Balance and Imbalance in the Media

In late April of this year an exhibition opened of photographs of Arab refugees who were displaced from their homes in Israel in 1948. Held at London’s Barbican Arts Centre, it consists of 16 black and white images taken by the photojournalist Alan Gignoux soon after Israel gained independence. However, even such an event, which I take to be relatively benign, has drawn the ire of London’s Jewish community. England’s Zionist Federation complained about the captions that were attached to the photographs in the exhibition, especially the fact that the captions stated that the Palestinians were “uprooted” and “dispossessed”. The Israeli embassy also complained, by stating that the language used in the exhibition did not reflect reality. This may seem like mere pedantry (surely most people can agree that the Palestinians were “uprooted” and “dispossessed” without agreeing as to who or what caused the dispossession), but on closer inspection it is a symptom of a malaise (not unique to the Jewish community of course, but lets stick to them for the moment) that any view, however benign, that is contrary to one’s own view must be “incomplete”, “misleading”, “unbalanced”, “born out of a culture of bias”, “out of context”, or “exaggerated”. All but one of these accusations are very easy to settle: by comparing the coverage of the media in regard to what and how they publish and not publish (this is important, you cannot judge whether the media is biased or not, for example, by only looking at what is in the media; you can only judge bias, etc., by looking at what is not in the media), and the merits of each accusation can thus be judged.

The accusation to which it is almost impossible to reply or redress, in my opinion, is that of “lack of balance”. The spokesperson for the Israeli embassy in England insisted that the Barbican Arts Centre “balance its activities”. Now, this may seem like a silly and naive question, but what does it mean for an organisation to “balance its activities”? The Barbican is holding London’s Palestinian Film Festival this year, which is the biggest event of its kind in Europe. There have been Israeli film festivals in London in the past, just not at the Barbican (though there is a Yiddish film festival planned for next year), nevertheless, a member of the Zionist Federation is irritated that “If the Barbican thinks a Yiddish film season in 2009 goes any way towards balancing four successive years of Palestinian film festivals, they are wrong. It is about as much balance as would be putting chicken soup and salt beef on their restaurant menu.” This strange, incessant and somewhat ridiculous call for universal “balance” is very common. For example, CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) is “a media-monitoring, research and membership organization devoted to promoting accurate and balanced coverage of Israel and the Middle East”; Honest Reporting, which states that “Israel is in the midst of a battle for public opinion – waged primarily via the media”, sees its task to be “To ensure Israel is represented fairly and accurately”, it “monitors the media, exposes cases of bias, promotes balance, and effects change through education and action”; AIJAC (Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council) complains about the SBS Codes of Practice by saying that “there is no requirement for balance or accuracy in documentaries, there is no requirement that reports include sufficient relevant facts to give a proper understanding of the issues, only errors of fact regarded by SBS as ‘significant’ need be corrected…”. (Apart from these, and other, pro-Israeli media watchdog groups, there are a number of pro-Palestinian media watchdog groups such as Arab Media Watch or Palestine Media Watch; click here for an extensive list of pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian groups.)

I am well aware that the call for balance is out of suspicion (at times justified, at times not) that Israel is being “demonised”, that a “double standard” is applied to Israel, that the circumstances in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict are somehow unique and thus must be treated on their own terms, etc. But these suspicions are subject to the facts. If an organisation states that Israel is being demonised by a certain television station or journalist or politician or whoever, first you have to show that that is the case. Assuming that you have proved your case (and there have been cases where this has occurred), don’t stop there, you have to ask why that television station (etc.) appears to be demonising Israel. Could it be something Israel did? When a crime is committed (whether it be a journalist or politician falsifying evidence, or an army commander targeting civilians), one of the first things that the relevant authorities (the police, the International Criminal Court , etc.) look for is a motive. Why did they commit the crime? And the same tactic should be used in regard to the accusations of “demonisation” etc. that are shown to be justified. Why would someone want to demonise Israel? Could it be something that Israeli did?

Calling for balance is superfluous and ridiculous if all it means is that the side of the one who calls for balance should also be heard. One must take an opinion contrary to one’s own seriously, debate its merits and question its motives and evidence. Doing otherwise is unhelpful and arrogant to say the least. As John Stuart Mill said in the mid 19th century in his book On Liberty: “If the [opposing] opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.”

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