Variety of views make a welcome change

A lack of uniformity over Israel’s actions reflect divisions inside newsrooms

By Alex Brummer, January 15, 2009

Much of the UK press has been strangely vacillating in its comment on Gaza. Columns friendly to Israel’s approach on the opinion pages are followed by hostile, sometimes factually incomplete material in other parts of the paper — or vice-versa. In striving for balance, the press appears to be at war with itself.

Amid the jumble of comment in the Murdoch press — the mass circulation Sun, The Times and even the not usually so friendly Sunday Times have consistently been able to see beyond the humanitarian horror of injured children and view what is happening in a broader context. Trevor Kavanagh, widely considered to be “his master’s voice” in the Sun, is winning over white van man to Israel’s side. He argues that, for the zealots who make up Hamas, TV news is “priceless propaganda” because they love death.

For the more cultured among Rupert Murdoch’s British readers, The Times managed in its leader columns to understand the source of the current stand-off between Israel and Hamas. “There can be no durable solution as long as Hamas refuses to recognise the right of Israel to exist,” it intoned.

In the Sunday Times, pride of place on the op-ed page was accorded to Dominic Lawson. The former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and Spectator reminded the reader that there was “no great perturbation within the UN building in New York during the month by month that Hamas rockets rained down on southern Israel”. He recalled meeting a nurse in Sderot whose home was hit by a Qassam and who still has shrapnel “lodged irremovably” near her brain.

It was important that Lawson’s commentary was on the heavily trafficked opinion pages rather than the foreign pages. In The Guardian, an intelligent analysis by Simon Tisdall, their foreign affairs commentator, saw the Gaza struggle and the first stray rockets from across the Lebanese border as part of the broader regional struggle with Iran. A pity, then, that pride of place on the op-ed pages went to a piece of agitprop from Seamus Milne who adopted the Fisk/Pilger stance that Ashkelon/Ashdod deserve the rocket attacks because “they were ethnically cleansed when Israel was established in 1948”. Oh dear!

The Telegraph, once firmly Israel-friendly, also seems riven by uncertainty. Here, top spot went to Mary Riddell, whose normal territory is families, children and social policy. In an emotive piece, Riddell argued that “the faces of the dead are a pale reproach to a world that has erased a ground rule of humanity: we have forgotten how to condemn”.

But while Riddell was plucking away at heart strings there was clear analysis elsewhere in the same paper from foreign policy expert Con Coughlin. He noted that when the fighting has died down “the long-term prospects for peace” will have improved. A similar dichotomy was on view in the Mail on Sunday with cool analysis from Lord Levy on the all-important main leader page, followed by a more emotive article from commentator Suzanne Moore.

The explanation for this divergence is that newspapers in general are organic institutions in which the internal debates are reflected in their pages: there is room for both the cool analysis and the more emotional/politicised view. But in the internal battle of the commentators, position is vital, with the leader/comment pages the key place for opinion forming. So far, the cool headed analysts have won out over the more lachrymose columnists.

Alex Brummer is city editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 9:23am, January 15 2009