How to lie factually

By way of illustration, I’m going to quote the headline and lead paragraph of yesterday’s article in The Daily Mail.

The article falls in line with the general thrust of our coverage of Israel in Britain: the Palestinians may be a little rough round the edges, but they have a legitimate grievance. The Israelis, on the other hand, don’t so much react to manifestations of such grievances as overreact.

That is the strategy, now let’s look at the tactics. The purpose here is to communicate the strategic message without hearing from the Press Complaints Commission.

Headline: “Jerusalem streets run red with blood: Israeli police shoot dead man who stabbed border guard at Damascus Gate – the 99th Palestinian to die in latest wave of violence.”

See what I mean? Jerusalem streets run red with Palestinian blood wantonly spilled by Israelis who probably used the blood for ritual purposes – that is the subtext.

The text is factually unassailable, except for one minor detail: one man shot, even for no provocation, is unlikely to have his blood flowing into the streets, plural. One street, perhaps, and even then, for it to run red with blood an Israeli bullet would have had to sever a major artery, the carotid one for preference.

Then of course any sense of balance would dictate that, now that we know how many Palestinians died while manifesting their just grievances, we should be told how many Israelis fell victim too (224 so far this year, 49 of them dead – and there’s still a month to go).

But hey, there are some high journalistic standards to uphold here. And a sense of balance is prime among them. Hence the lead paragraph:

“A Palestinian man has been shot dead at an entrance to the Old City of Jerusalem after he stabbed an Israeli border guard in the neck this morning. Just two hours later, a woman was stabbed in the back as she waited for a bus in north Jerusalem.”

You can see me wiping my brow even as we speak. Our most conservative newspaper hasn’t lost its objectivity after all, its commitment to truth. So the killing of the Palestinian man who drowned most of Jerusalem in his blood was either self-defence or retaliation? So it was justifiable?

Ah, but I didn’t tell you what the kicker was, coming in the very next sentence. Here it is: “Neither the policeman nor the woman were seriously wounded in the attacks.”

It should have been ‘was’, not ‘were’, but we’re way past the point where we expect grammatical rectitude from our semi-literate hacks and totally illiterate sub-editors. We do expect unbiased reporting though, and it is this expectation that this sentence frustrates, while pretending to be dispassionately objective.

Can you spot how? Of course you can. The sanguinary Palestinian was killed; neither of his victims was (or were, to the victims of our comprehensive education).

It’s that overreaction, you see. It’s that disproportionate response all over again. Well done, The Mail. I wouldn’t call this message subliminal, but it certainly conveys the message less crudely than one would expect from more left-leaning papers.

Never mind that Israel is surrounded by millions of fanatics whose governments are institutionally committed to murdering every Israeli. Never mind that terrorist attacks, successful or thwarted, happen practically every day in Israeli towns. Never mind that Israelis don’t have a moment’s peace.

One Palestinian killed is too many. One Palestinian killed is enough to inundate all of Jerusalem with the congealing red liquor.

If you are planning a career in journalism, this is a useful lesson to learn. Denotation is nothing; connotation, everything. Text trumps subtext. A few nice touches, and truth disappears behind the fog of factual accuracy.


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