FRESH AIR

Corrections to ABC “Explainer” highlight media’s Gaza problems

Jun 2, 2021 | Ahron Shapiro and Oved Lobel

The coverage of many media outlets is characterised by egregious distortions, outright fabrications and general anti-Israel slant whenever Palestinian terrorist factions renew overt hostilities against Israel. The most recent conflict was certainly no exception.

And that’s just the actual contemporary reporting. Even balanced and factually accurate historical overviews of the conflict seem beyond the capabilities of many outlets – with an overwhelming tendency to distort history, as well as news, to support or comport with Palestinian claims.

This is illustrated very effectively by unannounced corrections made to an ABC online piece titled “An attempt to explain why explosions are again filling the skies over Israel and Gaza” by Emily Clark, which was originally published on May 14, but altered on May 16.

The ABC deserves credit for the corrections. However, the fact that the erroneous original version was written and published in the first place  – and that all the errors appear to lean toward Palestinian or anti-Israeli views – points to the presence of an overwhelming and disturbing bias, and extremely poor editorial oversight or fact-checking.

Here are some of the changes to the backgrounder:

May 14 version

“Like many places on Earth, the history of the region is complex and bloodied. It has been ruled by many different powers over centuries, but Arab people have lived there throughout.”

May 16 version

“Like many places on Earth, the history of the region is complex and bloodied. It has been ruled by many different powers over thousands of years.”

Of course, there were no “Arabs” in the area – that is, Arabic speaking people or people from the Arabian peninsula – until the 7th century CE, though Palestinians sometimes claim to be descended from other peoples that were in the area before then. There is a people that has lived in the Middle East throughout, however, including a continuous presence in what is now Israel: the Jews.

May 14 version

“Both Arab people of different faiths and Israeli Jewish people date their claims to the land back thousands of years, but it was in the early 20th century that the brutal displacement of the Palestinians began.”

May 16 version

“Both Arab people of different faiths and Israeli Jewish people date their claims to the land back centuries.”

 It is unclear why the highly biased and unprofessional last part of this sentence about the  “brutal displacement” of Palestinians connected to the first half, or why it was included in the original if not to tell the readers who to support. It is also telling that, even in the revised version, the Jewish claim to the land is reduced from “thousands of years” to centuries, so it remains on par with the Arab claims, even though the Jewish claim, unlike the Arab claim, does actually date back thousands of years.

May 14 version

“After World War I, the British ruled the area under a mandate from the League of Nations. They committed to the establishment of two separate states — one Jewish and one Arab.”

May 16 version

After World War I, the British ruled the area under a mandate from the League of Nations. They committed to the establishment of a “national home for Jewish people”, also stating that “nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”

The fact that this easily disprovable claim about the British mandate was originally included points to something broken in both the reporting and editing process. Fact-checking appears to have been non-existent before the original piece was published.

May 14 version

“In 1948, the state of Israel was founded. The Arab nations of the region, including Jordan and Egypt, refused to recognise it and war followed.”

May 16 version

“In 1948, the state of Israel was founded. The Arab nations of the region, including Jordan and Egypt, refused to recognise it and five Arab nations attacked Israel.”

 The official Arab war to annihilate Israel actually predated the latter’s declaration of independence, beginning as an externally-supported civil war while under British rule and culminating in an outright invasion to destroy the nascent State once the British withdrew. War did not “follow” – it was declared in an aggressive, explicit war of elimination that the Arabs lost, resulting in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, the so-called “Nakba”, many fleeing at the behest of the Arabs themselves.

Again, the utter bias of the first version, designed to obscure any blame on the aggressors of 1948, is clear.

May 14 version

“The Palestinian National Authority, established in the 1990s, runs police and services in the major cities and towns of the West Bank, and has slowly brought the terrorist groups there under control.”

May 16 version

“The Palestinian National Authority, established in the 1990s, runs police and services in the major cities and towns of the West Bank.”

This claim about bringing terrorist groups under control is a strange one, given that at no stage have Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist groups ever been brought fully under control. After 2000, the Palestinian Authority (PA) itself would join these terrorist groups, with Fatah complicit in some of the worst terrorist attacks of the Second Intifada against Israeli civilians. An “intrafada” between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority throughout the 2000s culminated in a civil war in 2007 following Hamas’ victory in elections that saw Hamas wrest control of Gaza and nearly take over the West Bank. It likely would have but for Israeli protection of the PA.

May 14 version

“The site [the Temple Mount] is also sacred to Jews, who believe it’s where the Jewish Second Temple stood until the first century, and is considered a ‘chronic flashpoint’ in the regional conflict.”

May 16 version

“Jews revere it as the site of the ancient Jewish Second Temple, and it is considered a ‘chronic flashpoint’ in the regional conflict.” 

The “also” in the original sentence is unfair and prejudicial – Jewish claims and worship at the site predate even the existence of Islam in Israel by more than a millennium.

The original followed a tendency common in many media outlets to reverse the chronology, putting the Jewish claims as almost an afterthought, and worse, rendering proven facts as a “belief.” No serious scholar doubts the existence of the Second Temple in Jerusalem – amply attested by Roman sources, among many others, and verified by archaeology.

 

This is far from a comprehensive critique of the backgrounder or of reporting on the conflict more broadly, but these corrections illustrate a very real problem in many newsrooms – allowing blatantly ahistorical distortions and factual errors to be printed if they favour the Palestinian narrative of Israel as a story of foreign Jewish colonialists swooping in and stealing Palestinian land.

The amended explainer contains no indication the changes were corrections or a response to any complaint. However, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry made a detailed complaint to the ABC on May 16, and Bren Carlill of the Zionist Federation wrote to Emily Clark, the author of the explainer, on May 15 also requesting a number of similarly detailed corrections. The ABC acknowledged to the ECAJ verbally that the changes were a response to their complaint.

However they came about, the ABC does deserve credit for correcting its errors. But some hard questions need to be answered about how they ever came to be published in what is supposed to be a historical backgrounder in the first place.

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