The BBC: Eyeless in Gaza

6 January 2009

On 29 February last year the BBC’s website reported deputy defense minister Matan Vilnai threatening a “holocaust” on Gaza. Headlined “Israel warns of Gaza ‘holocaust’ ” the story would undergo nine revisions in the next twelve hours. Before the day was over the headline would read “Gaza militants ‘risking disaster.’” (The story has since been revised again with an exculpatory note added soft-pedaling Vilnai’s comments). An Israeli official threatening “holocaust” may be unpalatable to those who routinely invoke its specter to deflect criticism from the state’s criminal behavior. With the “holocaust” reference redacted, the new headline shifted culpability neatly into the hands of “Gaza militants” instead.

One could argue that the BBC’s radical alteration of the story reflects its susceptibility to the kind of inordinate pressure the Israel lobby’s well-oiled flak machine is notorious for. However, as will be demonstrated in subsequent examples, this story is exceptional only insofar as it reported accurately in the first place something that could bear negatively on Israel’s image. The norm is reflexive self-censorship.

To establish evidence of the BBC’s journalistic malpractice one often has to do no more than pick a random sample of news related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict currently on its website. In a time of conflict BBC’s coverage invariably tends to the Israeli perspective, and nowhere is this reflected more than in the semantics and framing of its reportage. More so than the quantitative bias — which was meticulously established by the Glasgow University Media Group in their study “Bad News from Israel” — it is the qualitative tilt that obscures the reality of the situation. This is often achieved by engendering a false parity by stretching the notion of journalistic balance to encompass power, culpability, and legitimacy as well. The present conflict is no exception.

“Hamas leader killed in air strike,” reads last Thursday’s headline on the BBC website. Notwithstanding the propriety of extrajudicial murder, there are 14 paragraphs and the obligatory mention of the four dead Israelis before it is revealed that “at least nine other people,” including the assassinated leader’s family, were killed in the bombing of his home in the Jabaliya refugee camp. The actual number is 16 dead, 11 of them children; 12 more wounded, including five children; 10 houses destroyed, another 12 damaged — a veritable slaughter. Had a Hamas bombing killed or wounded 28 Israeli citizens including 16 children you’d be sure to see endless coverage — of the kind the BBC lavished on the disconsolate illegal settlers in 2005 as they were made to relinquish stolen land in Gaza. The BBC’s Mike Sergeant, sitting in Jerusalem, would not concern himself with such sentimentality. There is no further mention of Palestinian civilian deaths. Their tragedy was no more than a sanguine message which Sergeant tells us will “be seen as an indication that the Israeli military can target key members of the Hamas leadership.”

“Israel braced for Hamas response,” blared the ominous headline on next day’s front page. With all references to Hamas in its coverage prefixed with “militant” and invariably accompanied by images of blood and debris, the average viewer is very likely to assume the worst. It transpires what the world’s fourth most powerful military is bracing itself for is merely a citizen’s protest called by Hamas in the Occupied Palestinian Territories. Further on we learn that Israel has been bombing such “targets” as a mosque and a sleeping family. The BBC’s next headline on the same day — “Gaza facing ‘critical emergency’ ” — is an improvement. It quotes Maxwell Gaylard, the UN’s chief aid coordinator for the territory, highlighting the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis. Following this is a warning from Oxfam that the situation is getting worse by the day: clean water, fuel and food in short supply, hospitals overwhelmed with casualties, raw sewage pouring into the streets.

And then we get “balance.”

Israel, we learn, has claimed Gaza has “sufficient food and medicines.” It of course ought to be easy to verify which of the competing claims is valid, but that presumably would violate the “usual BBC standards of impartiality.” There is also a more mundane reason why the BBC won’t present its own findings, but it is tucked away in the very last paragraph of the article. Israel, we learn, “is refusing to let international journalists into Gaza” including no doubt those of the BBC. Ethics of reporting would require that the BBC preface each of its reports with the disclaimer that it has no way of knowing what is going on in Gaza other than through the propaganda handouts of the Israeli military.

The final act of chicanery comes in the shape of a sidebar which lists the number of rockets fired by Palestinians for each day of the conflict. This is particularly odd in an article ostensibly about the consequences of the Israeli blockade and bombing, especially since no similar figures are produced for the number of bombs, missiles and artillery shells rained on Gaza. The source the BBC uses is the Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center based in Israel. What it does not mention however is that the “private” think tank is a conveyor belt for Israeli military propaganda which, according to The Washington Post, “has close ties with the country’s military leadership and maintains an office at the Defense Ministry.” Any Palestinian claim on the other hand would not appear unless enclosed in quotation marks, even if independently verifiable.

The quotation marks are a useful distancing device deployed to show that the characterization may not be one shared by the BBC. This would be understandable if their application were consistent. It isn’t. To take one telling example, after the Lebanon war when both Israel and Hizballah were accused by Amnesty International of war crimes only in the case of Israel did the BBC enclose the accusation in quotation marks.

It is through these subtle — and not so subtle — manipulations of language that the BBC has shielded its audience from the ugly realities of occupied Palestine. In the BBC’s reportage lexicon, Palestinians “die” but Israelis are “killed” (the latter implies agency, the former could have happened of natural causes); Palestinians “provoke,” and Israelis “retaliate;” Palestinians make “claims,” and Israelis “declare.” Moreover, schools, mosques, universities and police stations are part of the “Hamas infrastructure;” militants “clash” with F-16s and Apache helicopters. “Terrorism” is inextricably linked to Palestinians but Israelis merely “defend” themselves — invariably outside their borders. All debates, irrespective of fact or circumstance, are framed around Israel’s “security” — Palestinian security is irrelevant. If Israel’s wall annexing land in the West Bank is mentioned, it is in terms of its “effectiveness.” In the odd event that an articulate Palestinian voice represented, the debate is rigged with a set-up video that is meant to put them on the defensive. When all else fails, there is the reliable “both sides” argument — if reality won’t accommodate the image of an even conflict, the BBC figures, language will.

Then there’s the framing: Israel’s violence is always analyzed in terms of its “objectives;” and Palestinian violence is of necessity “senseless.” This is no doubt how it must appear to the average reader since the word “occupation” rarely appears in the BBC’s coverage. It hasn’t appeared once in the last 20 stories on Gaza on its website. And if occupation is mentioned rarely, then the UN resolutions almost never. The picture is even worse on television, where the Israeli point of view predominates.

While Matan Vilnai’s threat of a holocaust is consigned to the memory hole, the statement invented and attributed to the Iranian president about wiping Israel off the map is still in play. It is this double standard which also allowed the BBC to cover the story of a British Jew joining the Israeli military as a human interest story — which may not be entirely surprising considering the BBC’s man in Jerusalem, Tim Franks, is himself a graduate of Habonim Dror, a Zionist youth movement. It is this inhuman devaluation of Palestinian life that allowed the BBC at the peak of the criminal blockade in July 2007 to have two stories up on its website related to the occupied territories, both about animals — “Israeli paratroopers swoop on pet shop to rescue rare eagles” and “Kidnapped lioness is reunited with her brother in Gaza Zoo.”

While the BBC’s refusal to by-line its online reports makes it hard to trace stories back to individual journalists, a revealing glimpse of the editorial context in which they work was offered by an article in The Observer by the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen — a man whose modest analytical skills are matched only by his historical illiteracy. With the BBC workhorse — “both sides” — weaved into the very headline, Bowen piles inanity upon cliche. Throughout there is no mention of an occupation. Bowen has been conveniently transported to Sderot — an Israeli public relations ploy to “embed” journalists within range of Hamas rockets in order to make them report with empathy — and he is happy to oblige. On the other hand there is no mention of those at the receiving end of Israel’s lethal ordinance. He mentions civilian casualties only in the context of the “lot of bad publicity” they get for Israel. On the basis of this evidence, he then concludes “it is probably fair to say that [Israel] does not hit every target it wants, otherwise many more would have died.” We then end with speculation on Israel’s possible objectives. Despite “both sides,” there is no similar scrutiny of Hamas’s objectives.

At a conference in London in 2004, a BBC journalist based in the Occupied Palestinian Territories told me that when it comes to Israel the editorial parameters are so narrow that journalists soon learn to adapt their stories in order not to upset the editors. Similarly, editors likewise know not to upset their government-appointed managers. Since the days of Lord Reith, the BBC-founder who assured the establishment to “trust [the BBC] not to be really impartial,” on foreign policy the corporation has acted as little more than the propaganda arm of the state (whatever independence it had once enjoyed evaporated with the purge carried out by Tony Blair in the wake of the Hutton Inquiry). Contrary to the prevailing view in the US, where progressives don’t tire of comparing it favorably against US media, the BBC’s record of coverage in the Middle East is dismal. As media scholar David Miller revealed, during the Iraq war the representation of antiwar voices on the BBC was even lower than on its US counterparts. A Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung study found the corporation to have the lowest tolerance for dissent of the media in the five countries it analyzed. Just as its correspondents in Iraq celebrated the fall of Baghdad as a “vindication” of Blair, its man in Washington Matt Frei threw all caution to the wind to exult: “There is no doubt that the desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world, and especially now in the Middle East, is especially tied up with American military power.”

The BBC’s partiality in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a mere reflection of the close affinity of successive British governments with Israel. Both Blair and his successor Gordon Brown have been members of the Israel Lobby group Labour Friends of Israel. The Foreign Minister David Miliband has kin who are settlers in the West Bank. All three major influence-peddling scandals in the past five years that engulfed the leadership of the ruling New Labour party involved money from wealthy Zionist Jews (all linked to the Labour Friends of Israel). If the BBC is not impartial, then the UK government most certainly is not. The BBC, as is its wont, merely reflects the latter’s tilt. This is blatant enough that despite pressure from the Israel lobby, the BBC’s own Independent Panel concluded that its coverage of the Palestinian struggle was not “full and fair” and that it presented an “incomplete and in that sense misleading picture.”

But the gap between the alternate reality that the BBC inhabits and the reality on the ground witnessed and relayed by independent media is so great today that it has compelled John Pilger to write: “For every BBC voice that strains to equate occupier with occupied, thief with victim, for every swarm of emails from the fanatics of Zion to those who invert the lies and describe the Israeli state’s commitment to the destruction of Palestine, the truth is more powerful now than ever.”

Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a member of Spinwatch.org. He blogs at Fanonite.org.

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