Of Mice and Monsignors: The Press and Canadian Policy Towards the Middle East

B.E. Burton (University of Windsor)

T.A. Keenleyside (University of Windsor)

Abstract: Press coverage of the Middle East by Canadian daily newspapers is analyzed and compared over the last quarter of 1985 and the period December 1987 to September 1988. The principal areas explored are press bias vis-à-vis Israel and the Arabs/Palestinians and the implications of the coverage for Canadian foreign policy.

Résumé: Cette étude analyse et compare la couverture de presse du Moyen-Orient par les quotidiens canadiens pendant le dernier trimestre de l'année 1985 et la période décembre 1987 à septembre 1988. Les domaines principaux examinés sont le préjugé de presse en face d'Israël et des Arabes/Palestiniens et la portée de la couverture pour la politique étrangère canadienne.


In December 1985, the Canadian press reported the death by suicide of hundreds of field mice in the Middle East. In an apparently instinctive reaction to a problem of over-population, the mice wilfully plunged to their doom off the cliffs of the Golan Heights. This bizarre story was the subject not only of straight news coverage in the Canadian press, but also of an editorial in the Globe and Mail on December 20. On November 1, 1985, the Globe and Mail also ran a photograph of a visiting Roman Catholic priest from Brazil, saying prayers on the banks of the Jordan River at the site where Christ is said to have been baptized. Standing alertly near the priest was an Israeli soldier with a rifle slung over his shoulder, his eyes carefully scanning Jordanian territory across the river.

For the analyst of the media and media image-making, these rather unusual press items raise an interesting question about news selection and presentation by the editorial departments of the daily press. Had the mice toppled off Mount Kilimanjaro would this essentially scientific story about animal behaviour have found its way so prominently into the Canadian press? Had the priest been peacefully saying mass on the Mattawa would this religious item have been deemed worthy of coverage? Or was it the newspapers' sense of the irony of these events, of their news value as symbols depicting the pervasive conflict and violence we have come to associate with the Middle East that led to their selection for publication from the reams of teletype endlessly flowing into the editorial departments of the Canadian press? It would seem that even when the subject matter is scientific or religious--about mice or monsignors--the press is inclined to remind its readers of the inherently violent nature of the Middle East, and a fundamentally negative image is developed or reinforced. It is, Canadians are told in effect, a region so bleak and hopeless that even its despairing mice are driven to take their lives.

The purpose of this study is to examine in an empirical fashion Canadian daily press coverage of the Middle East to establish, inter alia, what type of image of the region and of its principal actors (Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states) is, in fact, presented to the Canadian reader and what impact, if any, the character of that coverage has had on the shaping of Canadian foreign policy.

Hypotheses and Methodology

A review of the existing, limited literature on Canadian media coverage of the Middle East together with the more extensive literature on the Canadian media and international affairs generally led us to advance five hypotheses to test in our study of press coverage of the Middle East:

(1) It was anticipated that treatment of the region would be relatively substantial, given the prominence of Middle East events in the context of East-West relations and issues of global peace and security, and that the predominant coverage would be of Israel, the Palestinians, Egypt and Lebanon because of their central role in Middle East conflict (Hackett, 1989; Keenleyside, Soderlund, & Burton, 1985; Kirton, Barei, & Smockum, 1985; Sinclair, 1983).

(2) It was expected that there would be relatively limited coverage of Canadian relations with the Middle East unless some specific development, most likely within Canada, prompted attention to the region (Cumming, 1981; Keenleyside, Soderlund, & Burton, 1985; Kirton, Barei, & Smockum, 1985; Schroeder, 1977).

(3) Conflict rather than cooperation, it was hypothesized, would be the dominant orientation of the press with articles focusing on political divisions, disasters, violence and war rather than on softer news related to such subjects as culture, education and development (Cuthbert, 1980; Dewitt & Kirton, 1989; Hackett, 1989; Inyang, 1985; Onu, 1979; Schroeder, 1977; Sinclair, 1983).

(4) On the perennial subject of bias towards Israel or the Arab states and the Palestinians, it was expected that, while the press would be critical of the party deemed responsible for any specific violent acts, it was likely to show reasonable balance even at such times on the central issue of a resolution of the Palestinian question.

(5) Finally, many authors have noted the potential relevance of media coverage to the making of foreign policy, particularly in terms of setting the policy agenda and shaping public opinion which, in turn, establishes the broad parameters within which policy is made. We thus hypothesized that the nature of the Canadian press coverage of the Middle East would be found to have some policy relevance.

This study analyzes Canadian press coverage of the Middle East during two contrasting periods. The first is the last quarter of 1985, a time of hostage-takings, bombings and killings perpetrated largely by Palestinians and their supporters. The events of this period included the hijacking of the Italian cruise ship, Achille Lauro, and the murder of an elderly U.S. passenger; the hijacking of an Egyptian airliner, flying from Athens to Cairo with 60 passengers perishing when Egyptian commandos stormed the aircraft in Malta, bombings at the El Al check-in counters at the Rome and Vienna airports that left eighteen dead; and several developments related to hostage-takings in Lebanon. The latter period is from December 1987 to September 1988 and is one dominated by the Palestinian uprising (intifadah) in Gaza and the West Bank. During these months, world attention focused on the harsh measures employed by Israel to quell the unrest in the occupied territories, including shootings, beatings, the denial of food and the use of deportations. Accordingly, this study affords an opportunity to compare press treatment of the principal protagonists in the Middle East during periods in which each party stood before the court of world opinion as a perpetrator of violent acts, making it possible to establish if the respective events had similar or different effects on the Canadian press's tilt towards the Israelis and the Arabs/Palestinians. Finally, since it is during times of crisis, when dramatic, turbulent events offer graphic and emotive material to present to the public, that the media is most likely to have the capacity to influence the policy process, these two periods provide an opportunity to examine the press's possible impact on Canadian policy.

Given the differing lengths of time involved in our two study periods, the data base for each is rather different. For the last quarter of 1985, we content-analyzed five major Canadian daily newspapers: the Chronicle Herald (Halifax), Le Devoir (Montreal), the Globe and Mail (Toronto), the Sun (Vancouver) and the Winnipeg Free Press. These papers were chosen on the basis of their national and regional importance and in order to reflect both official languages. Beginning with a randomly selected date within the first three days of October (October 2), we sampled each of these papers every third day until December 31. Each of these issues was examined in its entirety for material dealing with the Middle East and all items identified were coded under several categories of analysis. All coding was done by the authors, with intercoder reliability calculated at 86%. Further, for purposes of exploring press bias, in order to enlarge our data base, we examined all editorials on the Middle East in the five newspapers from October 1 to December 31, 1985.

Since a longer period was deemed necessary to analyze the character of Middle East press coverage at the time of emergence of the intifadah and since we were operating under constraints of time and budget, a different data base was employed for the second phase of this study. For the period December 1987 to September 1988, the Canadian News Index, which provides the headlines of stories, was used for the purpose of counting and coding Middle East items into various categories. This source indexes seven English language dailies, four of which were used in the 1985 collection of data. It is important to note that the Canadian News Index is selective, based, in the words of the publishers, on the "significant reference value" of items. The figures reported below for frequency of coverage of different countries and subjects thus do not represent the totals for stories in the seven newspapers and direct comparisons with the 1985 data are not possible. Nevertheless, the numbers are a good indicator of the emphasis in coverage and that is what is important for the purposes of this study.


(1) Frequency and Focus of Middle East Coverage

Over the three-month sample period of 1985, altogether, 542 items appeared on the Middle East in the five newspapers examined, an average of 3.5 stories per newspaper issue, with the Globe and Mail at the top end averaging 4.6 items per issue and the Vancouver Sun at the bottom only 2.3.

While overall for the five newspapers the coverage could be described as reasonably extensive, measured in terms of quantity alone, it must be pointed out that 96 or 17.7% of the items comprised stories that were only three paragraphs or less in length. Further, on average for the five newspapers, 76.4 per cent of the cases were inside page, factual news stories while editorials and features, the principal categories providing the reader with contextual background and evaluation of developments, accounted together for just 5.4% of the total number of items.

When the Middle East actors featured in the Canadian press coverage in 1985 were analyzed, it was discovered that the press did, in fact, concentrate on the so-called "core" of the Middle East. Israel dominated the coverage with 256 items (47.2% of cases) dealing wholly or in part with that country. The Palestine Liberation Organization (coded in 143 stories), other Palestinian actors (141), Egypt (123), and Lebanon (86) followed as the most significant foci of attention. The press devoted little space to reporting on developments in other Middle East countries unless they related to the Palestinian question or Lebanon.

In the 1987-88 period, the Middle East continued to be the subject of considerable attention, substantially in excess of that accorded all other third world regions. Once again, too, the emphasis was heavily on factual news rather than evaluative pieces and on the "core" of the area. However, during this period, that core was much more specifically Israel itself. Over the four-month span, December 1987 to March 1988, for instance, the Canadian News Index listed 621 stories related to Israel. On the basis of their headlines, 500 of these, or 81%, dealt principally with the intifadah and more specifically Israeli repression in dealing with this problem, making this the unquestioned focus of Middle East coverage. Other actors trailed far behind the attention devoted to Israel and this particular aspect of Israeli affairs over this four-month period. Through the late spring and summer of 1988, the intensity of the coverage of Israel declined somewhat and the Canadian press devoted markedly increased attention to the Iran-Iraq war, then in its concluding stages, and to the Persian Gulf region generally. By the autumn of 1988, however, the continuing unrest in Gaza and the West Bank and the Israeli election shifted the press focus back to Israel again.

In sum, with respect to our first hypothesis, there was relatively extensive Canadian press coverage of the Middle East in both periods under analysis, measured simply in terms of the number of items. However, in both 1985 and 1987-88 the press relied very heavily on straight news treatment, with little attention being given to providing the reader with the background and analysis necessary to understand the complex unfolding of events within the region. Moreover, coverage was largely confined to the "core" of the area, Israel and the Palestinians in particular, with peripheral actors--regardless of the importance of their relations with Canada or the significance of events occurring within their jurisdictions--largely excluded from serious treatment.

(2) Canada's Relations with the Middle East

A striking feature of the press coverage in 1985 was the lack of Middle East stories related to Canada. Only 48 items or 8.9% of the total made any reference to Canada. Further, many of the Canadian items had only a tangential connection with this country. Of them 32 pertained to the various violent incidents in or related to the Middle East, and in most cases simply noted the presence or absence of Canadian victims.

In 1987-88, the Canadian press certainly devoted much greater attention to Canadian relations with the Middle East than in 1985. However, in our view, the coverage remained episodic in nature and did not reflect a new concern to inform readers about a range of Canadian relations with the countries of the region and Canadian policy with respect to the central issue of an Arab-Israeli reconciliation.

The press's preoccupation with the Canadian dimension was principally a product of highly controversial statements by Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Secretary of State for External Affairs Joe Clark regarding Israel that set off a debate in Canada which the press reported on with some frequency, especially between December 1987 and May 1988. On December 22, 1987, the Prime Minister remarked that, in his view, Israel was showing restraint in its handling of the unrest in the occupied territories. The observation provoked protest in Canada which the press duly reported. On January 21, Mr. Clark asserted that Israel was systematically abusing the human rights of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank and the following day he met with the ambassadors of the Arab countries in Ottawa to express his growing concern with Israeli actions. Again, these initiatives triggered press coverage and there were also reports in the days that followed on both positive and negative reactions in Canada to Mr. Clark's apparently tougher position.

The controversy over Canadian policy culminated on March 11 when, in a speech before the Canada-Israel Committee, Mr. Clark described the military actions of Israel in Gaza and the West Bank as "totally unacceptable and in many cases illegal under international law." His speech created a furore at the meeting and precipitated a plethora of "reaction" stories in the Canadian press in the weeks and, indeed, months that followed.

Altogether, over the period December 1987 to September 1988, the Canadian News Index listed 100 stories examining Israel's policies in the occupied territories from a Canadian perspective (almost all of them related to the two leaders' controversial statements), compared to 19 stories pertaining to other aspects of Canada's relations with the Middle East. Thus, the coverage in the two periods supports the view that only when there are special developments within Canada do Canadian newspapers, to any significant degree, inform their readers about aspects of Canada's relations with the Middle East.

(3) Orientation of Middle East Coverage

In the last quarter of 1985, all sample stories were assessed in terms of whether or not they were conflictual or non-conflictual in character. Items were coded as conflictual if they dealt with violent events in the Middle East (e.g., fighting, bombings, assassinations, hostage-takings, etc.) or with non-violent conflict that extended beyond what would be perceived by the Canadian reader as normal societal competition (related to political parties, leadership, etc.) and was suggestive of political, economic or social turmoil, decay and/or disintegration. Using this broad definition, 86.7% of items were classified as conflictual in nature or both conflictual and non-conflictual. Of these, 340 or 72.3% dealt with violence in or related to the region.

Canadian press coverage from December 1987 to September 1988 was also very heavily conflictual in character. As indicated, Israel was the dominant focus and the majority of stories dealt with its actions in the occupied territories. It is clear from the headlines that almost all of these reported on the use of violent means to repress the Palestinian uprising. The results for both periods thus bear out the third hypothesis that press coverage of the Middle East is, not surprisingly, essentially negative in nature.

(4) The Tilt of Canadian Middle East Coverage

On the recurring question of the bias of Canadian press coverage, Table 1 reports on the perspective of all editorials on the Middle East in the five newspapers examined from October 1 to December 31, 1985.

Table 1
Perspectives of Editorials on Middle East Issues, 1985
Assassinations/ Middle East
Killings/Bombings Peace Process Other Total
Favourable to
Israel/Israelis -- -- 1 1
Favourable to Arab
States/Arabs/Palestinians -- -- -- --
Unfavourable to
Israel/Israelis 4 1 1 6
Unfavourable to Arab
States/Arabs/Palestinians 18 -- -- 18
Neutral 8 11 10 29
Total 30 12 12 54
There were 45 editorials during the study period; some covered more than one issue.

The table indicates that while there was virtually no favourable editorial treatment of either Israel or the Arab states, unfavourable comment was directed primarily at the Arabs. The whole series of Palestinian violent incidents, starting with the seizure of the Achille Lauro in early October and culminating in the Rome and Vienna airport killings just after Christmas, provoked strongly worded editorial denunciations of the terrorist actions of certain radical Palestinians and their supporters, of the alleged role of Yasser Arafat and the PLO in these incidents, and of the responses of the Egyptian and other Arab governments to them. By contrast, criticism of Israel was largely confined to reaction to an Israeli Air Force raid on the PLO headquarters in Tunis which occurred at the very beginning of the coding period.

Despite the strong condemnation of some Arab governments and organizations in the wake of the hostage-takings and killings, there was generally even-handed treatment of Israel and the Arabs in discussion of the overall Middle East peace process. All five newspapers ran editorials that were coded as neutral in their perspectives on the continuing quest for peace in the region. While there were differences in their focus and mood, the general tenor suggested that all of the writers, however strongly they deplored the Palestinian terrorist acts, recognized that the rights of that community must be reflected in any peace settlement. The Chronicle-Herald's editorial of December 14 was representative: "It would seem to be axiomatic that no significant agreement in the Middle East can be reached without the PLO."

In contrast with 1985, it was Israel rather than the Arabs and Palestinians that was subjected to unfavourable coverage in 1987- 88. The news stories dealing with the intifadah frequently appeared under negative headlines, of which the following are only examples: "Violence scarring face of Israel"; "Israel bares iron fist"; "Brutal Israel sees no alternatives"; and "Iron fist policy straining loyalty of Jews to Israel." While there were editorials and features both favourable and unfavourable to Israel, the tendency was clearly towards the latter, although we did not undertake a precise count as in 1985. Most opinion pieces centred specifically on Canadian responses to Israeli policy, but in a manner that reflected a lack of sympathy for Israel. Thus, in a January editorial, the Sun asserted that as the death toll mounts and world opinion grows increasingly impatient with Israel, "the lack of protest from the Canadian government becomes more and more inexplicable." Mr. Clark's March address to the Canada-Israel Committee prompted a substantial outpouring of press support with the Chronicle-Herald, for example, asserting that the minister had "served up a cold but correct stew to people who could be relied on to translate his message to Israeli leaders." Just as in 1985 we noted that the negative coverage of Palestinian violence did not affect the Canadian press's recognition of the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people, so, too, in 1987-88, we found no evidence to suggest that the harsh criticisms of Israel diminished the Canadian press's traditional support for the rights of that country. Indeed, several of the negative opinion pieces included at the same time reaffirmations of Canada's friendship for and commitment to Israel, arguing, as Keith Spicer did in the Ottawa Citizen, that it was important "to shout our horror" at Israel's treatment of the Palestinians "while insisting on our firm attachment to Israel's existence and legitimacy." Thus, like that of 1985, the coverage of 1987-88 indicates that the Canadian press inclines towards negative treatment of that side seen as principally responsible for the most immediate and publicized acts of violence, but that it does so within an overall balanced view of the rights of both Israel and the Arabs.

(5) Implications for Canadian Foreign Policy

Finally, there are grounds for arguing that the character of the Canadian press coverage of the Middle East during our two periods of study had relevance for the making of policy in at least two respects. First, regarding the agenda-setting role of the media, the heavy coverage of hostages, hijackings, assassinations and bombings in the Middle East during the last quarter of 1985 clearly elevated the issue of terrorism on the agenda for public debate and thereby helped to determine the degree of attention that the Government paid to the formulation of policies designed to counteract terrorism domestically and internationally. Thus, following the 1985 incidents, within Canada, the government stepped up security measures at airports, while at the external level it combined with other states within the fora of NATO and the UN to consider ways of dealing with the spectre of terrorism. Similarly, in 1987-88, the extensive, graphic coverage of the protests in Gaza and the West Bank and of Israel's reported "iron fist" response elevated the issue of Israeli policy on the Canadian political agenda, just as occurred during the 1982 war in Lebanon. Both private diplomatic and public responses to Israeli behaviour were called for as a result of the scope and character of the coverage it received.

Second, the nature of the media's coverage of the Middle East arguably had an impact on public opinion and the public mood, in turn, had some effect on policy. For example, it seems likely that the late 1985 portrayal of radical Palestinians and their allies as perpetrators or sponsors of violent actions influenced the public's perception of these actors in such a way as to facilitate the Canadian Government's participation in the economic sanctions organized by the U.S. against Libya in January 1986 as well as its rather oblique support of the subsequent U.S. naval and air attacks on that country. The responses to a Gallup Poll conducted across Canada in early November 1985 lend support to this argument. Of the respondents 73% stated that they had seen or heard something about the episode involving the Achille Lauro and the American interception of the Egyptian plane carrying the supposed hijackers of the ship, a finding which indicates the extent to which Canadians are exposed to crises in the Middle East by the media. In addition, 80% of those respondents who expressed awareness of the episode (compared to 33% of those unaware) agreed with the view that the U.S. was "justified in acting against terrorism that endangers American citizens" (Gallup Report, December 16 1985). Doubtless, in deciding to support U.S. measures against Libya, the Mulroney government was aware of the impact that media coverage of the Achille Lauro incident and of other violent acts by radical Palestinian groups over the preceding months had had upon Canadian public opinion.

Similarly, there seems little question that the Canadian press's generally negative treatment of Israeli actions in the occupied territories from December 1987 on affected public attitudes in Canada toward Israel. As indicated in Table 2, Gallup polls have shown a progressive decline in Canadian sympathy for the Israelis since the late 1970s, with the number of respondents showing that sentiment reaching a low of 12% in February 1988. Further, a Globe-Environics poll, published on March 30, 1988, indicated that 53% of Canadians surveyed disapproved of the way Israel was handling the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, while only 9% approved. The same poll revealed that those whose sympathies were strongly or somewhat pro-Arab had increased since October 1987 from 8 to 14% (Globe and Mail, March 30, 1988, pp. 1-2). While the latter poll results were published subsequent to both of Mr. Clark's critical public statements regarding Israeli policy, the government was clearly aware throughout the first quarter of 1988 of the anguish Israeli actions, as reported in the media, were causing for Canadians, and this realization presumably lent support to the minister's determination to rebuke Israel. As David Dewitt has argued in a recent article, "the sustained television coverage, news reporting, and public analysis of the uprising created tremendous pressures for `adjustment' " (Dewitt, 1989, p. 22).

Table 2
More in Sympathy with Arabs/Palestinians or Israelis
1988 1982 1978 1973
Arabs/Palestinians 14% 13% 7% 5%
Israelis 12 17 23 22
Neither, no opinion 64 70 70 73
Both 10 -- -- --
Gallup Reports for February 22, 1988; November 27, 1982; November 11, 1978; December 22, 1973

Another poll--this one by Angus Reid Associates--disclosed that Joe Clark correctly gauged the public mood in March 1988, for 56% of those surveyed felt that his criticisms in the address to the Canada-Israel Committee were fair, compared to 22% who felt that they were not (Toronto Star, April 2, 1988, pp. A1, 4). Mr. Clark's address did not, however, signal any change in Canada's position on the resolution of the Palestinian question. According to David Bercuson, "the important point of the speech was not that Mr. Clark castigated Israel, but that in the remainder of it he outlined well-established "principles of Canadian-Middle East policy," including "support for the right of Israel to exist within secure and recognized boundaries" and respect for "the human rights of Palestinians," including the right to a "homeland within a clearly defined territory" (Bercuson, 1989, p. 19). Thus, not only was the decision to rebuke Israel in keeping with the public mood in the spring of 1988, as manifested in the media and opinion polls, but so, too, was the overall content of the speech, which reflected, as does our analysis of the media, the preference of Canadians for a balanced policy on the Palestinian question whatever side in the conflict might be responsible for the latest instances of violence.

Since the period of our press analysis, there have been signficant new moves in Canadian policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. Most notably, on March 30, 1989, Joe Clark announced the removal of restrictions on official contacts with representatives of the PLO and asserted that Canada supported "the principle that the Palestinians have the right to self-determination" to be "exercised through peace negotiations in which the Palestinians play a full part" (Clark, 1989, p. 2). Further, in mid-1989, Canada began to support UN resolutions that were openly critical of Israel's response to the intifadah, whereas previously it had largely opposed or abstained on such resolutions. These shifts in policy were probably principally a response to the moderate position adopted by PLO chairman Yasser Arafat toward Israel in November 1989; the subsequent United States decision in December to initiate diplomatic contacts with the PLO, leaving Canada in an isolated position; and Canada's assumption of a seat on the UN Security Council in 1989, where its voting behaviour was subject to closer scrutiny by a UN majority sympathetic towards the Palestinians. Nevertheless, one cannot discount how the media's continuing coverage of the Middle East and especially of the intifadah throughout this period helped to create a climate of opinion that made these policy moves palatable to Canadians.


The traditional view, based essentially upon non-systematic analysis, was that the Canadian media over the years showed strong sympathy for Israel while often reflecting a blatant anti-Arab or Palestinian bias. See Dewitt & Kirton, 1983, pp. 368, 383, 386, 390; Ismael, 1976, pp. 260, 264-265; Lyon, 1982, p. 4; Cohn, 1979, p. 34; Choquet, 1984, pp. 75-85; Noble, 1983, pp. 3-7; Sajoo, 1988, pp. 9-11. Content analyses conducted in the 1980s, however, have shown the media to be relatively even-handed in its treatment of Middle East actors except when they are responsible for aggressive, violent acts. See Keenleyside, Soderlund, & Burton, 1985; Kirton, Barei, & Smockum, 1985.
Perhaps the most widely cited general treatise on this subject is Cohen, 1963. For a thoughtful Canadian perspective, see in particular, Stairs, 1976, 1977-78.
A random check of the content of stories was undertaken and it established that there was a high level of congruence between the nature of stories as portrayed by headlines and their actual substance.
Prior to the 1988 poll, the question was worded, "Do you find yourself more in sympathy with the Arabs or with the Israelis?" In 1988, the word "Palestinians" was substituted for "Arabs."
For a more detailed discussion of the causes of these policy shifts, see Goldberg, 1989, pp. 25-26.
Goldberg and Taras (1989, p. 221) arrive at a similar conclusion.


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