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Worse than CNN?

BBC News & the Mideast

by Paul De Rooij



The news coverage of major international events varies considerably from country to country. Arguably, the news available in the UK is more diverse than in the US. One does find a greater breadth of perspective, as well as more accurate reporting. However the main broadcaster, the BBC, has a spotty record when it comes to the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Occasionally the BBC produces programs that are commendable for their depth and willingness to challenge the viewers. For example, it produced a laudable documentary about the Sabra and Shatila massacres that implicated Ariel Sharon in the war crimes. It is unlikely an American TV network would ever have produced such a documentary; it would be too worried about facing a barrage of criticism, possible litigation, and a loss of advertising revenue. A different dynamic is at play at the BBC since it doesn’t depend on advertising revenue, and the pro-Israeli groups in the UK aren’t as well organized as in the US. The pressures the BBC faces, instead, are intense lobbying and government direction — the UK Foreign Office has some say in the news coverage, the appointment of key staff, and even in its budget. But though different, these pressures are also having an effect, and it is increasingly evident that BBC coverage now favors an Israeli agenda.

The main problem with the BBC’s reporting is not with the reporters on the ground. These are on the whole very good journalists who take considerable risks. Orla Guerin, John Simpson, and others report from the refugee camps, and witness and describe the violent aspects of occupation. The problem with the coverage resides primarily in the way this news is packaged in London or by the commentator in the Jerusalem studio, and how it is framed in the extended news program, Newsnight. The text versions of the news, BBC Online and TeleText news, offer an even clearer picture of the bias at work — therein the liberal use of quotation marks indicates that preferred version of events.

The coverage is always stripped of its historical context. Although Palestine was a former British colony and the UK bears a considerable responsibility for the calamity that affected the native population, one never hears any historical references to that. From the coverage, one would hardly know that Britain signed away Palestinian land to create a Jewish homeland ­ virtually no one has heard of the Balfour Declaration. The subsequent disasters that overcame the Palestinians in 1948 are never offered as an explanation of current events; even the conquest in 1967 is seldom referred to. In contrast, current events from other former colonies do appear with some historical framework, e.g., Zimbabwe. During the crisis in Bosnia or Kosovo the BBC offered extended coverage and historical background ­ it even lent airtime for humanitarian donation appeals. The message conveyed was clear: the Serbs were the bad guys.

The neglect of context has a lot to do with the pressures put on journalists to produce many reports within a limited time frame. They have limited time to prepare, and cannot become experts in the field. A 24-hour news service demands a constant stream of brief items that cannot afford to give any background. Standing up against such pressures is something that one would hope a non-commercial broadcaster like the BBC would do, but it appears to be more concerned with emulating CNN.

The BBC is also overly concerned with its ratings. These invariably compare its news coverage to the "factoid press". The constant drive to expand its market share makes it adjust its programs to appeal to the lowest common denominator ­ not unlike the commercial media — and this requires context-less brief news items. Only shocking events make it into the factoid news.

Only when someone is killed is news obtained from the area. Unquestionably, Israeli deaths are deemed more important than Palestinian deaths; much more extended coverage is devoted to the suicide bombing casualties than to incidents where greater numbers of Palestinians are killed. Also, BBC TeleText and Online news refer to Israelis as having been "killed," thus denoting intent, whereas Palestinians invariably "die"; these media always enclose massacres and assassinations with quotation marks. Israeli killings and violent acts are always labeled "retaliation", thus justified. Increasingly, Palestinian violence has been labeled "terrorism" ­ it has never been labeled "resistance". Although the term "terrorism" is often applied to Palestinian violence, the term "state terrorism" is never applied to Israeli acts of aggression.

Israeli war planners know the proclivity of the news media for reporting deaths, and they have tried to keep the death toll in check ­ thereby reducing the flow of news — while increasing the number of injuries, literally into the tens of thousands. BBC programs featured the masses of injuries due to landmines in Angola and Cambodia, but it has never reported on the masses of maimed Palestinian youngsters.

The more mundane aspects of the violence engendered by occupation are never reported. The BBC has never reported that Palestinian residents of Jerusalem are subject to arbitrary ID paper confiscation, thereby losing the right to residence in Jerusalem and losing their homes. Similarly, house demolitions, torture, or arbitrary imprisonment without charge, trial, appeal or representation are not the BBC’s going fare.

The BBC obviously watches its language. Last year Robert Fisk (Independent, August 4, 2001) reported that the news editor had ordered journalists to refer to the assassination of militant leaders as "targeted killings". Although the editor Malcolm Downing denied issuing such a directive it is clear from the news output since then that the terms for Israeli assassinations parallel the Israeli rhetoric. During the recent Israeli incursions into the occupied territories, we witnessed an increase in the dosage of weasel words like, "alleged" and "unconfirmed". Initially, reports would indicate that women, children or bystanders were killed too — the so-called collateral damage. However, this has given way to the generic terminology of "targets or militants" with no indication of the identity of those killed.

Israeli embassy staff is known to exert pressure on the BBC’s choice of words. It usually comes in the form of a question like "isn’t the word settlement wrong here?" Most senior journalists withstand this type of pressure, but inexperienced journalists may be susceptible to such tactics. Constant prodding of this type does have an effect.

It is rare for the BBC to refer to the West Bank or Gaza as "occupied territories". A clear litmus test of the bias of a news source on this subject is whether it uses the word "occupation"; in the case of the BBC it is virtually non-existent. Similarly the nature of the settlements remains ambiguous. When David Sells interviewed some settlers they were portrayed as a loving group of people having fun with the kids. The documentary ignored the settlers’ usual daytime activities involving the violent confiscation of Palestinian land. The status of the settlements is seldom described as illegal under international law. The fact that since Oslo there are 43 new settlements, with a 45% expansion of land (excluding the "Jews-only bypass" roads), and a doubling of the number of settlers has never been mentioned on BBC news.

The comfortable terms balance and objectivity are often the justification to neuter news emanating from the area. For the BBC balance means that there must be some reporting of the Israeli side, some from the Palestinian, and some from either Americans or British officials. Furthermore, no reporting should offend the sensitivities of the Israelis. The end result is that the reportage is fraught with contradictions. It is not possible to connect the violence perpetrated against the Israelis with the violence and injustice of the occupation; since the latter is not acknowledged Palestinian violence is simply seen as criminal, whereas Israeli violence always has redeeming characteristics.

In BBC Online several articles dealing with Palestine contain a "Click here for a different viewpoint" ­ all these point to articles written by Israeli embassy officials. In no other conflict does one find such an alternative view. This warped notion of balance irks the BBC journalists whose work has been so affected.

The constant reference to "cycle of violence" equates the Israeli violence to a response to Palestinian violence, diminishing the fact that Israeli violence is disproportionate and used to oppress the native population. This context-free reporting thus renders the violence unintelligible ­ BBC coverage doesn’t answer why there is any violence at all. Again, contrast this coverage with the coverage in Kosovo. Here the Serbs were condemned for oppression and violence, and the Kosovar response had a rationale. The Serb claims of Kosovar terrorism were ridiculed, and Serb violence was viewed as unprovoked and unjustifiable. The few times Serbian officials appeared on the BBC they were grilled about the latest outrage, and their claims of retaliation for terrorist acts were clearly rejected. It is therefore obvious that the BBC is using a different reporting handbook in the Middle East.

However influential, the Israeli PR machine faces a difficult task to defend its untenable position, and has been forced to adapt its strategy. Repeating a lie too often reduces its effectiveness over time, and therefore propaganda has to change its tune. There are distinct techniques used to deflect criticism and reinterpret events during the past few years. These are: "blame the victim", "reflective accusation", "parallel universe", "shades of gray", and "reaping the fruits". The defense of last resort is the "smear". These have been similarly reflected in the BBC coverage.

A few years ago the BBC repeatedly grilled Palestinian spokespersons about the cynical use of children to confront soldiers (blame the victim), accusing them of the deaths of many children. Kirsty Wark, a Newsnight interviewer, repeatedly questioned Hanan Ashrawi in an indignant tone. The consequence was that no topic other than this could be discussed. The enhanced version of this tactic is to accuse the victim for things that the Israelis themselves are doing (reflective accusation), e.g., during the Jenin incursion Israeli spokesmen were quoted as saying that Palestinians were "threatening Israel’s very existence." The fact that it is the Palestinians who are being killed doesn’t make the interviewers stop the Israeli spokesmen. No matter how ridiculous an Israeli statement it is never questioned.

We now witness a few more variants of these defenses. "Parallel universe" refers to reporting where the Israeli viewpoint is presented without any reference to the Palestinian reality. A good example is Kathryn Westscott’s "Viewpoint: Were Israel’s incursions a success?" (BBC Online, Mar. 15, 02). Israelis are interviewed, but no reference is made to the causes of Palestinian violence, e.g., the occupation. Thus Israelis are outraged at the suicide bombings, but no reason whatsoever is given for their cause.

The "shades of gray" defense pertains to the ploy indicating that reality is beyond simple solutions like ending occupation ­ anyone taking such a position is ridiculed because they can’t answer the demands by the reasonable Israelis seeking peace. Similarly, unpalatable aspects of Israeli occupation cannot be labeled as crimes because reality is so much more complicated. A good example of this is Barnaby Mason’s "Analysis: ‘War crimes’ on West Bank" (the quotation marks are in the original) ­ indicating that it isn’t a black and white issue to determine if war crimes were committed. The usage of war crimes, without the quotation marks, is reserved for official enemies like Iraq.

Similarly, the "reaping the fruits" defense pertains to exploiting the fact that there hasn’t been any reference to occupation for many months, and therefore the viewer may not know that the Palestinians live under occupation. (A survey indicates that about 90% of the UK’s population is unaware of this.) Working on this premise Israeli PR can claim that any violence threatens their very existence ­ the violence on the West Bank becomes violence against Israel. Violence is entirely stripped out of its context for the aims of the propagandist, which is reflected in the BBC coverage.

Common to all techniques is that lies and half-truths have to be planted repeatedly. It is usually more costly to disprove a statement than to put forth one’s own message. So, a steady flow of lies bogs down the ineffective Palestinian message. In time these lies become accepted and can be exploited by the "reaping the fruit" tactic.

The defense of last resort has been to question the motives of the questioners or reporters, ultimately smearing them. Fortunately, BBC news, unlike CNN, hasn’t debased itself to follow this line — until now ­ primarily because the questions are already posed within the Israeli framework: they do the questioning. The smears that do occur are not evident to the viewer. Israeli embassy staff labels any journalist who has produced a piece with a balanced assessment of Palestinian issues as a "Palestinian spokesman." This sometimes attains the desired result that the journalist is advised to do a dedicated piece on Israeli issues.

Another source of bias is the sequence of interviewees on the extended news program, Newsnight. First, an Israeli spokesperson rattles off a series of accusations, like "Arafat is irrelevant." The interviewer then turns to a Palestinian spokesperson asking the question just posed by the previous spokesperson — the interview agenda is set by the pro-Israeli camp. A variation on this formula is to have the BBC offer an introduction, invariably with an Israeli point of reference, and then continue as in the previous version. If a pro-Palestinian source attempts to change the nature of the question, by stating that "this is not the issue", then the common rebuff is "answer my question."

In Newsnight or the main News, it is also important to note that the last word in an interview has been an Israeli or sometimes an official American or British one. The question is posed in the Israeli framework, the Palestinians are forced to answer this question, and the final word is that of an Israel spokesperson. It is a thankless task to attempt to explain the Palestinian situation to a British audience, let alone an American one.

The choice and handling of the spokespersons is another important issue. There are several polished Israeli spokespersons quickly rattling off their main points, and the BBC interviewers find it impossible to interrupt them. The most aggressive of them is Ranaan Gissin, who immediately takes control of the interview however objectionable what he has to say is. The choice of Palestinian spokespersons is rather limited, and not all of them are effective. Invariably they are interrupted and on occasion even shut off. In contrast, during the Kosovo crisis, academics and professionals in the area were brought on the program because their insights were useful. Given that it is difficult to secure access to some of the more eloquent Palestinian spokespersons due to the travel restrictions between Ramallah and Jerusalem, the BBC has yet to interview some of the eloquent academics, e.g., Edward Said, Riad Malki, or Arab-Israeli politicians, e.g., Azmi Bishara. Few attempts are made by the BBC to clarify the Palestinian message. The BBC also never refers to leading Israeli peace activists or critics, Uri Avnery or Michael Warshawski have never appeared on any of its programs.

Another curious BBC practice is to interview Richard Perle or James Rubin, ostensibly as American commentators. Perle is always described as a "former" Under Secretary of Defense. It is never revealed that he is a pro-Israeli right wing hawk lobbying for Israeli interests and advocating the demolition of Iraq. His commentary is hardly the American viewpoint, official or otherwise. Rubin, another "former," is also put forward in the guise of obtaining an unofficial American opinion, but the topic on hand is always Israel. His opinions are usually indistinguishable from Perle’s.

The absurd has its place on BBC news too. During recent bombing in Gaza the reports stated that "a Palestinian naval installation" was destroyed — although they don’t have a single boat. Similarly, the buildings of the "military" were bombed. It is rather odd to describe the police in military terms, intimating that Palestinians have an army ­ perhaps capable of attacking Israeli tanks or helicopters. The description of the targets in this fashion has more to do with justifying Israeli action than objective journalism. It is easier to accept Israeli bombing if the opponent is seen as a military target.

The BBC would like to be known for its objectivity and high quality journalism. However, it is obvious that it is not impervious to the same pressures found in commercial broadcasting networks, and in the case of the Israel/Palestine issue its coverage has shown a definite bias. It is a dark blot on whatever reputation it claims to have.

But the BBC can take steps now to return to a proper journalistic role and apply a true sense of balance. First, given that the Israeli side employs a large body of capable and well-funded propagandists, the BBC should rectify this imbalance by seeking and even amplifying the voice of the more effective Palestinian spokesmen. Second, it should improve its contextual information and avoid jargon obviously tilted to the Israeli side. A litmus test of balanced interviews is to find its interviewers being as tough with the Israeli spokesmen as with the Palestinians. The BBC may once again deserve to be considered an objective news organization the day an interviewer questions an Israeli spokesman about the massacre at Jenin with the same indignant tone used to question Hanan Ashrawi.

Paul de Rooij lives in London. He can be reached at: JPROOIJ@CS.COM