Rachel Corrie and another international activist defending a Palestinian home shortly before Corrie was killed by the Israeli army bulldozer. (International Solidarity Movement)
The extent to which the BBC is prepared to misreport on the Israeli occupation has been made clear once again. A new ruling by the BBC Trust has defended the corporation’s coverage of the Rachel Corrie case, even though it falsely implied that the unarmed activist was in some way responsible for the deaths of Israeli soldiers.
The facts of what happened to Corrie seem pretty clear cut — she was a young American who was crushed to death in Gaza by an Israeli bulldozer in 2003 as she stood in front of a Palestinian home, attempting to stop its destruction by that same bulldozer.
For the BBC, apparently, this was too clear cut. Corrie was unarmed, she was not attacking Israeli soldiers, no Israelis were injured or killed in the incident and she was the only victim — a victim of Israeli violence.
The BBC appeared to be unable to report on these simple facts, which contained no Israeli victims, without adding a few it made up itself — fabricated facts which muddied the situation by implying (wrongly) that Corrie’s actions were violently linked to Israeli deaths.
On 28 August last year, during a report on the Israeli court ruling of the same day that Corrie had been responsible for her own death, the BBC’s Martha Kearney was interviewing Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev on Radio 4’s World at One.
During the course of the interview, Kearney said to Regev: “Clearly Rachel Corrie was one of the casualties of what happened that day, and I know Israeli soldiers died too.”
She concluded her sentence with a question: “But has this meant there’s a re-think of the policy of what was happening at that time — bulldozing Palestinian houses?”
What Kearney claimed to “know” was entirely fabricated. While Palestinians had been killed that day — 16 March 2003 — by Israeli forces in Gaza, there had been no Israeli deaths.
The UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and many others put in formal complaints to the BBC. What followed over the next seven months, leading to the final ruling, has been quite extraordinary.
It has revealed the BBC’s determination to obfuscate the reality of the occupation for its audiences, even at the expense of making itself appear ridiculous.
Inventing Israeli deaths
If, during the course of her World at One interview, Kearney had said to Regev: “Clearly Rachel Corrie was one of the casualties of what happened that day, and I know Palestinians died too,” that would have been truthful. But such a statement would have given BBC radio listeners far too much knowledge of what was going on inside Gaza — that Palestinians as well as international activists were being killed by Israeli forces.
The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights reported that 27 Palestinians, including children, were killed by Israeli forces in Gaza in the same week as Corrie was killed (“Weekly report on Israeli human rights violations in the occupied territories,” 19 March 2003).
Kearney chose not to mention these Palestinian fatalities at all — instead, she decided to invent some Israeli army deaths.
By doing so, she altered the actual reality and created a false impression for her audience that Corrie’s actions had resulted in the deaths of Israeli soldiers. How those deaths might have occurred was a question left hanging in listeners’ minds, but any notion that Corrie had been engaged in unarmed, peaceful solidarity had been successfully removed from their heads by Kearney.
This is not how the BBC saw the effects of her fabrication. While the Trust acknowledged in its ruling, published on the BBC website, that Kearney had not been “duly accurate,” it defended her inaccuracy (“Editorial standards findings,” March 2013 [PDF]).
The ruling stated: “… there was no evidence to support the assertion [made by complainants] that the audience were knowingly misled.”
As such, the Trust deemed that the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines on Accuracy had not been breached by Kearney’s false claim. The guidelines state: “The BBC must not knowingly and materially mislead its audiences. We should not distort known facts, present invented material as fact or otherwise undermine our audiences’ trust in our content” (“Guidelines, Section 3: Accuracy”).
Warped view of news
Kearney’s distortion of facts, and her insertion of invented material into her interview with Regev, was defended by the BBC. Its veteran presenter had been right to refer to non-existent Israeli fatalities “that day,” because, it said, there had been Israeli deaths on other days.
On 12 October 2012, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign received a letter from Fraser Steel, head of editorial complaints at the BBC, which said: “While no Israeli soldiers were killed on that particular day, there had been Israeli fatalities in the Rafah Strip [sic] prior to that day which provided the context for the incident where Ms. Corrie was killed.”
He added: “I therefore do not see that listeners would have been misled as to the overall situation.”
Steel’s last sentence requires an examination of what “the overall situation” was at the time of Corrie’s death.
In 2003, the Israeli army was in Gaza demolishing Palestinian homes as part of an occupation recognized as illegal under international law. This is what Corrie was protesting against, attempting that day to stop the bulldozing of the family home she had been staying in, and this is the context in which she was killed.
Yet, according to Steel, the context for Corrie’s death was the completely unrelated killing of unspecified numbers of Israeli soldiers, in an unspecified timeframe, for which Corrie had absolutely no responsibility whatsoever. As such, in the BBC’s warped view of news, Kearney was absolutely correct to link her death with the deaths of Israeli soldiers.
The presenter portrayed the situation in which Corrie was killed as one in which Israeli soldiers had been under attack, rather than one in which Palestinian families were watching Israeli bulldozers bear down on their homes.
Steel’s defence of Kearney reveals that the BBC does not see the occupation and the ways it is implemented and inflicted on the Palestinian people as being “the overall situation.” If it did, then Kearney’s falsehood, and the picture it painted, would immediately have been recognised as something that would mislead listeners.
However, because the Israeli-centric BBC regards the “overall situation” as being one in which Israeli soldiers are defending their lives from unarmed protesters and Palestinians, who have no rationale for their actions, Steel can feel justified in saying that the World at One audience would not have been misled if it, too, came away with this impression after listening to Kearney’s fabrication.
Even when the BBC issued an online response in September 2012 as a result of the pressure it was under over the Kearney affair, it could not bring itself to say that Kearney was wrong or that editorial guidelines had been breached.
Instead, it gave this bizarre explanation for her words: “By referring in her question to the deaths of Israeli soldiers, Martha Kearney was trying to keep the interview focused on the central point of her question — the destruction of Palestinian homes rather than allow the interview to move on to the issue of wider violence” (“The World at One, 28 August, 2012”).
How did making up information about Israeli army fatalities keep the interview focused on the demolition of Palestinian homes? The BBC failed to explain. And Kearney’s introduction of the issue of wider violence provided the perfect cue for Regev.
He was immediately able to reinforce the lie, stepping into the interview to say: “This is an active area of terrorist activity. As you say Israelis were killed there.”
Incredibly, in order to defend Kearney, the BBC’s online response regurgitated the corporation’s disingenuous stance of linking Corrie and her actions with the violent deaths of Israeli soldiers, stating: “Two Israeli soldiers were killed in the previous week.”
That both those deaths occurred in the West Bank, not Gaza, and had nothing to do with Corrie, house demolitions, or the incident in which she was killed, seemed to be neither here nor there for the BBC. Hardly surprising when you consider the poor grasp it has on the importance of accuracy in responsible journalism.
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign wrote again to the BBC to ask why, while fabricating Israeli deaths, Kearney had not seen fit to mention the Palestinians, including a 17-year-old boy, who had actually been killed by Israeli soldiers on the same day as Corrie.
Fraser Steel’s response was: “The fact that other [Palestinian] deaths occurred on the same day as hers is incidental to that topic.”
This is the same BBC manager who defended Kearney’s manufactured facts on the grounds that the deaths of Israeli soldiers “provided the context for the incident where Ms. Corrie was killed.”
The hypocrisy and double-standards is breathtaking. But it is not surprising. An earlier piece that I wrote for The Electronic Intifada details how the BBC’s news bulletins over the course of 28 August 2012 took on a greater and greater pro-Israeli perspective as the day progressed until, by the end, house demolitions were not being mentioned at all. And Regev was being allowed to say, unchallenged, that the whole scenario was about terrorism.
The BBC Trust’s ruling shows only too clearly that this kind of misreporting and misinforming by BBC journalists, which favors the Israeli perspective, will be backed up all the way by BBC management and executive — even if the excuses they have to come up with to justify it verge on the nonsensical.
Amena Saleem is active with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK and keeps a close eye on the media’s coverage of Palestine as part of her brief. She has twice driven on convoys to Gaza for PSC. More information on PSC is available at www.palestinecampaign.org.