Bad News from the BBC: ‘Replete with Imbalance and Distortion’
MEDIA, 30 May 2011
One of the main headlines on the BBC news homepage earlier this month read, ‘Violence erupts at Israel borders’. Israeli soldiers had shot dead at least 12 protesters and injured dozens more. BBC ‘impartiality’ decreed that the brutal killings were presented almost as an act of nature, a volcanic eruption that simply happened.
Clicking on the link did at least bring up a more accurate headline: ‘Israeli forces open fire at Palestinian protesters’. But the brutality was sanitised, with no details of the many victims. The Israeli viewpoint was prominent with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that he ‘hoped’ that ‘calm and quiet will quickly return, but let nobody be mistaken, we are determined to defend our borders and sovereignty’.
Somehow a ‘neutral’ BBC perspective dictated that the lead image illustrating the story was of young Palestinian men throwing rocks in ‘clashes’ with fully armed soldiers from the Israeli Defence Forces.
The Palestinians had been taking part in annual protests on Nakba (‘Catastrophe’) day which, as the BBC put it, ‘marks the moment when 100,000s of Palestinians lost their homes’ on the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Again, the BBC’s sanitised version of ‘lost their homes’ buries awkward history, as though homes had simply been repossessed when families fell behind on their mortgage payments. In reality, more than half of Palestine’s native population, close to 800,000 people, had been uprooted and 531 villages destroyed (Ilan Pappe, ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’, Oneworld, 2006).
After complaints from us, and perhaps realising the newspeak was just too much to swallow, the BBC tweaked the sentence the following day to read:
‘Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced out of their homes in fighting after its creation.’
BBC Middle East correspondent Jim Muir was quick to implicate foreign powers in the latest annual Nakba protests, asking the leading question: ‘Palestinian protests: Arab spring or foreign manipulation?’ and pointing his finger at Syria and Iran. True to type, the BBC journalist’s ‘analysis’ was not a million miles distant from the message being broadcast from Tel Aviv. Jonathan Cook, an independent journalist based in Nazareth, notes:
‘With characteristic obtuseness, Israel’s leaders identified Iranian “fingerprints” on the day’s events – as though Palestinians lacked enough grievances of their own to stage protests.’ (Jonathan Cook, ‘On an old anniversary, a new sense that change is possible’, The National, 17 May, 2011)
The BBC’s famed ‘balance’ should mean that, in the wake of Muir’s piece, we see a BBC article about US ‘foreign manipulation’ of Syria and Iran, and indeed the whole Middle East. Presumably the balancing piece is in the pipeline.
As with the most effective propaganda published by the Soviet newspaper Pravda, there may be something in what Muir says. But the required journalistic emphasis, as ever, is on the misdeeds ‘our’ officially sanctioned state enemies may be committing, not on the crimes of our own government.
BBC And ITV Bias Exposed
Professional journalists reporting from the Middle East ought to be discomfited by the publication of More Bad News From Israel, an updated study by Greg Philo and Mike Berry of the Glasgow University Media Group (Pluto Press, 2011; first edition published as Bad News From Israel in 2004).
The book examines media coverage of the conflict in Israel and Palestine, and the impact of this reporting on public opinion. In the largest study of its kind ever undertaken, the authors illustrate major biases in the way Palestinians and Israelis are represented in the media, including how casualties, and the motives and rationale of the different parties involved, are depicted. In follow-up interviews with viewers and listeners, the book also reveals the extraordinary differences in levels of public knowledge and understanding of the conflict. It is significant that gaps in public understanding often reflect the propaganda generated by Israel and its supporters in the West. Indeed, the book exposes the ‘success of the Israelis in establishing key elements of their perspective and the effect of these being relayed uncritically in media accounts’.
In a powerful new chapter, Philo and Berry present an in-depth analysis of BBC and ITV news coverage of the 2008-2009 Israeli attack on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. On 27 December 2008, Israel launched a massive series of assaults on the densely-populated strip of land with F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters and unmanned drones. Attacks with tanks and ground troops followed. 22 days later, the total number of Palestinian dead was estimated by B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, as 1,389. The death toll included 318 children. Ten Israeli soldiers were also killed, four of them in ‘friendly fire’ incidents. During the attacks, Israeli forces repeatedly bombed schools, medical centres, hospitals, ambulances, UN buildings, power plants, sewage plants, roads, bridges and civilian homes.
In the aftermath of the attacks, the UN sponsored a fact-finding study chaired by a South African judge, Richard Goldstone. The Goldstone report, along with others by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the League of Arab States, included accounts of the killings of civilians by Israel Defence Forces in a cold, calculated and deliberate manner. Goldstone subsequently issued a supposed partial ‘retraction’, apparently following intense Israeli pressure. But he did not withdraw the report and his co-authors stood by their work. (Peter Hart, ‘Is There Really a Goldstone “Retraction”?‘, FAIR, April 5, 2011)
The researchers recorded, transcribed and analysed over 4000 lines of broadcast news text from both the BBC and ITV (it is not stated explicitly, but one assumes these 4000 lines were shared approximately equally between the two broadcasters).
‘The most striking feature of the news texts’, write Philo and Berry, ‘is the dominance of the Israeli perspective, in relation to the causes of the conflict.’
Specifically, they note that the Israeli themes of ‘ending the rockets’ (fired from Gaza by Hamas into Israel), the ‘need for [Israel’s] security’ and to ‘stop the smuggling of weapons’ (by Hamas into Gaza) received a total of 316.5 lines of text from the BBC. Other Israeli propaganda messages, such as the need to ‘hit Hamas’ and that ‘Hamas and terrorists are to blame’, received 62 lines on BBC News. The total for Israeli explanatory statements on the BBC was 421.25. This compared with a much lower total for Hamas/Palestinian explanations of just 126.25. In ITV News coverage, there were over 302 lines relating to Israeli explanatory statements but just 78 for Hamas/Palestinian.
But even these 126.25 BBC and 78 ITV lines of ‘explanations’ of the Palestinian perspective lacked substance: ‘the bulk of the Palestinian accounts do not explain their case beyond saying that they will resist.’ What was almost non-existent were crucial facts about ‘how the continuing existence of the blockade affects the rationale for Palestinian action and how they see their struggle against Israel and its continuing military occupation.’
For the Palestinians, then, the military occupation of their lands and the crushing blockade of Gaza are utterly central to the ‘conflict’. But on BBC News there were just 14.25 lines referring to the occupation and only 10.5 on the ending of the siege/blockade. ITV News had 12.25 lines on ending the siege/blockade and a single line about the occupation. The bias is glaring.
Instead of adequately explaining the Palestinian viewpoint, BBC and ITV news heavily reflected Israeli propaganda:
‘The dominant explanation for the attack [Operation Cast Lead] was that it was to stop the firing of rockets by Hamas. The offer that Hamas was said to have made, to halt this in exchange for lifting the blockade (which Israel had rejected), was almost completely absent from the coverage.’
In short, news coverage of the brutal assault was skewed by the Israeli perspective, perpetuating ‘a one-sided view of the causes of the conflict by highlighting the issue of the rockets without reporting the Hamas offer’, and by burying rational views on the purpose of the attack: namely the Israeli desire to inflict collective punishment on the Palestinian people. (See our earlier media alerts: ‘An Eye For An Eyelash: The Gaza Massacre’, and ‘The BBC, Impartiality, And The Hidden Logic Of Massacre’)
In classic academic understatement, Philo and Berry conclude:
‘It is difficult in the face of this to see how the BBC can sustain a claim to be offering balanced reporting.’
Based on their equally poor performance, the same would surely apply to ITV.
Tim Llewellyn, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, backs up Philo and Berry’s careful analysis, arguing that BBC coverage of Israel and Palestine ‘is replete with imbalance and distortion’. He points to his ex-employer’s ‘continuing inability to describe in a just and contextualised way the conflict between military occupier and militarily occupied. There is no attempt to properly convey cause and effect, to report the misery, violence and pillage that demean and deny freedom to the Palestinians and provoke their (limited) actions.’ (‘BBC is “confusing cause and effect” in its Israeli coverage’, Guardian, May 23, 2011)
Llewellyn also rightly castigated the ‘labyrinthine’ official complaints procedure that means members of the public have to battle with an ‘army of lawyers and layers of bureaucracy’ that ‘the BBC now deploys to see off all but the most assiduous.’
‘Editors and producers rarely respond individually to complaints and, if they do, do so with question-raising answers and self-justification.’
An experience which we and many of our readers can confirm!
Llewellyn sums up:
‘The BBC, like a well-kicked hound, does not in its post-Hutton malaise wish to antagonise politicians. It goes with reporting that’s as low-profile as possible on this most sensitive of issues. It lives in horror of being accused of anti-semitism, Israel’s ultimate smear. Reporters and editors know they have to pitch the Israel story in a certain manner to get it on the air – in effect, self-censorship.’
The Guardian allowed the BBC to provide a response to Llewellyn’s article. This ended with a sly comment:
‘Although Tim Llewellyn was indeed a BBC correspondent some years ago, we note that he subsequently was active for a period with the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU).’
Perhaps the BBC should end its Newsnight programmes with a similar warning:
‘Although Jeremy Paxman is an anchor for the BBC flagship news programme, Newsnight, we note that he has also been actively involved with the British-American Project for some years.’
Something similar happened to John Pilger in 2002, when he was allowed to defend his film, ‘Palestine is Still the Issue’, in the Guardian opinion pages. Unbeknownst to Pilger, Stephen Pollard, a Zionist and later editor of the Jewish Chronicle, was to be given the same space to mount an ill-founded attack on the piece in the paper the following day. Pilger’s film was later praised for its accuracy and integrity following an enquiry by the ITC.
A Stony Silence
We emailed David Mannion, editor-in-chief of ITV News, and Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, for their views. Neither replied. We did not have much luck either with Jon Williams, the BBC’s world news editor. No great surprise given that, earlier this year, Williams blocked Media Lens even from following him on Twitter (as did Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian).
When one of our readers asked Williams why he had blocked us, he replied: ‘That’s what happens when people send you abusive tweets’. In fact, the sole Tweet we had sent him was this one, asking for his thoughts on observations made by journalists Jonathan Cook and Tim Llewellyn on Israel-Palestine news coverage.
We have always made it clear that we abhor abuse directed at journalists (or anyone else). We asked Williams via Twitter and email which ‘abusive’ messages he had in mind, saying that we would happily apologise if we had caused offence. He did not respond.
We did, however, get a reply from BBC Middle East correspondent Jim Muir – a nice example of the ‘It’s-not-my-job’ response we have seen so often over the years:
‘I’m afraid I don’t have a “response” as I’m not a spokesman for anything other than myself. Nor, frankly, do I have time to study and evaluate the BBC’s output; that’s not my job, and it’s rarely part of my input as I spend most of my time on primary sources. My own reporting is rarely on the Palestinian/Israeli issue as such; sometimes on its ramifications but I am normally engaged on Iraq and more recently Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon. I’m sure you’ve been in touch with BBC editorial management in London, and equally sure that you will get a response from them.’ (Email, May 16, 2011)
In an attempt to encourage Muir to assert his human right to freedom of speech, we emailed him back the same day:
‘Many thanks for your email.
‘”I’m not a spokesman for anything other than myself.”
‘Speaking for yourself then, what’s your own impression of BBC news coverage of the wider Middle East – how fair and balanced is it? Surely you have a view?
‘Feel free to offer your thoughts in confidence without named attribution.’
Muir did not reply.
In Part 2, to follow shortly, we present an eye-goggling exchange with one senior BBC journalist who did respond.
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