Our media strategy is wrong

You can’t batter anti-Israel bias out of journalists. But psychology offers a neater solution


In August 1961, on the A6 in the woods near Mauden in Bedfordshire, a terrible crime was committed. A man was shot and killed in his car and his girlfriend, having been raped, was also shot. She spent the rest of her life in a wheelchair.

I need to tell you all about it in order to help you the next time you complain to the media about bias against Israel.

Shortly afterwards, a man was arrested. His name was James Hanratty and a number of pieces of evidence — including positive identification by the woman — pointed to his guilt. The jury agreed. Hanratty was found guilty and in April 1962 he was hanged.

But there were plenty of people who did not agree with Hanratty’s conviction. And they had good reason. The evidence was patchy and a bit muddled. And there seemed to be a possibility that Hanratty had been framed. A campaign began — led by the so-called A6 Committee — to get Hanratty’s conviction overturned posthumously.

One of the leaders of the campaign was the journalist Paul Foot, who wrote again and again protesting that the original conviction was unsafe. With some success. There were repeated case reviews and finally it was decided to exhume Hanratty so that a DNA test could be carried out.

The results, however, did not turn out as the A6 Committee expected. DNA taken from the crime scene and Hanratty’s DNA matched. And this could not have been, as the campaigners alleged, due to contamination. For had it been, there would have been DNA present from someone else, an unidentified third party, and there wasn’t. The science was conclusive. Hanratty had, after all, been the A6 gunman.

What has this got to do with media bias against Israel? I’ll explain.

I want to tell you how Paul Foot responded when presented on television with the DNA finding: “I’m a complete illiterate in relation to the science of DNA, physics and so on. I know nothing about it at all. My doubts stem solely from my, very, very clear belief that this man did not commit this murder. So if the science is saying he did commit the murder, I say, well, that clashes with my belief that he didn’t commit the murder, and there must be something wrong with the science.”

What Paul Foot has provided is the perfect example of what social psychologists call cognitive dissonance.

The A6 campaigners had expended a huge amount of time, emotional energy, and what one might call reputational capital on the Hanratty case. Accepting the incontestable scientific evidence would have meant accepting the idea that this effort had been expended in vain.

And this set up a tension between Foot’s strong and valued belief in Hanratty’s guilt and the facts. So how does he resolve the tension? By denying the facts. By saying, absurdly, hilariously, that there is something wrong with science.

It is commonly said of politicians that they never apologise and never change their mind, even when it is obvious that they are wrong. But this isn’t simply true of politicians. It is true of all of us, almost all the time.

Think of the last domestic row you had. Did you accept that you were in the wrong, or simply reinterpret the facts until they fitted your view of the situation?

Another classic example of cognitive dissonance was the BBC’s behaviour over the incidents leading to the Hutton Inquiry. Despite the fact that it was crystal clear that the original news report was incorrect, the BBC dug itself in. And as the debate went on, they simply broadened the argument, until they were contesting that the broad point, rather than the news report, was true.

Which brings me to Israel and BBC bias.

If you accuse someone of bias, they will deny it. Why? Because they believe they are fair, impartial reporters. If the facts clash with that strong belief, they will, as Paul Foot did, simply deny the facts or twist the facts around in their minds until they fit their image of themselves.

So when we accuse the BBC of bias, we know what will happen, don’t we? The charge will be denied. Even incredibly compelling Hanratty DNA-type evidence of bias will be rejected. Cognitive dissonance makes this human response, however frustrating, however wrong, entirely predictable.

If we want simply to make ourselves feel better, or to speak the truth — both laudable things to want to do and often worthwhile — then making accusations of bias is worth it. Actually changing things is a different matter.

If you want to stop bias, you have to put your point in way that allows the recipient to accept it without having to alter their perception of themselves as impartial. You have to unhook people from their biases, rather than bludgeon them out of them.

    Last updated: 10:19am, July 17 2008

    COMMENTS

    Jonathan Hoffman

    Sat, 07/19/2008 - 17:34

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    Let's take a practical example. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_al-Durrah http://www.european-forum-on-antisemitism.org/berlin-alert/view/article/... The BBC has completely ignored the al-Durrah case, where two months ago a French court ruled that Philippe Karsenty did not defame France 2 when he said that its news report on was a staged hoax. How are activists supposed to "unhook" BBC journalists from this particular 'bias'? Or see Sarah Montagu's disgraceful interview of the Mayor of Sderot last year for 'Hardtalk'. The suggestion that campaigners against BBC bias are 'bludgeoning' is ridiculous and simply shows that Danny Finkelstein has not been following the specific cases of BBC bias. Can he please give an example of a case where he has 'unhooked' a BBC journalist from his/her bias?