Musician Brian Eno and a former BBC Middle East correspondent are among the public figures who have condemned the BBC in recent days for lack of impartiality in reporting Israel’s assault on Gaza and the West Bank and for valuing Israeli lives above those of Palestinians.
Meanwhile, there have been large public protests outside several BBC facilities and more are planned in coming days.
In an 11 July letter in the Guardian, Eno, formerly of the band Roxy Music, writes that he had been an “active and vocal supporter of the BBC for the whole of my adult life.” The reason he said was because of its “famous impartiality.”
“But now that reputation [for impartiality] is being eroded,” the musician writes. “It’s a drift I started to notice a few years ago, and which I think has become very obvious.”
The most recent incident concerns the killing of three Israeli teenagers in Hebron. This admittedly disgusting crime has received an entirely disproportionate treatment: listening to the BBC one would be left with the impression that killing children had never happened in [the West Bank] before. But it has. And it happens with monotonous regularity. Not, by and large, to Israeli children, but to Palestinians. And not only killing, but imprisonment and torture and day-to-day harassment and brutality. This goes on all the time – and I see little reaction to it from the international media. Unfortunately, that increasingly includes the BBC, which now, like many others, seems to regard Palestinian lives as less valuable, less newsworthy.
Eno quotes from a 2013 UN report, “The Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Children,” showing that last year Palestinian children suffered abuse disproportionately and eight Palestinian children were killed in conflict-related violence. No Israeli children died.
“Can the BBC honestly say its recent coverage reflects this balance of events?” he asks.
The answer, of course, is no. And it is not just in its recent coverage that the BBC completely fails to reflect the imbalance between what it terms “the two sides,” Israel and the Palestinians.
Rather than making it clear to its audiences that this is a grossly mismatched struggle between Israel, a heavily armed occupying power, on the one hand, and the Palestinians, a stateless, refugee population with no military might at all, on the other, the BBC prefers to obfuscate with false balance.
It does its best to present the two sides as equal. In its coverage of the last five days of relentless Israeli bombardment of Gaza, in which homes and families, cafés, mosques and charities have been targeted and wiped out, the BBC has not informed its audiences that Israel as the occupying power in Gaza has held the 1.8 million people there under a strangling siege for the last seven years.
Instead, the occupation is presented as a “conflict” or even a “war.” In its coverage of the West Bank, the BBC has taken to using the term “sectarian tensions” to hide the reality that what is taking place is illegal occupation and colonization.
The result, of course, is to convey a completely false picture that there are two groups fighting each other who are both under equal threat.
Rocket fire versus casualties
At least, that was the case. In the last week, the BBC has gone one step further, and seems to be trying to portray Israel as the party under the greatest threat.
On 8 July, after Gaza had been pounded with missiles all day and night and twenty-three Palestinians, including seven children, had been killed, the BBC updated the headline on its website’s Middle East page at 11.35pm (GMT) to read: “Israel under renewed Hamas attack.”
These are the first two paragraphs of the story linked to that astonishing headline:
Palestinian militants have fired more rockets at Israeli cities after the start of a major air and sea offensive by Israel in the Gaza Strip.
Hamas launched several missiles toward Jerusalem on Tuesday night but did not hit the city. Earlier, Israel also intercepted a rocket fired at Tel Aviv.
It is only in the third paragraph that the BBC finally reports that “more than 20 Palestinians” have been killed. These were the first casualties in the assault that Israel’s propaganda machine is calling “Operation Protective Edge” and yet they were not the main focus of the BBC’s report of that day.
That short sentence over, the article continues with descriptions of Palestinian rocket fire at Israel. There were no pictures of the dead, no mention that children were among those killed, no interviews with grieving families.
Just in terms of news judgment, the angle taken by the story and its headline, renders it a piece of appalling journalism. But there is more to it than that. Once again, this is an example of the BBC completely devaluing Palestinian lives — lives which, had they been Israeli, would no doubt have headlined all the BBC’s news programs that evening as well as its online reporting.
After Palestine Solidarity Campaign used Facebook to draw immediate attention to the headline and asked its supporters to complain online to the BBC, the headline was changed and the article later removed (but not before it had been shared on other websites).
The next day, Guardian columnist Owen Jones added his voice to the growing criticism of the BBC’s recent Gaza coverage.
He described the “Israel under renewed Hamas attack” headline as “Orwellian.” The wording, he wrote, was “as perverse as Mike Tyson punching a toddler, followed by a headline claiming that the child spat at him.”
Jones continued: “As Elizabeth Tsurkov, a Tel Aviv-based Israeli human rights activist, tweeted: ‘We are targeted by mostly shitty rockets. Gazans are being shelled with heavy bombs. We have shelters, sirens, Iron Dome. They have 0.’”
“The macabre truth is that Israeli life is deemed by the western media to be worth more than a Palestinian life,” Jones writes, echoing Eno.
And, like Eno, Jones observes that the BBC’s alleged reputation for impartiality is on shaky ground: “The BBC is a public broadcaster, duty-bound to provide balanced reports that accurately reflect the reality on the ground. It is failing to do so, and it is up to licence payers – to whom it is accountable – to demand that it does.”
Former BBC correspondent speaks out
But how can the BBC be expected to provide balanced reporting on the occupation and treat Palestinians lives with the same respect it gives to Israeli lives, when one of its own Middle East correspondents stated that the killings of the three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank were more uniquely awful than the killing of all Arabs in the Middle East?
Speaking on the flagship Today program on BBC Radio 4 on 1 July, correspondent Kevin Connolly said: “There was a special kind of chilling factor, a cold-blooded calculation to that crime [the murder of the Israeli youths] that slightly sets it aside from the other waves of violence that we report on across the Middle East.”
It is this kind of attitude that has led Tim Llewellyn, who was the BBC’s Middle East correspondent in the 1980s, to despair.
On 11 July, as Eno was writing to the Guardian, Llewellyn wrote to BBC Director General Tony Hall and passed the letter onto the Palestine Solidarity Campaign for publication.
In his letter, Llewellyn takes issue with the BBC’s constant headlines and reports which proclaim that “Israel’s blitz on Gaza is in response to rocket fire from Gaza.”
“This is not something the BBC can state as a fact. It is an interpretation. It is an Israeli position,” Llewellyn adds. “Your newsrooms must know by now that Israel continually carries out air and artillery strikes against Gaza, usually without provocation, a territory that is under permanent armed siege.”
“The fact that the BBC rarely reports Israel’s continuous incursions into Gaza and armed assaults on the Gazan population, and the resulting deaths and injuries and property damage, makes them no less real. We have become used to the fact that, in a BBC newsroom, an Israeli life is worth the lives of an infinite number of Palestinians,” Llewellyn writes.
Llewellyn concludes his letter, which he told the Palestine Solidarity Campaign was a cri de coeur, with these words: “I can only say with great sadness that as a former BBC Middle East correspondent I despair at the either innate or deliberately induced lack of impartiality that shows itself in every aspect of your treatment of this [occupation], which so fundamentally animates and divides people across the world.”
Mounting anger and protests
The thoughts of Eno, Jones and Llewellyn have been echoed in the minds of countless people watching, reading and listening to BBC news over the past week.
In the last two days, local Palestine Solidarity Campaign branches in Nottingham, Bristol, Manchester and Birmingham have organized demonstrations outside their local BBC studios, calling for fair and accurate reporting of the carnage in Gaza. The protests have attracted as many as 3,000 people, sickened by the lack of impartial journalism they have been subjected to so far.
On 15 July, Palestine Solidarity Campaign is taking all that anger to the heart of the BBC, with a planned major protest outside the corporation’s national headquarters in London’s Portland Place. The message is that it is time for the BBC to stop whitewashing Israel’s crimes against the Palestinians.
In an open letter to the BBC, which is currently collecting signatures online, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign writes: “When you portray the occupier as the victim, and the occupied as the aggressor, we would like to remind you that resistance to occupation is a right under international law. And we would like you to remember that Israel’s occupation, siege and collective punishment of Gaza is not.”
With public anger against the corporation’s Gaza coverage rapidly mounting, and with public figures beginning to speak out about its coverage of the occupation as a whole, it is beyond time that the BBC stopped in its tracks and listened.