Tim Llewellyn was the BBC’s Middle East correspondent twice from 1976 - 1982 and from 1987 - 1992. Based in Beirut and Cyprus, Llewellyn covered the Lebanese civil war, the Iranian Revolution, the Tanker Wars, the first Palestinian intifada, and the first Gulf War. He was one of the first foreign correspondents to enter the camps of Sabra and Shatila after the massacres there by Phalangist Forces under the auspices of the Israeli army in September 1982. In this interview, exclusive to the Electronic Intifada, Llewellyn talks candidly about the BBC, and the pressures that organization and its correspondents are under, when reporting from the Middle East.
“I used to have one of those” Llewellyn told me, pointing to my dark blue Olympus Pearlcorder S711 Microcassette Recorder, as I shuffled with it trying to ensure that my TDK tapes and Panasonic PowerMax batteries were working properly for the interview. After we settled down with cups of tea in his sitting room filled with books and photographs, over the next two hours, we would talk about Llewellyn’s adventures in Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Palestine and discuss war, occupation and recent media coverage from the Middle East.
Lebanon and Syria
Lately, news from the region has shifted to the Levant as thousands of people swarmed the streets of Beirut to protest Syrian occupation. I asked Llewellyn whether he thought there was a comparison between the Syrian occupation of Lebanon and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
“There’s no comparison. I don’t think you can compare it as an occupation…O.K…the two words are the same. The Lebanese say they are occupied by the Syrians, but I wouldn’t have thought that was the right word to use. The Syrians certainly had a dominant influence politically, and they had soldiers in Lebanon. But they never at any stage, certainly during the 90s, occupied Lebanon in the sense that there were road blocks and it was difficult for the Lebanese to move from X to Y or from A to B - as it is in the Occupied (Palestinian) Territories. There wasn’t this kind of domination of day to day life in a physical and overt way … You can’t compare it with the Israeli occupation of Palestine”.
The First Palestinian Intifada
As Llewellyn went on to talk about the intricacies of Lebanese politics, I butted in to ask him about his work in Israel, during the first Palestinian uprising or intifada (which lasted from 1987 - 1993).
“I think the Israelis suffered more in the first Palestinian intifada because the Palestinians weren’t using force, using arms, but the Israelis were. The disproportion between the two sides was more obvious. There were no suicide bombings in those days… I think the reporting was more accurate, it was a lot more sensitive, the Palestinian point-of-view was put across more clearly …”
I interrupted him, asking whether he really thought the reporting was better then than it is now. “Yes much better” Llewellyn replied. But why is that I asked?
“I think since the Al-Aqsa intifada started in late 2000, the Israelis have stepped up the pressure enormously. They had a bad time during the invasion of Lebanon and the first Palestinian intifada. The Israelis came in for some extremely bad press. Their standing was definitely lower, even in the United States, but especially in Europe by their behaviour towards the Palestinians. I think after 1994, mistakenly, but perhaps inevitably, public opinion outside the Middle East thought that there had been some sort of healthy peace agreement through the Oslo Accords. So that when the second intifada started in 2000 it was much more puzzling. The public weren’t quite sure who started what. The Israelis were very quick to capitalize on the Palestinians lack of communications. Arafat never really explained what happened at Camp David in 2000. It was very easy for the Israelis to make it look as if the Palestinians had started the violence … The Israelis had a lot more opportunity”….
BBC “nervous about its own survival”
… “Since then, with suicide bombings and 9/11, this whole alleged “war on terrorism” has made it much more difficult for Palestinians to have their case heard properly. I don’t think the institutional press like the BBC, which is terribly important in this country … I don’t think it has got the nerve to tell the story the way it is. It’s nervous about its own survival as an institution. It does not want to be seen to be implying that it is condoning the violence that is going on; on the Palestinian side … They are adopting what they see as an even handed attitude. To me this is a cowardly attitude, it is an attitude which confuses occupier with occupied …”
Tim Llewellyn (Photo: Victor Kattan)
… “The BBC are nervous about the pressures they are under, they’re nervous about the complaints they get, they’re nervous about upsetting Tony Blair; they’re nervous about their own future as an institution. They don’t want to be seen as rocking the boat. First of all, the Israeli pressure is enormous and of course with that can easily come hints that if you report the story properly, you can be accused of anti-Semitism. These kinds of charges can be made. There is an emotive quality to the Jewish fate in European society, which can easily be played upon. So the BBC is very nervous”.
But didn’t all these issues exist before 2000? I asked Llewellyn.
“They’ve been reemphasised since the second Palestinian intifada because of the violence involved; because of 9/11; because of the Hutton Enquiry; because of all sorts of things; Britain’s involvement with the United States in Iraq. Our new stance in the world. Our new imperialist outlook. Its made everybody a lot more sensitive. The Blair Government is much more pro-Israeli than any previous Government. It is much more inclined not to rock the boat about Israel”.
The discussion then moved on to the integrity of the BBC, and I questioned Llewellyn about the impartiality of the BBC and whether it was truly independent; in other words, whether it was independent from Government influence.
The BBC is not independent in the sense that it’s financed by the British Government which gets its money compulsorily from taxpayers (i.e. license payers). As we have seen the Government can change its Charter or revoke its Charter if it wants to. It hasn’t done yet. Maybe it won’t. But it can reduce its license fee, reduce its funding. So even though the BBC is editorially independent, like any institution, it has to think carefully about how it behaves. Shock waves went through the BBC after the Hutton Enquiry. All these things, have contributed to a feeling of corporate nervousness about, I think, dealing with sensitive political issues and Israel is a sensitive political issue. It’s not like dealing with South Africa or Serbia or Kosovo or Bosnia or Sierra Leone or Rwanda”.
“If there is an area of sensitivity in which they know the Government is sensitive about, the BBC will be sensitive about it as well. I think this is new. This has all come to a head in the last 4 years since the Al-Aqsa intifada. It’s really changed. The nature of BBC reporting from Israel has become much more tepid; much less authoritative. Reporters on the ground are under pressure. No doubt about it. If they have not been told directly, they have inferred from what their bosses say to them; the way stories are chosen”.
I then asked Llewellyn how much interference there is editorially.
“Much more than there used to be. The producers these days on the desks have much more control because of communications over what is said and how it is said. We live in an age now, where the whole idea of in-depth reporting, or explanations is being sacrificed to news reporting, surface reporting; not explaining, but just getting in there and doing the “bang bang” stuff. Instant, up-front, you know, “this happened”, “this guys said this”; “This guy said that”. It’s what I call surface reporting. It’s not proper reporting. It’s not helping the viewer or the listener to understand what is going on. So there is this culture now, which is a fairly new one at the BBC. It’s been increasing since the advent of 24 hour news. The war for ratings: It is becoming much more Americanized, much more superficial”.
I asked Llewellyn whether he thought there were still embedded prejudices and stereotypes of Arabs at the BBC.
“… I think there is still this kind of innate culture in Britain … I mean the Arabs are not very good at explaining themselves , they have never been adept at public relations … But I mean there is still this kind of idea that the Arabs are other; are different, and wild and irresponsible, and emotional and some how lack authority. And of course the Palestinians don’t have authority - as opposed to the Israelis who are after all beleaguered and in a sea of Arabs and they’ve got a State, and they’ve got a democracy, and they look like us more or less, and they shop at Wall Mart, and have baby buggies and they drive Fiat Pandas”.
“So there’s this sort of identification, certainly with the authorities who run desks and run things at the BBC. I don’t think by the way, that this is true of the British public anymore. I think the British public sees through this a lot but I think institutions are still very lax in the way that they report these matters … What the BBC has to do is to satisfy the powers that be, especially the British Government and the people that can kick up the most fuss. All this has to be viewed in the context of the “war on terrorism”. There is a lot of acceptance of the official view point. It’s not questioned which should not be the case. Any reporter’s job is to question what is happening”.
I then asked Llewellyn about the media’s fascination with the “suicide bomber” and of BBC reporting in general. I asked him whether he thought it would be a good idea if more BBC correspondents actually lived with Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza; in Nablus, Ramallah and Bethlehem for example, rather then in West Jerusalem.
“The problem with suicide bombings … it’s never been explained properly, as to why it happens and what provokes them, because people are afraid that if they try to do that - and you have the example of Jenny Tonge (and it might be added Mrs. Blair) - they are condoning them (Jenny Tonge is a British politician with the Liberal democrats). And again, we come back to the “war on terror”; that people are very nervous about saying anything that could possibly be construed as advocating blowing up civilians. This isn’t to say that it is a good idea or that it’s never helped the Palestinians in the long run, but again it’s the lack of context of why these things happen and the profiles of the people that do them. Quite often people that carry out these acts are people who have suffered at the hands of the Israeli occupation in the most ghastly circumstances. But we don’t hear that side of the story, certainly not in the BBC’s or ITV’s main news bulletin. The contexts of these attacks are terribly important … I think the Western media, because they are based in Jerusalem, tend to see the things from the Israeli side. The violence becomes something the Israelis can capitalize on …”
Llewellyn told me that the BBC lost a lot of good reporters during the change over in 2000: “They need some people in the Middle East with more authority than they have at the moment. The reporting is pretty bad. They lost a lot of good reporters in 2000. It was just unfortunate. Those people’s contracts had come to an end. I thought the reporting was perfectly OK throughout the 1990s but it really suffered a lot of damage with the change over in 2000. New people came in who didn’t understand the Middle East. A lot of them still don’t seem to understand it. One or two are better then others; It’s not a strong team … The BBC really ought to have more reporting from the Palestinian side. I’ve suggested it to the BBC. You really must have people living with the Palestinians - to explain what is actually happening there - rather than dipping in and out of these places everyday and then going back to the comfort, the pressures of West Jerusalem. And of course the Israelis use their pressure. They’ve denied people visas and threatened to withdraw visas for the Bureau Chiefs there”.
On hearing this I asked Llewellyn whether he thought there was censorship in Israel:
“I don’t think reports have been censored. It’s much more subtle than that. It’s pressure that can be denied. But there is pressure nevertheless”.
The conversation then turned to Barbara Plett, a BBC Middle East correspondent who had got into spot of controversy, when she showed emotion at Arafat’s funeral. In the programme: “From our Own Correspondent” Plett had said, “…when the helicopter carrying the frail old man rose above his ruined compound, I started to cry… without warning. In quieter moments since I have asked myself, why the sudden surge of emotion?” I wondered whether it had been “unprofessional” for Plett to show emotion at Arafat’s funeral and I posed the question to Llewellyn.
“No … I don’t think it would have been a problem if it was a helicopter carrying the body of Tito or a Western Leader like Winston Churchill …” Before Llewellyn could continue, I interrupted him again pointing out that had it been Ariel Sharon, and not Yasser Arafat on that helicopter, some people would have been offended at her remarks.
“You’ve got to remember what the programme was. It was a programme in which correspondents are allowed to talk about their own feelings and their own actions. I personally wouldn’t have used the form of words she used but I don’t see why she should have been excoriated. I know a lot of my BBC colleagues disagree with me. I think she was in a particular situation, at a particular time, and she found it moving. I don’t think she should have been reprimanded. If someone had been at Rabin’s funeral, which was attended, if you recall, by King Hussein and Yasser Arafat; if a reporter, at that funeral found it emotional, I don’t know, I would probably have to accept that was what the guy felt at the time. It was a moving experience. It was the circumstances. I don’t think Ariel Sharon is comparable. His record is not one that would induce tears”.
In conclusion Llewellyn informed me of what he thought was a grave development in British institutional journalism: the issue of self-censorship.
“I think what is happening in this country, especially in our institutional broadcasting, is that there is a kind of insidious self-censorship going on. In other words, people pre-think, what they think, might upset other influential institutions. Whether it is the Israelis or the British Government or the Board of Governors or whatever …They do a censorship job before it has to be done by someone else”.
Victor Kattan is an occasional contributor to EI and a Director of Arab Media Watch. You can reach him at email@example.com