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Journalism Studies
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John E. Richardson & Leon Barkho

Version of record first published: 07 Sep 2009.

To cite this article: John E. Richardson & Leon Barkho (2009): REPORTING ISRAEL/PALESTINE,
Journalism Studies, 10:5, 594-622

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Ethnographic insights into the verbal and
visual rhetoric of BBC journalism

John E. Richardson and Leon Barkho

Two landmark events have characterised the recent violent years of IsraeliPalestinian conflict: the
killing of a US peace activist by an Israeli bulldozer as she tried to prevent it from demolishing the
home of a Palestinian resident in Gaza; and the removal of Israeli setters from Gaza by their own
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government. Of course all sides to the conflict see their arguments as persuasive and logical. But
how exactly have those arguments been carried to the rest of the world? This paper examines how
the BBC approached both events in two broadcast texts, the discursive and visual rhetoric
employed in reporting them, and the argumentative representations it favoured. These
argumentative representations are discussed and contextualised through reference to ethno-
graphic and interview data collected with key BBC editorial and executive personnel. The paper
finds that the corporation has numerous ‘‘gate-keeping’’ practices shaping its Palestine/Israel
news discourse and that its argumentative representations are based on authority and rule rather
than pragmatism.

KEYWORDS argumentation; BBC; discourse; Israel; Palestine; visual rhetoric

This paper offers a Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) of BBC television journalism to
investigate the ways in which the corporation represents the IsraeliPalestinian conflict.
Drawing on argumentation theory, it presents a visual and linguistic analysis of two recent
broadcast texts: a television news package produced for and broadcast by the BBC; and
a television documentary, produced and broadcast as part of the BBC’s ‘‘This World’’
documentary series. The paper focuses mainly on the visual argumentative texture of the
examples, supplemented by interview data, ethnographic observation, other media
reports and parallel BBC stories.
Needless to say, there are marked differences between visual and verbal
argumentation (Kjeldsen, 2007). Pictures whether still or video have the power to
communicate arguments in ways that may surpass that of words, particularly as people
increasingly resort to a variety of texts to make their arguments (Blair, 2004; McNaughton,
2007; Richardson, 2008; Richardson and Wodak, forthcoming). Our main concern here is
not how the protagonists argue but rather how the BBC represents the protagonists’
arguments. We suggest that an analysis of which representations the BBC publicly carries
and those which it does not, to be crucial to our understanding of how we, as viewers,
readers and listeners, are influenced or persuaded. While the protagonists may have little
restriction on how to express their own verbal and visual representations, it is important to
see how far the carriers of their arguments, in our case the BBC, are bounded in the
coverage of their argumentation.
Journalism Studies, Vol. 10, No 5, 2009, 594622
ISSN 1461-670X print/1469-9699 online
– 2009 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/14616700802653057

We claim that our approach helps deconstruct the ways multi-modal texts
advance meanings and how news discourse may be related to maintaining systems of
inequality (Richardson, 2007; Weiss and Wodak 2003; Wodak and Meyer, 2001). We
would also argue that there are dialectical relationships between text and context,
wherein ‘‘the discursive event is shaped by situations, institutions and social structures,
but it also shapes them’’ (Fairclough and Wodak, 1997, p. 258). Regarding news
journalism in particular, CDA recognises ‘‘the news’’ is ‘‘the outcome of specific
professional practices and techniques, which could be and can be quite different with
quite different results’’ (Fairclough, 1995, p. 204). News discourse occurs in social
settings (of production and consumption) and the construction of discourse ‘‘relates
systematically and predictably to [these] contextual circumstances’’ (Fowler, 1991, p.
36). The full meanings of news discourse will therefore never be ‘‘fully tapped by
deploying the rules of linguistic analysis’’ (Blommaert, 2005, p. 235) since such texts are
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the outcome of a discourse process, or more accurately a series of discourse processes,

omitted from the verbal and visual surface of the news text. On this basis, this article is
premised on the assumption that, besides textual semiosis, CDA and argumentation
theory also need to focus on the discursive practices of production and consumption.
We suggest that a fuller, more insightful examination of news discourse can be
achieved through adopting ‘‘an ethnographic eye for the real historical actors, their
interests, their allegiances, their practices, and where they come from, in relation to the
discourses they produce’’ (Blommaert, 1999, p. 7). In contrast with traditional highly
text-dependent approaches to media discourse, ethnographic approaches assign a
much more active role to the language user and communicative participant. Therefore,
our analysis also examines how the BBC transforms the interlocutors’ arguments into
news discourse and the type of argumentation it uses to justify the transformation.

Data and Method

This article examines two multi-modal texts broadcast by the BBC. The texts were
selected as indicative examples of the vast population of journalistic texts produced and
broadcast by the BBC on a daily basis. Text 1 is a news package, broadcast on BBC1 on 2
November 2005, as part of the local London news. The package, comprising a studio
introduction, interviews, location footage, commentary and music, reported the world
premiere of ‘‘The Skies are Weeping’’, a cantata by Philip Munger, at the Hackney
Empire. When broadcast, the organisers and the demonstrators outside the theatre
complained to the BBC about the report. Text 2 is a television documentary entitled The
Last Stand, which was broadcast on 10 November 2005 on BBC2, and told the story of
Israeli settlers fighting their government’s plan to remove them from their settlements.
The transcripts include both visual and verbal dimensions. The verbal dimension is
reproduced verbatim and is supplemented with additional information regarding the
source of the speech and, where applicable, the soundtrack. The visual dimensions are a
little more generalised. We only provide a screen image for every clip in the edited
Our analysis is supplemented and contextualised by interview data. As part of his
ethnographic data collection, Barkho spent one full week at Bush House and White City in
London (29 April to 5 May 2007) and interviewed 11 BBC editors; a subsequent series of
interviews was also conducted with representatives and managers of the recently

inaugurated BBC College of Journalism. The interviews have shed light on the ‘‘restricted
and unrestricted schemes’’ (Schellens, 1985, 1986) the BBC has in place with regard to the
protagonists and the type of argumentation it employs to justify its conclusions. Further
details regarding the identities of the interviewees, and the process of interviewing, can be
found in Barkho (2008a,b). We also interviewed the soprano, Ms Deborah Fink, whose first-
hand experience of ‘‘The Skies are Weeping’’ cantata, threw a helpful light on to the
process of news-gathering at the BBC.
Ethnographic observation has been sorely missing in CDA and argumentation
studies, prompting the journal Pragmatics to devote a special issue on this subject (Vol.
18, No. 1, 2008) to unravel news production practices. In the CDA tradition, such
investigations are the exception rather than the norm, with interest lying almost solely
on the structure and effect of media language (Jacobs et al 2008). This paper’s
ethnographic angle has been useful in unravelling the discursive and argumentative
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power of how the corporation reports the conflict. Specifically, supplementing a text-
dependent analysis of meanings with ethnographic interpretation helps gain analytic
leverage to arrive at a more nuanced understanding of media discourse processes. In
short, it helps open up the black box of production practices in order to better examine
news as a text of texts.

Text 1: BBC London News

Extract 1: ‘‘The Skies are Weeping’’ Concert

Time Image Sound

Start: [Studio presenter]
11.06 A controversial piece of classical music,
which was cancelled because of threats
to musicians in America, got its first
performance last night here in London.
The work uses the words of a peace
protester killed by an Israeli bulldozer as
she tried to stop it demolishing the
house of a Palestinian family. Mike
Ramsden reports.
[Music from the cantata]
[Journalist voice-over]
The final rehearsals for the cantata ‘‘The
Skies are Weeping’’ at the Hackney
Empire. The choral work uses words
from an email by a peace protester to
her parents. Rachel Corrie died trying to
stop an Israeli bulldozer demolishing a
house in the Gaza Strip.

[Source 1: Philip Munger]

She believed in what she did immensely
and she believed in peace in the Middle
East. I wish more young people around
the world would be able to (.) would be
willing to make a stand for something
they believed rather than just wondering
where they can download the next song
for their i-Pod.
[Journalist voice-over]
This is the first performance of this work
anywhere in the world.
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[Piece to camera]
It was due to go ahead in America, but
the composer said that the students that
were due to perform it were threatened
so he decided to pull it. There’s nothing
like that here tonight. But there is a
small demonstration.

[Demonstration outside; Journalist

A group of about 30 protesters from
three different Jewish groups handed out
leaflets before the concert.

[Source 2: Unknown, Zionist

The performance will go ahead, and we
have no problem with the performance
going ahead. But where have, where
have been the cantatas for the eight
Israeli Rachels, at least eight Israeli
Rachels, who have been killed by
suicide bombers?

[Cindy Corrie on stage]

Tonight we are here, in the company of
brave musicians.

[Journalist voice-over]
Rachel’s mother flew in from America to
open the concert.
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[Source 3: Cindy Corrie]

I’m very glad it’s happening, we’ve been
waiting for it for a very long time. I first
heard about the er, writing of ‘‘The Skies
are Weeping’’ from Philip Munger in
2003, so it’s been nearly, you know, two
and a half years now.

[Ends [Journalist voice-over]

13.08] And Cindy Corrie described last night’s
concert as a fitting tribute to her
Mike Ramsden, BBC London News.

Three aspects of this broadcast are worthy of note: first, the way that Rachel Corrie
and her death are described; second, the representation of the demonstration outside the
concert; and third, the characterisation of the concert itself.

Rachel Corrie
Rachel Corrie’s death was described at two points: first in the studio introduction
and again in the package itself. Here, we focus on how the BBC reports the agency of
Corrie’s death. In the studio introduction, Corrie is described as

(A) A peace protester killed by an Israeli bulldozer.

The selection of this particular syntactic pattern might not be intentional (cf.
Fairclough, 2000; Fowler, 1991; Halliday, 1995) but it is one of several available. Note the

difference had the broadcaster chosen the following pattern where the one doing the
‘‘killing’’ is foregrounded instead:

(B) An Israeli killed a peace protestor. (Authors’ creation)

(C) An Israeli soldier in a bulldozer killed a peace protestor. (Authors’ creation)

Israeli bulldozers have become ‘‘notorious’’ in this conflict particularly after the death
of Corrie. They are a modified version of Caterpillar D9R or D10R bulldozers and used
mainly for military purpose. While they have turned into a weapon of choice in the hands
of the Israeli army operating in occupied territories, the Palestinians have very recently
used ‘‘ordinary’’ mechanical diggers twice as a weapon. For the sake of argument, here is
how the BBC represented the incidents:

(D) A Palestinian man has driven a bulldozer into a bus and several cars in Jerusalem,
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killing three people, before being shot dead. (BBC, 2008a)

(E) A Palestinian in a mechanical digger has rammed traffic in west Jerusalem, injuring at
least 10 people. (BBC, 2008b)

(A) uses a transitive verb constructed in the passive voice*a construction that,
compared with the active voice in (B) and (C), tends to de-emphasise the role that the
syntactic actor (in this case ‘‘an Israeli bulldozer’’) played in the process (see Fairclough,
2000; Fowler, 1991). (D) and (E) follow the syntactic pattern of our created examples, (B)
and (C), by foregrounding the perpetrator, but these syntactic forms are normally not
favoured by the BBC when reporting non-Israeli casualties (Barkho, 2008a).

The Demonstrators
In his piece to camera, the journalist provides some background to the cantata, and
specifically the way that violent opposition forced the composer to cancel its performance
in America. The identity of these American protesters was not given, though the religious
identity of the British demonstrators is clearly stated: they were ‘‘from three different
Jewish groups’’. Thus, the journalist works up the following account of the demonstrators:
. [in the United States, the concert was cancelled because] the students that were due to
perform it were threatened
. There’s nothing like that here tonight
. [that is, there are no threats here tonight]
. But there is a small demonstration
. [that is, there are other non-violent actions intended to oppose the concert]
. A group of about 30 protesters from three different Jewish groups handed out leaflets
before the concert.
. [ergo these three different Jewish groups oppose the concert]

The ‘‘three different Jewish groups’’ outside the theatre were the Zionist Federation,
Betar and Jews Against Zionism (JAZ). As their names suggest, these groups are motivated
by contrary political objectives. The Zionist Federation and Betar support ‘‘the concept of a
Jewish state with a Jewish Majority in its biblical-homeland’’ and ‘‘therefore whole-
heartedly support the settlement of all of Israel including Judea, Samaria, Gaza and the
Golan Heights’’.1 JAZ openly opposes the Zionist movement and ideology and campaigns

for the dismantlement of Israel as a specifically Jewish nation-state. The broadcast image
of demonstrators handing out leaflets, captured in Text 1 above, was in fact a shot of
members of JAZ who supported the concert and were there to oppose both the Zionist
Foundation’s demonstration and its claim to speak on behalf of the British Jewish
community. To imply that this group opposed the concert is, quite simply, wholly
While mislabelling the demonstrators may seem to have been a basic, albeit
considerable, inaccuracy in the report, it does flag up more serious issues relating to BBC
news-reporting practices. Most notably: why did the reporter assume that the three
groups were all there for a single reason? Why, given that the police had split up the
Zionist protesters and the anti-Zionist counter-demonstration, and made them stand
behind separate barriers,2 did the reporter assume that they were part of the same
demonstration? More specifically, why did the reporter allow the quoted Zionist source to
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speak on behalf of all three groups rather than acknowledging the political chasm
between their views? The most straightforward answer is that the reporter assumed that
all three of these ‘‘different Jewish groups’’ had the same political views*that as Jews
they all opposed the concert. In essence, he appears to have assumed that the concert was
(like Rachel Corrie) for Palestinians, and that the demonstrators, as Jews, were for Israel. It is
therefore hard to avoid the conclusion that the report was founded on the anti-Semitic
assumption that there was a ‘‘Jewish position’’ on the concert*and perhaps on the much
wider questions of Israeli and Palestinian conflict.

The Concert
The anti-Semitic implications of the way that the demonstrators were represented
were amplified by the characterisation of the concert. The rhetorical entailment of the
report is that ‘‘all Jews speak on behalf of a Zionist Israel’’. However, the BBC ran this report
in response to a press release sent out on behalf of the concert organisers3 that referred to
several Jewish sponsors of the concert (including Morris Farhi MBE, Harold Pinter, Uri
Fruchtman, Susie Orbach, Dr Ilan Pappe and Miriam Margolyes4), and also that the concert
would include an Israeli-led musical group, the Tsivi Sharrett Ensemble. Therefore, the
reporter must have known that many of the people active in the concert were also Jews,
but chose to leave such context from the final report in favour of presenting the conflict as
a simplistic two-party dispute. Other sections of this press release did make it into the final
package, and were transformed and incorporated in the following ways:

Press release Retextualisation

[Studio introduction] A controversial
This controversial, classical cantata . . .
will have its world premiere at the piece of classical music . . . got its first
Hackney Empire, on Tuesday 1 performance last night here in London.
November. [Reporter] This is the first performance
of this work anywhere in the world.
In the month before her death Rachel The choral work uses words from an
wrote a number of e-mails to her e-mail by a peace protester to her
family detailing her experiences of parents.
living in Gaza.

Rachel Corrie . . . was crushed to death Rachel Corrie died trying to stop an
by an Israeli bulldozer, while trying to Israeli bulldozer demolishing a house
prevent the destruction of the home of in the Gaza Strip
a Palestinian doctor in the Gaza Strip.
The first performance in Anchorage, It was due to go ahead in America, but
Alaska . . . had to be cancelled after the composer said that the students
principals involved received e-mail that were due to perform it were
and telephone threats. threatened so he decided to pull it.

It is clear from the above that the reporter had read the release and included parts of
it in his report, as had the studio presenter. But the arguments aired neglected, consciously
or unconsciously, one further key piece of background: Philip Munger’s contact with Fink
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asking for possible sponsorship of a UK performance. Fink, who organised the concert, said
she had made it clear to the broadcaster that she was Jewish and had clarified her attitude
and that of her pressure group Jews for Justice for Palestinians:5

They recorded Cindy Corrie, so they should have had a concert programme. [. . .] They
were watching the demonstrators outside [[yes]] They e::rm, you see also in the
programme, two of the Jewish groups took out an advert, so not only did Jewish
individuals give money, but Jews for Justice did and so did the Jewish Socialists group,
and they had adverts in the programme. [. . .] many of the donors were Jewish [. . .] most
of the production team were also Jewish.

It is thus clear that the broadcaster was quite aware of the circumstances that led to
the UK performance and of the disparate composition of the Jewish demonstrators
outside and their conflicting views. To Deborah’s surprise all this was omitted in the
broadcast report:

when I watched it on TV, of course I noticed that my interview wasn’t included and
I wasn’t very happy. But actually I was more upset by the fact that they were making it
look like, ‘‘here is a concert protesting against Israel, and Jews don’t like it’’ [[yes,
exactly]]. And that really fucked me off.

Deborah complained to the BBC. She described her contact with the complaints
department as follows:

I said that the whole point was, Jews had organised the concert, many Jews donated
towards it, and many Jews watched it! They got back to me and said they didn’t want to
get into the ‘‘complexities of faith issues’’, so I said, ‘‘This is about politics, not faith!’’ They
then said that they were more interested in the concert than the politics, so I said, ‘‘Well, I
organised the concert!’’

Of course, we acknowledge that the length of time allocated to the report was
limited (two minutes and two seconds), which would cause any reporter difficulties in
including the full range of opinion. However, there was space in the report for three actors:
a pro-concert source; an anti-concert source; and Cindy Corrie. Including the views of Ms
Fink, or indeed any of the other Jews supportive of the concert, would have helped
destabilise the reductive and simplistic way in which Israel/Palestine is frequently reported.
At the very least, it would have exposed the anti-Semitic premise, seemingly underlying

the broadcast report, that Jews are united in their support of Israel and its practices. More
importantly, it would have started to reveal the complexities surrounding the subject
matter: that the political divisions regarding Israel and the occupation of Palestine lie not
along purely religious lines*that is, between Jew and Muslim, or even between Jew and
gentile*but between Zionist and anti-Zionist.

Text 2: The Last Stand

The documentary, The Last Stand, intended to show ‘‘the human side’’ of ‘‘the Gaza
pull-out’’. A BBC online article promoted the programme as presenting ‘‘the painful and
dramatic process of the pullout’’.6 Palestinians were mostly absent, apart from footage
showing them scurrying away with their sheep, or driving past the camera. On only one
occasion is any Palestinian person quoted (see Extract 4, below, for further discussion of
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this sequence). This is an extraordinary omission given that there were only 7000 Israeli
settlers in Gaza amid more than 1.3 million Palestinians at this time.
Taking the programme solely on its own terms*that is, ‘‘the Jewish side’’ of the
pullout*its messages are complex and multi-faceted. It mainly follows the Itzhaki family
from a settlement called Kfar Yam. However, to give the settlement a name rather
aggrandises the place, given that their own house constituted the sum total of the
settlement. At the start, the programme appears at the very least sympathetic, and
perhaps even supportive, of the settlers and their claim that Kfar Yam and Gaza are their
home. This support is implied in a variety of ways, but several specific sequences were
particularly interesting. The first, appearing early in the documentary, emphasises the
danger that settlers face in Gaza, and the brutality of the ‘‘Palestinian militants’’. It makes
this point by using a specific example of a Zionist settler family killed as they drove along a
Jews only road, and then*through the visual rhetoric of the medium*implies that the
Itzhaki family face the same threat.

Extract 2: Settler Road7

Time Image Sound

5.06 [Journalist voice-over] A settler woman
driving on

5.08 Gaza’s main settler road with her four

daughters is ambushed.

5.12 All five

5.13 passengers are

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5.14 killed.



5.17 [Voice-over, translation] The car stood

here. Tali was slumped over the wheel. She
was hit by the first shots. The fours girls
were hit, some dead, some dying.

5.27 These two bastards came, this scum of the

earth came up to the car window. The
window was shattered. They saw what was
inside the car. Not soldiers, not settlers.
They saw little girls.

5.38 Imagine the inhumanity. Taking a

kalashnikov, and shooting at point blank
range, three bullets into the head of a two
year old baby.
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5.48 [English translation ends; Arik continues in


5.50 [sound of car engine]



5.53 [Datya, speaking] I was attacked here, a

couple of years ago. I was driving in the

5.59 And, I stopped here, on the road. Ahh, a

guy opened the door, and tried to stab me
with a knife.
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6.08 But, errr, I fought back.

As the screen images in Extract 2 show, following Arik Itzhaki’s description of the
scene, the camera pans down to the ground, pauses, and then cuts to a close-up of the
couple’s own three children. So, immediately following Arik’s point about the inhumanity
of killing children, the programme cuts to his own children. The rhythm of the cuts used
when showing the pictures of the dead children*each child featuring for a second of
screen time*is also replicated with footage of the Itzhaki children, echoing the implicit
message that they are potential targets for murderers. Of course the Itzhaki family did face
this threat, and Israeli colonial settlers are killed every year. But the danger to their lives
could be explained, or contextualised, in a variety of ways, for example by mentioning
that they were living on land that had been illegally annexed after armed conflict; or by
also referring to the number of Palestinian children that had been killed by settlers and
the Israeli Army during this same period.
The voice-over in Extract 2*which shows the clearest direct input of the journal-
ists*also adds further terms that could, or perhaps should, have been explained. For
instance: ‘‘A settler woman, driving on Gaza’s main settler road with her four daughters,
is ambushed’’ (emphasis added). To understand the meaning of the italicised noun
phrase, you would have to already be equipped with the contextual knowledge that in
occupied Gaza prior to the ‘‘pull out’’ there were Jewish roads and Palestinian roads, and
that Jewish bypass roads continue to be built in the Occupied West Bank on land seized
from Palestinians. The Israeli B’Tselem Centre for Human Rights states, ‘‘Israel has
established in the Occupied Territories a separation cum discrimination regime, in which
it maintains two systems of laws, and a person’s rights are based on his or her national
origin’’.8 This two-tier system of rights, in which freedom of movement is based upon

one’s national or ethnic status, is maintained partly through the use of such ‘‘settler
roads’’. The importance of this right to movement should not be overlooked, since it is a
prerequisite to the exercise of other rights, including the right to work, the right to
education and the right to access health care, the right to free assembly, and others. These
material circumstances are wholly absent from this documentary. In contrast, this
sequence leaves you with an idea of a family under siege, threatened by militants who
want to kill them, perhaps simply because they are Jewish.
A second sequence develops this sympathetic view of the family. Here, Datya Itzhaki
talks about her love of their land, the house that she built and why she does not want to

Extract 3: ‘‘. . . An Empty Sand Dune’’

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Time Image Sound

8.26 [Datya, speaking in English] I built this
house. You know, it was just an empty sand

8.31 And every stage was just so difficult and

complicated because of the, the, the
politics involved around it and the Arabs
that were working and stopped working

8.39 and we brought in people from India to do

part of the house.

8.43 Its stone, its land, I love this place.


8.46 I invested my life here so, so you’re

attached to it.

8.49 But me leaving here won’t change

anything, because the ocean is still the
same ocean and the Arabs are still the same
Arabs and what they say they want is the
State of Israel.
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8.58 Two nations with two religions cannot live

on the same land.

Especially relevant here is Datya’s sentence at 8.46: ‘‘I invested my life here so, so
you’re attached to it’’. Datya shifts from the first-person singular pronoun and its
possessive (I and my) to a second-person indefinite pronoun, in the form of a generic you.9
In a rhetorical move similar to that identified by Edwards (2006) in his work on modal
verbs such as would, this provides an implicit argumentative warrant (Toulmin, 1958) for
Datya’s specific desires and actions through drawing on a generalised disposition. That is,
Datya’s specific feeling of attachment to her home is given a ‘‘sense of back-dated
predictability’’ (Edwards, 2006, p. 475) because investing one’s life in a place in general
produces a sense of personal attachment to it.
Central to this sequence are a number of other arguments that reflect and are
functional to this woman’s Zionist politics. Firstly, her claim that the land ‘‘was just an
empty sand dune’’ indexes the broader Zionist argument that Palestine was just an empty
wilderness before the imposition of the Israeli state: it was, according to the classic Zionist
chiasmus, ‘‘A land without people for a People without land’’. Her description of the land
being ‘‘empty’’ contradicts the reality of Gaza being one of the most densely populated
tracts of land in the world.
Second, and most significantly, is her standpoint: ‘‘me leaving here won’t change
anything’’; and her subsequent argument: ‘‘the ocean is still the same ocean and the Arabs
are still the same Arabs and what they say they want is the State of Israel.’’ Here, she
defines her land relative to two forces: on the one side the ‘‘sea’’ and on the other side
‘‘the Arabs’’. She thus implies that, like the sea, the Arabs are unchanging in their goal or
objective: they want nothing less than ‘‘the State of Israel’’. Such a construction places

‘‘the Arabs’’ in a perpetual state of conflict with Israel, and therefore Israelis, who are
compelled to defend themselves and their country. In short, she argues that whatever she
does, however much land she (and other Jews) gives up, the Arabs will want to destroy the
State of Israel. Therefore, she might as well stay in the home she built on this ‘‘empty’’ land.
Previous work on the reporting of Israel/Palestine has shown that many audience
members do not see the occupation as being military in nature (Philo and Berry, 2004,
2006). There was nothing in this documentary that would contradict this reading, and in
fact the way that the Israeli Army was represented could support such a view. They only
appear in any significant way in two scenes: towards the end of the documentary, taking
the Itzhaki family from their home and peacefully escorting them from Gaza; and earlier in
the documentary when a fight erupts between Zionists and Palestinians following the
former’s occupation of an empty Palestinian home.
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Extract 4: Israeli Army, Keeping the Peace

Time Image Sound

33.21 [Chanting in Hebrew; no subtitles]

33.26 [Journalist voice-over]: A group of West

Bank settlers react to the demolition of Tal
Yam by taking over

33.31 a vacant Palestinian house on the Arab

side of the road.

33.44 Tension quickly builds up. It is now clear

that the delicate status quo between the
settlers and the Arab farmers will not last.

33.52 [Arabic: subtitle reads ‘‘The dogs!’’]

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33.57 [Journalist voice-over]: With repeated

provocations from a group of extreme

34.00 Right-wing activists, the battle begins.


34.05 [Hebrew: subtitle reads: ‘‘Death to the

Arabs! Death to the Arabs!’’]

34.09 [Dramatic music begins] [series of fast

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34.18 [Hebrew: subtitle reads: ‘‘Itzik, I’m

shooting in the air’’]

34.21 [Journalist voice-over]: The Israeli soldiers

and police find themselves in the middle
of the

34.24 battle, trying to keep the peace.

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34.34 [Hebrew: subtitle reads: ‘‘Why don’t you

shoot him?’’]

34.35 [Hebrew: subtitle reads: ‘‘Why don’t you

shoot him?’’]


34.43 [Journalist voice-over]: An

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34.44 Israeli soldier protects a young Palestinian

who is almost stoned to death
[Dramatic music fades to sustained minor

34.51 [Hebrew singing: subtitle reads: ‘‘Avenge

but one of my two eyes in Palestine!’’]
[Music continues: series of sustained

34.56 [Hebrew singing: subtitle reads: ‘‘Avenge

but one of my two eyes in Palestine!’’]

35.10 [Series of very short scenes of struggle and

arrests of the settlers]


35.21 [Hebrew: subtitle reads: ‘‘You didn’t help

us! They almost killed us!’’]
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Extract 4 shows the Israeli Army as peaceful and neutral. And the voice-over concurs:
‘‘The Israeli soldiers and police find themselves in the middle of the battle trying to keep
the peace’’; and later ‘‘An Israeli soldier protects a young Palestinian who is almost stoned
to death’’. While, in terms of the depicted scene, these points are accurate, they only
represent a small part of what the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) do in Gaza and without
contextualisation, the scene is unrepresentative. The idea that the Army protects
Palestinians would no doubt come as a bit of a surprise to many Palestinians living in
the Occupied Territories. For the record, the Army is permitted to use live ammunition,
without warning, against any Palestinian ‘‘bearing arms’’, and are tacitly permitted to
assassinate*or, as the Hebrew press describes it, ‘‘liquidate’’ (see Korn, 2004, 2006)*any
Palestinian suspected of having committed attacks against Israelis. Specifically in relation
to Gaza, they are also required to fire upon Palestinians who enter places surrounding the
Gaza Strip fence.10
The song the Zionist extremists chant from the 34.51 minute-mark in the transcript,
‘‘Avenge But One of My Eyes’’ (in Hebrew, ‘‘Nekam Achat Mishtey Eynay’’), references the
story of Samson from the Jewish Tanakh (Judges, or Sefer Shoftim). Samson was captured
by the Philistines and asked God for the strength to be able to bring down the pillars of
the palace, killing his enemies and committing suicide in the process. Thus, Samson was
one of the first suicidal killers*and Israeli Nationalists and extreme Zionists view him as
a hero because, whilst he killed himself, he ensured that he also killed as many of the
Philistines as he could. The story therefore represents a particularly disheartening
allegory to draw upon in the current conflict, given its veneration of mutual destruction.
At the point in the documentary which the Zionist provocateurs start chanting this song,
the soundtrack changes to a series of sustained chords. The tone of the music, and
specifically the cadences created through the combination of major and minor chords,
suggest a plaintive or mournful emotional mood. This, combined with the visceral and
intemperate language of the song translation*specifically ‘avenge’ and ‘my eyes’*
works to depict the Zionists as extremist and, arguably, reactionary. However, as with
so much of the relevant context of this documentary, the ways that the song indexes the
Samson myth*and its relevance to the contemporary radical Zionist political*are again
allowed to pass the viewer by without comment from the voice-over.

Discussion: The Centrality of Context

In order to better understand the processes by which BBC journalism is constructed,
and the values underlying these discourse processes, we conducted interviews with BBC
editors and journalists. These interviews concentrated on two main issues: the context of
the arguments the protagonists put forward; and how they are verbally and visually
represented. Diversity of opinion and balanced coverage are among the BBC’s prime
journalistic values, which entail that the production of a news discourse has to recount the
arguments of both sides as they are. ‘‘Tell it as it is’’ was one of the most quoted phrases or
‘‘mottos’’ our respondents used to demonstrate where they stand with regard to the
events their journalists cover and the arguments they carry. Decades of coverage and
pressure seem to have produced a set of guidelines and gate-keeping practices under
which the reporting of the conflict should, in the words of Jerry Timmins (Head of Region,
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Africa and Middle East) ‘‘fit the overarching objectives of the whole organisation’’. And the
‘‘set of objectives’’ the BBC has for the coverage of PalestinianIsraeli conflict is sometimes
difficult to fathom and understand for their unique and unprecedented character in the
history of the organisation.
Asked why the BBC would only set special discursive and social procedures with
regard to the coverage of the IsraeliPalestinian conflict, Roger Hardy, a veteran BBC
analyst, said because ‘‘the level of intensity of scrutiny from all sides is without precedent
in my experience’’. The BBC as an institution has developed these specific discursive and
social procedures in its bid to respond to this unprecedented level of ‘‘scrutiny from all
sides’’. It has an internal Middle East style guideline of hundreds of words and expressions
to help reporters and editors select what it believes are the ‘‘right’’ discursive practices (see
Barkho, 2008b; Barkho and Richardson, forthcoming). It has created two high-ranking
positions specifically to monitor its Middle East coverage and designed a special teaching
module for its Middle East journalists to ensure that they are aware of its ‘‘overarching
values’’. Before detailing the contextual and argumentative threads absent from the above
extracts, let us first examine the arguments the holders of discursive and visual power at
the BBC use to justify the measures they have in place to monitor the coverage of the
Malcolm Balen, Senior Editorial Adviser, is the BBC’s top man on the Middle East. He
is accredited with the writing of the internal style guideline and the author of the famous
but hitherto confidential ‘‘Balen Report’’ on the Middle East. Balen straightforwardly said
that the BBC cannot treat the arguments of both sides equally because of the great
disparity on the ground between the protagonists:
What is the right balance between stories from Israel and stories from Palestinian
territories and surrounding countries? It is a bit like in a non-electoral period here. The
government of the day is going to get more coverage than opposition parties because it
has the power to do things. And Israel clearly has more power to do things, because it is
a bigger country, more money, more support from America, more technological
developments, more weaponry, all the rest of it, has more power to do things, say
than the seven-square miles of the Gaza Strip.

Views like these, which editors and journalist translate into discursive and visual
practices, have resulted in a bifurcation of discourse into positive/negative or benign/
malignant (Barkho, 2007). Jeremy Bowen, Middle East editor, does not feel happy with the

characterisation though he agrees that the BBC employs ‘‘two different narratives’’ in its
coverage of the conflict. ‘‘I think it is less the presence of language. It is the absence of
what we do not say. We do not say enough, we do not do quite a good job’’. But how far
does Bowen think a report should go ‘‘to say enough’’? He stated baldly that ‘‘In a news
report you do not need to go back in time. But in the case of a documentary, we tend to
do that’’. As our discussion of The Last Stand, above, hopefully demonstrates, context is
unfortunately not a universal feature of all BBC documentaries and it seems the context of
the powerful overshadows that of the less powerful. Vin Ray, Director of the BBC College of
Journalism, emphasised the importance of context in news reporting, but quickly noted
that it was extremely difficult to ‘‘contextualise the day’s events’’ because of

the tremendous struggle you have with so many stories, from the Middle East in
particular . . . You know, ‘‘this is what happened today’’, and the way in which you can
contextualise that in one and a half minute news package is just such an incredible
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struggle. Hmm, and the other thing you are struggling with is just the phenomenal lack
of knowledge on the part of the audience about in terms of their real understanding of
the story.

In lieu of a full discussion of relevant context, BBC reporters often employ un-
explicated noun phrases, such as ‘‘the occupied territories’’ and ‘‘the refugee problem’’,
which audiences have been shown to have difficulty understanding (Philo and Berry,
2004). Religious labels also serve as shorthand devices in accounting for the actions and
agendas of actors. The Loughborough study, for example, showed that ‘‘Jewish’’ was used
as an adjective (often qualifying a noun) in 24 per cent of sampled news reports
(Loughborough Communications Research Centre, 2006, p. 53), encouraging a misreading
of the conflict as religious in character (Philo and Berry, 2004), despite the un-Jewish
character of much of Israeli political life (see Orr, 1983).
Context was thus seen as of paramount importance by our interviewees. Hardy said,
‘‘To me context is key, not just individual words, or that we get the main facts of the hard
news, that we get the main facts rights’’. Is this journalistic axiom adhered to in BBC’s
visual and discursive argumentation of the conflict? We will refrain from giving a
straightforward answer to this crucial question. Instead, we identify three contextual and
argumentative threads, central to understanding the contemporary character of the
conflict, which we believe are systematically absent from BBC reporting: Zionism,
Colonialism and Equality.

Absences, 1: Zionism
But actually, you know what used to be a perfectly accepted term? ‘‘Zionists’’, perfectly
acceptable term it used to be, hmm now we tend not to use that now because it feels
like an insult, you know? (Kevin Marsh, Editor, BBC College of Journalism)

The absence of Zionism*as a political ideology and movement*acts as a gaping

hole in the centre of BBC reporting of IsraeliPalestinian conflict, giving rise to a range of
subsequent failings in clarification and explanation. Zionism is directed towards achieving
three basic fundamental objectives: the acquisition and conquest of land, the ‘‘in-
gathering’’ of the world’s Jews in Palestine and the establishment of an ethnic state for the
Jews (Masalha, 2000, p. 21). However, as Marsh acknowledges, the BBC avoids using the

term, and its aims and assumptions remain unexplained and non-contextualised. This
absence has a series of significant knock-on effects, including:
. in BBC reporting, there is a conspicuous lack of distinction between ‘‘Jews’’ and
. in more acute cases, reporting appears to assume that to be a Jew means being Zionist. It
is this assumption that appears to have driven the news report on the cantata we
analysed from the BBC London news;
. the corollary is that it becomes very easy to assume a link between religiosity and
Zionism. That is, the stronger (or, perhaps, more Orthodox) the religious views, the
greater the support for ‘‘A Jewish State’’11; or, more crudely, to be ‘‘very Jewish’’ is to be
‘‘very Zionist’’.

We detected elements of this chain of assumptions in some of our interviews. For

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instance, Bowen had the following to say on the question of religion in BBC reporting:

when examining the Israeli society one finds that it consists of several layers in terms of
religiosity. Among the people with Biblical claims to the whole of historical Palestine are
religious Zionists, who make up a good portion of settlers in occupied Palestinian land.
Members of other religious groups also tend to be very Jewish but not as much as
religious Zionists.

Asked why, given this religiosity, Zionism was not used as an explanatory term in
reporting, Bowen said: ‘‘Well, that is because there are no distinct religious Zionists in the
movement’’. Here we have a seeming contradiction that makes it difficult to examine
Bowen’s views much further. A charitable reading could centre on Bowen’s use of the term
‘‘the movement’’. It is possible that he was referring here to a specific group of
organisations, or individuals, brought together by a common goal. There may not be
‘‘religious Zionists’’ in this grouping. Nevertheless, by Bowen’s account, members of
religious groups may be ‘‘very Jewish’’, but the most Jewish groups in Israel are the
‘‘religious Zionists’’, indicating, at the very least, a convergence of Jewishness and Zionism.
This presumed*but never aired or discussed*linkage between religion, Jewishness
and Zionism is profoundly unsettling. Bowen had a leading hand in drafting the BBC
College of Journalism training course on reporting Israel/Palestine, where linkages of this
sort are not even alluded to (Barkho and Richardson, forthcoming). If we assume a
marriage between Jewishness and Zionism, it is only a small step to take for granted that
arguing against Zionism is tantamount to arguing against, opposing or even hating Jews.
In fact, ‘‘the most vociferous and bitter of Zionism’s opponents were, and remain, Jewish’’
(Greenstein, 2006, pp. 23).
Are we suggesting that the reporting policies of the BBC tend to encourage
journalism premised upon anti-Semitic or pro-Zionist sentiments? In fact, we are
suggesting that they do both. As Greenstein (2006, p. 3) argues, ‘‘Zionism was different
to all other political currents among the Jews in its reaction to anti-Semitism: it accepted
the main premise of the anti-Semites*viz. that the Jewish presence among non-Jews was
unnatural and that they were strangers and aliens’’. Accordingly, as the Israeli novelist AB
Yehoshua has put it, ‘‘in a perverse way, a real anti-Semite must be a Zionist’’.12 Both of the
televisual texts we examined presuppose (and implicitly advance) a Zionist political
worldview: in the first, Jews are presented as a kind of unified volkisch nation, unanimous
in their support for Israel, despite a dearth of information to the contrary; in the second,

the actions of extremist settlers are presented in parallel to ‘‘conciliatory’’ and ‘‘assuaging’’
Israeli Army, thereby ignoring the manifest, structural violence perpetrated in maintaining
the Israeli State.

Absences, 2: Colonialism
Zionism, as Masalha (2000, p. 21) puts it, is engaged in ‘‘a long-lasting battle against
the native Palestinians . . . for more land, more territory and less Arabs’’. Contextualising
reporting with reference to Zionism, as a political ideology, would go some way to
revealing the centrality of territorial expansionism to Israel. However, the BBC’s shunning
of the term ‘‘Zionism’’ due to its ‘‘pejorative’’ character should not stop it from reporting
other colonial Israeli practices. Journalists could still highlight the colonialism advocated
and advanced by Zionist political movements*the so-called ‘‘facts on the ground’’. The
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main, open, proponents of policies of colonial expansion (and its associated concerns with
the racist ‘‘demographic problem’’ of ‘‘too many Arabs’’) have tended to come from the
(far-)right of Israeli politics: the Moledet Party, the Tehiya Party, the Tzomet Party, as well as
the Kach movement and the Gush Emunim (see Shahak, 1995). However, some of the
ideological assumptions and policy aims of these parties and groups are shared by the
mainstream of Israeli politics (Masalha, 2000).
The colonial ambitions of Israel are therefore at the very heart of the conflict*
ambitions for territory, ‘‘Jewish land’’ and water. And this nature of the conflict is not lost
on some BBC executives and journalists we interviewed. For example, Marsh noted:

I think increasingly, this is my perception, is that it is clear that this is a territorial and
resource conflict . . . I think, if you ask me my impression, I think hmm most of the BBC
coverage really focuses on territorial issues that have arisen since 1948, particularly since
1967, because I think in a sense that’s core of the discussion now.

The Last Stand did give the impression that the settlers*both the Itzhaki family and
the organised groups depicted*were extremists. However, without historical and political
contextualisation, and without explicit use of terms such as ‘‘occupation’’ or explication in
the form of ‘‘Israeli settlers illegally occupying Gaza’’, they appear to be extremists who
just happened to want to live in Gaza*a land that was previously ‘‘empty sand dunes’’.
According to the documentary, the settlers in Gaza had little relationship with the
presence of an occupying Israeli army. The Army only appeared in a significant way at the
end of the programme, thereby ignoring the plain fact that the settlements in Gaza, as
well as in the West Bank and the Golan Heights, are part of a policy of exerting strategic
and military control over Palestinian territories, a policy that continues to be safeguarded
by heavy military fortification.
Our interviewees were almost unanimous that the context of occupation was crucial
for a reasonable understanding of the conflict. Hardy said:

Even the shortest item that involves Palestinian violence, should say that the Palestinians
have been under Israeli occupation for 40 years. It is frequently relevant. The clever
journalist knits together these things.

But that very particular word ‘‘occupation’’ and its context are rarely included in the
coverage of the conflict (Barkho, 2007, 2008a). Asked why BBC discourse tends to overlook
the illegal occupation of Palestinian lands, Marsh said:

I don’t justify this, but it is an interesting observation, most BBC journalists would find it
easier to describe what is happening in Iraq as an occupation than they would talk about
Israeli troops occupying . . . I think they, er, no BBC journalists would be happy using the
phrase ‘‘Israeli troops occupying the West Bank’’. But they would be much happier to talk
about coalition forces occupying Baghdad or whatever . . . There is no rationale. There is
no good reason why we shouldn’t. But it is interesting that it is not used.

Concerns about the impact of the occupation on both Palestinian and Israeli lives
were the catalyst that drove Fink to look for patrons and sponsors for the London
performance (Burstein, 2005). Fink sees the Palestinians killed in the ongoing conflict as
‘‘the victims’’ of the occupation and the Israelis losing their lives in the struggle as ‘‘victims
of occupation and the Sharon (Israeli) government, indirectly’’. More than three months
after the performance, Fink received a letter of apology from the BBC, an admission that
the corporation got it wrong. The letter from Fraser Steel, head of the BBC’s Editorial
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Complaints Commission, reads:

There was, in my judgment, an obligation to make some allusion, however brief, to the
difference of opinion within the Jewish community. To the extent that this did not
happen, I am therefore upholding your complaint, and I hope you will accept my
apologies on behalf of the BBC.13

Absences, 3: Equality
In the preceding analysis and discussion we have relied on CDA and argumentation
theory to unravel some of the discursive patterns the BBC employs in reporting the conflict.
Our analysis reveals that the BBC’s discursive and visual rhetoric, with regard to the conflict,
shares a basic common feature, namely inequality. The fact that one party in an argument
may dominate the other in discourse has been at the heart of the concept of hegemony and
social and verbal inequality of the capitalist world (Bourdieu, 2000; Singer, 1999). Some
critical research has analysed the acceptability or non-acceptablity of controversial
standpoints on the part of audiences and organisations within the framework of ‘‘hegemony
as consent’’ (Anderson, 1977; Bommaert and Bulcaen, 2000; Comaroff and Comaroff, 1992;
Fairclough, 1992; Howarth et al., 2000). Hegemony as consent can be said to exist where the
textual inequalities are seen as natural and commonplace (cf. Blommaert et al., 2003).
Blommaert and his co-editors of the volume see the persistence on the notion ‘‘hegemony-
as-consent’’ as a gap in critical research and urge scholars to shift attention ‘‘to what in
Gramsci’s parlance would be the ‘war of maneuver’: Coercion and force, used as
complements of persuasion and consent in the exercise of power’’ (2003, p. 2).
To examine how hegemony leads to inequality in discourse and argumentation it is
vitally necessary to unravel the sources and forces manipulating the discursive and visual
representations of news as well as the verbal and social activity behind them. It is our
belief that it will be hard for critical analysts to reveal the operationalisation of Gramsci’s
notion of hegemony-as-coercion simply by relying on verbal discourse and the discursive
or visual manifestations of argumentation. Once textual evidence is supplemented by
ethnographic observation and triangulated with multi-faceted secondary data, the
discoursal ‘‘war of maneuver’’ unfolds.
BBC argumentation, whether verbal or visual, is mainly rule-based and authority-
based (Schellens, 1985). It has to respond to demands in the hitherto confidential but
voluminous glossary of terms and expressions on how to report the conflict. It has to meet

the standards the holders of two key editorial positions set for the coverage: Balen the
author of the BBC Middle East internal guide and Bowen, the author of the BBC’s teaching
module which all journalists involved in reporting the conflict have to take. We believe
these measures, non-existent for the coverage of other world regions and conflicts, are the
root of the ‘‘inequality’’ of the BBC’s Middle East reporting and have so far hindered the
corporation from adopting other schemes of argumentation particularly those based on
pragmatism (Schellens, 1985). The BBC enforces tough ‘‘gate-keeping’’ practices for the
production of discourse and argumentation with regard to IsraeliPalestinian conflict. We
hope we have shed some helpful light through our ethnographic observation and analysis
of other secondary data on how these practices are introduced, adopted and followed,
and their impact on the coverage of the conflict.
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The BBC is a mammoth organisation. Besides its numerous domestic services it
broadcasts in 33 languages and operates a global ‘‘BBC World’’ service. Therefore, we
cannot claim to have reached generalisations that are applicable to the corporation at
large for two main reasons: first, we have only linguistically and visually analysed two
television broadcasts, one news and the other a documentary; second, as our empirical
data have illustrated, what applies to the IsraeliPalestinian conflict in the BBC does not
apply to other conflicts and regions. Nonetheless, we hope that the depth in which
the broadcasts have been analysed and the breadth of our data*which includes extensive
ethnographic observations and secondary material*would grant some credence to the
conclusions we draw below.
First, the BBC as a carrier and disseminator of the protagonists’ arguments has
devised two sets of conflicting discourses in reporting the conflict. But in doing so, the BBC
does not stand aloof for the sake of objectivity and balance. It imposes certain limitations
and conclusions on the argumentation to the extent that the hegemony, power and
control of one side, so clearly reflected on the ground, is also discernible at several levels of
representation. As a result, BBC’s argumentation schemes with regard to the issue are both
restricted and non-restricted, with authority-based argumentation having the upper hand
due in part to numerous commissions set up to examine the coverage but, above all, to
the strict measures the corporation has in place on how it should be reported.
The observations gathered from our ethnographic activity clearly show that the
editors holding the linguistic and visual power are not that happy with how the conflict is
covered, given the results of internal investigations showing how misinformed BBC
audiences are of the basic facts on the ground (Opinion Leader Research, 2006). We
assume that the ‘‘sensitivity’’ with which the coverage is handled and decades of reporting
the same conflict with its attendant ‘‘scrutiny’’ from all sides, as the respondents
themselves admit, has created what can be termed as ‘‘the Middle East culture’’
compelling journalists and editors to watch every single word they write and broadcast.
This culture has deep roots in the organisation to the extent that at least four senior
editors*called ‘‘the four wise men’’ in the corridors of Bush House in London*have to
agree before a new ‘‘softer’’ or ‘‘harsher’’ lexical item can be used. If the lexical item is of
the so-called ‘‘loaded or sensitive’’ type, the issue may go to even higher levels of the
hierarchy. No other conflict the corporation currently covers receives the same degree of
scrutiny, attention and editorial supervision.

Therefore, it will take a lot of time and effort to persuade the corporation to have the
three absences we have identified included in the coverage, although our respondents
admit that they are vitally important for the sake of balance, credibility and fairness. When
argumentation responds to the inequalities of power on the ground, only a change in this
material balance of power is bound to lead to a change in its linguistic and visual

1. Quoted from, accessed 27 November 2008.
2. See: ‘‘Peaceful Protest’’, Hackney Gazette, 4 November 2005.
3. This press release was given to the authors by Ms Deborah Fink.
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4. The press release quotes Miriam Margolyes as saying: ‘‘I support the event because I think
what happened to Rachel was wrong*and I*who am a proud Jew*am not proud
when we do wrong’’.
5. Material italicised and within double square parentheses [[thus]] indicates the words of
the interviewer.
6. See, accessed 15
February 2006.
7. All quotations from this programme are taken from the BBC transcript, http://
nov_05.txt, accessed 15 February 2006.
8. See, accessed 16 February 2006.
9. The pronoun one can also serve as an indefinite second-person pronoun, but is rarely
used other than in a formal style.
10. From, accessed 16 February 2006.
11. Here we use ‘‘Jewish State’’ to refer to something distinct from ‘‘a state of the Jews’’.
Quoting Orr (1983, p. 15): ‘‘the latter is merely a refuge, where Jews can find shelter, while
the former means a state whose institutions embody the essential qualities of Judaism’’.
Such a state would discriminate in favour of Jews and thus, inevitably, discriminate
against non-Jews.
12. Jewish Chronicle, 22 January 1982.
13. See RandomPottins (2006).

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John E. Richardson (author to whom correspondence should be addressed), Department

of Social Sciences, Loughborough University, Epinal Way, Loughborough LE11 3TU,
UK. E-mail:
Leon Barkho, Department of Languages, Media Management and Transformation Center,
University of Jönköping, Box 1026, 551 11, Sweden. E-mail: