A guest post by Joe Geary
Guess what this is?
Did you get it? Well done, yes, it’s the Middle East as represented by large segments of the media, including the Guardian and BBC.
Well actually no. It’s Mona Lisa’s nose. But you get the picture, or rather, you don’t. You just get a tiny part of it.
There is a basic principle in the fields of semiotics and sociolinguistics, known as “framing”. It is well-known that the way a story is framed will influence how it is received by an audience. It is equally uncontroversial that framings are not natural and preordained, that whoever is telling the story has a choice of various framings and the choice that is taken gives a significant insight into how we should evaluate both the story and the storyteller.
Returning to the original analogy, the problem with the Guardian-BBC coverage of the Middle East is that we don’t get a frame at all. We don’t even get much of the painting.
They make a conscious choice to remove as much context as possible to depict the Israel-Palestinian relationship, firstly, as entirely conflictual. Whenever do we hear of the many collaborative projects, or the Israeli aid work in the Territories or the health care available to Palestinians in Israeli hospitals? Secondly it is projected as the greatest conceivable imbalance. One side has all the power imaginable, the other side is utterly disempowered.
And thirdly, it is simplistically but seductively presented as white hat versus black hat, or rather, white race against black, or at least brown. The Israelis are depicted as Westerners and so metaphorically white (what a mutation – from swarthy Semites to Nordic Aryans in just two generations). Meanwhile the Palestinians, being Arabs, must be metaphorically a “brown” people. And so we are left with an ugly narrative of racial supremacism, provoking a delicious frisson of outrage among viewers and readers.
Finally, the relationship is stripped of all historical context. Cruel Goliath just woke up one day and decided to occupy and oppress his poor downtrodden neighbour. First of all, to steal his land and then, who knows, to drive him out completely. In this framing the Palestinian “cause” is quite simply freedom and any means of throwing off the oppressor’s yoke is justified, even the most violent.
But let’s try looking at the whole painting in its regional context. The Guardian-BBC could frame this Middle East conflict as that of a tiny country which has had to fight for its survival in three wars of aggression and has been subjected to 65 years of ferocious terrorism, but which miraculously continues to flourish as a democracy with full respect for the rule of law – and all this in a region brimming with violence, tyranny and hate. In this framing, we would require an exchange of hats. Israel is engaged in defensive resistance against enemies who wish to destroy her simply because she is different; she is democratic – dangerously contagious – she is modern and above all she is not Arab-Muslim. In this framing it is no longer clear quite who is the Goliath but it’s quite clear who is the bully and who the victim. And in an Arab Middle East where not only Jews but also the Kurds and Christians are all persecuted victims of Arab-Muslim rejectionism of the “other”, it becomes clear that it isn’t Israel who should be in the UN dock for apartheid racism.
Or we might try a third framing. The Palestinians and their cause are stoked and stroked and embraced by the big power players in the region, Iran, Syria, Turkey and the Gulf States, for the most cynical of self-serving reasons. Firstly, to bolster their soft-power prestige in the Arab world, and secondly to distract the internal populations from the humiliations they suffer at the hands of their rulers. The real Middle-Eastern conflict, as is now becoming clear, is between Shia-dominated Iran, plus its Syrian puppet, and the rest of the Sunni-dominated Arab world. The Palestinians are a very useful pawn in this game. And note that this support is never for a reasonable negotiated peace with Israel. Instead the Palestinians are spurred on to seek some improbable military victory in which Israel is brought to its knees or, better still, every last Jew is driven from the Middle East. Make no mistake, both Sunnis and Shias are happy to fight Israel to the last drop of Palestinian blood and the last thing they want to see is peace. This is a rather different Palestinian “cause” from the one sold daily by the BBC and Guardian.
But wait. I’m being unfair. We do sometimes see this:
What’s this? Why yes it’s the Jewish lobby. The only part of the frame we’re regularly shown. How often are we told that US support for Israel is the result solely of the shadowy but immense power of US Jews and their piles of gold? It couldn’t possibly be that Israel is a democracy under the rule of law and that not supporting Israel would be a dereliction of every value the US professes to believe in. No, perish that thought.
And why do we never see this?
Well done again. Yes, it’s the Arab lobby. The Saudi, the Qatari, the Emirates lobbies – now there is serious money – who not only work Washington lavishly and spend billions on US arms, but bribe media outlets with advertising income and fund universities throughout the West (the Gaddafi Foundation, remember that?) so that ubiquitous “Middle-Eastern studies” are properly pro-Arab and anti-Israel.
One last word on the land-stealing Goliath meme so popular with the BBC and Guardian. As so often documented on this blog, the vast majority of those evil settlements, aka “the obstacle to peace”, are actually built on land which in any reasonable future agreement would be part of land swaps and end up as part of Israel.
So, Guardian, BBC, in the future let’s see the whole picture in a proper frame. She’s famous for her enigmatic smile.
It’s probably because she “nose” what you two deliberate simpletons are up to.
If this pun is too horrible then:
It’s probably because she’s sussed what you two deliberate simpletons are up to.
(Joe Geary is an Anglo-Irish author and academic and occasional contributor to the CiF Watch and BBC Watch blogs. With a professional background in sociolionguistics and political science and a special interest in the language of prejudice, he writes about the increasing demonization of Israel in parts of the mainstream British media.)