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Last Updated: Tuesday, 22 June, 2004, 15:34 GMT 16:34 UK
Palestine issue confuses Britons
By James Read
BBC London

Palestinian woman
Role reversal: Palestinians seen as occupiers
An academic study suggests that TV news coverage in the UK on the Middle East conflict confuses viewers and features a preponderance of Israeli views.

So much so, that many viewers think Israeli territory is occupied by Palestinians, not the other way round.

And despite extensive media coverage of the conflict on television, some Britons believe Palestinians are refugees from Afghanistan.

The findings come in a study of BBC and ITV news by Glasgow University.

The report - Bad News from Israel - says TV news coverage makes it impossible to have a sensible public debate about how international issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be resolved.

Journalists 'nervous'

The bitter conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians receives hundreds of hours of coverage on British television news programmes.

But when the Glasgow media group asked a sample of 300 young people what they knew about it, the response was quite shocking.

Although many of those surveyed had a clear impression of the violence and tragedy involved, most had little understanding of the reasons for the conflict or its historic origins.

It may well be that we should be going back over the causes more, and we should be presenting things.
John Simpson
BBC journalist
The author of the report, Greg Philo, believes there are two main reasons why viewers do not get the background explanation they need.

"First thing is that there is a focus on violence and eye-catching images. And the second thing is that it's all so controversial."

The report says the main shortcomings include:

  • Preponderance of official Israeli perspectives
  • Origins of the conflict overlooked
  • Israeli actions contextualised but not Palestinian actions
  • Emphasis on Israeli casualties

Mr Philo says there is tremendous argument as soon as one starts to raise these kinds of arguments.

"Journalists say to us that they are nervous of raising these kinds of arguments, because they get so much abuse," he says.

"They get hate mail, they get all kinds of people attacking them for being Nazis or anti-Semitic or whatever else."

Need for context

So are Britain's television new programmes letting down their audience by failing to put the daily images of Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli air strikes in context?

John Simpson - the BBC's world affairs editor and one of Britain's best known television news journalists - says a balance needs to be struck between focusing on new developments and constantly reprising history.

Israeli soldiers inspect arms smuggling tunnel in house in Rafah
Only context may put things in perspective
"The fact is, if you're reporting on the news, you're reporting on what is new. And alas, there is nothing new in the basic situation between the Palestinians and the Israelis," Mr Simpson says.

But the veteran journalist acknowledges that maybe "we should be going back over the causes more, and we should be presenting things".

"I don't think that's in a daily news context - I think that's much more in a sort of background reporting, or background documentaries."

However, longer-format documentaries are on the decline in British television, partly because the audiences they get are so small.

Greg Philo says that 80% of the British population depend overwhelmingly on television news programmes for their understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

But until they are given more context, he believes, they will remain ignorant of the realities of the conflict.

Your comments

And we accuse Americans of not being able to see past the end of their own noses?
Alangir, London
And we accuse Americans of not being able to see past the end of their own noses?
Alangir, London

I think [John] Simpson is right, the British media should rethink the way they present news. The "breaking news" must always be accompanied by the background of the problem.
Mohammad Ali Asif Khan, Rawalpindi, Pakistan

I feel the confusion may be blamed on the lack of emphasis given to the pre-1948 context of Palestine in our schools. Could this be due to an evasion of one of our more shameful chapters in history when Palestine was administered by the British? I also think that people should be enlightened by the solid and very strong cultural heritage of the Palestinian people before the state of Israel was created. I write this in the company of a friend of mine whose family lost an entire estate now occupied by Lid Airport.
Jonathan, Amman, Jordan

I am 14-years-old, and my school recognised this problem. So, what they did was revolutionize the history class and make it current events. We were given opportunities to debate and it was imperative that we followed the news. At the end of the year, almost all students (certainly those who were interested) knew and could understand current affairs. Now, we can all have discussions with adults about the news, so this problem is not a universal one. This may be the solution, to start learning it in school.
Omar Chehabi, London, UK

I'm appalled that so many young people don't know the origins of the conflict. Tonight I'm going home to ask my two teenagers if they know the background. If they don't, then a short history lesson will be given. It's my responsibility as a parent to ensure my children know both sides of an argument, and my fault if they don't.
Julie Exeter, Cumbernauld, Scotland

Here in Canada people of all ages are more interested in hockey players, pop singers and music, they know about them all in an amazing detail. Some young people I spoke to did not even know where is Iraq on the map, never heard of the Palestinian history and problem. When I worked for Middle East Airlines in Beirut, I used to receive mail: John Marina, Middle East Airlines, Beirut, Lebanon, Israel. This is amazing corporation-level ignorance, so do not blame the new generation.
John Marina, Montreal, Canada

The media has a responsibility to explain the background on controversial issues. Hate mail or not, it's about trust and truth. Eventually, after teenagers turn into adults, they figure the issues out for themselves, and then blame the media for "deception." In the USA, most people think the media is even less trustworthy than their politicians - that's got to hurt!
Hardy Rang, Somerville, NJ USA

I think delving into history for context is problematic if trying to simplify the conflict for the average non-partisan member of the public. The best possible role the media could play would be to seek out and give voice to the moderates and allow a true dialogue of peace.
Jason Pearlman, London, UK

I think that the history is the missing aspect in all coverages today. This results in the people being susceptible to 15 seconds television sound bites and they totally misread the reasons for the problems, especially in Middle East. Maybe the BBC would do the Britons (the young ones) and the world a favour if they reprinted or rebroadcast the history of the conflict from the ancient times.
Rakesh Jain, Edison, USA

I am shocked that many young people do not know of the atrocities taking place around the world every day
Suhail Mahmood, London, UK
Myself and my peers (Muslims, Jews, Christians and Hindus) often have debates concerning the Israeli/Palestinian and other conflicts and issues around the world, at school. I am shocked that many young people do not know of the atrocities taking place around the world every day.
Suhail Mahmood, London, UK

I think the classroom (through civics lessons) would be the best venue to educate young Britons on the reasons behind one of the most dangerous and unresolved crises in the world, i.e. the Palestinian question.
Wilfred Elimu

I totally agree with this story. Most people will see violence in a news story and say "violence is bad." And rightfully so. However, not many will ask "why is this violence happening?" Sometimes the why and how of a story are more important than the story itself and explain a great deal. We need to educate ourselves about the background of a news story before we can form any logical opinion.
Paul Serwinski, New Britain, CT, USA

The confusion most people have on the issues in the Middle East is an indicator of too much media focus on the violence. The aim of terrorists in part is to secure publicity for their aims, and the news media supply that for them all too liberally.
Gary D. Watson, Jacksonville, FL USA

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