Partisanship in the Guardian’s Middle East Coverage

The role of Brian Whitaker, Middle East editor and reporter for Guardian Unlimited and the Guardian newspaper

This is a cross-post from CAMERA of an article from 2006 that is as relevant then as it is today

In the early years of the Zionist movement, the longtime publisher of the Guardian, C.P. Scott, had a close relationship with Zionist Chaim Weizman, and the left leaning paper was considered highly sensitive to the plight of the Jews and their desire for a homeland. But after Israel’s victories in the 1967 war much of the Left turned against the Jewish state. As a media standard bearer for highbrow left of center politics in Britain, the Guardian followed suit becoming increasingly critical of Israel. In recent years, some have accused the Guardian of fueling hostility towards the Jewish state through its unbalanced reporting of events in the Middle East. The coverage by Brian Whitaker, who has served as the paper’s Middle East Editor since May 1999 and contributes articles for Guardian Unlimited, the internet edition of the Guardian, as well as the Guardian paper, is representative of the paper’s perspective.

Mr. Whitaker’s interest in the Arab world predates his joining the Guardian, as evidenced by the extensive Web site he created in February 1998 and still administers, that “aims to introduce non-Arabs to the Arabs and their culture” and “tries to celebrate the achievements of Arab culture and to discuss its failings openly.” The site originally contained a listing for Palestine, but not one for Israel, which Mr. Whitaker explained was because he only included members of the Arab League, although it now contains a listing ‘Palestine-Israel.’ When mentioning Israel, Mr. Whitaker’s Web site stated, “we follow the definition accepted by most of the international community and the PLO, i.e. the boundaries existing at the start of the 1967 war.”

Many of his articles on Israel appeared in the Internet edition of the Guardian, known as Guardian Unlimited. These articles reveal a skepticism about information provided by the Israeli government, and a suspicion of those who support the Israeli narrative of events. This contrasts with a habit of uncritically including comments that condemn Israel or paint a benign picture of Arab intentions. Whitaker is reflexively antagonistic towards Ariel Sharon, frequently ascribing base motives to the Israeli Prime Minister. He also disparages the Bush administration for what he calls its undeserved support of Israel and claims it is manipulated by ‘neo-conservatives.’ Critical of what he considers overly cautious and docile journalism that is too willing to accept the Israeli perspective, Whitaker’s approach has resulted in errors that are glaring in hindsight. Nevertheless his writings are representative of the Guardian’s approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Muhammad al-Dura
In “War of words in the Middle East (Guardian Unlimited, 10/05/2000),” written shortly after the young Palestinian boy Muhammad al-Dura was allegedly shot by Israeli soldiers, Whitaker informs readers that “covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a challenge for writers as words can cause political offence, and attempts to be fair can lead to inaccuracies.” Whitaker faults journalists for not being willing to ascribe blame. There is no doubt in Brian Whitaker’s mind that it was the Israelis who shot Muhammad al-Dura. And he knows exactly where to ascribe blame. Despite significant uncertainty over what actually occurred, Whitaker places the blame squarely on Israel, writing:

My first thought was that the killing of Mohammed should be required viewing for every American voter, so that they can see what their $3 billion-a-year aid to Israel pays for.

It is now clear that Mohammed was shot by the Israelis, probably deliberately (and anyone who still doubts that should read the detailed article, Making of a martyr, by my colleague, Suzanne Goldenberg. But on Saturday, as the British Sunday papers went to press, the facts were still unclear. )

He concludes the article with a comment about Ariel Sharon’s “antics,” writing, “in 1953 he had founded the notorious Unit 101 commando group which had killed 69 civilians, mostly women and children, ‘by accident’ at Qibya in Jordan,” implying that both the killing of Muhammad al-Dura and the Qibya incident were intentional.

Though questions about the incendiary story of the alleged Israeli killing of al-Dura quickly arose, Whitaker repeated his unfounded charge that Israel “probably deliberately” shot the boy. As recently as August 2003, Whitaker wrote in the Guardian Unlimited that Israel shot Muhammad al-Dura. Nor has he reported on several recent investigations by American and European journalists showing Israelis could not have shot the boy, who almost certainly was killed by Palestinian gunfire. There is some evidence to suggest the whole incident was staged. Mr. Whitaker has missed the real story.

In another Guardian Unlimited article, “Battle for Truth in Jenin,” (04/23/02) written after serious doubts surfaced about the allegations of a massacre in Jenin by Israeli troops earlier that month, he justifies charges against Israel even while admitting that the allegations may be untrue:

Most people would know a massacre if they saw one. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, ‘massacre’ is a noun meaning ‘general slaughter, carnage; utter defeat and destruction’ or a verb meaning to “murder cruelly or violently a number of persons”. The Israeli government objects to the word ‘massacre’ being used to describe what happened in Jenin refugee camp earlier this month.

“Only” 40 or so Palestinians were killed, it says, and they were all terrorists. There are good reasons for believing both these Israeli claims to be false but, even if they were true, the nature of the act is no less important than its scale.

In fact the United Nations investigation would conclude that no massacre had occurred and put the number of Palestinian killed at 52, not the 500 claimed by the Palestinian authority. A majority were armed militants.

Implicitly accepting allegations of Israeli war crimes, Whitaker reports, “It goes almost without saying that the longer the delay the less evidence of any war crimes there will be.” He goes so far as to comment that the preliminary evidence suggests a comparison to what Slobodan Milosevic did in the Balkans. Whitaker’s utter lack of balance is clearly in evidence here. In the Balkans, tens of thousands of unarmed civilians were slaughtered. In Jenin, the United Nations, Israel and a consensus among human rights organizations concluded that approximately 52 Palestinians perished, the majority of whom were armed fighters.

Unsatisfied by Israel’s acceptance of a UN fact finding mission regarding events in Jenin, Mr. Whitaker disparages the United Nations involvement, claiming it was being sabotaged by the United States and Israel. He describes the UN effort to develop accurate information through a fact-finding team as a “way to fend off demands for serious action.” Apparently, if the facts don’t fit Whitaker’s pre-conceived notions, he simply disregards them.

He concludes the article with characteristic cynicism regarding Israeli motives, writing:

Israel may find it impossible to stop the full enormity of what happened from leaking out… There are also plenty of Israeli soldiers who know what happened and may in time be tugged by their consciences to speak out.

The Israeli government, meanwhile, insists that it has nothing to hide. If that is the case, then why try to prevent the world from discovering its innocence? Obstructing investigations, as the lawyers say, is evidence of a guilty mind.

Curiously, an article appearing in the Guardian newspaper co-written by Chris McGreal and Brian Whitaker that same day did not include the cynical editorializing cited above although it still carried the unsubstantiated accusations made by officials from various agencies. Allegations implying an Israeli massacre by a forensic ‘expert’ were reported in at least three separate articles by Whitaker despite widespread skepticism that such a massacre had occurred.

Karine A
In “The strange affair of Karine A” (1/21/02) , Whitaker writes that “Israel’s official account of the Palestinian Authority’s connections with a ship found loaded with weapons makes little sense.” He boasts about not being invited to attend a briefing by the Israeli embassy because they disliked his previous reporting on the affair in which he implied the Israeli seizure should have been regarded as “piracy” except for the excuse of the war on terrorism. Whitaker devotes the rest of the article to casting doubt on the Israeli account, which . At one point, Whitaker asks, “Would the Palestinian Authority really be so stupid as to imagine that it could successfully import the weapons in this way?” It turns out that apparently they were. (As one U.S. State Department official  put it, “there is quite a bit of compelling evidence that figures Fatah and the Palestinian Authority were involved in this shipment.”)

Even in the case of an event such as the Palestinians importing massive amounts of weaponry, an act clearly contrary to peace, Whitaker points the accusatory finger at Israel. He charges the “Karine A affair provides an excuse for Mr. Sharon to obstruct moves towards a resumption of the peace process,” suggesting that the Israelis will manipulate the events to pursue goals that will not contribute to peace and stability. He concludes: “But you can be sure that Israeli embassies around the world will be working hard to promote them [goals] at select gatherings of diplomats and journalists.”

Though Mr. Whitaker’s writing betrays a striking lack of neutrality, this does not prevent him from sharply criticizing others for alleged partisanship towards Israel. In an article in the Guardian Unlimited on August 12, 2002, titled “Selective Memri” he attempts to discredit the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), an organization upon which many Western news sources rely for translations of sermons, television broadcasts and newspaper articles in the Arab media. While admitting he is unaware of anyone who disputes the accuracy of MEMRI’s translations, Mr. Whitaker nevertheless dismisses MEMRI as biased, asserting that “the stories selected by Memri for translation follow a familiar pattern: either they reflect badly on the character of Arabs or they in some way further the political agenda of Israel…”

To support his assertion of MEMRI’s bias, Whitaker cites a story by Iraqi doctor Adil Awadh, that claims “Saddam Hussein had personally given orders to amputate the ears of military deserters.” In a Guardian (8/8/2002) and Guardian Unlimited (8/12/02) story, he suggests Mr. Awadh’s story should be viewed with skepticism.

It was the sort of tale about Iraqi brutality that newspapers would happily reprint without checking, especially in the current atmosphere of war fever. It may well be true, but it needs to be treated with a little circumspection,

he wrote. The paper was forced to issue a correction, indicating Dr. Awadh had no connection with MEMRI and that his reference to orders by Saddam Hussein to cut off the ears of deserters was supported by evidence from other sources.

Dismissive of MEMRI’s publicizing of articles which appeared in the Saudi controlled press that accused Jews of using the blood of Christian and Muslim children in pastries, Whitaker describes them as “propaganda successes … scored against Saudi Arabia.” Charging that MEMRI was impugning the Saudi government, he wrote, “But Memri claimed al-Riyadh was a Saudi ‘government newspaper’ – in fact it’s privately owned – implying that the article had some form of official approval.”

Yigal Carmon, co-founder of MEMRI responded on 8/21/02 (Media organisation rebuts accusations of selective journalism ) noting “[Al-Riyadh] is a paper which, contrary to Whitaker’s statement, is identified as government-controlled by the Saudi government’s website, by the BBC and by news agencies such as Associated Press.” Carmon also noted that despite Whitaker’s dismissal of the articles as trifles of Arab ignorance, the stories were repeated in the “major Egyptian government daily Al-Ahram whose government-appointed editor-in-chief was facing prosecution in France for incitement to anti-semitism and racial violence.”

Whitaker betrays a conspiratorial view of Israeli and American policy in the Middle East and a penchant for innuendo. In the same article about MEMRI, he writes:

These incidents involving Saudi Arabia should not be viewed in isolation. They are part of building a case against the kingdom and persuading the United States to treat it as an enemy, rather than an ally. It’s a campaign that the Israeli government and American neo-conservatives have been pushing since early this year….

He describes MEMRI as a “mysterious” organization staffed by Israeli intelligence officials. In his response, Carmon debunks these accusations and discusses the projects in which his institute is openly engaged:

a variety of projects, apart from translating material into most European languages and Turkish: an economic project, headed by a former World Bank expert, an Arab anti-semitism documentation project, studies of school books from Arab educational systems, monitoring Friday sermons in the Arab world.

Whitaker’s research also ‘reveals’ that Memri co-founder, Meyrav Wurmser, is also director of the center for Middle East policy at the Hudson Institute and notes that the “ubiquitous Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon’s defence policy board, recently joined Hudson’s board of trustees.”

Not surprisingly, Whitaker does not see MEMRI’s translation service as a way of breaking down the language barrier. Rather, he suggests it exploits that barrier:

All it takes is a small but active group of Israelis to exploit that [langauge] barrier for their own ends and start changing western perceptions of Arabs for the worse.

Again, acting as a partisan, he urges Arabs to counter MEMRI by setting up a similar organization and castigates them because they “prefer to sit back and grumble about the machinations of Israeli intelligence veterans.”

Unfazed by his paper’s having to correct false assertions about MEMRI, Whitaker refered to the topic in “Language Matters,” on 9/28/2005 where he again impugns the organization:

Though Memri claims to be “independent”, its founders were Yigal Carmon, a former colonel in Israeli military intelligence – who is currently its director – and Meyrav Wurmser, an ardent Zionist…

Whitaker’s Wording
Terminology is very important to Whitaker. In an article billed “Brian Whitaker on the dangers of sloppy journalism (4/9/2001),” he discusses how language should be used to describe the conflict. He complains that journalists describe the West Bank as disputed or administrated by Israel when it should be described as occupied.

The Jewish settlements, according to Whitaker, are illegal and should always be labeled as such. He also accuses journalists of being

rather timid on the question of Jewish settlers, usually portraying them as a target of violence but more rarely as one of the major causes (which they plainly are). Some of the recent stories about the killing of a 10-month-old Jewish baby, Shalhevet Pass, in Hebron made clear that the settlers there are a tiny and particularly fanatical bunch – though many did not.

Contrast this with the description of armed Islamic Jihad and Hamas members that appeared in several Guardian articles as “armed activists.” For example, the headline of a dispatch on September 30, 2005 reads, “Palestinian elections marred as Israel kills three more activists..” The article begins by describing how “Israel killed three armed Islamic activists as it continued a week-long assault against Hamas.”

Whitaker’s bias is evident again in his inverted commentary on the issue of reporting cause and effect. He alleges reporters describe Israeli military actions as a response even when, he claims, the Israelis struck first.

Response is a very useful word. It provides a ready-made reason for the Israelis’ actions and neatly brushes off demands for further explanation…

Portraying the conflict as a series of Palestinian actions and Israeli responses is dangerous, for several reasons.

Firstly, it lends support to the Israeli argument that if only the Palestinians would stop their violence everything would be fine…

Secondly, it builds up – through constant repetition – into a misleading picture of the overall conflict. The violence is not a series of discrete actions and reactions but a cycle (or spiral) in which actions on both sides feed off those on the other.

Thirdly, while Israeli actions are reported as a self-justifying ‘response’, actions by the Palestinians are rarely allowed either a proper context or an understandable motive…

Whitaker gets to his real point, stating:

The Israeli occupation lies at the root of the conflict – and yet, more often than not, journalists fail to remind their readers of it.

Reports on an October, 2005 Palestinian suicide bombing and Israeli response underscores how Mr. Whitaker’s skewed perspective is applied in the Guardian’s Middle East coverage. In “Suicide bomber kills five in market attack: Blast is reprisal for death of West Bank militant: Sharon accused of playing into hands of extremists(10/27/05),” Chris McGreal and Conal Urquhart report:

A Palestinian suicide bomber killed five Israelis in a busy coastal market yesterday in retaliation for the army’s killing of Islamic Jihad’s military commander in the West Bank earlier this week.

In fact, the suicide terrorist attack in Netanya, like all such bombings, entail extensive pre-planning and are not launched overnight. That report was followed up by an article on the Israeli response in “Gaza strip: Palestinians say Israel agrees to cease-fire (10/31/05).” Conal Urquhart writes:

Palestinian officials said yesterday that agreement had been reached with Israel to cease hostilities in the Gaza Strip. The agreement, which was not immediately confirmed by Israel, could end a cycle of violence which began with the killing of Palestinian militants in the West Bank last week. On Wednesday a suicide bomber killed five people in an Israeli market and Israel retaliated with attacks in Gaza which killed at least nine militants and civilians.

The article suggests that the “cycle of violence” began with an Israeli action but in fact, six days prior to that, Palestinian terrorists had killed three Israelis in a drive-by shooting. Furthermore, the killing of the militants cited in the article was a result of a gun battle that erupted when Israelis attempted to arrest the two terrorists.

Assailing Sharon
While Whitaker can at times be critical of Arab leaders, he is also flattering towards some of the most regressive regimes. Reflecting the well-known Arabist sentiment of the British foreign office, in an article he co-wrote with David Hirst and Martin Bright, entitled “After Assad” (6/11/2000), the reporters quote British foreign minister Peter Hain describing Bashar Assad as:

worldly-wise, open to ideas and very impressive… He has… the vision to allow Syria to make a historic leap forward to becoming a modern Arab nation. I believe he is absolutely committed to the peace process. Building on the courageous steps his father took, he’s the sort of person who could break the ice with Israel and cut a deal…Bashar is unpretentious, western-educated, modern and forward-looking.

At the accession of King Abdullah in Saudi Arabia, he is described by Whitaker in “A traditionalist who watches 33 TVs at once (August 2, 2005)” as a “straight-forward, down-to-earth and pious man.”

But as for the newly elected Prime Minister of the Middle East’s only true democracy, Ariel Sharon, Whitaker’s hostility is overt, He writes:

Whatever else Ehud Barak failed to achieve during his beleaguered 21-month stint as Israeli prime minister, he has, through his departure, succeeded in handing Ariel Sharon a poisoned chalice. One can scarcely imagine a more suitable person to drink it. (“Sharon has a mountain to climb,” 2/7/2001 )

Whitaker also described Sharon as “the most effective recruiting officer that Bin Laden ever had.” He writes that Sharon is portrayed as “gritting his teeth while Powell praises him for the qualities that Sharon most abhors – such as restraint.” In one of many ‘cease-fires’, Whitaker suggests that while many “hope that the cease-fire will succeed, there are also substantial numbers who would prefer it to fail – and Ariel Sharon may be one of them (Israel drives hard bargain for peace 6/11/01).” He informs readers that Sharon’s “worst nightmare” is being dragged to the negotiating table.

Whitaker accused Sharon in an article on 1/28/2002 of undermining Arafat to ensure that Hamas gained ascendancy so as to avoid ever having to negotiate. A more obvious explanation for Sharon’s refusal to deal with Arafat was his belief that Arafat could not be trusted to carry out his part.

In another instance of maligning Sharon wherever possible, Whitaker reports on the assassination of Eli Hobeika, the Lebanese Phalangist leader directly responsible for the Sabra and Shatila massacre. “Sharon case ‘strong’ despite assassination, (1/26/02).” He focuses on a possible motive being to stop Hobeika from testifying against Sharon during proceedings to indict the Prime Minister of Israel over his own alleged role in the 1982 events but skirts the issue of Hobeika’s involvement with Syria.

Brian Whitaker’s role as Middle East Editor at the influential Guardian obviously helps shape the skewed picture of the Arab-Israeli conflict provided by the paper. This failure to provide balanced coverage does a disservice to the Guardian readership and more generally to those who believe that an understanding of events, unencumbered by distortion and partisanship, is essential to defining realistic steps towards resolving the conflict.

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