Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Death, double standards and the battle for the moral high ground

Death, double standards and the battle for the moral high ground
By Gideon Rachman
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2006
Published: August 8 2006 03:00 | Last updated: August 8 2006 03:00

The war in Lebanon is being fought not just on the ground but in the media. Both sides complain passionately that they are the victim of double standards. Oddly enough, both sides are right.

The Arabs are right when they complain that Israeli deaths seem to count more to the western media than the deaths of Arabs. The Israelis are right when they complain that the world focuses relentlessly on casualties caused by Israeli military action, while virtually ignoring much bloodier conflicts elsewhere.

Many supporters of Israel would not, of course, accept the idea that there is any sort of bias towards Israel in the media. On the contrary, Tom Gross, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post, recently accused the BBC of conducting a "campaign to demonise Israel". Yet a recent independent report commissioned by the BBC does not bear out the idea of systematic bias against Israel. In fact, a quantitative analysis of BBC coverage concluded that Israeli spokesmen got more airtime than Palestinians and that "the death of an Israeli killed by the Palestinian side was more likely to be reported than the death of a Palestinian killed by the Israeli side". What is true of the "anti-Israeli" BBC is even more true of the American media.

Those who still doubt that the western media take Israeli deaths more seriously than Arab deaths might conduct a simple thought experiment. What would the west's reaction have been by now if there were credible reports that hundreds of Israeli children had been killed by Hizbollah; and if hundreds of thousands of Israelis had been turned into refugees?

The argument of anti-Israeli bias, however, rests on much more than counting minutes of airtime. Some say that by simply reporting deaths on both sides the media is guilty of "moral equivalence". There is a difference between Hizbollah and Hamas - who are deliberately targeting Israeli citizens - and an Israeli army that is responding to attacks and does its utmost to avoid civilian casualties.

However, the "moral equivalence" argument leads to some fairly contorted conclusions. The parents of a Lebanese child might find it hard to accept that their child's death was not "morally equivalent" to the death of an Israeli child. Even if outsiders accept that Israel deserves more latitude because it is a democracy fighting a ruthless enemy, that latitude is not infinite. It clearly begins to run out when civilian deaths on the Lebanese side of the conflict seem to be occurring at more than 20 times the rate of civilian deaths on the Israeli side.

The Israelis are on much more certain ground when they wonder aloud why the world is so outraged by the killings in Lebanon and Palestine - and yet so lackadaisical when it comes to bloodier conflicts elsewhere.

Since September 2000, roughly 4,200 Palestinians and 1,100 Israelis have been killed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, according to the United Nations, since 2003 more than 200,000 people have been killed in the Darfur region of Sudan - and more than 2m have been made refugees. The victims of the conflict are overwhelmingly Muslims. But - perhaps because they are being killed by other Muslims - most of the Arab media seems unconcerned. The UN has voted to send a peacekeeping force to Darfur. But so far nothing has happened.

Darfur is by no means the bloodiest conflict of recent years. The International Red Cross has estimated that almost 4m people have been killed in the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1998.

Perhaps it is just a tragic fact of life that deaths in Africa are almost discounted by the rest of the world. But there are bloody conflicts much closer to the western world that have also passed virtually unremarked compared with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Turkey is a member of Nato in good standing and is negotiating for membership of the European Union. But in the mid-1990s it waged a counterinsurgency campaign against the Kurdish insurgents of the PKK, in which hundreds of villages and hamlets were razed. According to Chris Morris, author of a recent (sympathetic) book* on modern Turkey, the overall death toll in the conflict was between 30,000 and 40,000 - at least two-thirds of the casualties were killed by the Turkish side and a great many were civilians. The Turks argue that the PKK was a brutal enemy, which is internationally recognised as a terrorist organisation. The Israelis could make the same point about Hizbollah.

So how does one account for these double double standards - that, on the one hand, count an Israeli life more highly than an Arab life but also weigh a death caused by the Israeli army much more heavily than one caused by the Turkish army or a Sudanese militia?

Partisans on both sides have their theories. The Arab lobby complains that the American media is controlled by Zionists; pro-Israelis sometimes retort that the European media is anti-Semitic. But the American and European coverage of the Middle East conflict - while different in tone - shares the same basic news values. Israeli suffering first; suffering caused by the Israelis second; suffering in obscure bits of the world such as Congo or Kurdistan almost nowhere.

Part of the explanation has to do with the openness of Israeli and Lebanese society. Ask reporters who were stationed in Turkey at the time of the Kurdish insurgency why the conflict did not receive more coverage and they will tell you that the Turkish authorities made it virtually impossible to report from Kurdistan.

Partly, it is to do with a European and American fear that they will suffer from the blowback of war in the Middle East. The Congolese and their neighbours can kill each other for years without anyone in London or New York feeling threatened.

Perhaps there is a final reason - what might be called "white man syndrome". Israel is an advanced, western society. The deaths of people there are likely to feel more immediate and more shocking to the citizens of similar societies. "Someone like me dies" is big news. But "someone like me kills" is also pretty big news. The Israelis are sometimes told that they are being "paid a compliment" because they are being held to the same standards as every other western democracy.

It is a compliment they could probably do without. But they had better get used to it, because it is not going to change.

* The New Turkey (Granta 2006)


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