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Working with the British Media on Gaza

By Leila Sansour

I imagine that most of you would agree that we are living through some of the most cynical of times. Suppose you care about Palestine but live abroad. In that case, you are probably spending a good deal of time doing the usual acrobatics, balancing the shock and hurt inside with attempts to make judicious remarks to help persuade others of the merits of basic decency, all the while pretending that their occasional pseudo-intellectual attempts at a defense of Israel bear some relationship to sanity. I work for a mainstream British news channel so, in my case, I have had to up my game.

In this article, rather than focus on media tropes that have rendered our cognitive landscape barren, scorched fields, I would like to share with you a few things I have learned in the hope that they can be of some use in our continuing struggle to change the narrative.

A fact that most of us have had to observe close up over the past six months is the immense capacity of the human mind for self-deception. Western political establishments and the media have displayed this on an industrial scale – from the willful choice of always starting history on October 7 and disregarding all the voices that have painstakingly pointed out the flaws in this approach, to denying Palestinians the right to comment on just about anything that concerns their plight.

Western media often prides itself on balancing its act by allowing the display of Palestinian suffering. Palestinians can come onto our screens howling in pain, but God forbid that they should be able to say what or who might have caused their predicament. That Palestinians should comment at all is anathema, as they are simply unreliable narrators of their own lives and experiences. Others, Israelis included, know much better what the Palestinians fear and favor, what they think about the occupation, whether they feel they have been used as human shields and by whom. There is no need to ask them. They simply do not know or, worse, they have the wrong impression.

As distressing as this practice is, it is also edifying. We are going through a transformative moment in history that is forcing all of us to be more resourceful, more thoughtful.

Figure 1: Online mentions of violence-relevant terms in the context of Israel and Gaza or Palestine.

A couple weeks ago I attended a gathering of people, all of whom are working in various capacities to challenge the narratives that have taken hold of the topsy-turvy world we inhabit. It is worth mentioning that these groups are growing, and networks of disenfranchised journalists, if not to say totally livid and disgruntled journalists, are slowly emerging. In the beginning, they felt more like caucuses of the bereaved, but there is hope that they will eventually morph into platforms that might deliver. Fear is an impediment, but there is also talk of the need to overcome fear by acting collectively and robustly. Those working for the BBC tend to be the most aggrieved. The BBC is in a league of its own when it comes to crushing dissent. Since October 7, it has gone so far as to appoint a special editor at BBC Arabic to streamline content across its platforms lest these Arabs decide to go native. The groups themselves are diverse, but British Muslims form the greatest majority. The issue of Palestine, with its glaring injustice and media double standards, has certainly politicized a whole generation of Muslims in Britain like no other cause has been able to do. The effect of the mobilization of this new constituency is likely to change the face of British politics in ways that we cannot yet predict.

From my experience in the newsroom, I have concluded that the problem with editorial red lines is not so much a function of top-down directives. There are days when I wish that this were the case. It would have made the challenge simpler. Instead, what confronts us, for the most part, is a narrative that has sedimented layer upon layer, sometimes from small, sometimes from gaping lies, decade after decade, generation after generation to create a complex narrative that has taken hold of the minds and psyche of all those who are now turning the social wheel, who are commenting, who are taking decisions. In the newsroom, this includes top executives, correspondents, reporters, producers, and even the fresh researcher who may have just arrived on the scene. Each one of these is a universe unto itselfs. They have absorbed the narrative and are ready to spew it back to the world. They bounce off each other to confirm the details of the tale, all arranged in ready-made, easy-to-use molds. Their voices link to blend into a symphony that amplifies the status quo and elevates it to the ranks of collective wisdom.

At the last gathering of the group, I was challenged to put a percentage on the influence of top-down rulings compared with the prevalence of the long-held consensus. On careful reflection, I would say that, with some exceptions, it is the latter that is responsible, by a good 90 percent, for bending the narrative so out of shape.

Lucy Williamson repeats ten Israeli claims without verification, BBC, November 2023. Image Credit: Media Lens.

Social sciences have long insisted that “conformism” is the greatest moving force of all human endeavor. Humans just want to fit in with their environment. They care about this much more than they care about abstract notions of right and wrong, truth and falsehood, irrefutable evidence, or even intellectual hubris. People are more willing to play dumb than to stray outside the pack whether in their behavior or their thinking. They are happy to repeat what their peers have long deemed acceptable. It is the safest option.

But why am I saying this? This is not an attempt to draw a map of the human soul. I am saying this because these are the parameters that define the challenges we face today as we try to influence the discourse that has supported the enactment of such unspeakable atrocities.

The Guardian, following complaints, including those by the Centre for Media Monitoring, changed the image to a more appropriate one, October 15, 2023.

The unfortunate truth is that the newsroom where I work, in common with many others, is a sea of such human universes, happy to perpetuate their familiar and cozy realities. These people are not monsters. They are often good-hearted. Some of them are perfectly intelligent and perceptive. They can be concerned. They believe they understand. They want to do the right thing but are averse to breaking from the easy consensus that hangs in the air and that their instinct pushes them to stick to. Sometimes, even if they have a revolutionary urge inside them to break away, they do not know how. Everyone is caught up in the self-perpetuating template. When we consider this, some things become easier to grasp. A key insight is that, in most cases, there is not really “us and them,” at least not in the strict sense. There is “us,” and then there is the “world” as it has evolved. When we engage people, be it in daily life or in the press, with this understanding, we can facilitate more attentiveness. If we keep insisting that they belong to a different, hostile universe, all our opinions will be dead on arrival. To change the world, we need to act like we are part of it, like it belongs to us. Palestinians often struggle to place themselves in this position, but by tuning their inner satellite in this direction, many important outcomes can be achieved. It will make listeners feel that they are part of their universe. It will allow them to speak their mind much more freely and firmly. It will allow them to say: “If you do not know how to say it differently, let me do it.” For those working in the media, this is one of the most valuable things we can learn. We often indulge ourselves in criticism, suggesting that others should put it right, say the right things, and make the world turn in the direction we want rather than accept the difficult challenge of seizing the steering wheel.

Sebastian Payne claimed that pro-Palestine protestors have views that oppose “our values,” iNews, October 19, 2023.

Of course, I do not believe that this, in any way, summarizes all the challenges we face in turning public opinion in our favor. It is just one of the valuable lessons I have learned. At times, when I despair, like many of us, I wonder whether the whole enterprise of mainstream media is not a lost cause. I wonder whether a new sentient world will only emerge through new forms of media that speak to large segments of the young whose minds have not yet been hijacked by the old template. I wonder whether change will emerge when one generation passes, taking with it its phony ossified narratives that have long lost any connection to reality. But then the negative energy and the impasses created by an increasingly polarized world remind us that we have no choice but to work on all fronts. We just have to muster the patience.

We still must engage, to explain, to complain, even if the 17,000 complaints received by Ofcom (the UK’s communications regulator) about Julia Brewer Hartley’s jaw-dropping interview with Dr. Mustafa Barghouti on Talk TV have barely solicited a response. We just have to get better at it and understand that it is all cumulative. These days everyone is on social media. Write to reporters and editors to share your views, make a note of those who are particularly interested in Palestine, tag them when you have a story. Always put forward a well-argued intervention. Share facts, footage, and photos. Remember that venting is good among your friends, but it is the worst thing you can do when writing to the press. It just means that your message will land in the bin.

Most importantly remember that we now have many young and capable organizations that have experience of working with the media. A lot of them also run media training sessions. Learn from them. In Britain, we have The British Palestinian Committee, Makan, Britain Palestine Media Centre, and The Centre for Media Monitoring. The latter has recently published an important report analyzing British media bias in its coverage of Gaza. It is well worth a read as it provides lots of invaluable data, covers everything from deliberate omissions to false claims, and has vivid graphic visuals of language bias and recommendations. You can borrow from it to illustrate your points. Let’s moan less and do more. Gaza needs all the energy each one of us can bring to the table.

Blurbs and images are courtesy of the Centre for Media Monitoring report, “Media Bias: Gaza 2023–24.”

  • Leila Sansour is an acclaimed Palestinian British filmmaker best known for her two feature documentaries released across cinemas in the UK. She is currently working as a freelancer on Gaza coverage with ITV news. Early in her career, Leila worked as senior producer on Al Jazeera’s leading documentary series Encounter in Exile. She is the founder and executive director of Open Bethlehem and the creative director of Planet Bethlehem, an online museum space planned for launch in summer 2024.

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