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The Guardian, Israel and editorial lines

My close personal friend Grammarpuss writes of her concern over her beloved Guardian. She says she’s worried about its “editorial line on Israel, which is only partly balanced out by the continued presence of Jonathan Freedland on the comment pages”. So that’s an editorial line against Israel, we are to understand.

(To be honest this subject for me is like picking at a scab. I really, really, really know it only leads to trouble, but I just can’t help myself. So I’m gritting my teeth as we continue, here…)

Now I’m full of respect for Grammarpuss. She and I have a lot in common. Scarily much, in fact. Except shopping – can’t stand that. And she writes delightfully. And – and this is a big “and” – she really doesn’t lose the plot on this one, as many do. She doesn’t think the paper is anti-semitic, and she doesn’t rant wildly. She also says she’s a leftish enough to vote leftish if she lived in Israel. So she recognises that it’s perfectly legitimate to disagree with the current Israeli government. Indeed, it’s a democratic right which isn’t extended to some other places in the region. So she’s cool and calm and collected. Quite refreshing for anyone talking on this subject.

So what, exactly, is this “editorial line”? Columnists aren’t told what opinions to have, so far as I know. Journalists in the field presumably follow the most important stories they can. It’s true that one of the most telling differences between national newspapers is what stories don’t make it to press, but I’m not sure there are enough Israel stories of international import to be spiked. Maybe the editor goes around saying what can and can’t be said, and how it can and can’t be said. But I suspect UK editors really don’t have the energy to start laying down – and enforcing – the law on all these details. I’d guess they’re much more concerned with UK politics.

How does this “editorial line” manifest itself? How is it seen? How does it compare with its rivals?

This gives me a cheap opportunity to trot out my simple and mostly serious analysis of Guardian/Israel coverage [PDF download, 20k]. It’s from 2003, when I had a far less rational Guardian/Israel discussion with someone, and had far too much time on my hands. The argument went along the lines of:

The Guardian is so anti-Israel / How do you know that? / It’s common knowledge. / I’ve not noticed it, how can I tell? / It’s obvious. / Not to me…

…and so on. I genuinely wanted to find an objective way of looking at this. So we agreed a methodology, I spent too long counting words, produced a beautiful document, and… well, we’re still talking.

Rereading the document I’m still pretty pleased with it. At least I can’t find any embarrassing typos, and you can never have too many statistics and coloured bar charts, can you?

From the conclusion:

The Guardian devotes proportionally less space to Israeli sources, a middling number of words to Israeli sources, and the greatest number of words to official Israeli sources. It also devotes the least number of words to official Arab sources.

The Times devotes the greatest proportion and number of words to Israeli sources, but also the greatest proportion and number of words to Arab sources.

The Daily Telegraph generally measured between the two on proportional measurements.

But read it for yourself. Or don’t. See if I care.

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  1. Comment by Pashmina | 2005/04/28 at 10:59:27

    A considered post, and one which deserves a lengthier and better thought-out response than I’m afraid I’m going to be able to give just now.

    Have skim-read your comparative analysis and am impressed – it’s very illuminating and would be interesting to see the a repeat of the exercise for the same period in 2005. However I suspect that you might have a life and considerably better things to do with it at the moment.

    On a personal level, back in 2003 I was much more sceptical about the Guardian anti-Israel thing than I am now, I used to hotly defend it from its detractors and seek only balance within its news pages. Since then my opinion has slowly, and reluctantly, changed. There are little things – the persistence in referring to the Western Wall in Jerusalem as the “Wailing Wall” (the reasons why that is insulting could run to a separate post altogether) – and there are bigger things, the most striking of which for me recently was the illustration of a story on a suicide bombing with a picture of the bomber’s grieving mother.

    Annoyingly I’m not able to back this latter example up with evidence from the GU archive (which has been frustrating me all week for various reasons) so you’ll have to take my word for it.

    I suppose the (unsubstantiated) burden of my complaint is that it’s the viewpoint of the Guardian’s news coverage – and it’s only really the news coverage with which I have a problem, opinion is opinion and is presented as such – that upsets me. Your analysis of the content may well hold as true now as it did two years ago, and I suspect it does, but it’s as much about the manner of the presentation as the substance.

    Clearly this one will run and run, and it’s all just a part of the wider issue of Israel and The Left, which is far more problematic. It’s good that there are voices of sanity that can keep it on the agenda though. I’ll be looking over those attractive bar charts again at a less frantic time…

    By the way, there’s a very small typo on page 4 of the pdf. Sorry.

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  3. Nik
    Comment by Nik | 2005/04/28 at 14:54:31

    Well, I wouldn’t seek to disagree with anything you’ve said, and I’m sure your references to content which has bothered you are correct. The question I really have is whether it’s different in any other paper, and if so then how? And how can you be objective about judging that? I don’t know the answer, and I wouldn’t demand an answer from you, either. I think people pre-judge the Guardian in a way they don’t with other papers (or other media). And that bothers me.

    Am personally very depressed about the typo, now.

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  5. Comment by Pashmina | 2005/04/28 at 15:31:25

    Well obviously you’re asking the right question there, and realistically I don’t read any of the other dailies often enough to be able to venture an opinion on their relative coverage, objective or not.

    However I know that the Guardian thing bothers me because it’s “my” paper and I want it to be better than it sometimes proves itself to be. A hopeless fancy, I know…

    Feel terrible about mentioning the typo now. Must learn to control my own pedantry.


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  1. Comment by Pashmina | 2005/04/28 at 10:59:27

    A considered post, and one which deserves a lengthier and better thought-out response than I’m afraid I’m going to be able to give just now.

    Have skim-read your comparative analysis and am impressed – it’s very illuminating and would be interesting to see the a repeat of the exercise for the same period in 2005. However I suspect that you might have a life and considerably better things to do with it at the moment.

    On a personal level, back in 2003 I was much more sceptical about the Guardian anti-Israel thing than I am now, I used to hotly defend it from its detractors and seek only balance within its news pages. Since then my opinion has slowly, and reluctantly, changed. There are little things – the persistence in referring to the Western Wall in Jerusalem as the “Wailing Wall” (the reasons why that is insulting could run to a separate post altogether) – and there are bigger things, the most striking of which for me recently was the illustration of a story on a suicide bombing with a picture of the bomber’s grieving mother.

    Annoyingly I’m not able to back this latter example up with evidence from the GU archive (which has been frustrating me all week for various reasons) so you’ll have to take my word for it.

    I suppose the (unsubstantiated) burden of my complaint is that it’s the viewpoint of the Guardian’s news coverage – and it’s only really the news coverage with which I have a problem, opinion is opinion and is presented as such – that upsets me. Your analysis of the content may well hold as true now as it did two years ago, and I suspect it does, but it’s as much about the manner of the presentation as the substance.

    Clearly this one will run and run, and it’s all just a part of the wider issue of Israel and The Left, which is far more problematic. It’s good that there are voices of sanity that can keep it on the agenda though. I’ll be looking over those attractive bar charts again at a less frantic time…

    By the way, there’s a very small typo on page 4 of the pdf. Sorry.

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    1. Nik
      Comment by Nik | 2005/04/28 at 14:54:31

      Well, I wouldn’t seek to disagree with anything you’ve said, and I’m sure your references to content which has bothered you are correct. The question I really have is whether it’s different in any other paper, and if so then how? And how can you be objective about judging that? I don’t know the answer, and I wouldn’t demand an answer from you, either. I think people pre-judge the Guardian in a way they don’t with other papers (or other media). And that bothers me.

      Am personally very depressed about the typo, now.

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      1. Comment by Pashmina | 2005/04/28 at 15:31:25

        Well obviously you’re asking the right question there, and realistically I don’t read any of the other dailies often enough to be able to venture an opinion on their relative coverage, objective or not.

        However I know that the Guardian thing bothers me because it’s “my” paper and I want it to be better than it sometimes proves itself to be. A hopeless fancy, I know…

        Feel terrible about mentioning the typo now. Must learn to control my own pedantry.

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