At a debate in London earlier this year to discuss media coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the arguments on both sides were predictable. The Palestinian speaker accused the media of being "biased, self-serving and a disgrace to the profession"; the Israeli participant denounced British journalists for being irredeemably hostile to Israel, if not outright anti-Semitic. Journalists working in the Holy Land have long become used to describing parallel worlds where every event has at least two narratives which are simultaneously contradictory and true. Two recent books step into the maelstrom of accusation and counter-accusation to look at how the media cover the Middle East conflict, including the two institutions that most infuriate Israel's supporters - the Guardian and the BBC.
In Disenchantment, Daphna Baram, a left-wing Israeli journalist, describes how the love affair between early Zionists and the then Manchester Guardian has turned to bitterness in recent years. Bad News From Israel, by Greg Philo and Mike Berry of the Glasgow University Media Group, concludes that the BBC and ITV in fact favour Israel by subtly adopting much of its language and perspective.
Of the two books, Baram's is the more interesting and readable. In these days of "e-mail bombs", when Guardian jour-nalists are routinely hit by several hundred outraged messages from pro-Israeli supporters each day, it is easy to forget the central role played by the Manchester Guardian in establishing the state of Israel. The paper's revered former editor Charles Prestwich Scott used his considerable influence to push the Zionist cause in Whitehall. Scott opened the doors of cabinet ministers' offices for Chaim Weizmann, the chemist who became Israel's first president, helping to secure the Balfour Declaration of November 1917. In effect a birth certificate for Israel, this promised a "national home" for the Jews in Palestine during the carve-up of the Ottoman empire, after its defeat in the First World War.
Scott had earlier opposed the Boer war as an imperial outrage, yet now he threw his support behind the Jewish colonisation of Palestine. His editorials dismissed the indigenous Arab population as "small and at a low stage of civilisation". During the Arab revolt of 1936-39, the Manchester Guardian demanded that firm action be taken by British troops, stating: "The terrorist campaign must be ended." And in 1968 - the year after Israel's stunning victory in the Six-Day War that increased its territories fourfold - the Guardian refused to run an article describing Israel's deliberate postwar demolition of three West Bank villages.
The paper's change of attitude coincided with the rise of Palestinian radicalism and violence in the 1970s. It now argued that Palestinians should have "their home", and urged Israel to talk to the Palestine Liberation Organisation. Baram takes us through the vicissitudes of the paper's coverage, and includes good vignettes. However, her book loses steam towards the end, when she mechanically strings together quotations from current Guar-dian journalists about the dilemmas they face in covering the intifada.
In contrast with Baram's historical sweep, Philo and Berry take a microscope to the words, images, assumptions and omissions of British television news. By examining television coverage of critical moments in the intifada - and analysing what the audience actually understands - they make a case that most television news favours the Israeli viewpoint. They deride the inanity of modern TV and its obsession with violent images to the detriment of context, pointing out the astonishing ignorance of British viewers (two-thirds of whom do not know that it is Israel which is occupying the occupied territories). They highlight the subtly manipulative ways in which broadcasters use language. Should Israeli military actions always be described as a "reaction" to Palestinian deeds?
Yet there is much about Bad News From Israel that is flawed. Like the TV news that they criticise, Philo and Berry are guilty of errors of fact and selectivity, and of adopting one narrative - that of the Palestinians - over the other. On page after page, they compare television coverage to reports in the Guardian and the work of the historian Avi Shlaim: respectable sources, certainly, but hardly unchallenged arbiters of truth. Moreover, Philo and Berry have chosen the bulletins of BBC1 and ITV because these are the most popular. Yet by definition, that also means they are to a certain extent "dumbed down". In the end, there is much more history to the conflict than can be squeezed into a TV news bulletin a minute and a half long, or even into an hour-and-a-half-long documentary - a point Philo and Berry in effect concede by dedicating the first third of the book to a mediocre historical summary.
Every journalist must select facts and historical context. In the long chicken-and-egg story of the Holy Land, journalists have to choose a starting point for their stories. Depending on what that is, we favour one side or the other. Inevitably, we get a lot of eggs thrown at us - often deservedly so, but all too often not.
Anton La Guardia, diplomatic editor of the Daily Telegraph, is the author of Holy Land, Unholy War: Israelis and Palestinians (John Murray)