Monday 23 May 2011 07.00 BST Last modified on Tuesday 24 May 2011 16.21 BST
British broadcasters’ coverage of the Arab awakening over recent months has been brave and honest. These are difficult and dangerous stories. But the BBC – and in this article I am going to concentrate on the BBC, because it is the broadcaster we are taxed to enable and sets worldwide standards of fairness – and its teams have made every effort to report with balance and application.
However, the BBC coverage of Israel and Palestine, where another state continually kills and oppresses Arabs, is replete with imbalance and distortion.
I covered the Middle East for the BBC from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, and am aggrieved by my 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.
Greg Philo and Mike Berry, in their book More Bad News from Israel, prove by textual analysis and follow-up interviews with viewers and listeners that I am right – and so are an increasing number of people who are becoming aware that the BBC sells them short on Israel. Philo and Berry’s book, an updated edition of Bad News From Israel (2004), examines coverage of the Israeli blitz on Gaza, analysing BBC TV and ITV early evening bulletins between its beginning on 27 December 2008, and the ceasefire on 17 January 2009.
Siege and blockade
They find that the Israeli explanation of why it went to war on a mainly defenceless Gazan population is the one broadly accepted by the BBC. It was a “response” to Palestinian rockets. The Palestinian case, that the Israelis violated a ceasefire that had held for nearly five months in November 2008, and that the Gazans had endured many years of intensifying siege and blockade, which had reduced them to stagnation and penury, was rarely put, if at all. “The story was unpacked,” the authors write, “in the manner of the Israeli view.”
In the bulletins they examined, the BBC gave 421.5 lines of text to Israeli explanations of why they attacked Gaza: the “need for security”, “enemy rockets”, “to stop the smuggling of weapons”. The BBC devoted 14.25 lines to references to the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories and 10.5 lines to the blockade. The BBC repeatedly stressed the word [Israeli] “retaliation”, and also implied that police stations bombed by the Israelis were military targets, describing other casualties as “civilian”. It described these civilian installations as “targets”. Newspapers such as the Guardian did point out the distinction.
“The offer that Hamas was said to have made, to halt this exchange [rockets v shells and air strikes] … was almost completely absent from the coverage,” say the authors. They cite a BBC reporter saying: “Israel feels itself surrounded by enemies, with reason.” They add: “We have not found a commentary noting that ‘Palestinians feel themselves to be subject to a brutal military occupation, with reason.’ Israel’s official view is given as fact, they say, but the Palestinian view, on the rare occasions it is found at all, is not. Israelis “state”, Palestinians “claim”.
When the BBC and ITV did start reporting the horrific civilian casualties in Gaza and the use of phosphorus, Israeli spokespersons were immediately on hand to deny, explain or obfuscate. The Palestinians, especially Hamas, were rarely able to answer allegations. The Palestinians in situ usually lacked the resources or opportunity to make their case. The many articulate Palestinians in London available to help were rarely called on, whereas, as one BBC insider said, “the Israeli ambassador was practically camped at TV Centre”.
More than two years on, the BBC continues to confuse cause and effect – Israeli attacks are always reported as retaliation to Palestinian violence or rockets, and the idea that Palestinian rockets, however ineffective, are armed resistance to Israel’s hammering from land, sea and air is rarely broadcast. The daily indignities and brutalities of the siege and the occupation and the shelling and shooting of civilians are virtually absent from BBC consciousness unless an attack on Israel sparks interest.
Philo and Berry quote the BBC correspondent Paul Adams, a Middle East expert: what is missing from the coverage, he says, is the view that the Palestinians are engaged in a war of national liberation, trying to throw off an occupying force. Any Israeli casualty is headline news, shown in high quality images. BBC teams are based in West Jerusalem, de facto Israeli territory, and are on hand. Arab casualties may be shown in reports of a funeral, usually agency film, the victim anonymous. The Israelis, it seems, are for the BBC “people like us”. The Arabs are “the other”.
Philo and Berry go on to interview viewers and listeners, all in higher education. They find that these focus groups were largely unaware of the Israeli occupation, often believing the Palestinians are the occupiers. Few knew that Hamas had been democratically elected in January 2006. “I had the impression they were a terrorist group from watching the BBC,” said one respondent. In most cases, the assumption was that Palestinian rockets brought the invasion onto their own people’s heads.
To complain means the official complaints procedure and dealing with the army of lawyers and layers of bureaucracy 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.
For example, the BBC consistently describes illegal Israeli settlements as “held to be illegal”. But they are illegal. Even the Foreign Office says so. The BBC always adds “Israel disputes this.” Well it would, wouldn’t it? Why these caveats? Why this reporting of a shout of denial from the convicted prisoner in the dock?
More than a month after I made an official complaint about this I have had no reply or acknowledgement. People who complained about Panorama’s travesty of a documentary on the deaths caused when Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, part of the Gaza aid flotilla, had to go through an obstacle course of form-filling and stonewalling.
The BBC Trust found the programme guilty on some counts but said it had not breached BBC guidelines of accuracy and impartiality. Why negotiate all this to end up with such contortionist, self-serving judgments?
The BBC is on the defensive: the castle wall is the labyrinthine complaints procedure. It must be time for an independent body like Ofcom to be the final arbiter on BBC journalism, not the BBC itself. The BBC Trust, the highest court of appeal in these matters, is now chaired by Lord Patten, who has told us all how closely he intends to work with the director general, Mark Thompson: judge and potential defendant.
Why is BBC reporting like this? The book addresses this in Chapter 4. In my view, the rot set in during 2001, after 9/11. Israel and its friends were quick to capitalise on “terror” and “Arabs” and massively enhanced their propaganda effort here, gaining access to BBC staff at all levels. BBC managers and editors do not like being shouted at, and they are soft toys when someone makes a loud and apparently convincing case. The Palestinians have no such machinery. As one BBC producer says in More Bad News: “We all fear the phone call from the Israeli embassy.”
The BBC’s main Middle East bureau in west Jerusalem is liable to Israeli pressure, and it is in Israel that the BBC perspective on the regional conflict is formed.
Editorially, Israeli spokesmen are easily available and producers love that. As Peter Oborne pointed out on Channel 4 in late 2009, each of our three main political parties is amenable to the “Friends of Israel” lobby. Our coalition leadership duo have both pledged themselves publicly to Israel. So did Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
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.
Perhaps the most overwhelming distortion of the BBC in its coverage of Israel and Palestine is what I term “spurious equivalence”: that the Palestinians and Israelis are two equal sides “at war” over “disputed” territory and may the best man win. Or, come on chaps, shouldn’t reason prevail? The BBC knows that the Palestinians are a people fighting for independence, but its coverage does not tell it like it is.
In 2006, an independent panel appointed by the BBC governors assessed impartiality in coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Their review came after many complaints and the first edition of this book, which examined in similar form the BBC’s distorted reporting of the Al-Aqsa (second) intifada and the subsequent Israeli bombardments and invasion of the cities of the West Bank.
The commission confirmed many of the Philo/Berry criticisms: “BBC output does not consistently give a full and fair account of the conflict. In some ways the picture is incomplete and, in that sense, misleading.”
Five years on, it remains so, and the BBC has put the commission’s report under “File and Forget”.
Tim Llewellyn was BBC Middle East correspondent from 1976-80 and 1987-92. More Bad News from Israel, by Greg Philo and Mike Berry, is published in paperback by Pluto Press at £15
BBC response to Tim Llewellyn’s story
BBC News endeavours to report on all matters in the Middle East – as elsewhere – impartially, objectively and accurately.
We have extensive editorial guidelines which all reporters and producers are required to observe.
In a highly charged political atmosphere any impartial and accountable broadcaster will rightly find itself under scrutiny by all shades of opinion.
In the Middle East debate there are organised, motivated and effective lobby groups on both sides of the argument.
We listen to their concerns and act on them where we think they are justified, but in doing so we bear in mind that our audiences expect us to remain independent of political pressure.
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).