Let Middle East press monitors multiply

By Alex Brummer, August 21, 2008

Over the last decade, there has been huge concern in Anglo-Jewry and beyond about perceived bias against Israel in the Western media.

Informal groups have sprung up which seek to combat mistakes and prejudice through email and letter-writing campaigns aimed at the journalists and media outlets involved.

In some cases this may have proved self-defeating, since it allows the writers and broadcasters concerned to see themselves as victims fighting for a lost cause - the Palestinians. Among the writers who have adopted this tack in the past are the commentators Mary Ann Sieghart in The Times and Johann Hari in The Independent.

Missing from this debate were independent monitors who systematically analyse reporting of the Middle East, both qualitatively and quantitatively. But time is taking care of that. A number of websites and media monitors now seek to bring clarity to complex issues. Some of these are based in the community, for example the media monitoring done by lobby group Bicom. Tracking is also done within the organisations accused of bias. The BBC commendably now seeks to screen its own Mid East output much more carefully, and on the whole (with the exception perhaps of the website) it has become much more measured.

There are now several independent, professional monitoring groups to which this column regularly refers.

Among the oldest and best recognised is Memri, the Middle East Research Institute, founded in 1998 and offering translations and analysis of dispatches from the region. Based in Washington, its staff includes former Israeli intelligence officers, and it has been particularly important in drawing attention to the words of Iran's President Ahmadinejad.

Honest Reporting was founded by a group of university students in the aftermath of the intifada in 2000. It has since grown into a multinational group, based in Toronto, and is run by two Britons, Joe Hyams and Simon Plosker. It analyses bodies of reporting, such as The New York Times record on the Middle East, and seeks to deconstruct contentious journalism.

An HR dispatch this month focused on the BBC and other organisations' coverage of allegations by Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I) that Israel security services have pressured Palestinians seeking medical assistance from Israel into cooperating with Israeli intelligence. HR found the evidence was based on unverifiable claims and that PHR-I is a radical political organisation which trades on its medical name to garner headlines in the West.

The latest group to join the truth squad is the UK-based Just Journalism, which specialises in quantitative analysis. It reported extensively on how the media bought into the "naqba" agenda during the 60th-anniversary celebrations.

But it also looks at the veracity of individual reports, recently probing a Guardian article on a convoy seeking to break Israel's blockade of the Gaza Strip, which includes Lauren Booth, Cherie Blair's sister and a columnist in The Mail on Sunday. Just Journalism finds that the report lacked context, failing to point out that Palestinian attacks on crossing points and the continued rocket attacks on Israeli targets led to the blockade in the first place.

So organised, fact-based media monitoring of the British and broader media is improving. Similarly, the Israeli Democracy Institute publication and website, The 7th eye, seeks to monitor, debate and improve the quality of journalism inside the Jewish state.

The more rigorous the screening of Middle East journalism becomes, the more likely it is that balance can be restored.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 4:04pm, August 21 2008