Here we go again — another “serious escalation” has begun in the Middle East, or so BBC World was telling audiences throughout Sunday. So what prompted the BBC’s judgment that the crisis was escalating once more?
You can be sure it had nothing to do with the more than 130 Lebanese dead after five days of savage aerial bombardment from at least 2,000 sorties by Israeli war planes that are making the country’s south a disaster zone and turning Beirut into a crumbling ghost town. Those dead, most civilians and many of them women and children, hardly get a mention, their lives apparently empty of meaning or significance in this confrontation.
Nor is it the Lebanese roads and bridges being pounded into dust, the petrol stations and oil refineries going up in smoke, the phone networks and TV stations being obliterated, the water and electricity supplies being cut off. The rapid transformation of a modern vibrant country like Lebanon into the same category of open-air prison as Gaza is not an escalation in the BBC’s view.
No, the BBC proffered a first, hesitant “escalation” on Thursday night when Hizbullah had the audacity to fire a handful of rockets at Haifa in response to the growing Lebanese death toll. The worst damage the Katyushas inflicted was one gouging a chunk of earth out of the hillside overlooking the port.
But the BBC felt confident to declare the escalation had turned “serious” on Sunday when Hizbullah not only fired more rockets at Haifa but one killed a group of eight railway workers in a station depot.
Now that Israeli civlians as well as Lebanese civilians are dying — even if in far smaller numbers — the BBC’s battalions of journalists in northern Israel finally have something to report on.
So BBC World’s broadcast at 9am GMT (noon Israel/Lebanon time) hardly veered out of Haifa or Jerusalem. After the presenter’s headline declaration that the Hizbullah strike on Haifa was a “serious escalation”, the news segued into a lengthy and sympathetic interview with an Israeli police spokesman in Haifa by Wyre Davies; followed by another lazy interview, lasting the best part of five minutes, with an Israeli government spokesman in Jerusalem; followed by Ben Brown in Beirut interviewing a British holidaymaker about her night of horror in her hotel.
And in those 15 minutes that was about as close as we got to hearing what the Lebanese had been enduring from a night and morning of Israeli aerial strikes on Beirut and the country’s south. If there was any mention of the suffering of Lebanese civilians — and doubtless the BBC will tell me there was — the reference was so fleeting that I missed it. And if I missed it, then so did most BBC World viewers.
The true nature of the “serious escalation” was soon apparent — or at least it was if one watched Arab TV channels. They showed an urban wasteland of rubble and dust in the suburbs of Beirut and Tyre that was shockingly reminiscent of New York in the immediate aftermath of the 9-11 attacks.
They cut intermittently to local hospitals filled with Lebanese children, their faces a rash of bloody pockmarks from the spray of Israeli shrapnel. More terrible images of children burnt and lying in pools of blood arrrived in my email inbox from Lebanese bloggers.
But in the BBC’s lexicon, escalation has nothing to do with the enormous destruction Israel can unleash on Lebanon; only the occasional, smaller-scale blow Hizbullah scores against Israel.
Switching from the Arab channels back to the BBC for their 11am broadcast in the hope of finding the same images of devastation in Tyre and Beirut, I stumbled on yet another timid interview with Israel’s ubiqitious spokesman Mark Regev. It was followed by the two headlines: Nine dead in Israel after a “barrage” of attacks on Haifa; and foreign governments prepare to evacuate their nationals out of the region.
At noon James Reynolds as good as gave the game away: the Hizbullah strike on Haifa, he said, proved that the rockets are “no longer just an irritant”. Now it was clear why a “serious escalation” had begun: Israel was actually being harmed by Hizbullah’s rockets rather than just irritated. Until then the harm had been mainly inflicted on Lebanese civilians, so no escalation was taking place.
As I regularly flicked to the BBC’s coverage all afternoon, I found almost no mention of those dead in Lebanon. They had become “non-beings”, irrelevant in the calculations not only of our world leaders but of our major broadcasters.
It wasn’t till the 7pm news that I saw meaningful images from Lebanon, as Gavin Hewitt followed a fire crew trying to put out an enormous oil refinery blaze in Tyre. Although we saw some of the suffering of the Lebanese population, the anchor felt obliged to preface the scenes from Lebanon with the statement that they were Israeli “retaliation” for the Haifa attack, even though Israel had been launching such strikes for four days before the lethal rocket strike on Haifa.
In the same broadcast, an Israeli cabinet minister, Shaul Mofaz, was given air time to make the claim that parts of the rockets that landed in Haifa were Syrian-made. Allegations by the Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, widely shown on Arab TV that Israel had been using phosphorus incendiary bombs — illegal under international law — received no coverage at all.
On the 8pm news, one of the headlines was a menacing quote from Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the Hizbullah leader, that “Haifa is just the beginning”. Mike Wooldridge in the Jerusalem studio made great play of the quote, taken from a broadcast Nasrallah had made several hours earlier.
The BBC may have lifted the sentence from the Israeli media because they missed out the important conditional context inserted by Nasrallah — it was only the “beginning” of what Hizbullah could do if Israel continued its attacks.
They could have found this out even from the Hebrew media if they had taken the care to look more closely: “As long as the enemy pursues its aggression without limits and red lines we will pursue the confrontation without limits and without red lines,” Nasrallah was quoted as saying by the daily Haaretz newspaper. In other words, Nasrallah was warning that Hizbullah would give back as good as it gets — a standard piece of rhetoric from a military leader in times of confrontation.
The BBC is no worse than CNN, Sky and, of course, Fox News. It is possibly far better, which is reason enough why we should be outraged that this is the best international broadcast coverage we are likely to get of the conflict.
The reporting we are seeing from the BBC and the other broadcasters is racist; there is no other word to describe it. The journalists’ working assumption is that Israeli lives are more precious, more valuable than Lebanese lives. A few dead Israelis justify massive retaliation; many Lebanese dead barely merit a mention. The subtext seems to be that all the Lebanese, even the tiny bleeding children I see on Arab TV, are terrorists. It is just the way Arabs are.
That is why the capture of two Israeli soldiers is more newsworthy to our broadcasters than the dozens of Lebanese civilians dying from the Israeli bombing runs that have followed. The eight Israelis killed on Sunday are worth far more than the 130-plus Lebanese lives taken so far and the hundreds more we can expect to die in the coming days.
There is no excuse for this asymmetry of coverage. BBC reporters are in Lebanon jusy as they are in Israel. They can find spokespeople in Lebanon just as easily as they can find them in Israel. They can show the far vaster scale of devastation in Beirut as easily as the wreckage in Haifa. They can speak to the Lebanese casualties just as easily as they can those in Israel.
But they don’t — and as a fellow journalist I have to ask myself why.
My previous criticisms of British reporters over their distorted coverage of Israel’s military assaults in Gaza a few weeks back appear to have struck a raw nerve. Certainly they provoked a series of emails — some defensive, others angry — from a few of the reporters I named. All tried to defend their own coverage, unable to accept my criticisms because they are sure that they personally do not take sides. They are not “campaigning” journalists after all, they are “professionals” doing a job.
But the problem is not with them, it is with the job they have to do — and the nature of the professionalism they so prize. I am sure the BBC’s Wyre Davies cares as much about Lebanese deaths as he does about Israeli ones. But he also knows his career at the BBC demands that he does not ask his bosses questions when told to give valuable minutes of air time to an Israeli police spokesman who offers us only platitudes.
Similarly, we see James Reynolds use his broadcast from Haifa at 12noon to show emotive footage of him and his colleagues running for shelter as Israeli air raid sirens go off, only to tell us that in fact no rockets landed in Haifa. That non-event was shown by the BBC every hour on the hour all afternoon and evening. Was it more significant than the images of death we never saw taking place just over the border? These images from Lebanon exist because the Arab channels spent all day showing them.
Matthew Price knows too that in the BBC’s view it is his job as he stands in Haifa, after we have repeatedly heard Israeli spokespeople giving their version of events, to repeat their message, dropping even the quotes marks as he passionately tells us how tough Israel must now be, how it must “retaliate” to protect its citizens, how it must “punish” Hizbullah. This is not journalism; it’s reporting as a propaganda arm of a foreign power.
Can we imagine Ben Brown doing the same from Beirut, standing in front of the BBC cameras telling us how Hizbullah has no choice faced with Israel’s military onslaught but to start hitting Haifa harder, blowing up its oil refineries and targeting civilian infrastructure to “pressure” Israel to negotiate?
Would the BBC bother to show pre-recorded footage of Brown fleeing for his safety in Beirut in what later turned out to be a false alarm? Of course not. Doubtless Brown and his colleagues are forced to take cover on a regular basis for fear of being hurt by Israeli air strikes, but his fear — or more precisely, the fear of the Lebanese he stands alongside — is not part of the story for the BBC. Only Israeli fears are newsworthy.
These reporters are working in a framework of news priorities laid down by faceless news executives far away from the frontline who understand only too well the institutional pressures on the BBC — and the institutional biases that are the result.
They know that the Israel lobby is too powerful and well resourced to take on without suffering flak; that the charge of anti-semitism might be terminally damaging to the BBC’s reputation; that the BBC is expected broadly to reflect the positions of the British governmment if it wants an easy ride with its regulators; that to remain credible it should not stray too far from the line of its mainly American rivals, who have their own more intense domestic pressures to side with Israel.
This distortion of news priorities has real costs that can be measured in lives — in the days and weeks to come, hundreds, possibly thousands, of lives in both Israel and Lebanon. As long as Israel is portrayed by our major broadcasters as the one under attack, its deaths alone as significant, then the slide to a regional war — a war of choice being waged by the Israeli government and army — is likely to become inevitable.
So to Jeremy Bowen, James Reynolds, Ben Brown, Wyre Davies, Matthew Price and all the other BBC journalists reporting from the frontline of the Middle East, and the faceless news executives who sent them there, I say: you may be nice people with the best of intentions, but shame on you.