For the second time in just over six months, the BBC has been forced to admit that its flagship news and current affairs program — Today — has misled its audiences over the situation in Israel and the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In a broadcast in October, veteran presenter John Humphrys and Middle East correspondent Kevin Connolly implied in a two-way conversation that all of those killed in that month’s violence were Israeli.
In fact, at the date of broadcast, on 19 October, more than 40 of those killed were Palestinian and fewer than 10 Israeli.
Breach of BBC’s own guidelines
This week, in response to complaints from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and numerous individuals, the BBC’s editorial complaints unit ruled that the broadcast had breached the corporation’s editorial guidelines on accuracy and misled listeners.
The Today program had initially tried to defend the four-minute exchange between Humphrys and Connolly, with assistant editor at the time, George Mann, writing to complainants: “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy Kevin Connolly’s discussion with John Humphrys on Monday morning. Having listened back to it, I think I have to disagree with the interpretation you have put on the exchange.”
Complainants then escalated their objections to the executive level of the BBC’s complaints system, pointing out that Humphrys and Connolly did not mention Palestinian fatalities, focusing solely on Israelis and Israeli concerns about security.
Humphrys began his discussion with Connolly by saying:
“Yet another attack on Israelis last night. This time an Arab man with a gun and a knife killed a soldier and wounded 10 people. Our Middle East correspondent is Kevin Connolly. The number is mounting, isn’t it Kevin. The number is about 50 now, isn’t it?”
Connolly responded: “We think around 50 dead over the course of the last month or so, John. This sudden sharp uptick of violence — not just that attack at the bus station in Beersheva, inside Israel itself, but also, on Saturday, a wave of stabbing attacks in Hebron and in Jerusalem.”
It was only with the last sentence of the conversation that Connolly made a throwaway reference to Palestinian deaths. Calling them not Palestinians, but “the attackers,” and giving no indication that they are gunned down by Israeli soldiers and, on occasion, settlers, Connolly said:
“… individuals are taking the decisions to stage these attacks for reasons we’re often left to guess at because, of course, the attackers often die in the course of the attack.”
Humphrys then ended the discussion.
Connolly used the passive verb “die” rather than saying the Palestinians are being killed, and who is killing them. He also did not mention that many of those shot dead by Israel’s occupation forces were not posing an immediate threat they were extrajudicially executed.
The BBC’s Middle East correspondent also seems to be unaware of Israel’s military occupation and the choking oppression with which it rules over Palestinians, claiming he can only “guess at” the reasons Palestinians have attacked Israelis.
Other news outlets are not so shy of citing the occupation as a motivating factor for the stabbings, and some, like Al Jazeera, have interviewed the family and friends of Palestinians who have stabbed, or attempted to stab, and consequently been executed, in an attempt to gain a deeper understanding of why these Palestinians did what they did.
Conversely, in his exchange with Humphrys, Connolly does give a very emotive description of the fears of Israelis.
He tells the Today presenter that the “very random and spontaneous nature of the attacks has left many Israeli citizens feeling that any Palestinian passing them in the street might be carrying a knife, might be planning to attack them. Any passing car might at any moment be used as a vehicle against Israeli civilian pedestrians … [the attacks have] achieved an extraordinary change in the atmosphere of daily life here.”
This tendency to convey only Israeli fears and perceptions landed Today in trouble in May.
Then, the BBC’s editorial complaints unit ruled that an interview conducted by senior Today presenter Sarah Montague with Israeli defence minister Moshe Yaalon exhibited pro-Israel bias.
Again, following a series of complaints from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign and others that Montague had remained completely silent as Yaalon told lie after lie – including the claim that Palestinians have political independence – the BBC found that the interview had breached its editorial guidelines on impartiality.
The BBC’s head of editorial complaints, Fraser Steel, admitted in an email to complainants that “the output fell below the BBC’s standards of impartiality.”
Today, broadcast on Radio 4 six mornings a week, reaches 7 million people in the UK weekly. James Harding, the BBC’s Director of News, describes it as “the program that sets the agenda for the nation’s news every day.”
All the more shocking, then, that the BBC’s own internal findings suggest an ingrained unwillingness at the program to challenge Israel’s spokespeople, even when they are telling blatant untruths, or to acknowledge Palestinian fatalities and their suffering under occupation.