Week in the hall of mirrors
Reporting of Israel’s assault on Gaza provides an object lesson in how the bourgeois media works, argues Paul Demarty
We can start with a single incident in recent media coverage of the Gaza war - relatively minor, given the relentless assault on truth we have been subjected to since Hamas’s raids into southern Israel.
In advance of Saturday’s mass demonstration against Israel’s flattening and likely invasion of northern Gaza, Palestine Action, a direct action group, covered the facade of the BBC building in Portland Place with fake blood. It was an impressively grisly image, obviously intended to protest at the BBC’s bias towards the Israelis. Yet that was not the story that initially made it out: the Daily Mail and GB News both took a rather different framing: “BBC headquarters is covered with blood-red paint, as controversy rages over corporation’s decision not to call baby-slaughtering Hamas ‘terrorists’”, went the Mail headline; a shorter version adorned an article on the GB News website.
The clear implication - though craftily not stated explicitly - is that this was a righteous response from pro-Israel persons unknown, objecting to the Beeb’s utterly marginal demurral from the most genocidal available rhetoric. In the inverted world of the media, this protest action had its meaning exactly reversed. Within a few hours, of course, the whole affair was forgotten; one day can produce five millennia’s worth of the sands of time, if that is what is necessary to get the agenda back where it needs to be.
Gates of hell
There is also, of course, the matter of those slaughtered babies - a particularly gruesome and confusing sub-plot of this whole affair. The allegation that Hamas militants had beheaded infants was widely and immediately broadcast as fact, but actual evidence of this crime has proven peculiarly elusive. The soldier who made the allegations initially turned out to be a fascistic settler ideologue; Joe Biden repeated the story in a press conference, then had to quietly walk it back later the same day; Bibi Netanyahu claimed he had seen the evidence, and then later admitted that he had not.
Nonetheless, it has become the foremost bludgeon of the media onslaught against the Palestinian movement - the question of possibly hypothetical dead babies. Meanwhile, Gaza is reduced to brick dust - a place with an exceptionally young population. As I write, there are over 700 Gazan children confirmed dead, certainly including many infants - a number likely to be radically undercounted. Their deaths are rendered invisible, and the invisible deaths of settler babies inescapable.
That is not to say that children did not die at the hands of Hamas in their raids last weekend (some witnesses suggest mostly as a result of intense combat between Hamas and Israel Defence Force fighters, but there is little certainty here). Such is the routine savagery of guerrilla warfare, and for that matter the counterinsurgencies that inevitably follow - even the most superficial survey of its history will show that. Media consumers in the west, however, are denied even that level of background analysis.
It is as if, on October 7, a portal suddenly opened to hell itself, and demons came forth on a rampage around the western Negev. Hamas has existed for some four decades now; it has governed Gaza for nearly two (it was notoriously given a leg-up in the early days by Israeli intelligence, who sought successfully to split the Palestinian resistance by promoting religious fundamentalism.) The knowledge of how this provocation came to take place - indeed any theory more sophisticated than mere demonology - is blanketed in a fog of incuriosity.
This incuriosity is only to be expected on the part of the complicit - and the complicity of the western media (not to mention the western political class) is so brazen, it is almost embarrassing to be forced to describe it. The false equivalences pile up, day by day; in the name of ‘fairness’, occasionally a Palestinian dignitary or Gazan ordinary bod is invited to speak their piece, and then relentlessly berated about beheaded babies. The rhetoric of Israeli politicians, which has sometimes seemed cribbed from The Turner diaries, is left unchallenged - indeed, in at least one case, defence minister Yoav Gallant’s description of Gazans as “human animals” was discreetly left out of ‘factual’ reports of his statements.
The classic mission statements of journalism - ‘speaking truth to power’, ‘comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable’ - never seem so laughably off base as when Israel inflicts mass deaths on its occupied territories. How many must die before ‘respectable’ journalists start to look in the mirror and see something they do not recognise, something brutish and depraved, looking back? We have not reached that tally in 15 years of periodic carpet-bombings, of pogroms in the West Bank and Jerusalem, of peaceful protestors routinely and deliberately kneecapped by snipers near the border fence, of children incinerated in drone strikes.
And, indeed, of journalists caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is not long since Al‑Jazeera’s Shireen Abu Akleh was murdered by sniper fire in Jenin. The lengths to which ‘respectable’ media went to avoid the stunningly obvious explanation - that Israel deliberately targets journalists it deems unfriendly - reached the level of gallows humour. So it was with this week’s most prominent press corps casualty, who fell not in Gaza, but in Lebanon: Reuters cameraman Issam Abdallah’s death was reported by his own employer with the headline, “Reuters journalist killed in Lebanon in missile fire from direction of Israel”. But who launched the missile? Why? Who can say? A timely reminder, for all the workers in the world, that the boss is not on your side …
All this serves the purpose not only of hiding, but pre-emptively delegitimising the truth. The sharp end of the media offensive is pointed at those who demur from the impenetrable consensus. We have seen, over the last week, numerous protests - some fairly substantial - against Israel’s actions, and a good thing too. In western Europe and the United States, the response has been strikingly anti-democratic, even for those of us who expect no better. Suella Braverman has threatened to ban Palestine demos in this country. Emmanuel Macron has already done it in France - an order heroically defied by Parisians on Monday.
It is no surprise to see similar actions in Germany, which has always been happy to enforce its Overton window with legal sanctions, and has wholly internalised the foolish notion that the crime of the holocaust demands unlimited support for Israel. Shielding today’s genocidaires as penance for those of 80 years ago is the inevitable absurd result of the reification of historical crimes as somehow part of the essence of the national character.
A key part of the justification for such infringements of freedom of speech and assembly is the cherry-picking of (at least apparently) pro-Hamas statements by individuals on such demonstrations and their wide broadcast in the media. Certainly, that is an opinion held by many misguided leftists, from unsophisticated third-worldists to Charlie Kimber of the Socialist Workers Party.
These comrades seem uninterested in looking too deeply at the nature of Hamas, and the kind of strategy it is employing. The gamble seems to be to provoke the ground invasion the protestors are trying to prevent, and then strike a telling blow, or else trigger regional escalation - not a wholly impossible plan, but one that quite inevitably entails the unspeakable slaughter unfolding before our eyes. It is not so much heroism as desperation. The contemporary left seems more interested in making Jesuitical arguments about whether violent resistance is “justified”, wholly in abstraction from such matters, than thinking strategically about the likely outcome. All these errors are errors of analysis, however; there is no moral equivalence between a few over-excited third worldists and the breathtakingly mendacious, genocide-abetting state and media who smear them as anti-Semites.
In any case, if the media can make the charge stick - that the left is a bunch of crazed anti-Semites who welcome the death of Jewish babies - then it serves further to hide the villainy of our leaders and their paid persuaders. ‘Standing with Israel’ becomes the moral position, and the uncomfortable consequences of doing so are well hidden.
Above all, times like this demonstrate the phoniness of bourgeois society’s commitment to freedom of the press. The liberal ideal is for there to be a civil society independent of the state, which can in fact hold the state to account. Yet the state is indispensable to capitalism, and so the capitalist media is tendentially compromised by ‘the national interest’. The direct discipline of the state is one factor, from D-notices to the meddling of intelligence agencies. Another is the dependence of capitalist media operations on advertising funding, which allows the capitalist class as a whole to discipline media organisations by the threat of boycott. (Elon Musk’s rather tepid anti-censorship rhetoric has led to such a boycott, as a result of which the website formally known as Twitter lurches from crisis to crisis.)
To be subordinated to the state, however, entails taking your place in the state system. Not only is the British media (say) intimately imbricated with British imperialism, such as it is: it is indirectly an instrument of US imperialism. It is notable that far more disagreement is possible in the Israeli media than the British; Ha’aretz can write editorials partly blaming the Hamas attacks on the occupation and siege of Gaza, for example, because there genuinely are political choices to be made in relation to the Palestinians within the general frame of Zionism and Israel’s wider geopolitical status. But for us Brits there is only the imperative to follow the orders of the top dog. The US might back Israel if some relatively ‘dovish’ government got the phoney peace process back on the rails; and it backs the current slaughter. What it cannot abide is dissension amongst its allies and clients.
It is not only the present miserable state of affairs that is implicated here. The same mechanisms ensured that, no matter how much Jeremy Corbyn watered things down and threw people under the bus, the media would never take him seriously, and would never ease its attack. The US state department found him unreliable, and therefore so did the British state, and therefore so did the bourgeois media.
The bottom line is a point we have made with admittedly trying repetition around these parts - we need our own media. Such institutions, if they are genuinely to be independent of the mechanisms of bourgeois ideological coercion, demand a real basis in wider society, the organisational sinews of a party. The left’s wholesale adoption of spontaneist protest politics, as argued recently in Vincent Bevins’s book If we burn, leaves it entirely dependent on the existing media. There is no point holding a demonstration if people do not know you are doing it. Those media will shape the narrative, assigning the appropriate roles to the actors on the screen - ‘terrorist’, ‘activist’, ‘anti-Semite’.
Sometimes the result of this weakness is farcical - as with the dismal failures of ‘movementist’ parties, from Podemos to Syriza, to Corbyn’s Labour. Sometimes, as with the immense difficulty of cutting through genocide propaganda in the last week, it is truly tragic.