How do you present a “balanced” picture of genocide? Trainee journalists should think seriously about this question. Their future career will probably depend on it. You must be impartial and allow every point of view to be represented. So make sure you interview the major pro-genocide voices. Let them calmly explain why it’s good to kill oppressed civilians and steal their land. After all, you wouldn’t want your audience to think you’re biased against mass murder.
Moments like this prove that journalistic objectivity is a myth. It’s not just the right-wing corporate media, whose pro-genocide bias is completely expected and unsurprising. The same private outlets that celebrate the torture of refugees and made a superstar out of serial killer Ben Roberts-Smith are behaving exactly as expected.
But the outlets that claim to be superior—like our “public” broadcaster, the ABC, and the authoritative liberal outlets—are not fundamentally different. In fact, their anti-Palestinian bias is so extreme that ABC journalists themselves have just had a mini-uprising about it, as they are made into sometimes unwilling accomplices in a genocide’s propaganda campaign.
The more extreme methods of the right-wing media can show us how the system works. When the Israeli military bombarded the Jabalia refugee camp in Gaza, the Australian celebrated with the headline: “Israeli airstrike takes out Hamas chief hiding under refugee camp”. The article, quoting IDF sources with no confirmation, made sure also to provide justification for Israeli bombings of Gaza’s hospitals.
The Daily Telegraph’s headline forgot to mention that any Palestinians had died in Jabalia at all, only one “top terrorist”. But it did make sure to question whether the place was even a refugee camp: “Top Hamas terrorist killed in ‘refugee camp’ as 11 Israeli soldiers die”.
Why not? For Australia’s right-wing press, Muslims are always the aggressors. The oppressed are always part of some elaborate plot. Nothing is ever quite as it seems. Woke intellectuals invent global warming to justify a Communist takeover; Palestinians pretend to be a refugee camp to make Israel look bad when it blows them up. For all their “populist” pretensions, in the right-wing newspapers, the rich and powerful are always the victims. Their readers are already primed to swallow the conspiratorial propaganda that comes from the Israeli military and government.
But, as the journalists’ revolt at the ABC shows, the method is not limited to the ultra-right rags. Always make sure to quote the IDF and the Israeli government for insights into the massacres they’ve carried out. Don’t talk about Palestinians—talk about Hamas. When Hamas kills civilians, they have carried out “terrorism”, but when Israel kills civilians, those people simply “died in an air strike”. Israeli deaths are tragedies to be examined and recounted in detail; Palestinian deaths are mere statistics, if that.
The ABC’s 7.30 has been practically turned over to the Israeli military propaganda machine. Over the course of the bombardment, it’s provided space for Israel’s official and unofficial spokespeople to deny their own atrocities. Ehud Olmert, Israel’s former PM, was interviewed from a living room in a peaceful, leafy Tel Aviv suburb. He said of Israel’s massacre at the biggest refugee camp in Gaza: “Everyone present there was part of Hamas and the fighting group of Hamas. They were killed, but they were not innocent civilians”.
Host Sarah Ferguson did not challenge her guest on this completely insane, reality-defying remark. Instead, she invited Olmert to discuss the humanitarian approach taken by the Israeli military, and how carefully and anxiously they weigh the impact of their actions. Can we imagine such an interview being carried out with a Hamas leader? A Russian government spokesperson?
The interview with Olmert was one trigger for the internal revolt at the ABC. But this wasn’t Ferguson’s first time. When the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza was bombed during Israel’s assault, she allowed an IDF spokesperson to spend ten unchallenged minutes explaining that the Palestinians did it to themselves. (“We do not target medical facilities”, said Lieutenant Colonel Peter Lerner. That was on 19 October. On 11 November, the World Health Organisation reported that Israel was bombing four of Gaza’s remaining hospitals.)
Prior to that, Israeli government propagandist Mark Regev had been given his own ten-minute 7.30 segment to explain that the Palestinians were falsifying and exaggerating the casualty numbers.
Ferguson was the centre of a controversy last year for her report “Fox and the Big Lie”, which criticised Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News for spreading lies about the 2020 US election. But her own program has become a consistent, friendly outlet for conspiracy theories and disinformation peddled by the Israeli military and its spokespeople.
To present a “balanced”, “impartial” account of the genocide in Gaza is ridiculous: to be truthful and objective, you have to start by acknowledging that Israel is oppressing the Palestinians. But the ABC isn’t even achieving balance. It is systematically, consistently promoting the talking points of a genocidal apartheid regime.
In their recent meeting, ABC journalists complained that they were unable to use simple, truthful language like “invasion” or “occupation” to describe Israel’s conduct, and that even using the word “Palestine” was subject to a “blanket ban”.
It’s not just Sarah Ferguson, it’s not just the ABC and it’s not just this time. When Israel killed 1,400 Gazans in 2008, a comprehensive study of New York Times coverage found that Israeli deaths were given 25 times more coverage than Palestinian deaths, while Palestinians were consistently presented as the aggressors against the power that was besieging and bombing them.
Marda Dunsky’s 2007 book Pens and Swords found that the most prestigious US media outlets consistently reported on Palestine in a way that minimised Israeli crimes and hid US involvement. Greg Philo and Mike Berry’s 2004 book Bad News from Israel found that the British press were much the same.
Why? Israel, of course, has a sophisticated publicity machine backed by brutal force. Foreign journalists are banned from entering Gaza while Israel carries out its massacre; they line up on the “hill of shame”, two kilometres from the border, to file their reports. Forty journalists have been killed in Gaza during the bombing and invasion.
The Israeli military churns out dramatic press releases, video propaganda and press briefings with phenomenal speed and sophistication. Not long after the Al-Ahli Hospital explosion, the IDF had produced a compelling video apparently proving a Palestinian rocket had caused the blast. It took a little while for some New York Times journalists to prove comprehensively that the video was completely irrelevant, that the rocket shown was nowhere near the hospital, and that it couldn’t have caused the explosion. No matter: the Israeli propaganda had done its job, and now the news outlets could happily report the Israeli line.
Journalists are trained to provide “balance” and trust “credible” sources. This creates an inherent bias towards the powerful. When a population is oppressed, to “balance” their suffering against the propaganda of their oppressor recasts oppression as a conflict between two equals, each with their own valid point of view. Oppressors are, by definition, “credible sources”: they have the titles, the degrees, the big offices, the medals, the teams of researchers and video editors, the comfort and security to host and charm their target audiences.
Even though some journalists are conscious of this imbalance and do what they can to resist it—sometimes getting good articles published in generally terrible publications—the nature of oppression means that all big media outlets are inherently biased in favour of powerful institutions. More than that: they are powerful institutions, and in moments like this—when Western foreign policy is starkly revealed as genocidal madness—they play an important role keeping a lid on discontent.
“Public” news outlets like the ABC and “liberal” ones like the New York Times are not fundamentally different from the right-wing extremists at Fox. They are controlled from the top by the same political and economic establishment that is in a tight military and diplomatic alliance with Israel. Their institutions, and their top managers, are responsible and loyal members of a political elite that now has one overriding concern: limit criticism of an important Middle Eastern ally.
No Western government would fund a “public” broadcaster that told the full truth about the causes and nature of Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians, any more than a medieval king would allow a church to preach the overthrow of feudalism. No matter how much the top managers of the Murdoch press and the ABC might criticise each other, they are ultimately on the same team: defending Western imperialism.
The ABC journalists who struck back against their bosses’ bias are hopefully a sign of more resistance to come. But for those of us who want to stand in solidarity with the Palestinians, we can’t wait for the Western media to wake up, any more than we can wait for Western politicians to find a conscience. The movement in solidarity with Palestinians needs its own media to tell the truth and stand firmly on the side of the oppressed in their struggle for justice.
That is the project of Red Flag, and we hope that we have contributed with our coverage and analysis of Palestine to date. But there is much more to be said, and unsurprisingly, our resources are limited. We depend on reader support through subscriptions and donations. Subscribe to support our work, and we can carry on countering Zionist propaganda.