The BBC: Occupation? What occupation?!

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What prompted me to write this article was an item on the BBC website that exemplified all that is fundamentally wrong with the corporation’s coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The item, entitled “Settlers move into east Jerusalem”[1] from March 31 this year, describes “angry demonstrators”, “clashes between local Palestinians and police”, and “angry Palestinians…throwing stones at the new arrivals”. As usual, the BBC reported that “security” forces “responded” with teargas.

The fact that east Jerusalem is militarily occupied by Israel in contravention of international law, and that the settlers’ presence in that part of the city and other Arab territories violates the Geneva Conventions and several binding UN Security Council resolutions, would have given vital context to the Palestinian reaction.

But such context was totally absent. The article spoke merely of Palestinians wanting east Jerusalem to be the capital of their future state, of “an Arab-dominated area of east Jerusalem”, and “unauthorised” and “illegal outposts” in the West Bank (those deemed so by Israel) whose removal is required under “the US-backed Middle East peace plan”.

Instead of reporting that all Israel’s settlements are illegal under international law and must be removed, the BBC treated its readers to five paragraphs of justification by a settler spokesman, who said they “returned…with the idea of living side-by-side with the Arabs” and that they coordinated with the police to have “less antagonism”. Contrast this with just two paragraphs given to a Palestinian man whose house had been taken away by force to accommodate the settlers.

Members of Arab Media Watch (AMW), myself included, have monitored the BBC for some time, and the flaws evident in the above-mentioned article – namely regarding settlements and the occupation – are, sadly, consistent with its coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict in general, and prompted me to study its website’s output for the first quarter of 2004.

Settlements

During this period, just one article regarding Israel’s settlements, by Kathryn Westcott on March 31, stated unequivocally their illegality: “Jewish settlements, themselves, contravene international humanitarian law, which prohibits an occupying power transferring citizens from its own territory to occupied territory. (This is laid down in the Fourth Geneva Convention, article 49.)”

Fewer than one in 10 articles regarding settlements reported that they are “considered” illegal, but this choice of verb is inadequate, as if to imply that the issue is open to debate. Theft is illegal. It is not open to “consideration”.

So some 90% of relevant articles failed completely to mention international law. One article simply reported on February 17 that “Israeli housing Minister Effi Eitam said…he would propose new laws to make it illegal to evacuate settlers and dismantle their homes”! Furthermore, the article contained more pro-settler sources than anti-settler sources, and the former were given more space.

This was a predominant trend, even among articles that referred to the “considered” illegality of settlements. Those included an article by James Rodgers on January 30, which gave more space to the views of Gaza settler spokesman Eran Sternberg than those of Barjas al-Waheidi, who has been a refugee since 1948. The headline of another article by Rodgers, dated February 26, said it all: “Gaza settlers hoping to stay put”[2]. The article was almost completely from the settlers’ point of view, with no Palestinian sources. The caption of one of the pictures read: “Dismantling the settlements will cause massive upheaval for thousands.”

There were also no Palestinian sources in a February 7 article by Matt Prodger about a settler beauty contest in the West Bank. He gave the Israeli viewpoint greater space in another article dated March 7.

This was also the case with an article entitled “Sharon orders Gaza pullout plan”[3], in which there were five Israeli sources (Prime Minister and settler champion Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, Likud member and pro-settler Yechiel Hazan, settler spokesman Shaul Goldstein and settler leaders quoted in Israeli newspaper Maariv) compared to just one Palestinian source who was given far less space.

Of the above-mentioned articles, half contained pictures of settler babies, children, teenage girls and mothers. Only one contained a picture which could be deemed sympathetic to the Palestinians – a woman on a stretcher – though the caption lacks any context: “There has been an increase of violence recently”.

So during the first quarter of 2004, the BBC website reported the issue of settlements almost totally without reference to their illegality or to the fact that they are built on occupied Arab land, and gave the viewpoint of the colonisers greater space than those of the dispossessed.

Occupation

The occupation in general fares no better. Fewer than one in five articles referred to the occupation of the Palestinian territories, but if one counts only references from the BBC rather than its sources, this figure falls to less than one in 10 articles. In some instances where the occupation is mentioned, it is portrayed as a Palestinian, Arab or Muslim perception, rather than an unquestioned reality.

For example, BBC News Online world affairs correspondent Paul Reynolds wrote in February: “The Palestinians argue that all the land captured by Israel in the 1967 war is occupied territory…Israel rejects the claim that the land it captured in 1967 is occupied territory.”

Following Israel’s assassination in March of Hamas spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, security correspondent Frank Gardner wrote: “For most Arabs and Muslims, the Hamas movement was one of national liberation from occupation, that’s how they perceive it, they don’t see it as a terrorist movement in the way that the West does.”

Only around 10% of articles on the Israeli-Syrian conflict mentioned the occupation of the Golan Heights.

Regarding the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, some 20% of articles mentioned the 22-year occupation of south Lebanon, but again this figure is almost halved when only counting references from the BBC rather than its sources. An article by Reynolds talks of “the Israeli departure from its security or occupation zone in 2000”, as if reference to the occupation is merely subjective or justified on security grounds.

This is nothing new. The BBC often uses maps of Lebanon describing the area occupied by Israel as “former Israeli security zones”. I doubt the BBC would describe northern Israel as a “Lebanese security zone” if the Lebanese army invaded and occupied it.

This reminds me of an astonishing e-mail AMW deputy chairman Ben Counsell received from BBC Online last August after complaining about the term “security fence”: “We feel we are right to use the term ‘security fence’ as this is what Israel is calling it”!

So on average BBC Online mentions occupation – a core issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict – in only one in 10 articles. In addition, AMW director Judith Brown, who did a thorough study of Today – one of BBC Radio 4’s flagship programmes – covering December 2003 to the end of February 2004 [4], found that the occupation “was not mentioned by any BBC reporter or presenter during the whole of this period, although it was occasionally mentioned by British spokesmen who were interviewed.”

A letter I received in January this year by Fraser Steel, the BBC’s head of Programme Complaints, raised my concerns that perhaps the corporation’s widespread omission of the “o” word is no accident. I had complained about “Terror Tourists”, a one-hour documentary, shown on BBC 2 last December, about armed American “tourists” patrolling Palestinian streets with armed Israelis, and without a single Palestinian approached for their opinion, save for a few words from the Palestinian Authority during the closing seconds of the programme.

Part of my complaint read: “The occupied Arab territories were described more than once as ‘disputed’ by (producer Tim) Tate, who allowed those on the programme to claim without challenge that those lands do not belong to its rightful, sovereign owners.

“This ignores their internationally recognised status as Arab lands, as well as numerous binding UN Security Council resolutions describing Israel as an occupying power whose occupation policies have ‘no legal validity’ (Resolution 465) and are ‘null and void and without international legal effect’ (Resolution 497). Resolutions 471 and 476 reaffirm ‘the overriding necessity to end the prolonged occupation of Arab territories occupied by Israel since 1967, including Jerusalem’.”

Steel sent me a four-page defence of the programme, but his following words particularly alarmed me: “…it is not unreasonable to use the word ‘disputed’.” This from a senior BBC figure in charge of programme complaints!

Resistance

Naturally, if occupation is seldom mentioned by the BBC, neither is resistance to it. In the first quarter of 2004, the corporation’s website itself referred to such resistance only four times – three times regarding the Palestinians and once regarding Lebanon – all in March. In fact, BBC Online talked of resistance three times during that period when referring to the removal of settlers.

So in the vast majority of cases, the BBC’s audience is told only of suicide bombings, “militants”, “violence” and “attacks”, without any cause or context.

Context

Contrast the background information provided after suicide bombings with that of Israel’s occupation policies. When a suicide bombing occurs, BBC Online offers a chronology. I asked last September if such chronologies existed for Israeli assassinations, house demolitions, settlement construction, Palestinian civilians killed etc. World editor Steve Hermann admitted: “We do not have a single Palestinian timeline equivalent to the Israel suicide bomb blasts.”

But he attempted to justify this: “We report the things you mention in our news coverage and focus on them in detail in the feature and background stories we do. We are not attempting to suggest that the Israel bombings are more worthy of being reported, it is simply that we do not currently feel it is justified to reduce all the violence suffered by Palestinians to a simple list and report the violence in these terms.”

I told him I was unconvinced by his arguments: “Your reason for not having timelines for Palestinian suffering is because you report it in your regular news coverage. However, you do the same with suicide bombings while also having a timeline for them. This hardly seems balanced.

“As a journalist like yourself, I recognise the usefulness of having timelines, as they provide perspective and trends to events and actions that may otherwise seem fragmented and complicated.

“You say that you don’t want to ‘simplify’ Palestinian suffering by having timelines, but I would argue that people need such simplification. Otherwise, they will view Israel’s assassinations, house demolitions, settlement activity etc. as being isolated events rather than long-term, frequent policies. For instance, having looked at the timeline of Israel’s suicide bombings, one could refer to similar timelines for Palestinian suffering to see what happened between each suicide bombing. This is not to excuse suicide bombings, but…to give a sense of perspective.

“If one were being cynical, one would view this as a lack of balance or even lazy journalism, as these injustices far outnumber suicide bombings and would thus take more time to compile. This…is all the more reason why they should be compiled in such a way.”

His response seemed to acknowledge the far more numerous injustices inflicted on the Palestinians, but he would not budge. “To create and maintain a timeline of casualties overall would be an almost insurmountable task and would also lack a clear editorial focus,” he said. “Suicide bombings are a shocking if sadly familiar part of the Middle East conflict and they tend to make headline news when they happen.” Since the BBC decides what makes headline news, is he implying that the corporation simply deems suicide bombings more newsworthy?

Refugees

Judging from BBC Online’s output in the first quarter of 2004, the refugee issue does not seem to be newsworthy. Out of almost 40 relevant articles, most involving Israeli attacks against refugee camps, not a single one explained why those refugees were dispossessed or where they had originally come from.

The furthest one article goes is to state that “hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced”, but the reasons and perpetrator – Israel’s ethnic cleansing to establish a Jewish state – are absent. Only one article mentions the refugees’ right to return to their homes, only one indicates how long they have been dispossessed, and only three refer to their dire living conditions.

Only one of these three articles is specifically about such conditions. Entitled “UN warns of Palestinian despair” [5], it is about the UN Relief Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) warning of growing “hopelessness, cynicism and despair” among refugees, that unless they “were given some reason to hope for an improvement in their lives, they would be unlikely to have faith in the Middle East peace process”, and appealing for “greater commitment from the international community”.

On the face of it, this article is praiseworthy in highlighting refugees’ living conditions, but it still fails completely to explain the root causes of their plight. The same is true of an article by Gaza correspondent James Rodgers on Palestinians displaced by Israel’s house demolitions – no mention of the policies behind the demolitions or their illegality, and no mention that they are taking place on occupied land. And this, during three months, was as good as it got from BBC Online concerning refugees, another core issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Why the pitfalls in coverage?

This is a vast topic with various, equally valid theories which could fill an entire book. As such, I will not delve into it, but instead direct readers to a chapter entitled "Why the BBC Ducks the Palestinian Story"[6] by Tim Llewellyn, a patron of AMW and former BBC Middle East correspondent. The chapter is available on the internet and contained in an excellent book published in January this year entitled "Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq", which is available at a 20% discount on the AMW website. [7]

What I can say for certain, however, is that the BBC cannot claim it has not been told. AMW members – including Llewellyn – have been highlighting their concerns to the corporation for years, and since last October we have had several meetings with senior BBC officials and sent them periodic summaries of trends in the corporation’s coverage, which highlighted the same problems illustrated in this article.

However, at one such meeting Richard Sambrook, then head of news and now director of the World Service and global news division, stressed the importance of both sides maintaining open channels of dialogue, and then failed to reply to several of my subsequent e-mails and monitoring summaries.

BBC chairman Michael Grade replied in May to a letter by AMW director Judith Brown that "since the views of your organisation are well known to BBC News, I hope you will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to fulfil your request for a meeting." We have yet to understand.

Greg Philo & "Bad News From Israel"

Our findings echo those of a major three-year study by Professor Greg Philo, research director of the Glasgow University Media Group, into British people’s understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the output of the UK’s broadcasters, including the BBC. His findings, contained in his book "Bad News from Israel"[8], published on June 22 this year and available on the AMW website at a 30% discount, are shocking: Only 9% of people knew that the Israelis were the occupiers and settlers – 11% believed it was the Palestinians! Only 30% knew that the Palestinians had suffered more fatalities than the Israelis, and 80% did not know where the Palestinian refugees had come from or how they had become dispossessed.

One of the book’s major findings was that "there is a preponderance of official ‘Israeli perspectives’, particularly on BBC 1, where Israelis were interviewed over twice as much as Palestinians. On top of this, US politicians who support Israel were very strongly featured. They appeared more than politicians from any other country and twice as much as those from Britain."

Another major finding was that "there was a strong emphasis on Israeli casualties on the news, relative to Palestinians (even though Palestinians had around 2-3 times the number of deaths as Israelis). In one week in March 02 which the BBC reported as having the most Palestinian casualties since the start of the intifada, there was actually more coverage on the news of Israeli deaths. There were also differences in the language used by journalists for Israelis and Palestinians –” words such as ‘atrocity’, ‘brutal murder’, ‘mass murder’, ‘savage cold blooded killing’, ‘lynching’ and ‘slaughter’ were used about Israeli deaths but not Palestinian. The word ‘terrorist’ was used to describe Palestinians by journalists but when an Israeli group was reported as trying to bomb a Palestinian school, they were referred to as ‘extremists’ or ‘vigilantes’ (BBC 1 lunch time news and ITV main news (5/03/02)."

Tim Llewellyn, in an article published on June 20 this year in the Observer [9], gave another example that "is a template for hundreds: when Israeli police killed 13 Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin in October 2000, inside Israel, soon after the armed uprising in the occupied territories began, BBC and ITN coverage was a fifth of that given to the Palestinians who stormed a police station in Ramallah a day later and murdered two captured Israeli soldiers. These Palestinians were ‘a frenzied [lynch] mob…baying for blood’. No such lurid prose was used to describe the Israeli killing of their own citizen Arabs."

And while Philo’s book came out in June 2004, his findings were first published in the Guardian on April 16, 2002 [10]. In that article, he said: "There were many examples of the Israeli viewpoint being adopted by journalists. Palestinian bombings were frequently presented as ‘starting’ a sequence of events which involved an Israeli ‘response’. On Radio 4 it was reported that ‘Five Palestinians have been killed when the Israeli army launched new attacks on the Gaza Strip in retaliation for recent acts of terrorism’.

He continued: "In another exchange on BBC Radio 4, David Wiltshire MP was asked ‘What can the Egyptians do to stop the suicide bombers –” because that in the end is what is cranking up the violence at present?’ He replies, ‘Well that is one view, the Israeli view…’."

In a letter published in the Guardian in September 25, 2002 [11], Philo stated: "BBC coverage has often used words such as ‘terrorist’, ‘murder’ and ‘atrocity’ to describe Palestinian actions. Its coverage of Jenin was restrained compared with other channels and its main bulletins reported the statements of both sides without endorsing them, noting the Palestinians called it a ‘massacre’ while the Israelis called it a ‘legitimate military operation’. A suicide bomber who killed six Israelis was referred to as a ‘mass murderer’."

On April 1 this year, Philo was quoted by the Guardian [12] as saying: "One of the complaints made about the BBC was that it endorsed Palestinian views. In fact it was Israeli views that were more likely to be endorsed and that was very clear on the BBC. Overall the BBC didn’t come across at all as being anti-Israeli –” there’s a good deal of evidence which would show that the imbalance is against the Palestinians."

And on July 14 this year, he wrote in the Guardian [13]: "Between October and December 2001…on BBC1 and ITV news, Israelis were said to be responding to what had been done to them about six times as often as the Palestinians. This pattern of reporting clearly influenced how some viewers understood the conflict."

So Philo’s findings have been in the public domain for over two years, ample time for the BBC to rectify the problems highlighted in his research. However, it seems the corporation has not only failed to do this, but has sounded worryingly dismissive of the findings.

The BBC’s "Middle East tsar", Malcolm Balen, was quoted in June 2004 by the Jewish Chronicle as saying: "I have never been someone who thinks one can detect bias simply by counting up the number of interviews on TV. There could be 100 interviews with Israeli government spokesmen but they could be quite critical and hard interviews. Equally you could say that if there are fewer Palestinian interviews, it’s a sign that the BBC isn’t asking enough hard questions of the Palestinians."

So presumably his answer to Israeli predominance on the BBC is to be harder on the Palestinians! Judging from Philo’s extensive research and that of AMW, Balen seems unaware of the qualitative inequality in how both sides are interviewed.

Conclusion

The BBC should view this article as an outreached hand rather than a clenched fist, but in reaching out once again, we ask merely that our views and findings be dealt with promptly and genuinely. No more generic e-mails from the BBC claiming its efforts at objectivity, in response to messages whose specific points and grievances are not addressed. No more factual errors that are corrected when pointed out, only to reappear weeks later. No more falling back on the argument that "well, we also receive complaints from the pro-Israel lobby", when those complaints are often sweeping and unsubstantiated. And no more meetings without follow-up.

Let there now be a sincere effort by the BBC to engage with those seeking nothing more controversial than fair, contextual reporting and justice for an occupied people, not least for the benefit, accuracy and reputation of the corporation itself.

And to those reading this article, this is a time for renewed perseverance, a time when Palestinian suffering is at a peak, and the facts and figures regarding BBC coverage are ample. As British citizens, it is our right as licence payers to make our voices heard. As advocates of human rights and objective media coverage, it is our duty.

Notes:

[1]. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3584903.stm

[2]. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3489434.stm

[3]. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3451497.stm

[4]. http://www.arabmediawatch.com/modules.php?
name=News&file=article&sid=1423

[5]. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/middle_east/3507065.stm

[6]. http://electronicintifada.net/v2/article2402.shtml

[7]. http://www.arabmediawatch.com/modules.php?
name=News&file=article&sid=1407

[8]. http://www.arabmediawatch.com/modules.php?
name=News&file=article&sid=1724

[9]. http://observer.guardian.co.uk/business/story/0,6
903,1242833,00.html

[10]. http://education.guardian.co.uk/egweekly/story/0,
,684671,00.html

[11]. http://www.guardian.co.uk/letters/story/0,,798364,
00.html

[12]. http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story
/0,,1183876,00.html

[13]. http://www.guardian.co.uk/analysis/story/0,,12607
33,00.html

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