Particular kind of bad news

A recent story in the West Sussex County Times was headlined: Woman describes her Israel trip from hell. It sounded a fascinating tale, featuring a West Chiltington woman explaining her "ordeal in an Israeli prison".

Readers were told that, "Audrey Gray, 77, was invited to Bethlehem to a refugee camp to help plant olive trees." Average West Chiltington readers must have been gripped by this terrifying account of one of their own being banged up abroad. I was, momentarily, fascinated by the pensioner's plight. But then, with the next line, the penny dropped.

"However, when she reached Tel Aviv Ben Gurion international airport, she, along with 12 others, was arrested." Arrested with 12 others? Hmm. Ms Gray said she was "just visiting friends" and "didn't think there would be a problem". Her treatment in the prison was "inhumane" - there was "just no humanity". She "lost all concept of time" and "couldn't really remember a life before or after". According to the County Times's reporter, Charlotte Pearson, Ms Gray and her friends were "never told why they had been arrested" even when boarding their plane home.

The story, as JC readers will realise, is a distortion; Ms Gray appears rather adept at media spin. She was, of course, one of the 12 anti-Israel activists held after flying to the country as part of last month's flytilla campaign.

Out of its context, the story gives a wholly negative view of Israel

Not that you would know it from the County Times's story. It fails to mention the well-publicised initiative. To an unknowing reader, the report presents an open-and-shut case. Is this merely an example of poor standards from a reporter who has been fed a line and fallen for it, or something indicative of a wider problem?

I would suggest a bit of both. Can Ms Pearson really be expected to understand the intricacies of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict when reporting on village fêtes in West Chiltington? Perhaps not. But did it not cross her mind to contact the Israeli Embassy to ask for its version of events? Did she not think it wise to inform readers of the wider context of Ms Gray's visit? Ms Gray -with her own agenda - could not be expected to give the Israeli side of the story, but surely it was the reporter's duty to fill in the gaps?

Ms Pearson's failure to include a single word about the true nature of pro-Palestinian activist Ms Gray's visit is greatly disappointing.

However, it is also clear that the wider issue - the effectiveness with which anti-Israel campaigners are finding an unchallenged voice in local and national media - is a problem for Israel and its supporters. The "underdog" tag is one that appeals greatly in this country. It is an obstacle that advocates of Israel must find a way around.

How many West Chiltingtonians took the story at face value, convinced that Israel randomly stops British pensioners who have been "invited" to refugee camps, locks them up for a few days and then sends them packing?

Out of its true context, the story presents a wholly negative view of Israel to readers who may rarely study any in-depth news about the country or the conflict.

As we reported last week, pro-Israel campaigners around Britain - many of them Christians like Ms Gray - are now raising their efforts to combat the overwhelmingly negative portrayal in the media. But with stories such as this slipping into local papers every week – often missed and unchallenged – Israel's friends clearly have their work cut out.

Marcus Dysch is a JC reporter

    Last updated: 10:16am, August 8 2011