Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Analysing Trends in Mainstream Media Bias: RTE’s October Coverage of the 2015 Quasi-Intifada – Part One


Section 39/1, of Ireland’s 2009 Broadcasting Act, obliges broadcasters to ensure that news reports are “presented in an objective and impartial manner and without any expression of the broadcaster’s own views.” However, RTE (Ireland’s public service broadcaster) was criticised repeatedly by an Irish pro-Israel advocacy group in its online postings, for the quality of its reportage of the onset of intensive violence during the Autumn period, which commentators often described as a prospective ‘Third Intifada’ due to the sharp rise in Arab-Palestinian attacks (stabbings, shootings and car-rammings) against Israeli civilians and security personnel. The period was also noted for an increase in protracted clashes or riotous Arab-Palestinian protests, which typically confronted Israeli forces.

While advocacy groups might be expected to be critical of news coverage that is not compatible with their views of a given issue that they represent, RTE’s news reporting on contentious issues has long been criticised by a variety of independent sources, as inaccurate, misleading, and selective in terms of the stories the Broadcaster chooses to feature. Some commentators have noted an anti-US, anti-Israel, anti-conservative slant in RTE’s coverage, which supports liberal-left stances and political parties, although hard-left political activists have argued that RTE is conservative. A senior member of the Irish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign also criticised RTE’s coverage as being racially prejudiced against Arab-Palestinians. That complaint is addressed in Part Two, in the section “Pro-Israel bias?”

This article discusses a quite large, albeit select, number of problematic examples of RTE’s television news coverage during October 2015, when coverage of the conflict was most prevalent, to attempt to represent the overall tone of coverage. Some brief examples of coverage from the middle of September to the end of November are also included. July-August 2015 coverage is also referenced to note trends in news reporting. With respect to journalistic practice, broad ethical problems concerning the conflict are also addressed. A concluding part of this series focuses in detail on two specific RTE reports, which are not discussed in Part One. RTE Player links of the principle daily television news programmes (Lunchtime News, 6.1 (6 O’clock) News, and 9 O’clock News) are only made available by the broadcaster for a limited period of time.

Background on the quasi-Intifada

While the region continued to experience significant levels of Arab-Palestinian violence, the onset of the Autumn 2015 period of intensified conflict is usually dated to the 13th of September, when Israeli security forces intervened at the al-Aqsa Mosque, to prevent an attack upon nearby Jewish worshippers closely adjacent to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif compound, at the Western/Wailing Wall. Tensions grew during 2014/15 after certain Jewish activists sought changes to improve Jewish access, but Israel’s government refused to change the status quo, due to the fear that it would cause an Intifada.

The planned Arab-Palestinian attack at the Temple Mount coincided with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and was also a likely reaction to a policy move by former Defense Minister of Israel, Moshe Ya’alon, because he outlawed the Mourabitoun and Mourabitat Muslim groups, which were instituted to persistently harass Jewish people visiting the Temple Mount, as well as the Wailing Wall. Israel’s intervention was seen as validating Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ repeated claims that the Mosque was under threat. Alexander Levlovich, was perhaps the first fatality, killed in a stoning attack the following day by an Arab-Palestinian gang, when driving through East Jerusalem.

The quasi-Intifada resulted in approximately fourteen-hundred recorded attacks of Arab-Palestinian origin between the months of September and December 2015. Attacks decreased in January 2016, with 169 recorded attacks, largely matching the rate of August 2015, in which there were 171 recorded attacks. October 2015 saw the peak of this wave of terrorism, with 620 attacks.

Inconsistent news coverage

RTE’s early reportage of the renewed violence in the region was highly partial. When RTE news editors chose to report on the heightened violence, news coverage consistently highlighted Arab-Palestinian victims, albeit with the exception of one news bulletin. Four Israeli civilians were killed, and several others seriously injured, in numerous stabbing attacks, from Thursday the 1st to Friday the 2nd of October. These attacks were newsworthy because their frequency represented a stark indicator of renewed societal conflict. However, RTE’s TV news team only afforded one brief and rather belated mention, in a single Saturday the 3rd morning news bulletin, without an accompanying news report.

RTE’s 9th October Lunchtime television news report similarly failed to mention the high frequency of anti-Jewish violence occurring in Israel during the prior 24 hours. Instead RTE continued a trend of leading reports on Israeli/Jewish violence visited on Arab-Palestinians, with what was a probable revenge attack, which lightly-to-moderately injured four Arab men in Dimona, Southern Israel, although the Israel Security Agency (ISA) later noted that the injury to one victim was severe, with another moderately wounded, and two others injured slightly. The report included footage of grief stricken women, who were identifiably Arab-Palestinian due to their garb. The inclusion of such footage would have led viewers to the impression that the men were battling for their lives.

Whilst it was newsworthy to report on one of the rare instances of violence perpetuated by a Jewish civilian on several Arab men uninvolved in the conflict, the failure to report on anti-Jewish attacks was particularly notable since a numerically similar attack also occurred on October the 8th, which resulted in the injury of four Jewish people.

RTE’s reportage of the violent upsurge is consistent with coverage of the conflict in preceding months.

The last major international news event to come out of Israel, and the disputed territory of Judea and Samaria/West Bank, was perhaps the July 31st Duma arson attack on the Dawabshe family home. RTE’s TV coverage of the Duma attack was substantial and highly problematic. RTE reporter Carol Coleman misrepresented the reasons for Arab-Palestinian violence in the aftermath of the attack, which had a distinctly sectarian-religious (Islamist) dimension associated with the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif. Coleman also failed to mention the associated incitement by the Palestinian Authority that often motivates such religious-sectarian violence, and presented reasonable security measures by the Israeli authorities as either a reprisal, or inciting a chain of escalating conflict.

The Broadcaster followed up on the Duma attack with reports on the death of the Dawabshe family’s father (8th August), and the death of the mother (7th September), both from burn injuries in the aftermath of the tragic arson attack. However, RTE’s television news department did not report on any of the attacks by Arab-Palestinians upon Israelis during the same period. Besides a failure to report on post-Duma Arab-Palestinian reprisals against Israelis, there was just one report on growing violence at the Temple Mount (13th September), which led with the Israeli intervention at the al-Aqsa Mosque.

RTE-Player screen-grab of revolving news text,
RTE News Now channel, Oct 15, 2015

Conflating aggressors with victims

News-presenter introductory comments for reports, typically described the growing death tolls, with numerical comparison between Arab-Palestinian deaths and Jewish-Israeli fatalities. However, such comparisons usually failed to note the widely divergent circumstances in which these deaths took place, with Arab-Palestinian deaths typically occurring in violent confrontations with army and security personnel, or during terrorist incidents. Sometimes the follow-on reports would clarify the preliminary remarks by the news-presenters but more often they did not. Such conflation is misleading at a most fundamental level because the resurgent violence relates to the matter of who is doing what to whom, e.g. an October 20th 6.1 News report mingled aggressors with victims:
Presenter Sharon Ní Bheoláin: “The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon has said his trip to the Middle-East today reflects the global alarm over the escalation of violence between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Carole Coleman [voice-over of video featuring rioting youths]: “As the frustration felt by Palestinians continues to spill over into the streets, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had this message for the young people…”
RTE-Player screen-grab, RTE 6.1 News, 20-October-2015, Carol Coleman report,
with captioning: "As the frustration felt by Palestinians..."

RTE would continue to lead news stories with the death and injury of Arab-Palestinians individuals, through the latter part of the period of violent escalation in November, and the nature of the fatalities would still be conflated. For example, news-presenter Eileen Dunne stated that “a surge in violence has resulted in the deaths of Israelis and Palestinians”, in the 23rd November 9 O’clock news programme.

RTE described violent riots, which have the explicit intent of clashing with police and soldiers, as “protests”. Protests are commonly understood to be largely peaceful events, which are usually borne of moral concern. The use, by the media, of such a term was especially unjust when there was a growing awareness that this episode could have represented the onset of a new Intifada, which was driven across Arab-Palestinian society by a wave of religious intolerance, with substantively anti-Semitic overtones.

RTE’s 10th October morning news text reported that the “IDF shot dead six Palestinians at the border of the Gaza Strip”. That morning’s news bulletins stated that “Protests have spread across the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Northern Israel after a day where six Palestinians were killed at the border of the Gaza strip…” The segment was short, at no more than 30 seconds, so it is unfair to expect it to be comprehensive, but it nonetheless misled with profound omissions in the description of the violence.

The segment failed to mention that the violence was initiated by Arab-Palestinians, and that further stabbing attacks in Jerusalem were committed against Jewish civilians. RTE also failed to mention that the Arab-Palestinians at the Gaza border were engaged in violence directed at a heavily armed military zone, that they were affiliated with both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and that this riotous event was linked with Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’ Gazan leader, who declared a new ‘Intifada’ shortly before the clash.

On the 11th October, the text-based news highlights on RTE’s ‘News Now’ channel, featured an image of grief-stricken Arab-Palestinian women, also found on the RTE website, with the accompanying words: “France has said the escalation of violence in the Palestinian territories and Jerusalem was ‘extremely worrying and dangerous’”. The use of such an emotive image, with the accompanying text, places indirect blame on the Israeli authorities for the rise in Arab-Palestinian fatalities. The image inevitably carries with it an inference that those killed were substantively innocent, when many of the fatalities targeted, and sometimes murdered, Jewish civilians.

RTE did not qualify which grouping was initiating violence against the other, even of the past events that led to the 2014 Gaza war, Operation Pillar of Cloud. The November 30th morning ‘News Now’ bulletins reported that Mohammad Abu Khdeir’s “killing was part of a cycle of violence that led to war between Israel and militants in Gaza.” RTE failed to address which group initiated the sequence of events, despite 16 months passing, and misrepresented the character of those events. The brutal murder of Abu Khadir on July 2nd 2014 was likely a reaction to Hamas’ kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teenagers in Judea and Samaria (West Bank), but war in Gaza developed as a consequence of increased rocket attacks. Some believe the attacks from Gaza increased as a result of the mass arrest of Hamas’ operatives in Judea and Samaria, but a programme of mass arrest to save three teenagers does not correspond with a “cycle of violence”. Neither can Abu Khdeir’s death be thought of as a major event leading to eventual war since the particular warring groups were not involved, and the Hamas-sanctioned rocket escalation had already begun before the 2nd July date of murder.

A notable departure

RTE’s television news department first acknowledged that Arab-Palestinians were targeting Jews in a spate of stabbing and other attacks, two weeks after the dramatic intensification, in a brief October 12th Lunchtime News report (“Palestinian man shot dead by security forces in Israel”), which stated:
“A Palestinian man suspected of attempting to stab a police officer in Jerusalem has been shot dead by security forces. It was the latest in a series of knife attacks in the past fortnight, mainly by Palestinians targeting Jews. Police said the officer was unhurt as he had been wearing a protective vest. On Friday, four people – two Israeli-Arabs and two Palestinians were injured in an apparent revenge attack.”
Oddly, the RTE report again referenced the several days-old stabbing of four Arabs, which, according to reports, largely resulted in moderate injuries. By contrast, RTE never displayed an impetus to balance reports of Jewish violence with reference to the Arab-Palestinian equivalent. Instead, it downplayed the latter.

For example, RTE’s Lunchtime, 6.1 and 9 o’clock news broadcasts (11th Oct, 10 mins) solely reported on the deaths of Arab-Palestinians:
“An Israeli airstrike on a Hamas target in the Gaza Strip hit a nearby house, killing a Palestinian woman and her daughter. This marks an escalation in recent violence, which has seen several Israelis killed and a growing number of Palestinian deaths. The increase in violence has increased fears of a new Palestinian uprising.”
There was no mention of the other attacks during the 11th of October, where, for example, an Arab-Israeli man injured four Israelis in a combined car and stabbing assault. RTE also failed to report the attempted suicide bombing by an Arab-Palestinian woman, which was disrupted by Israeli security personnel, despite the fact that the story garnered significant attention due to its circumstance.

Passive voice

RTE reports typically led with descriptions of Israeli security forces shooting dead Arab-Palestinian aggressors, or of Israeli security measures in reaction to the intensification of violence.

At times, a variant of grammatical passive voice was used in the construction of sentences for RTE’s descriptions. Such sentence structure often occurs in mainstream media reportage of the Israeli conflict. Passive voice allows authors more control over narratives, whereby the responsibility of any agent for instigating events can be obfuscated. With passive voice, the instigating group of a conflict situation can be presented as having been subjected to the actions of other parties to that conflict. It is objectionable, for confusing which side is responsible for the broad-spectrum violence, and for directing blame at those attempting to reduce the effects of the destructive acts. For example, news-presenter Brian Finnerty, Lunchtime News, 16th October reported:
“In the past month, the violence has claimed the lives of eight Israelis and more than thirty Palestinians, some of them suspected of carrying out attacks, have been killed by Israeli security forces.”
Undue skepticism

Statements, such as the above, present a double-standard, where murders, or attempted murders, were treated with scepticism, but not the reactions by the authorities. An element of scepticism is appropriate when dealing with claims made by different groupings in a state of conflict, and media reports correctly use the terms ‘alleged’ or ‘suspected’ when addressing criminal acts by individuals/groups that are not yet affirmed through legal process. Nonetheless, journalists commonly make legitimate determinations of fact, based on the security of accessible evidentiary material, and on very high probabilities, where, for example, clear intent can be ascribed to violent/criminal events. It had been firmly ascertained that a significant number of Arab-Palestinians were killed by Israel’s security forces, but it has also been ascertained that a substantive proportion of those killings were in immediate reaction to terror attacks, as the toll of Jewish casualties, and available video material to a number of the attacks, demonstrates.

With further scepticism, Carole Coleman’s October 20th Lunchtime News report describes a house demolition as “Israeli soldiers dismantling a Palestinian home in the West Bank. The army claims it’s the home of a militant who carried out a stabbing a year ago killing a woman.”

The report refers to the demolition of Maher al-Hashlamoun’s house. Al-Hashlamoun is in actual fact is a member of Islamic Jihad who was found guilty of committing several terrorist attacks, one of which led to the murder of a twenty-six year old Israeli woman. By convention, RTE attribute crimes to individuals who have been found guilty of such acts by courts of law. However, Coleman’s report would lead the viewer to suspect that the demolition is undeserved in some way, because al-Hashlamoun is supposedly innocent, or that his crimes have been insufficiently ascertained.

Notable omissions

The attacks during this period were never described as having a terrorist intent. Yet RTE is not adverse to using the term in relation to similar attacks in the West, most recently with the Belgium attacks.

RTE’s 16th November morning and Noon ‘News Now’ bulletins reported on a gun attack against Israeli troops, when the home of terrorist Mohammad abu Shahin (alternatively spelt ‘Shaheen’) was demolished in response to the murder of Danny Gonen, a Jewish hiker, during the month of June. The news-presenter stated:
“Palestinian medical sources have said Israeli troops shot dead at least two Palestinians during a gun battle in the Occupied West Bank. The Israeli military said in a statement that troops had come under attack during the operation to destroy the home of Mohammad abu Shahin… Some twenty other Palestinians were wounded in the incident as troops demolished the home of a militant whom Israel had said had killed an Israeli man in June.”
The report did not note that Shahin (Shaheen) had previously been found guilty of conspiring to commit a terror attack for which he was imprisoned between 2006 and 2008, and had more recently confessed to committing numerous other attacks. He is a member of the Fatah/Tanzim Force 17 elite terror unit. Israel’s Supreme Court issued a stay of demolition in October to evaluate the case, which was subsequently passed, while another demolition application was rejected.

Abbas’ incitement misrepresented

A 14th October 9 O’clock news report by Carole Coleman (“Two Palestinians shot dead in latest spate of attacks in Israel”) led with the deaths of Arab-Palestinians involved in a terror attack, and used material from her earlier reports that day, analysed in part two of this article. Coleman added:
“This evening Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas held firm, saying that Palestinians would continue to struggle for the project of nation or state-hood. He spoke of the right to self defence but called for non-violent resistance.”
This is an inaccurate representation of Abbas’ speech, which did not in fact call for a de-escalation of violence. The speech endorsed the ongoing Arab-Palestinian violence, which he characterised as a defensive measure, and presented solely as a reaction to supposed Israeli aggression, particularly against the al-Aqsa Mosque. Abbas attempted to present an Arab-Palestinian teen, who engaged in a stabbing attack, as a martyr akin to Mohammad al-Dura, a story that has been utilised as a widespread source of incitement in the Arab world. Coleman’s description may have been based on the inaccurate accounts provided by a number of news-wire services. The article ‘He Said/They Said: Mahmoud Abbas October 14th speech, and the Mainstream Media’ provides a detailed account of the speech.

The speech was in keeping with the Fatah Party’s production of a substantive amount of material encouraging violence, while demonising Israeli soldiers. Coverage of trenchant PA/Fatah incitement, and associated conspiracism involving the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, was entirely absent however.

By contrast, RTE’s coverage of a speech by Israeli prime-minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on October 21st, was very negative. The speech garnered international attention because Netanyahu asserted Grand Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini had a principle role in encouraging Hitler to wholly adopt a programme of extermination against Europe’s Jewish people but soon clarified that he had no intention of exonerating Hitler. Some of RTE’s reports did include that clarification, whilst other reports did not. The revolving text on the ‘News Now’ channel stated: “Netanyahu provokes holocaust row” — a title also applied to RTE’s syndicated website coverage of the controversy. The article ‘Mufti Haj Amin al-Husseini’s Initiatory Role in the Extermination of European Jewry’ provides a detailed account of the way in which the international media misrepresented history to criticise the PM.

Obfuscation of identity

The 13th of October may be remembered as a peak in the anti-Jewish violence of the period, due to the high number of civilian casualties. The varying identities of attackers, and their victims, is of crucial importance in reports of sectarian strife, but the atypical wording of RTE coverage suggests there may have been attempts to confuse the issue. Morning and Noon news-bulletin reports, on the 13th, stated:
“In Israel at least two passengers have been killed in separate attacks on buses in Jerusalem. The first person died in a gun and knife attack on a bus in the East of the City. Police later shot him [indistinct word]. In the second, a man drove a car into a bus and then started stabbing passengers.”
These reports were peculiar for avoiding the use of identifying words like ‘Jew’. ‘Israeli’, ‘Arab’, and ‘Palestinian’, etc., even though early reports from Israel clearly delineated the identities of the attackers and their victims.

Michelle McCaughren’s October 13th Lunchtime News report differed by expressing notable sympathy for the victims. The victims of the bus attack are described as “terrified passengers who had no means of escape”. However, she continued to use impersonal descriptions like “attackers”, “men”/“man”, and “pedestrians”. She suggested one attack, involving the car-ramming of pedestrians, was indiscriminate, where the assailant got out and supposedly stabbed “anyone” who was nearby. Although McCaughren did mention that the attack took place in an Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood, she did not clearly address the fact that Jews were targeted, including a Jewish Rabbi, who would be visibly Jewish, and that the assailants were Arab-Palestinians. Attempts to obfuscate certain identities is common in the mainstream media. The appendix has a full transcript of the report.

McCaughren’s report spent almost as much time on one of the Arab-Palestinian attackers as that of the many victims, by featuring police video of a crowd apparently kicking a would-be attacker at a Tel Aviv bus stop. The report included an extract of a speech by the Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, telling Israeli citizens to calm down. The selection of such content suggested that the fears of the Jewish citizenry was unjustified, and/or that they were over-reacting. The report did not mention that the mayor explicitly blamed Arab-Palestinian incitement for the murders, earlier that day.

Carole Coleman’s October 19th Lunchtime News report (“Israeli forces impose tighter restrictions in Jerusalem and West Bank”) also focused to a lengthy extent on the fact that some Israelis, who had just witnessed a terrorist incident at a bus station, then attacked another suspected attacker who would later be found to have been uninvolved. While the reprisal is worthy of comment, far greater attention was paid to this incident than the terrorist attack that initiated the subsequent event.

“Palestinian territories”?

RTE (and other media outlets) typically use the terms “occupied Palestinian territories” or “Palestinian territories” for Judea and Samaria/West Bank, and “Palestinian areas of Jerusalem” for East Jerusalem, etc. For example, the RTE ‘News Now’ screen-text (‘News’ section, October 19th), stated “The Israeli government has announced tougher security measures to tackle unrest in Israel and the Palestinian territories”, while Coleman’s October 14th Lunchtime News report referred to “Palestinian areas of East Jerusalem”. It is markedly different to the term “Arab East Jerusalem”, which does not infer an expected or legally/morally justified national identity. The term is prejudicial however much it may be used by the United Nations.

The areas of East Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria/West Bank, are politically contested territories, which have largely been ruled by empires for millennia. There has been no legitimate prior sovereign in these regions since the defeat of the Jewish Bar Kokhba Revolt against the Roman Empire, in 135 AD. Many do consider the territories to be occupied. However, the British Mandatory text defines all territory West of the Jordan river as necessarily being designated for “the Jewish National Home”, with only territory East of the Jordan river having the option of alternate applications (Article 25), with good reason since the contested territories represent the cultural and religious core of the Jewish homeland, constituting the first and second cities of Judaism (Old (East) Jerusalem and Hebron), along with its holiest of shrines and places of worship.

Some experts effectively treat Jordan as having held legitimate title but the State waged an unprovoked war of aggression against Israel, when the Jewish State first declared independence in 1948. Thus, it is clear that Jordan illegitimately occupied these territories, and so such an act cannot be a basis for valid territorial claims against another so aggressed. Moreover, the entire thrust for peace, with UN Security Council Resolution 242, the final status talks of the Oslo Accords, etc., make it clear that negotiations with the interested parties are to be the basis for a peace settlement. To describe these territories as entirely “Palestinian”, and as “occupied”, without qualification, pre-empts such a process.


An example of language usage — transcript of the 13th of October 2015 RTE Lunchtime News report:
John Finnerty: “In Israel at least three people have been killed and thirty others wounded in a series of knife and gun attacks. It comes on a day of rage declared by Palestinian groups. The Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, will convene an emergency session of the security cabinet later today to discuss the recent surge in violence.”
Michelle McCaughren [reporting]: “The attacks took place as early morning commuters made their way to work. The assailants used guns and knives, and in one instance drove a car into a group of pedestrians in an ultra orthodox neighbourhood of East Jerusalem. The driver then got out, and wielding a knife, attempted to stab anyone standing nearby. The most serious incident took place earlier in the capital when two men stormed a bus. One opened fire and the other used a knife on terrified passengers who had no means of escape. It resulted in multiple casualties. One of the attackers was shot dead by police. The other was seriously injured.
In a suburb of Tel Aviv an angry crowd gather around a man suspected of trying to stab another man at a bus stop. A video distributed by the police shows him being kicked and beaten as he lies on the ground. Calling for greater security measures, the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, appealed for calm. He said all citizens must know that they cannot take the law into their own hands. The public must calm down and let the security forces do their job.
These types of incidents have increased in frequency in recent weeks and appear to be random and sporadic. The security forces say they are difficult to predict and even more difficult to bring under control.”

Published at Crethi Plethi.

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