Bruce Arnold

Critic of Public Affairs, writing about art, theatre, music and politics

Blind eye that saw just one side of Gaza story

Some newspapers have a mission. Others do not. Some newspapers take a line on issues, involving all staff. Others confine this to balance, accuracy and discovery. Some newspapers declare what they are for and whose champions they want to be. Others mind their own business about this -- believing it is self-evident in what they do -- and avoid being champions because it can lead to lack of balance and embarrassment.

Readers ask me what the Irish Independent stands for and why I work for it. I find it difficult to say. I would like to think it stands for me and for my right to comment.

If you ask this from an 'Irish Times' journalist you will be referred to the paper's website. There you will discover that the 'Irish Times' is 'the only independent newspaper in Ireland'.

You will also discover, from the editor-in-chief, Geraldine Kennedy, that the 'Irish Times' aims "to lead and shape public opinion" and "to champion specific causes".

I champion what I choose. That is the precise point about being a commentator, in defence of industrial school victims, in favour of the 'No' vote on the Lisbon Treaty, in favour of a fair deal for Israel in its state of siege, surrounded by Palestinian enemies.

But please defend the Irish Independent from doing the same. It is a cradle for all views and long may it remain so. It is the main reason I work for them.

I write about this difference because of the speech by Israel's new foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, redefining Israeli objectives. The speech is a revelation in which Liberman says that "the priorities of the international community must change, and that all the previous benchmarks -- the Warsaw Pact, the NATO alliance, socialist countries, capitalist countries -- have changed. There is a world order that the countries of the free world are trying to preserve, and there are forces, or countries or extremist entities that are trying to violate it".

The violation, he says, comes "from the direction of Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq".

This comes in the aftermath of a serious period of conflict during December 2008 and January 2009 when devastation threatened Israel and when, to the dismay of peace-loving peoples everywhere -- that country reacted massively.

The Irish Times, unlike the Irish Independent, was already on the Palestinian 'side'. Despite the paper's website statements -- possibly because of them -- it was committed to what I would call 'advocacy journalism'.

The primary focus, in the period covered, was on accusations of Israeli wrongdoing and human interest stories about Palestinian casualties. There were condemnations of Israel's military campaign and the effect of the campaign on Arab society. The same was missing the other way round.

The Hamas anti-Israel, anti-semitic and anti-Jewish agenda; the rejection of a diplomatic solution; the mission to replace a Jewish state with an Islamic caliphate: these were not examined. Also missing was Israel's complete withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, whereupon Hamas took the territory as a launching pad. This is the danger of advocacy. It has an initial appeal, a kind of bullish, 'we know where we stand' approach. And it has to be countered by careful use of balance and probity. I am not sure at all how well the Irish Independent approached this. But I am sure that in my own writing during this period I enraged pro-Palestinian opinion in Ireland, much of which seemed to come out of prejudice and ignorance about the issues.

This was better concealed by the 'Irish Times'. That paper clothes its advocacy in a firm and determined level of condemnation and disdain for the sudden and seemingly ferocious demonstration of serious military force and, ultimately, strategy and tactics that were superior to Hamas.

Advocacy is dangerous. It leads to pre-judgment based on pre-defined mission. The trouble is that the advocacy supersedes the more basic commitment to responsible and ethical journalism.

In the event, we who wrote about this had to look at the overall focus, the balance and the context. We then had to ask the question: "Were both sides of the story told? We told them. Did the 'Irish Times'?

I believe it did not. I believe that, having chosen to 'champion' the Palestinian cause, and promote its narrative of the conflict, the condemnation of Israel outweighed the support for Israel in 'Irish Times' articles by three to one. More seriously, news coverage was allowed to serve as a platform for unchallenged, anti-Israel allegations.

This directly contravenes Geraldine Kennedy's stated guidelines for her paper in its mission on all coverage of controversy in divided circumstances. This mission statement is to "eliminate any trace of partisanship". It is also to be "scrupulous to quote sources accurately" and "never to go to publication without seeking both sides of the story".

Her advocacy mission is that "the truth is presented having made every reasonable effort to establish it on the basis of verifiable fact and reliable sources".

My considered view at the time was that this worthy objective was neither sought nor achieved in respect of Israel. I also believe that it has been literally thrown out of the window in respect of the Lisbon Treaty.

I have strong views on both. I was horrified by what was done by the paper during that tense Middle East conflict. I have been horrified at the consistent bias in favour of the Lisbon Treaty adopted by the 'Irish Times' for a full year now, since the campaign on the referendum began in April 2008.

On both issues, the 'Irish Times' has fallen victim to the widespread inaccuracies that come from advocacy journalism. And the inescapable result of this is a general lack of confidence in both their coverage of news and their choice of those who comment and of the line taken by the paper in its own comments.

But it is the approach, overall, that matters. The very heart of the paper's thinking is distorted, in my opinion, by its declared commitment "to champion specific causes". This is what it says it should be doing. It is also what explains the reason why I am here and have written what I see as the distinction between the two newspapers that have occupied places in my professional life.