In 2006, an independent panel of senior public figures published a report assessing the impartiality of the BBC’s coverage of the “Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
The panel, chaired by Sir Quentin Thomas, a senior figure in the British Home Office, found “identifiable shortcomings, particularly in respect of gaps in coverage, analysis, context and perspective and in the consistent maintenance of the BBC’s own editorial standards.”
The Thomas Report, as it became known, was quickly shoved under the carpet by the BBC, even though it had originally been commissioned by the corporation’s own governors, and business continued as usual (“Report of the Independent Panel for the BBC Governors on Impartiality of BBC Coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” April 2006, available on the Internet Archive).
In the last few days, the shortcomings highlighted in the report have never seemed so glaring.
Gaza reported without context
Across the BBC’s output, from the 24 hour rolling news channel, BBC News, to its flagship news and current affairs program Today on Radio 4, the Israeli assault on Gaza has been reported without context, without perspective and with a bias that has wholly favored the heavily-armed, nuclear state of Israel against the mostly refugee population of the besieged Gaza Strip.
This pattern of partiality was noted by Thomas and his panel. They made several mentions in their report to the “asymmetry of power between the two sides” and noted that “given this asymmetry, the BBC’s concern with balance gave an impression of equality between the two sides which was fundamentally, if unintentionally, misleading.”
To counter this flaw, the Thomas Report recommended that the BBC “should make purposive, and not merely reactive, efforts to explain the complexities of the conflict in the round, including the marked disparity between the position of the two sides.”
Yet, rather than providing information to its global audience which would make clear that Israel is deploying a vast arsenal of high tech armory against Gaza’s civilian population, to which the response is crude rockets, the BBC’s coverage of the past days has portrayed the stateless Palestinians as vicious aggressors against an exhausted Israel.
On the morning of 15 November, the day after Israel carried out the extrajudicial killing of Hamas military leader Ahmed al-Jabari and unleashed a wave of terror against Gaza’s civilian population, the BBC put an article onto its website headlined: “Gaza rocket arsenal problem for Israel.”
The article goes into minute detail about what the BBC’s diplomatic and defense correspondent Jonathan Marcus describes as “the Palestinian rocket arsenal.”
There are descriptions of the types of rockets in the “arsenal,” their range, their design, their country of origin, the threat they pose to Israel, the towns in Israel they might be capable of reaching. Marcus also spends time discussing the capability of Israel’s “Iron Dome” defense and Israeli allegations of shipments of arms coming via Sudan to Gaza.
Israeli arsenals unreported by the BBC
Nowhere in the article, or elsewhere on the BBC, does Marcus investigate Israel’s weapons stockpile, which is funded to the tune of $3 billion a year by the United States.
There are no reams of paragraphs devoted to describing the different types of bombs, mortar shells, drones, fighter jets, gunboats, tanks, guns, nuclear warheads or white phosphorus shells that are in Israel’s arsenal. Yet, with the exception of nuclear missiles, all of these have been used at some point against the people of Gaza with devastating consequences.
A second article published on the BBC website the same morning is headlined: “Escalating violence takes its toll on Israelis.” Here we have journalist Yolande Knell putting a human face on the Israelis who have faced rocket attacks in the towns of Ashkelon and Kiryat Malachi over the last two days.
There are interviews with Israeli men and women describing their fear, their pain at the previous day’s fatalities in Kiryat Malachi, their scramble to find shelter when the air raid sirens sound and the damage to their buildings. Knell describes “eerily quiet” streets in Ashkelon, closed restaurants and schools and how “normal life here remains on hold.”
Minimizing Palestinian voices
Yet when it comes to how Palestinians in Gaza endure frequent Israeli bombardment, Palestinian voices and their pain are minimized.
A BBC article in March claimed the people of Gaza are “almost inured to the endless conflict” and life in the Gaza Strip carries on as normal — a report based on the perspective of BBC correspondent, Rupert Wingfield-Hayes, rather than interviews with the Palestinians themselves.
When the Palestine Solidarity Campaign complained about the bias inherent in Wingfield-Hayes extraordinary claims, which were juxtaposed alongside an article by Kevin Connolly describing the “dread” felt by Israelis during rocket strikes, a reply was received from Fraser Steel, Head of Editorial Complaints at the BBC.
He wrote: “I have to say it seems to me that the aspects of the reports which you single out for criticism can be interpreted as evidence of bias only if one approaches them with a prior assumption of bias on the part of the authors.”
The bias that PSC was highlighting is not on the part of the authors, but on the part of their employers, the BBC, and with good reason.
Israeli spokespeople unchallenged
Since al-Jabari’s assassination on 14 November, the BBC has rolled out all the Israeli heavyweights across its programming: Ron Prosor, Israeli ambassador to the UN; Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister; Mark Regev, an Israeli government spokesperson; and Daniel Taub, Israel’s ambassador to the UK.
All have been allowed to disseminate, with virtually no interruption or correction, the propaganda line Israel is using for the duration of this assault on Gaza: that Israel withdrew its settlers in 2005 in order to allow Gaza to live in peace but Hamas insisted on a war which Israel has so far resisted, but is now being reluctantly drawn into in order to protect its citizens.
On the Today program on 15 November, Taub was interviewed by BBC heavyweight John Humphrys. For four minutes he was allowed to expound Israel’s hasbara line that Hamas rockets rain down on southern Israel with no response from Israel and that no other country but Israel would be so understanding.
Humphrys gave no challenge when Taub said: “We have to recognize, seven years ago, we pulled out of every inch of Gaza. We removed 9,000 Israeli civilians along with their homes, their schools, their kindergartens, in order to try and have a peaceful situation with Gaza … Tragically, that opportunity was not taken up. Hamas took over and since then has been waging an intensive war.”
The BBC’s major evening current affairs program Newsnight was used as a vehicle for similar hasbara the previous evening by Danny Ayalon, who enjoyed an uninterrupted three minute interview with presenter Gavin Esler.
At the very end of the interview Ayalon said: “Not only do they [Hamas] target the civilian population in Israel, but they implant themselves in the midst of the civilian population in Gaza, so in fact they use a population as a human shield for their hideous attacks.”
To which Esler replied: “Ok, we’ll leave it there. Danny Ayalon, thank you very much.”
There was no attempt, or even it seems a willingness, by this senior BBC journalist to confront and challenge Israeli propaganda and falsehoods.
Meanwhile Zionist activist Jonathan Sacerdoti appeared four times as a guest on different BBC television news programs during the first two days of the Israeli assault. The BBC allowed him to pose as an independent expert, neglecting to mention his past work for the Zionist Federation and current role at the Board of Deputies of British Jews (“Who is Jonathan Sacerdoti, the BBC’s Go-To Man on Gaza?” New Left Project, 16 November).
The findings of the Thomas Report from 2006 are holding true during this latest onslaught on Gaza. This unwillingness by both Humphrys and Esler, together with the presenters on television and radio news, to point out the facts to their Israeli government interviewees is just a symptom of the BBC’s failure to provide context and perspective, as highlighted by the report.
And so BBC audiences listen to Regev and the rest without being made aware that Israel is considered by the UN to be an occupying power in Gaza with obligations under the Geneva Conventions to protect the inhabitants.
Taub is allowed to freely say that Israel has withdrawn from Gaza, without being made to explain how he can make such a travesty of the truth when Israel holds Gaza under tight military siege, restricting access to food, medicines, water, fuel and other essentials, and restricts the free movement of Gaza’s people in and out of the territory.
Prosser can stand in Kiryat Malachi condemning Palestinian rocket attacks, as he did on the BBC News channel on 14 November, and not be asked to comment on Israel’s massacre of 1,400 Palestinians in three weeks in 2008-09 or its continuous bombing and shelling of Gaza since then.
And that is how Ayalon can barefacedly mislead BBC viewers with the human shield fallacy, because nowhere on the BBC, including Newsnight will its audience be told that 1.6 million people are crammed into a strip of land about 20 miles long and four miles wide, and consequently there is nowhere that is not inhabited.
In its final points, the Thomas Report summed up: “some of the deficiencies are serious and … [the BBC’s coverage] could be a great deal better: more distinctive, challenging and informative.”
If only it were. Imagine how many people around the world and those paying the licence fee in the UK would become aware of Israel’s atrocities against the Palestinians, its daily violations of international law, its lies and deceits.
One presumes this is why the Thomas Report has rarely seen light of day since its publication.
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.