For anyone who still believed in the impartiality of the BBC’s coverage of Israel’s occupation, the last few weeks, since the appointment of pro-Israeli apologists to its top jobs, must have proved an eye-opening shock.
On 17 April, the day after the BBC announced the appointment of the openly pro-Israel former editor of The Times, James Harding, as the organization’s director of news and current affairs, it screened a program called Israel: Facing the Future.
This was shown on BBC Two on Israel’s so-called Independence Day, and was presented by John Ware, a journalist with a history of attacking Palestinian-supporting charities and Muslim organizations on the BBC’s Panorama program.
Ware’s most recent hour-long offering was strongly rooted in the Zionist narrative of the geo-political perils of Israel – that of the plucky little country, unthreatening and wishing to live in peace, but being forced to brave a constant battle against aggressive Arab neighbors and terrorist groups out to destroy it.
Ware’s constant references to “Jihadists,” “Islamists” and the Arabs at Israel’s “hostile borders” threatening to “destroy” “the world’s only Jewish state” were the framework on which Israel: Facing the Future was built. To add effect, every such reference was made against a backdrop of menacing, vaguely Arab music.
Propaganda and myth
This view of Israel is, of course, a propagandized one, which promotes myths over facts and attempts to ally a Western audience with Israel in the “war on Muslim terror.”
It also strongly echoes the view of the BBC’s new director of strategy and digital, James Purnell, who, like his new colleague, Harding, is openly pro-Israel.
Purnell, who served for two years as chair of the pro-Israeli parliamentary lobby group Labour Friends of Israel, made that view clear in a letter to Prospect magazine in 2004.
Referring to the comparison made by campaigners between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa, Purnell wrote: “I find it hard to reconcile that image to the reality on the ground. Israel is a democracy, suffering terrorist attacks, surrounded by countries that don’t recognise its existence, the victim of well-funded terrorist organizations that preach anti-Semitic hate.”
Ware’s supposedly impartial documentary for BBC Two was a faithful reflection of Purnell’s mythologized viewpoint, a viewpoint also shared and promoted in Britain by the Zionist Federation and in the US by AIPAC. It pertinently left out the facts, including the fact of peace treaties signed and respected by Egypt and Jordan with Israel, and the offer by Hamas of a ten-year truce while borders are negotiated, an offer which Israel has rejected.
The question arises – if a journalist is flinging out sensationalized myths, accentuated by menacing background music, while omitting the facts that would demolish his agenda, at what point does his documentary cross the line into propaganda?
Disappearance of a documentary
A week after serving up this AIPAC-friendly fare for its fee-paying audience, the BBC gave up all claims to impartiality when it spectacularly pulled from its schedule a documentary questioning the scale of the Jewish exodus from Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago – the exodus on which Zionists base the Jewish “right to return” and to colonize what was once Palestine.
Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story was due to be shown on BBC Four on 25 April as part of the “BBC Four Archaeology Season.” It had been widely advertised by the BBC, including in media releases which promised the program would raise “important ethical questions about … present-day Middle Eastern issues.”
The BBC’s popular magazine, The Radio Times, promoted the program by declaring “Archaeology is politics in the Middle East.”
The article adds: “Which is why evidence revealed here [in the documentary], suggesting that the Jewish exile from Jerusalem in AD70 never actually happened has such severe ramifications for relations in the region.”
BBC bosses must have decided that the ramifications of showing the documentary would also be too great for the organization, not just the Middle East. At the eleventh hour, as viewers were settling down to watch Jerusalem, it disappeared from the schedule. License-fee payers who had set their televisions to record found themselves watching a repeat on Egypt.
At no point since then has the BBC provided a credible explanation for such a non-professional action.
To viewers and organizations, including Palestine Solidarity Campaign, who questioned the reasoning behind its decision, the BBC sent an email saying: “We originally acquired Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story to supplement BBC Four’s season exploring the history of archaeology. However, we have decided that it doesn’t fit editorially and are no longer planning to show it as part of the season.”
This pretence that the BBC, a massive organization with a global reputation, makes its scheduling decisions on a scatty, last-minute basis has been maintained by its staff ever since.
One viewer who wrote to Richard Klein, the controller of BBC Four, received this reply earlier this week, which she sent to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign: “The film was acquired for showing in the BBC 4 Archaeology season and it was discovered late in the day that there were a number of potential issues with the film which made it inappropriate to be shown in this context.”
Can it really be true, as this email implies, that BBC employees schedule and promote a program but that no one actually bothers watching it until “late in the day” to find out what it’s about? The notion is incomprehensible, and the excuse is laughable.
Self-censorship at the BBC
Not surprisingly, Ilan Ziv, the Israeli-born documentary maker who made the hour-long film, has said that the official reason given by the BBC for pulling the documentary contradicts the reasons given to him in private.
In his blog on the subject, Ziv describes a “sad saga of what I believe is a mixture of incompetence, political naiveté [and] conscious or subconscious political pressure.”
Tellingly, he adds that the BBC has viewed his film “through partisan glasses” and concludes: “I hope that somewhere in the BBC someone will rise above the hysteria and the attempts at self-censorship to take a cooler look at the film.”
To ask the BBC to remove its partisan glasses, to not cave to political pressure, to stop self-censoring is an almost impossible request when it comes to Israel.
Even in straightforward news interviews, the BBC clearly demonstrates its preferences.
This was apparent on yesterday’s Today program (9 May), the BBC’s daily flagship news and current affairs program which sets the agenda for the organization’s overall news coverage.
In covering the story of Stephen Hawking’s decision to boycott a major conference in Israel, senior presenter John Humphrys interviewed Dr. Ghada Karmi, a Palestinian academic at the University of Exeter, and Dr. Toby Greene, Director of Research at the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM).
Humphry’s first question – “You think it’s wrong that he’s pulled out?” – was put to Greene, who was allowed to speak without interruption or challenge, putting across all the points he wanted to and in the manner he wanted them heard.
Greene was thus allowed to set the agenda – the Zionist trope that boycotts stymie dialogue and are bad for peace - which Humphrys followed for the rest of the item.
His first question to Karmi, therefore, was: “Isn’t it always better if people talk to each other?” Five seconds after she began talking, Humphrys interrupted her. Seventeen seconds later, he interrupted again, and 20 seconds after that Karmi was interrupted again, before Humphrys stopped her altogether to return to Greene.
To Greene he suggested that Hawking’s stance had been successful in that people were now discussing the situation of the Palestinian people. Greene, a paid advocate for Israel, was then allowed to speak for a full minute, again with no interruption or challenge from Humphrys, apart from a mumbled approval of “right” from the BBC journalist midway through his spiel.
Back to Karmi, whose 60 seconds were twice interrupted by Humphrys, first after just nine seconds and then 25 seconds after that. Humphrys broke in to question her in a tone that was alternatively mocking or weary, as he actually repeated Greene’s arguments and demanded an answer to them.
Incredibly, at one point, Humphrys even appeared to question the fact of the occupation, cutting short Karmi, who had mentioned the fact that the West Bank is under occupation, to say: “So the boycott will continue until the occupation — as you described it — has lifted?”
The last word, as the first word, was then given to the pro-Israeli interviewee, who used his uninterrupted time to claim that “every Israeli government … is in favor of a two-state solution.” The BBC presenter could have interrupted him to ask how he could make such an assertion in light of Israel’s continued illegal settlement building, but Humphrys merely muttered another approving “right” before bringing the item to a close.
(The interview can be heard on iPlayer until 16 May. The item is at 1:34:40)
Fact presented as opinion
The treatment of the two interviewees could not have been more different. Humphrys showed deference to the pro-Israel advocate, refused to challenge him and even appeared, with his utterings of “right,” to be agreeing with him. On the other side, the Palestinian interviewee’s flow was continuously broken by Humphrys, in a tone that bordered on scorn, as he demanded answers to points that had been made by Greene. His interviewing style was unbalanced and utterly biased in Greene’s favor.
Karmi is a veteran campaigner for Palestine and proved more than a match for Humphrys. However, speaking to me after the interview, she said she had noticed that Humphrys “jumped down my throat from the beginning.”
On his questioning of the existence of the occupation, Karmi said: “It’s typical of the trend which Israel started, of denigrating international law. The Israelis call the West Bank ‘disputed territories,’ not an occupation, and the BBC has taken its cue from the Israelis.
“Whenever a Palestinian speaks, the BBC says ‘claims.’ For example, ‘you claim they have taken your land.’ It’s the idea that it’s just your opinion.”
Karmi added: “It’s in line with the general attitude which the Israelis have taught them, and what’s really disappointing is that they really do allow the Israeli agenda to dominate them.”
The events of the last few weeks bear out Karmi’s opinion. And it is noticeable that while BBC Two broadcast Ware’s hour-long documentary about Israel to mark its “Independence Day,” there is nothing in the BBC’s schedule next week to mark the anniversary of the Palestinian Nakba on 14 May.
“The BBC is now culturally and socially stuck in the Zionist frame,” says Tim Llewellyn, the BBC’s former Middle East correspondent.
“Whether this is fear of the Zionist lobby and its many friends in the three British political parties, sheer inbuilt prejudice, ignorance of the facts, history and nuances that every reporter, producer and editor should by now know, I am not sure,” he tells me. “I suspect a combination of all three”
“But the fact is, the BBC prefers to serve an alien power’s interests before that of its own viewers, listeners and readers, and the people who actually pay for it.”
There are still license-fee payers who trust the BBC’s news and current affairs coverage implicitly. However, its treatment of Israel and the Palestinians over the last few weeks – a concentrated dose of its normal style of coverage of this region – should make even this band of people sit up and think again.