Gordon Campbell on the skewed media coverage of Gaza

42675317a3fdd3969747Now that he’s back as Foreign Minister, maybe Winston Peters should start reading the MFAT website. If he did, Peters would find MFAT celebrating the 25th anniversary of how New Zealand alerted the rest of the world to the genocide developing in Rwanda. Quote:

New Zealand played an important role in trying to bring global attention to the atrocities taking place in Rwanda. Calling for the Council to recognise that genocide was being perpetrated… New Zealand used its presidency to call for action.

How times have changed. In 2023, the government (and media) is clutching its pearls because senior Labour MP Damien O’Connor has dared to suggest that Gaza’s civilian population – already subjected to 16 years of an illegal embargo and living under apartheid laws – and who are now being herded together and slaughtered indiscriminately amid the destruction of their homes, schools, mosques and hospitals, are the victims of what amounts to a genocide.

No, no, no, says Peters and the government he serves, that’s out of line. We all have to await a formal definition by the International Criminal Court before invoking that term. In so many ways, Peters seems to be wilfully ignorant of history. New Zealand didn’t wait for an ICC ruling on Rwanda, and it has patted itself on the back ever since for being so fearlessly pro-active. Why are we shying away from showing the same gumption when it comes to Gaza?

The ”resolution” Peters got through Parliament yesterday was a capitulation. It called for all parties in the Gaza conflict to “take urgent steps towards establishing a ceasefire.” To her credit, Helen Clark has called out these weasel words: “It’s not steps towards a ceasefire we need… We need a ceasefire.”

As Clark added, the statement didn’t “deplore the carnage, which is happening in Gaza right now. Not to mention in the resolution this level of destruction of a community, and the attempt to herd it into an area around the Rafah border, which is roughly the size of the Heathrow Airport complex – 2.2 million people. It is unconscionable not to mention this [in the resolution]” Clark concluded.

Predictably, most of the subsequent media coverage of O’Connor’s use of the “g” word has framed it as him being out of line, and as evidence of disunity in the Labour ranks. Little effort has been expended on exploring the evidence for the term “genocide” or in considering the lack of resolve in Parliament’s timid “resolution.”. Once again, the narrow parameters of permissible media discourse on Gaza has been exposed.

Info Wars

In every country in the developed world, the media has struggled to offer even-handed commentary on the atrocities committed by Hamas, and on the atrocities committed by Israel. How come? Obviously, Israel has a unique relationship with the United States, and many of the West’s media outlets are either owned by American corporations or rely on US networks for much of their footage and news analysis. Meaning: The skew to Israel is inbuilt, especially at the higher levels of editorial decision-making.

This isn’t a conspiracy theory. This week, the Australian online news service Crikey reported on the double standard whereby Aussie journalists are being warned by their editors not to sign open letters calling for better coverage of Gaza, lest that be seen as compromising their integrity and independence. In many cases, these warnings are coming from editors and journalists who, for years, have gone on junkets to Israel, Gaza and the West Bank paid for and organised by the Israeli government.

Crikey is compiling a running list of journalists and editors who have taken trips to the region that have been paid for in full or in part, by either Israeli or Palestinian official organisations. No similar concerns seem to exist here.

For obvious reasons, the Israelis have striven to convince the international media to (a) remain frozenly fixated on the horrors committed by Hamas on October 7 while (b) ignoring everything that happened before and (especially) since. To be clear: One does not exonerate the other; but equally, one does not condone the other.

In this country, a structure has become evident in the Gaza coverage. First off, there’s a preponderance of Israeli government/IDF spokespeople in the news bulletins. On a typical news day, the media will carry word of the latest IDF atrocity, then present audio of the IDF rationalisation for it, and subsequently… Someone else might get to describe the carnage on the ground.

The people providing that description will tend to be outsiders from the UN or Doctors Without Borders, or some other relief agency. Commonly, the Palestinian victims will appear only when in the throes of immense grief. The media’s interpretive framework for their suffering tends to be 95% Israeli.

It is also selectively Israeli. We’ve heard a lot in the past month from Benjamin Netanyahu’s mouthpiece and from the IDF spokesman. Perhaps I missed her (if she has ever been on RNZ,) but the celebrated Haaretz columnist Amira Hass is the only Jewish journalist I know of who has lived in Gaza, and now she lives in Ramallah on the West Bank. Hass and like-minded Jewish journalists (e.g. Gideon Levy) seem almost entirely absent from NZ media coverage.

Here’s her latest Haaretz article, in which Hass reports on the 2 million Gazans now being crammed into the southern half of Gaza, without food or water.

In addition to the contagious diseases that have been reported by medical officials – including respiratory infections, gastrointestinal ailments and skin diseases – there were reports last week that hepatitis A is spreading among some of the displaced people. This comes on top of the constant food shortage that particularly affects children and pregnant women, the shortage of medication for people with chronic diseases, and the difficulty in treating the tens of thousands of wounded in an ever-diminishing number of active hospitals – and without anaesthetics.

Hass went on to explain in detail how the space available for Gazans to find refuge from the IDF is quickly shrinking.

Before the war, the south’s three districts – Deir al-Balah, Khan Yunis and Rafah – held about 1 million people (out of about 2.2 million in all Gaza), with a density of 4,347 people per square kilometre. During the truce and after the displacement from eastern and northern Gaza, the population density could be estimated at about 11,000 people per square kilometre.

Now, the evacuation orders from the Khan Yunis region, and the…. ground invasion into this area – alongside or following bombardment from the air, sea and land – imply an intention to crowd around 2 million people into 110 square kilometres – 18,181 people per square kilometre. The water and power grids, the roads and the health care system – which even in quiet times fell short of the needs of around 1 million people and are hardly functioning now – will collapse under the strain of around 2 million people.

Given that so many civilians are being penned, bombed, shelled and fired upon in ever-shrinking parts of southern Gaza, the death toll is bound to sharply escalate. UNICEF has described the alleged “safe areas” in Gaza as “death traps.” The latest estimate is of 16,000 Palestinian civilian deaths, with 40 % of them being children. Can self defence be proportionate, if and when 6,000 children die as a result?

For the survivors, there is the pain of loss of family members, the denial of essential medicines, the targeting of medical staff and hospital facilities etc. etc. not to mention the unknown number of men, women and children who have died lingering deaths under the rubble.

If that suffering is unimaginable, the mindset behind the IDF actions often seems to be unspeakable. As Gideon Levy reported recently in Haaretz, there are senior IDF veterans widely regarded as moderates, such as Giora Eiland, former head of the military’s Operations and Planning Division, and head of the National Security Council. Yet Levy quotes Eiland as advocating the deliberate spreading of plague in southern Gaza as a potential IDF military tactic worthy of consideration:

“After all, severe epidemics in the southern Strip will bring victory closer and reduce fatalities among IDF soldiers,” he wrote this week in Yedioth Ahronoth. “One only has to wait for the daughters of Hamas’ leaders to contract the plague, and we’ve won.”

Reporting on it

Given the nature of the IDF campaign, it feels trifling to be complaining that Western media has chosen not to interrogate the Israeli narrative rigorously, or subject it to normal journalistic scrutiny. As contributors to the Columbia Journalism Review have noted, there has been a failure to recognise the asymmetry of the power in play. Hamas – for all of the evil deeds it has done in league with Islamic Jihad – has only a fraction of the military power being wielded by the IDF against Gaza’s captive civilians:

The ability to inflict massive violence, the ability to starve a society, to thirst a society, to completely bombard a society,” Amjad Iraqi—a senior editor at +972 Magazine, a left-leaning outlet based in Tel Aviv—said, “lies with one side, and not the other.”

Regardless of all these factors, the imbalance in the analytical commentary has been striking. Think about it. How many times have you heard a Gaza news update where a Palestinian analytical framework was the first port of call for RNZ? Almost all of the non-Israeli contributors are only being called upon to re-act, and to wring their hands about the latest fait accompli.

Following the BBC Model

Often, the BBC serves as the model for state broadcasting in this country. Last month, a group of BBC journalists wrote an anonymous 2,300 word letter to Al Jazeera, containing details of what they saw as a failure on the part of the BBC to provide adequate balance to the IDF version of events.

They cited a “double standard in how civilians are seen” when comparing the BBC editorial stance towards Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of civilian centres to the “unflinching” BBC reporting on similar alleged Russian war crimes in Ukraine. Here too, the forthright condemnation only 18 months ago by then-PM Jacinda Ardern of the atrocities being committed by Russia against civilians in Ukraine has been spectacularly absent from the mild government responses (by both Labour and National) to the atrocities being committed by the IDF in Gaza.

Reportedly, the BBC issued a directive that the words” atrocity” and “massacre” were to be reserved only for the actions of Hamas. Repeatedly, Israeli casualties and hostages get named and their families regularly get interviewed – while Palestinian victims go largely un-named, with their responses often being restricted to providing the emotional colour to news reports, via their howls of grief.

Also: If interviewed at all, Palestinian or human rights critics of Israel have first been called upon to condemn the Hamas attacks of October 7. However, Jewish spokespeople are not being asked by the BBC ( or by anyone else, including RNZ) to preface their comments with similar condemnations of the atrocities being committed by Israel against Palestinian civilians. Here again, is the classic example of the British media’s insistence on Palestinian penitence for Hamas. 

Overall, the BBC journalists alleged, the BBC has shown a reluctance to critically engage with Israeli claims. As a result of this deference to Israeli sensibilities, some obvious news angles (notably, regarding the Israeli exit strategy from Gaza) continue to be ignored. Such as: Are the Israelis engaged in an ethnic cleansing campaign to push all of those Palestinians out of Gaza and into Egypt and Jordan? Has the IDF indiscriminately flattened northern Gaza in order to create a permanent buffer zone? Does Israel intend to put the docile Palestinian Authority in charge of what’s left of Gaza, and would New Zealand support the planting of an Israeli puppet in that role? Can this be why the new NZ government wants to declare all of Hamas – including its political wing – as terrorists?

And so on. When, inevitably, Israel fails to totally destroy Hamas, Benjamin Netanyahu will blame the US (and US allies like New Zealand) for not allowing Israel to “finish the job.” Isn’t it worth RNZ asking some of its US contributors just how the Biden administration plans to avoid copping the blame for Israel’s patent lack of a credible end game for its offensive?

Footnote: Off the top of my head, here are a few Palestinian analysts that RNZ could be consulting as well – or instead of – the IDF/Israeli government. My apologies that, Tareq Baconi excepted, they’re mostly from an older generation. As mentioned, Jewish journalists like Amira Hass and Gideon Levy of Haaretz and Haggai Mattai, editor of 972 magazine, would also be worth contacting for comment.

  1. Tareq Baconi of the Palestinian think tank Al- Shabaka In mid October, Baconi was interviewed at length in the New Yorker about the future of the Palestinian political project. 
  2. Shibley Telhami, professor of politics at the University of Maryland, and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute
  3. Raja Shehadeh prominent writer, co-founder of the Palestinian human rights organisation Al-Haq. When I last interviewed him, he was living in Ramallah. Here’s a recent article that Shehadeh wrote for the Guardian.
  4. Hanan Ashrawi, former PLO spokesperson who resigned in 2020 in protest at the Palestinian Authority’s complicity with Israel in policing actions on the West Bank. Lives in Ramallah. Her Twitter (X) account can be accessed here.
  5. Motaz Azaiza, a young photographer-turned-journalist born and raised in the Deir al-Balah refugee camp in Gaza. On October 7, Motaz’s Instagram page only had 25,000 followers. Now, it has has over 13 million. His words would have to be translated. Probably contactable via the New Arab news outlet. 
  6. Amjad Iraqi, senior editor at 972 nagazine based in Haifa. Formerly a member of the al-Shabaka think tank.

Never Their Faces I’ll See

Boiled in Lead’s brief song was inspired by the First Gulf War, but depressingly, it seems to be eternally relevant: