitimate democratic rulers of Gaza. This is a bizarre claim that anti-Israelis advance, since the regime has long exceeded its democratic mandate. Such stances are proffered by apologists, so may indicate a sympathy with the terrorist group. However, in a contradictory fashion, McGurk also makes out Gazans are completely innocent, that they have no desire to have Hamas wage war on Israel, despite having elected Hamas on a continued mandate of violence, shortly after the end of the intensive terrorism of the Second Intifada.

McGurk presented a misleading premise, that there was somehow the option for peace, after Hamas attacked Israel in a sustained fashion, ignored pleas for a cessation, and subsequently escalated the rocket barrages. He also posited the notion that Israel was punishing Gazans in a prison camp. He stated it was an act of collective punishment, and asserted that Jews were killed by the million due to “collective punishment”. Although McGurk denied it, his paralleling with the Holocaust was overt. His stance may even suggest that some Jews were deserving of punishment during the Holocaust era, since the notion of ‘collective punishment’ rests on the idea that a group is punished for the actions of some.

Tom McGurk argues with,Israeli Ambassador to Ireland, Dr. Boaz Modai (off-picture), TV3, July 17th, 2014.

At the end of the interview, McGurk’s input arguably led to a breach of the 2009 Broadcasting Act by TV3, which bears a responsibility for the actions of those programme makers whose content the broadcaster presents to the public, when he lectured Ambassador Modai on the attitudes of the Irish toward the conflict, which he presented as both pro-Palestinian and noble in intent. McGurk argued that the Irish people sympathised with the Arab-Palestinian collective because the Irish were a people historically dispossessed of their land, as he claims the Arab-Palestinians to be. However, it can be argued that McGurk’s analysis is both facile, and factually incorrect, thereby exceeding his role as presenter with a highly subjective opinion. Whilst Ireland is rightly viewed as a pro-Palestinian nation, it is worth noting that a great number of people in Ireland have little interest in this conflict. The debate is also very one-sided because there is no substantive Irish pro-Israel movement, while the Irish pro-Palestinian/anti-Israel faction is highly organised, and highly vocal. It is almost an inevitability that sympathies will be swayed if people are presented with one-sided media narratives over very extended periods. A study published in May 2011 also found that 11.5% surveyed were hostile to Jews. Thus, with some unjustifiable hostility, combined with a broad lack of interest in the conflict, a lack of genuine local debate, where only one narrative is commonly expressed, and an absence of knowledge of the issue, with some of those hostile to Israel misinformed to the point of absurdity, it cannot be affirmed that the Irish hold anti-Israel sentiment for any one particular or primary reason, and whether that reason is noble or base.

McGurk selectively views the Arab-Palestinians as a displaced people, while apparently deeming the Jewish nation as not. For McGurk, it would seem that the Jewish People, as a collective, is fundamentally a homeless group. It is well known that some early senior Irish republicans sympathised with Zionism, seeing the plight of the Irish as somewhat similar, being a people going through a similar dispossession of their homeland by external forces. There is also a concurrent parallel between the Jewish and Irish Diasporas, since the Irish experienced substantive oppression in early migratory phases. Therefore, given their history, it is certainly not obvious that the Irish people would have a greater historic similarity to Arab-Palestinians, a group culturally and in part racially descended from prior Arab-Islamic occupiers, who would subsequently make so much of the Middle East judenrein.

Tom McGurk exhibited very similar behaviour in the past, where he browbeated pro-Israel guests, e.g. McGurk undermined the sole Irish pro-Israel speaker, in an episode of his show ‘Spirit Moves’ (RTE Radio One, 11th January 2009), going as far as to personally insult him. After the guest pointed out that the IDF was trying to suppress Hamas, an organisation with genocidal anti-Semitic aims, McGurk said: “You’re an extraordinary cheerleader! 300 dead children and you’re on the sidelines cheerleading!” Through the programme, McGurk referred to the death of 300 children. A BBC report, circa January 6th was cited as a source. However, figures supplied by the BBC, via Hamas’ health ministry, vary between 205 and 195, in another erroneous report. These figures were strongly contested, since the tolls relate to an early phase in ‘Operation Cast Lead’, just a few days after the IDF’s ground invasion of the 3rd January, but McGurk, and his other guests, would insist upon its veracity. Hamas revised its death toll in 2010, aligning more with figures provided by the IDF.

A transcript of the 17th July 2014 discussion is available below, in an appendix of this article.

Dearbhaill McDonald Presents

Journalist Dearbhaill McDonald presented another episode of the ‘Vincent Browne Show’ on the 24th of July. McDonald chose to discuss what impact social media was having on the Gaza conflict. Indeed, sites like Twitter were used intensively to post images of apparent suffering, with a particular focus on Arab-Palestinian children. This issue may have had a profound impact on the way the media conducted itself, as well as the way in which it shapes narratives on the conflict, where propaganda, devoid of any context, could take a leading role. Questions of the veracity of these images was also relevant, with Hamas and other parties having often used images from other conflicts. This activity began to intensify in 2012, when images of heavily injured and dead children were misrepresented as having been killed by Israel. Such visceral imagery may have also played a role in the increase of anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe. These were worthy areas of discussion but McDonald chose to limit the conversation to essentially pro-Palestinian talking points: whether or not the display of such explicit imagery is acceptable, in view of our social sensibilities!

The panel comprised of guests that were hostile to Israel, with the exception of Declan Power, a security analyst, who was critical of both Israel and Hamas. Despite often criticising Israel, he was nonetheless continuously interrupted, sometimes in a hostile fashion, and at times undermined by the host, when criticising Hamas. This may suggest that the presenter and/or the producers of The Vincent Browne show fostered an intolerant climate for one side of this discussion, where any expressions of sympathy with Israel were to be discouraged.

Colette Browne, an ‘Irish Independent’ columnist, even criticised Power’s opinion that Hamas should not be indiscriminately launching rockets on Israelis. Power stated that if Hamas “really were interested in the security of their people, one of the things that would give them huge leverage is if they stopped firing these rockets”. Colette Browne interrupted to assert that “they [Hamas] stopped in 2012 and the blockade wasn’t lifted on Gaza.” This contention relates to the unlikely claim by some terrorist groups that they stopped firing rockets in the 2012 ‘Pillar of Cloud’ War, in exchange for the opening of Israel’s borders. Extravagant claims of victory are a normative part of conflicts, where terror groups like Hamas and Hizbullah often proclaim victory after resounding defeat.

The 24th July was the day of the missile strike on the UN school in Gaza’s Beit Hanoun district. The mainstream Western media rushed to a judgement on the strike, with the attribution of blame unjustly associated with Israel, which appears to have become an innate reflex since the Millennium.

Dearbhaill McDonald directed a question on the issue to ex-rugby player, Trevor Hogan, who having repeatedly berated Declan Power, was speaking on behalf of anti-Israel group ‘Gaza Action Ireland’:
“And some breaking news over the course of the programme, Trevor, that Israel is no longer standing over the position earlier that Hamas is responsible for that attack on the UN school.”
These claims did in fact emerge several hours earlier. Trevor Hogan, replied with an unintended irony:
“Exactly, Israel, Israeli spokespeople have a tendency, their immediate reaction is to deny everything, and blame Hamas, and then after everything cools down, they accept responsibility. And they’ve already done that with this latest incident. So it’s just a reminder that we should never believe a word Mark Regev, all of these spokespeople say, because they continuously twist the truth. And now as Larry and Colette has pointed out, there’s no way for them to hide anymore.”
In reality however, Israel asserted that they conducted a military campaign in the area within hours of the mainstream media’s frenzied coverage so it is fanciful for the presenter and guest to suggest they are spinning the story. McDonald and Hogan misrepresented Israel’s stance as they continued to deny responsibility for the missile strike on the school which led to the death of 15 Arab-Palestinians.

Whilst RTE’s ‘Prime Time’ coverage of the Beit Hanoun school missile strike (as described in Part Two of this article) was undoubtedly problematic, the presenter, Claire Byrne, did at least allow the fair expression of competing viewpoints. By contrast, ‘The Vincent Browne Show’ once again became an example of what any responsible broadcaster should avoid.

The attitudes of the principal host, Vincent Browne, were cause for complaint in the past, which the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland largely upheld.


Tom McGurk’s questions to Ambassador Boaz Modai, on the Vincent Browne show (17th July 2014), show a marked contrast to the questioning directed at the Palestinian ambassadorial representative to Ireland, Ahmad Abdelrazek. Some responses are given in a synopsis due to the length of the debate.

Tom McGurk [question to Ambassador Boaz Modai]: “Tonight Ambassador thousands of Israeli troops, tanks are invading on Gaza. Presumably a very large number of people will be dead tomorrow morning?”

[Modai states that Rockets have continued with 12,000 rockets hitting Israel, stating that no government would tolerate such a thing]

McGurk: “But not many governments in the world would sent in troops, armoured cars, and tanks, into a small area of a million people, into a civilian situation, in the dark. They’ve gone in tonight with all the lights out in Gaza. Is that not a terrifying prospect?”

[Modai explains that there are two Gaza’s, and air strikes could not destroy the tunnels and rockets.]

McGurk: “But you’ve invaded both Gaza’s because they are still the same piece of territory.”

[Modai states the army will do its utmost to protect civilians]

McGurk: “Yeah but what do you hope to achieve by this? Presumably if you have members of Hamas, what will you do with them tonight, will you arrest them, shoot them on the spot, what will you do with them?”

[Modai states it is difficult to discuss the military operation]

McGurk: [Laughs] “I think we should [discuss the military operation]. There is a moral question there.”

[Modai responds by stating that the moral question is who aims what at whom — pointing out Hamas does a double war crime by aiming at civilians from civilian areas]

McGurk [Interrupting]: “Ok we’ve heard that speech all week! What is the purpose of the invasion tonight. If a certain number of people are killed, will Hamas stop, will Hamas surrender, what is the purpose of it because when you pull out, after how many people will be killed on either side, what will the difference be?”

[Modai states that the aim is not to kill people but to achieve a solution to a problem — the terror tunnels, Israel intercepted Hamas militants using a tunnel to get into a Kibbutz to cause a massacre.]

McGurk [sighing and interrupting]: “There has already been a massacre… But ambassador, there has already been a massacre, and 60 children. The world is looking at Israel in astonishment. Do you realise the damage you are doing to the state of Israel internationally and globally? To kill 60 children is a war crime in anybody’s language.”

Modai: “The easy use of the word ‘war crime’” [goes on to challenge the stance by pointing to the bombing of Kosovo in 1999, by Western nations, in which 2000 civilians were killed, including many children.]

McGurk: “So 60 don’t matter that much then?”

[Modai counters that war often leads to civilian deaths, especially when used as human shields]

McGurk [To the Palestinian ambassadorial representative, Doctor Ahmad Abdelrazek]: “The bottom line here is that the Hamas rockets have provoke the situation. And if there were no Hamas rockets, there wouldn’t be this invasion. Does that not add up?”

Abdelrazek: “The results that we see they are targeting the civilians without ah sometimes I think its for fun because what we have see yesterday, and all the journalists in Gaza saw yesterday, that the gunship, the Israeli gunship shot the four children at the beach. It was clear there are children. It was clear they are not armed but they shot two shots and the second shot the children, and blast others… when this people are on the beach there were nobody, no Hamas people, no fighters people. There are children playing football.”

McGurk [to Modai]: “Well Ambassador, would you explain to this Palestinian gentleman why… let the ambassador explain why that was done?” [Notably McGurk allows the PA Ambassador to completely side-step this question, and actually turns on Modai]

[Modai states that it was probably a mistake due to the confusion of war. He notes his surprise the Arab-Palestinian ambassador’s stance as his leader Mahmoud Abbas was critical of Hamas’ actions in targeting Israeli civilians indiscriminately. He suggests the ambassador is trying to protect Hamas].

McGurk: “Are Hamas not elected?”

Abdelrazek [instead of stating that he does not defent Hamas — the PA Ambassador states]: “Mr. Ambassador, you say you your soldier doesn’t target civilians, I’ll give you many examples. First of all you remember on last March, when a soldier shooted killed a Jordanian judge, just with cold blood. Many witnesses. The second, when the soldier shooted and the unity, the army said he wasn’t a member of the unity but [indistinct] he shooted the young boy.”

McGurk: [instead of allowing Modai reply, McGurk interrupts and asked the PA ambassador] “Sorry to interrupt you. I want to move you on to tonight, you are familiar with Gaza, what is that scene like tonight”

Abdelrazek: “you can imagine one point seven million people are…”

McGurk: “…in the dark”

Abdelrazek [echoes McGurk]: “…in the dark, and in an area of 300 square kilometres only, and ahh ahh ahh the Israelis say they don’t want to war but we have to know that before the beginning they started to to call the reservists, how many reservists Mr. Ambassador? More than 60,000 reservists has been called. How, what for? A tiny three hundred square kilometres. It’s a huge army for Gaza. It’s a huge army so it was deliberately preparing for the invasion of Gaza.”

McGurk: “Boaz, can I put this to you, ah you know there the accusation that this is the doctrine of collective punishment, and who knows more about the doctrine of collective punishment than the Jewish people who were murdered in millions by the process of collective punishment. How do you face that accusation because to many Gaza is a prison camp.”

Modai: “Could you repeat the question. Are you trying in any way to compare in any way the Holocaust…”

McGurk: “No, I’m talking about the process of collective punishment, where a whole group of people are punished. That is what is going on here in Gaza. Would you recognise that?”

[McGurk interrupting as Modai begins to answer] “You saw everybody tonight in Gaza being punished.”

[Modai states the Gazans are the victims of Hamas, rather than the Israelis].

McGurk: “Perhaps but what can they do about Hamas? What do you want them to do about Hamas?”

Modai: [pauses, seemingly with incredulity at the question] “What does the world do about Hamas, what does the Palestinian Authority do, I mean this is a question you should be asking? … his government is sharing power with the Hamas.” This is a terrorist organisation, do you accept that? [McGurk allows the PA Representative to interrupt.]

Abdelrazek [The PA Ambassador puts his hand up to interject]: “I’ll tell you something now. I’ll tell you something. Since we are… Mr. Ambassador. Mr. Ambassador, the whole problem lets go to the origin. The whole problem is occupation, and we say the only way to have security is to have a just solution of two state solution. When you started to negotiate with the Israeli government, Mr. Netanyahu, the prime minister, he used to say ah ah ah President Abbas doesn’t represent all the Palestinian, and when we form the unity government Mr. Netanyahu say Mr. Abbas ah ah ah should choose between peace or Hamas. Our government is recognising Israel, our government is so we don’t.”

[Modai reminds the PA Ambassador that Hamas calls for the destruction of Israel.]

Abdelrazek [taking exception]: “Excuse me, no no you have people in your government, excuse me, Mr Neftali Benai who is a minister”

Modai: “He’s not against peace. He’s for peace.”

Abdelrazek: “I’ll tell you what he said…” [reaches into his pocket]

McGurk: “Boaz, can I just ask you this? You said the people in Gaza have to deal with Hamas. How do they deal with Hamas? I mean they don’t ask Hamas to fire the rockets. How do they deal with them?”

Modai: “We’re trying to help them to get rid of the Hamas…”

McGurk [interrupting]: “…by invading with thousands of [indistinct]? By killing them?”

Abdelrazek [joining in with McGurk]: “the civilians… the civilians…”

Modai: “We are not killing the civilians [intentionally]. It’s very nice, I’m sure the viewers see how you both attack me on that.”

McGurk [interrupting as well as Abdelrazek]: “your affliction of the facts, not of any [indistinct].”

[Modai states that Abdelrazek knows well what Hamas are all about, and objects to the equivocation of Hamas and the IDF, stating that they only target civilians, not the military. Refers to the Allies having killed more civilians than military, asking does that mean they were wrong, and Germany right?]

McGurk: “Speaking of history, can I say something to you? In Ireland we have a particular understanding of this problem because we too were a dispossessed people for hundreds of years. We too understand the notion of being dispossessed in our own land. This has been the experience of the Palestinians. And that’s perhaps why Irish sentiment is sympathetic to the Palestinians. We’ve also had a peace process. We’d a thirty-year war here. Nothing was ended until both sides put away the weapons and sat down and had an agreement, and an enemies became friends.”

Abdelrazek: “Absolutely.”

McGurk: “Where are you ever going to start a peace process gentlemen? Where can there be a starting point, certainly not tonight.”

Abdelrazek: “When Israel accept the are two states on the 1967 borders.”

McGurk: “1967 Borders, no?”

Modai: “Israel already agreed to two states but there is no dialogue.”

Abdelrazek: “How you say there is no dialogue” [states Abbas is proposing negotiating now for a strictly three month period — argue back and forth about a notional ‘right of return’, and setting preconditions of the 1967 borders before negotiations.]

McGurk: “Is there a possibility ah that ah sometime tomorrow, if there’s huge numbers of people dead, that Israel will realise the level of the mistake that is being made here, because you’re looking at thousands of young kids in Gaza, and the population, as you know, almost half the population is under the age of 10 or 15. Tonight, watching their doors smashed in, and the soldiers arresting their family, what are they going to become in 10 or 15 years time?”

Modai: “You have to decide what is better, to target from the air or the ground?”

McGurk [interrupting]: or or or try the peace.”

Abdelrazek [laughing at Modai’s phrasing]: “Do we have to choose which way to be killed, Mr. Ambassador?”

[Modai refers again to Hamas’ wish for destruction]: “Do you try to make peace with someone who calls for your destruction, who shoots at your citizens indiscriminately?”

Abdelrazek: “No, no, this is nonsense.”

McGurk [to Abdelrazek]: “I’m going to give you the final word. We’re running out of time. Final thought about tonight in Gaza.”

Abdelrazek: “Already already since the the Israeli ah invaded, the Israeli troops invaded Gaza, already there are four dead people, and twenty twenty ah ah blast, but ah thank you Mr. Ambassador to give us the chance to choose our way to be killed, by air or by troops.”

Published at Crethi Plethi.

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