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(Hatem Omar / Maan Images)

Why does the BBC plead ignorance on Palestine?

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Thumbs up for war crimes: Tzipi Livni is no stranger to BBC’s flagship current affairs program. (Sandy Teperson/Flickr)

In my monitoring of the BBC’s frequent inaccuracies, misleading statements, and more or less complete lack of balance in covering Israel-Palestine, I often find myself wondering if the BBC is genuinely biased as an institution against the Palestinians or simply incompetent?

In 2009, when I first started scrutinizing and challenging the organization’s output, I listened to an item on Radio 4’s Today program about a proposed vote by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) to boycott goods from Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Several minutes of airtime was given to Talya Lador-Fresher, then Israel’s deputy ambassador in London, who predictably attacked the TUC’s motion, but none whatsoever was given to a Palestinian or a pro-boycott spokesperson to explain why the motion had been drawn up. 

Today is trumpeted by the BBC as being its flagship news and current affairs program, the program which sets the media’s political agenda for the rest of the day.

I wrote to Today on behalf of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) to point out that only giving one side of a story and completely ignoring the other is the definition of bias, as well as constituting bad journalism.

Dominic Groves, then Today’s duty editor, wrote back to say: “We cannot and do not offer balance within every item … That is especially true of a complex issue like the Middle East where it would be impracticable (and confusing for the audience) if we were to try to represent every viewpoint each time a subject (like a proposed boycott) is raised.”

Excuses

Does this answer suggest bias? Or does it point to incompetence on the part of BBC journalists who, Groves seems to be saying, are incapable of producing a news item with two opposing points of view?

What is even more astonishing is that Groves also assumes stupidity on the part of the Today audience, claiming that listeners would become confused if confronted with two contradictory views in one item.

Over four years, not much has changed in the way Today reports on Israel-Palestine. Palestinian views are still routinely ignored in favor of an Israeli perspective, and Groves is still coming up with excuses for keeping a Palestinian perspective off the airwaves.

Reporting last week on the meeting between Saeb Erekat, Tzipi Livni and John Kerry in Washington, Today’s news bulletins remarked how the Palestinian Authority and Israeli negotiators sat side by side — and then played an audio broadcast of Livni’s comments only. We heard nothing from Erekat. The omission occurred throughout the day on the BBC’s news bulletins.

On this occasion, Groves, now assistant editor on Today, offered this explanation: “There are many factors which go into deciding which interviews to play on the program, of whom and when. There’s the question of time (which is limited), there’s a question of whether the audio adds to the story (whether what they say is of interest) and finally, of course, there’s the question of balance.”

At least now he’s admitting that maybe balance should play a part in BBC news reporting, although it’s apparently the last factor to be considered, after time considerations (which seem to result in Israelis being allowed to speak over Palestinians) and the implication that the Palestinian involved had nothing interesting to say.

Barking up the wrong tree

Livni, the architect of Israel’s massacre in Gaza in 2008 and 2009, which resulted in more than 1,400 Palestinians being killed, is no stranger to the Today program and has benefited before from what could be its bias or its incompetence.

Most notably, she was interviewed in October 2011 by award-winning Today presenter, Evan Davis, during a visit to London.

This was Livni’s first visit to the UK since the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government amended legislation on universal jurisdiction with the aim of allowing war criminals such as herself to visit without fear of being served an arrest warrant. A planned trip to London two years earlier had been canceled because of this concern. In the event, Livni also had to be granted “special mission” status to guarantee her security.

All of this was lost on Davis, who chose not to pursue this obvious and important news angle in his interview. In fact, he didn’t even mention it, but instead focused his questions on Israel’s perceived security concerns following the Arab uprisings that year, allowing Livni to expound, unchallenged, on “Israel’s need to fight for its existence” in a “difficult neighborhood” over the course of five minutes.

The PSC wrote to Davis to ask why he hadn’t taken the opportunity to quiz Livni on a current issue — her exemption from universal jurisdiction while in London — choosing instead to revisit a subject that had been covered on the last three occasions an Israeli spokesperson (Ron Prosor, Daniel Taub and Mark Regev) had been interviewed on Today that year.

Davis, who has won the Work Foundation’s broadcast journalist of the year award three times, wrote back to say:

I am no Middle East expert but have a passing familiarity with the issues there.

It may well have been a mistake to pick the same old Arab Spring angle. I accept that. It was not a very illuminating interview at all.

But I make mistakes like that all the time: banging on about a familiar subject when a new one would be more interesting; picking the duller angle; barking up the wrong tree … my point to you is that your complaint may be justified, but please at least acknowledge that it is not unusual, special or different simply because it concerned Israel.

Plugging SodaStream

Not bias then, according to Davis, but was that an admission by a senior presenter working for one of the biggest news organizations in the world of an extraordinary lack of news sense, an inability to sniff out a new story? And while Davis was failing to spot the story and “barking up the wrong tree,” what were the researchers, journalists, editors and producers who make up the Today team doing that day? Did they really all fail to spot the story as well?

If they failed then, they failed again a year later, at the end of 2012, when Today’s business and economics presenter, Simon Jack, ran an interview with the chief executive of SodaStream, Daniel Birnbaum.

SodaStream, of course, operates out of one of the biggest Israeli settlements in the West Bank, making it complicit in the war crimes of the occupation.

That went straight over the heads of the collective Today team, including Jack, whose interview illuminated the listener instead on “the reasons for the consumer to have a SodaStream” machine for making fizzy drinks. 

In February this year, Jack responded to a PSC member who had emailed him to ask why SodaStream’s location and the global protests against its involvement in the occupation hadn’t been raised with Birnbaum.

He wrote: “We weren’t aware. We were commenting on the return of a once popular brand that would resonate with our listeners. It was purely a business story. Thank you for alerting us to this element of the story. Should we ever cover it again I will be sure to raise it.”

Oblivious?

How can “we weren’t aware” be considered any kind of defense by so-called professional journalists?

The BBC’s huge news machine receives wire copy from Arab news agencies and press statements from pro-Palestinian organizations from across the world. And yet it seems to remain oblivious to the Palestinian experience, apparently only picking up on press releases from BICOM, the British-based pro-Israeli lobby group, which was doing a massive push on SodaStream at the end of 2012, and the Israeli government. It is their people who are interviewed, their suggestions that become stories — and they are not balanced out with a Palestinian counterpoint.

Is it incompetence? Is it bias? Is it oversight, an inability by BBC journalists to see Palestinians as the subject?

The final example is given over to Tarik Kafala, BBC Online’s Middle East editor, who emailed this explanation to a reader who queried why the BBC will never definitively say that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law:

“We … feel that to simply state that the settlements are illegal under international law is potentially misleading. An untutored reader might wonder why, if Israel is so flagrantly breaking the law, such a criminal state is still a member of the UN, a favored ally of the US, a major trading partner of the EU and so on.”

There is the implication again that the BBC’s audiences aren’t all that smart — in this case, not smart enough to understand the reality of US and EU hypocrisy in their relationship with Israel. And again, a seeming admission by a senior BBC editor that the BBC’s journalists don’t have the necessary skills to inform and educate those audiences, and so will shield them instead from a truth that they can’t understand and the country’s supposed best journalists can’t explain. 

As a result of these journalistic failings, what we’re left with is misleading coverage, with vital information omitted and only one side of the story told. It may well be incompetence, as the BBC’s various editors seem to imply, but the end result, tragically for the Palestinians, is biased and unbalanced reporting which keeps the true horrors of the occupation off the airwaves and webpages of this huge global broadcaster. 

Comments

There isn't really a choice between BBC staff being incompetent or the BBC being biased. The BBC is quite definitely biased. Anyone who is not either suitably ignorant and smugly oblivious will find it impossible to keep their jobs with the BBC.
Media Lens has written quite a bit about the BBC's pro-Israel bias that EI readers might find informative, for example: www.medialens.org/index.php/al....

I suppose it is NOT a bias, just a super-loyal service to BBC masters - UK (and USA, of course) ruling class. Sure, in such case, BBC is also being very non-competent in journalism, while being a very competent hasbara outlet. BBC just cannot help it.To speak a truth is revolutionary act, as Gramsci put it.

And, to be fair to BBC, to report the opinion of Saeb Erekat the Zionist puppet is about as meaningful as reporting the opinion of Livni the war criminal ' s lapdog.

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This is utterly damning stuff - I'm a journalist and the remarks from the BBC executives run blatantly against all the accepted professional standards on balance, accuracy etc.
However, this is a political as well a professional issue and I don't think it is just a matter of being pro-Israeli. It is a spin-off of the media being totally pro-American. The BBC is just as bad on the USA's wars, Iraq, Afghan, Iran etc, faithfully repeating al the propaganada - they don't have Palestinians but they don't have the anti-war movement or those in the invaded lands who are resisting the Americans either.

I was struck by the bias you write of when the BBC covered Stephen Hawkings decision to boycott a conference in Israel back in May 2013 - not a word on Hawking's motives.

It's surprising to see even the slightest doubt (ie incompetence) of the BBC's pro-Israel bias. From the refusal to broadcast the DEC appeal to the advertising of Sodastream, the BBC is totally under BICOM control and the power of the Israeli lobby. The "top team" now includes Danny Cohen, James ("I believe in Israel") Harding and James Purnell, former Chairman of Labour Friends of Israel. Almost no Palestinian contributors have been broadcast on the BBC for the last two or three years, and all complaints are fobbed off, except from the Israeli side in the person of BBC Watch. The BBC website published a full-page article on the cosy life in the West Bank - of a settler family, of course. It's bias, bias and bias, and as BICOM says: "we can rely on the BBC for a positive presentation of Israel" (leaked memo). Licence-payers are being cheated.

Excellent article! I disagree only on one point. I read Tarik Kafala's response not as thinking his audience are stupid, but exactly the opposite (whether he intended it, or not). Paraphrasing, he's basically saying that even someone who has no clue about the Palestinian issue, if you give them the truth, they will start asking questions. This is actually worse than your analysis that the BBC thinks its audience is stupid. It's an admission that the BBC is intentionally keeping the audience stupid, because telling the truth would be "misleading". The question I have for Kafala is where are you trying to lead your viewers? (something tells me "incompetent" is letting this last lap dog of democracy off the hook ;) )
much respect!

I think we have to allow that after seeing a few colleagues hung for stepping out of line fear is a big factor and incompetence a convenient cover