Thousands of protesters descended on BBC’s London headquarters on Tuesday. (Photo courtesy of Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Facebook page)
Approximately 5,000 protesters brought the roads around the BBC’s London headquarters to a standstill on 15 July, forcing the news organization to confront its one-sided coverage of Israel’s current assault on Gaza.
As the protesters shouted “BBC, shame on you,” Hugh Lanning, Chair of Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), handed in a letter to the BBC’s Director General, Tony Hall. The letter calls on the BBC to reflect the reality of Gaza’s occupation and siege in its reporting. The open letter had been signed by 45,000 people in under a week. Signatories include scholar Noam Chomsky, filmmaker John Pilger, film director Ken Loach, musician Brian Eno, journalist Owen Jones and comedian and filmmaker Jeremy Hardy.
Protesters held up placards bearing statements from the letter, including: “We would like to remind the BBC that Gaza has no army, air force or navy” and “The BBC’s reporting of Israel’s assaults on Gaza is entirely devoid of context or background.” Speakers from organizations including Palestine Solidarity Campaign, the Palestinian Forum in Britain, Friends of Al Aqsa and Stop the War addressed the crowds.
As BBC employees watched from the top of their building, some recording the protest on mobile phones and tweeting out the footage, Lanning told the protestors: “There are lies, there are damned lies, and then there’s the BBC. Come on BBC, tell the truth — it’s the occupation, stupid.”
“Have we been biased at the BBC?”
Taking place on its doorstep, and with police having to guide out BBC staff who wanted to leave the building, it was a protest against its coverage that the BBC couldn’t ignore.
And the next day, the BBC’s flagship news program Today on Radio 4, ran a seven-minute segment asking, in the words of presenter Mishal Husain, “Are the protestors right? Have we been biased at the BBC in favor of Israel?”
It was an unprecedented segment — and maybe the first time the BBC has publicly held up a mirror to its reporting of the occupation.
Answering the question was Greg Philo, co-author of More Bad News from Israel, an in-depth study of the BBC and ITV’s (another British television network) coverage of Palestine, and professor of Communications and Social Change at Glasgow University.
Philo’s answers also broke new ground for the BBC. Uninterrupted, Philo was allowed to talk about subjects which normally appear to be taboo across the BBC’s output: Israel’s occupation, its siege of Gaza, the forced displacement of Palestinians in 1948, Israel’s “brutal apartheid” as he was allowed to describe it, and the illegality of Israel’s actions.
And, throughout, he emphasised the lack of the Palestinian viewpoint in BBC coverage in general.
Philo also praised those who had been at the demonstration, telling Husain: “I think actually the protesters are doing the BBC a favor. I think they will help the journalists to give a better perspective … I’ve had many senior journalists at the BBC saying they simply can’t get the Palestinian viewpoint across, that the perspective they can’t say is the Palestinian view that Israel is a brutal apartheid state.”
Asked by Husain what picture is given by BBC reporting, Philo replied: “Well, the Palestinian perspective is just not there. The Israelis are on twice as much. But the Palestinian view and the historical analysis of the events is that they were displaced from their land, they are living under military rule.”
He added: “People don’t even understand that it’s a military occupation that Palestinians are subject to. They don’t know about the economic blockade, they don’t know about the consequences of that on Palestinian life.”
As Husain interrupted to argue that the BBC had carried “many reports from Gaza … reporting on the casualties, reporting from the morgues,” Philo came back to remind her that the underlying story was not being dealt with.
“The problem with the coverage is that it doesn’t refer to the history,” he said. “That [the Palestinians] lost their homes and lands, that the occupation and the way it is conducted is illegal, that they lose their water, that they had their lives, in effect, stolen from them … Even if the BBC can’t give the Palestinian view, it should at least respect international law. The BBC should be reporting the international judgements on things like the wall …”
Here, he was stopped as Husain brought in Jonathan Friedland, journalist with the Guardian and The Jewish Chronicle, who managed to speak for only a few seconds in the whole seven-minute segment.
Philo was given extraordinary free rein by an organization which has shown — over and over again — its averseness to the Palestinian experience.
His interview on Today followed not only the previous day’s protests, but a Twitter storm on 14 July, initiated by Palestine Solidarity Campaign, during which the hashtag #BBCTruth4Gaza trended at number one in the UK for three hours, and at number four worldwide.
Local protests have also taken place outside BBC studios around the country in the last six days, organized by local PSC branches, including Nottingham, Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham.
In More Bad News from Israel, Philo describes the backlash for BBC management from those who support Israel’s occupation whenever anything is published or broadcast that doesn’t accord with the Israeli viewpoint. He quotes a senior BBC editor telling him: “We wait in fear for the phone call from the Israelis.”
The hope is that this week’s protests in London and around the country — and a letter signed by 45,000 — will show the BBC that there is a massive groundswell of its audience who want it to report fully, accurately and honestly on the occupation, and desperately want its journalists to find the courage to do so.
Greg Philo’s interview with Mishal Husain can be heard here (starting from 2:39) until 23 July.