PSC SUBMISSION TO BBC IMPARTIALITY REVIEW
Sir Quentin Thomas, CB,
Israeli-Palestinian Impartiality Review,
BBC Governance Unit,
35 Marylebone High Street,
London W1U 4AA
Dear Sir Quentin,
We are grateful for this opportunity to put forward our concerns regarding the BBC’s coverage of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict to an independent review body.
For several decades, The Palestine Solidarity Campaign has been actively engaged in the difficult work of telling the truth about the dispossession and subjugation of the Palestinian people, while countering the myths propagated by what we perceive to be pro-Israeli bias in the media.
1) We greatly value those occasions when the BBC has enabled a glimpse of what life is like for Palestinians living under occupation. However, it is disappointing that such programmes are often shown very late at night, for example, Ben Anderson’s Frontline Football.
2) We are worried that the BBC’s frequent failure to provide a context to its reports, or to clearly identify the situation as one of military occupation by Israel of Palestinian lands, creates a misleading picture of the realities on the ground. While it is understandable that the BBC cannot give the full historical background every time Palestine is mentioned in the news, we are disappointed by a failure to provide any context whatsoever to most reports: for example, not pointing out that the Wall being built on occupied Palestinian territory has been ruled illegal by the ICJ. Regular reference to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is similarly misleading and has the effect of shoring up Israel’s illegal annexation of Jerusalem.
3) We believe that as a public service broadcaster, the BBC has an obligation to provide factual information that will help to deepen the understanding of viewers and listeners. We are concerned that when international laws and norms are being comprehensively breached as in the case of Israel, it is vital that this should become public knowledge, and not be covered up because the occupying power possesses by far the greater lobbying capacity. Nor should the BBC adopt the terminology of occupation at the behest of the Israeli Embassy, as often appears to be the case (see later).
4) At the present time when great repression is being perpetrated against Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, the BBC has given very little coverage to the killing of Palestinians, daily use of sound-bombing and the sealing off of Gaza. The terrible situation in the West Bank has not been scrutinised by the BBC during a time of unprecedented settlement expansion, carving out of settler-only roads, and wall building, coupled with murders, mass arrests and inhuman restrictions on movement.
5) According to figures collected by the Glasgow University Media Group, most people get their information about Palestine from television. Respondents complained to GUMG (Greg Philo and Mike Berry, Bad News From Israel, Pluto Press, London, 2004) that lack of context was a major ‘turn off’. They said that even the phrase “occupied territory” does not make it clear who is occupying what. Just a couple of words could make that clear. Lack of time or space, does not justify the omission of crucial words, and only adds to incomprehension.
6) If the BBC were to show more maps of the region, this would greatly enhance viewers’ understanding of the situation. For example the outline of the Israeli Oslo maps and the division of the West Bank into “cantons” (Bantustans) coincides with the route of the wall, demonstrating the premeditation of successive Israeli governments in relation to the route of the Wall. Such maps are readily available from sources such as Palestine Monitor, or Israeli sources, but have never been shown by the BBC. Maps illustrate very clearly how Israel has steadily expanded from 0% of Palestinian land to 54%, to 78% and now with the settlements just east of the Green Line and along the Jordan Valley to nearer 90%.
7) The BBC has frequently adopted the Israeli-centric version of the original dispossession of the Palestinians as “Israel’s War of Independence” to refer to the forcible expulsion of 750,000 Palestinian people in 1948, known to Palestinians as The Nakba, (“catastrophe”). [For example, in the commentary of Last Stand, a “This World” programme, produced by Noam Shalev, BBC2, November 10th, 2005]. Forcible expulsion is understood everywhere else where it occurs as ‘ethnic cleansing’. This policy of Israel’s has continued until today in the form of house demolitions, violent attacks, killings, wall and settlement building, closures and all the other panoply of “ethnic cleansing” which Israel employs on a daily basis and which is rarely even glimpsed on the BBC.
8) Jeff Halper, of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions has called Israeli policy “quiet ethnic cleansing”. Apparently the BBC does not acknowledge the reality of systematic Israeli policies to drive the Palestinians off their land. Therefore we believe there is a major disjunction between events on the ground and the emphasis of reportage by the BBC.
9) There is very little coverage by the BBC of the reality of settlements. Sometimes they are referred to as ‘Israeli towns’ or ‘Israeli-populated areas’ instead of illegal colonies built on occupied land. Settlers are never asked awkward questions about the Palestinians whom they have displaced. It is never made explicit that the settlers are backed, financed, protected and armed by the Israeli state and are free to threaten and kill Palestinians. Settlers regularly attack Palestinians and steal their crops and land with impunity.
10) A search through BBC Online reveals that settlers are usually shown smiling with their children. Settlers are never portrayed as violent, armed thugs, although this how they are experienced by Palestinians. Settlements are described as ‘neighbourhoods’, in ‘disputed’ territories.
11) Among other topics neglected by the BBC are: the effect of the Wall on the indigenous population; checkpoints and closures; Israel’s shoot-to-kill policy (confirmed recently by an Israeli whistle-blower); Israeli refuseniks, both conscripts and professional soldiers and pilots who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories and the non-violent resistance against the occupation.
12) The BBC has failed to point out in its reports regarding the Wall that this is not on the “green line” between Israel and the Occupied Territories, but deep inside Palestinian land, in places in concentric circles and loops, strangulating whole communities. On the contrary, the BBC has frequently referred to the Wall as being on “the border”. Nor has the Wall been given the coverage appropriate to the seriousness and illegality of the situation. We doubt that the building of such a monstrous Wall on any other location would be so under-reported.
13) For every mile of the Wall which has been built, Israeli and Palestinian peace activists have joined together in non-violent actions to resist. Such demonstrations have been brutally attacked by settlers and the Israeli occupation forces, hundreds of arrests have been made, but none of this has been shown on the BBC. As we write, Palestinians in Bil’in are being lifted from their beds and arrested because of their participation in the weekly non-violent anti-Wall protests; and the Rabbis for Human Rights organize, day after day, olive harvest support for farmers in different villages suffering from settler harassment. These are daily realities which the BBC renders invisible.
14) The Israeli framing of the conflict is that Israel is a democratic state, defending itself against terrorism, which is forced on a daily basis to fight for its survival even to the extent of sometimes using unpalatable means. We believe this is the version that is overwhelmingly conveyed by the BBC, implicitly if not explicitly. It leads to a disproportionate concentration on armed violence, whether by the Israeli state or by Palestinian groups, and it reduces the official Palestinian political voice to one of condemning the violence on both sides. The danger with this approach is that the Palestinian struggle for self-determination is perceived as illegitimate because it is based on violence or because it is seen as being antithetical to the existence of the democratic state of Israel.
15) An alternative framing of the conflict is that it is between an occupying military power, without any democratic legitimacy in the occupied territories, and the democratic aspiration of the Palestinian people, expressed most recently through Presidential elections, to the democratic state to which they are entitled in international law. This approach would tend to legitimise Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation, while allowing for individual acts of terrorism to be condemned.
16) We invite the Review to compare the way the Palestinian struggle is framed with the portrayal of other struggles for democratic self-determination, such as the popular movements which brought down Soviet communism in Eastern Europe or more recent events in former Soviet republics. We believe that such a comparison would show that where the framing is one of democracy and popular resistance the coverage tends to emphasise the role and aspirations of ordinary people, with whom listeners and viewers can readily identify, who are trying to throw off oppression. It thus tends to be sympathetic to those engaged in the struggle, reflecting our own world view which is one of people living freely in democratic nation states. In the Israeli-Palestinian context we believe that this would lead to greater emphasis on the intrusive and oppressive nature of the military occupation, the resilience of ordinary Palestinians under occupation, the role of civil society in both Israel and the Palestinian territories, for example in organising peaceful protests against the Wall, and Israeli practices including house demolitions, destruction of agricultural land and the control of movement within the occupied territories. It would also focus attention on the reality of Israeli settlements both as they affect the daily life of Palestinians and as a means of annexing Palestinian land and resources. We believe that such coverage would not only be more representative of how most Palestinians in the occupied territories experience the conflict, and of their predominantly peaceful and democratic aspirations, but would also tend to support the efforts of those on both sides who use democratic and peaceful means. Coverage which focuses disproportionately on violence feeds the cycle of violence.
17) There is no recognition by the BBC of the national or territorial integrity of the Palestinian people as a whole, i.e. that Palestinian society consists of millions of people in the diaspora and refugee camps, as well as inside Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. We have yet to see any depiction of indigenous Palestinian culture on a BBC programme, nor is there any acknowledgement of the many “traditional” Israeli cultural practices which have been co-opted from Palestinian traditions, e.g. falafel, debka dancing. Only those who have made a study of the region would have any idea from the output of the BBC that there are over one million Palestinians living inside Israel as second-class citizens under constant threat of ‘transfer’ – the Israeli euphemism for ‘ethnic cleansing’. Many Palestinians inside Israel live in shacks near their former homes, in ‘unrecognised villages’ – an Israeli euphemism referring to yet another aspect of Israel’s ‘ethnic cleansing’ policies. Such villages, inhabited by indigenous Palestinians have never been linked up to basic amenities such as water and electricity, despite paying full taxes. Israel is operating an apartheid system on both sides of the ‘green line’ but we have yet to see this reflected in programmes put out by the BBC.
18) The BBC has never adequately explained to its viewers and listeners why the right of return for refugees, which is a basic human right, enshrined in international law, should not apply to Palestinian refugees. Nor that thousands of Palestinians have been made refugees over and over as Israel has stolen more and more land.
19) Martin Asser’s Guide to a West Bank Checkpoint, BBC Online, Aug 8, 2003, portrays a checkpoint on the “border”, ignoring the fact that the overwhelming majority of checkpoints are entirely within Palestinian territory. There are even “flying checkpoints” set up at the whim of local IOF soldiers. His diagram illustrating a model checkpoint is laughable to anyone who has visited the West Bank with its medical facilities, waiting area and taxi bay. Yet another example of the BBC’s palliated version of a reality that entails far more misery and violence for Palestinians than is acknowledged.
20) BBC correspondent Keith Graves wrote in the Guardian on 12 July 2003:
“Under the Sharon government intimidation of reporters deemed ‘unfriendly’ to Israel is routine and sanctioned by the government of Israel.”
21) In addition to the well-documented harassment of reporters (including the killing of James Miller) as stated above, we are deeply concerned by the apparent influence exercised on the BBC by the Israeli Embassy. Robert Fisk, among others, has pointed out that the BBC has adopted language insisted upon by the Embassy. For example, use of the term targeted assassinations, incursion, security fence; ‘terrorists’ and ‘militants’ when identifying Palestinians resisting occupation; ‘disputed territory’ instead of ‘Occupied Territory’; referring to Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and using phrases such as ‘fighting over a sacred site in Israel” when the location is East Jerusalem, Bethlehem or Ramallah, in Palestinian territory.
22) The list of euphemisms and Israeli-centric language is endless: “fled” is used as a euphemism for expulsion,
“Eighteen per cent of Israel’s population is Arab. They are the descendants of the Palestinians who remained in the country during the first Arab Israeli war of 1948 – others fled.” – Richard Miron, BBC Online, February 6, 2004.
23) Why does the BBC refuse to identify the indigenous Palestinians inside Israel as Palestinian instead of assisting the Israeli efforts to make Palestinians invisible by carelessly referring to them as ‘Arabs’?
24) The BBC often refers to areas such as Qalqilya, which has been transformed into a giant prison by the wall, as “hotspots”. Settlements where racist and violent settlers live like Kiryat Arba, Kafr Darom, Shilo, Itamar or Immanuel are never called hotspots. Why?
25) Even when the Israeli army kills unarmed civilians the people involved are referred to as “militants”. A young boy was killed near the Wall and his murder was justified because he could have been ‘a look out for militants.’
26) When the Israeli army, one of the most powerful in the world, enters refugee camps or Palestinian towns with tanks and helicopters, the BBC describes the resulting systematic destruction (as in Jenin) as ‘pitched battles with militants.’
27) The BBC appears to change its terms to fit current Israeli PR requirements. For instance, Israel’s initial descriptor for its grotesque Wall was “separation fence”. This phrase was embraced by the BBC. When it became clear that comparisons with apartheid were invoked by reference to (racial) “separation” this term was dropped. In lock-step with the Israel’s PR concerns, the BBC duly began using the Israeli’s new preferred term “security fence’. This accommodation with the language of occupation and apartheid is tantamount to taking sides and displays blatant bias on the part of the BBC.
28) Confirming our worst fears, The Independent newspaper carried a statement from the embassy press secretary on 21st September 2001:
“London is a world centre of media and the embassy here works night and day to try to influence that media. And, in many subtle ways, I think we don’t do a half bad job, if I may say so. We have newspapers that write consistently in a manner that supports and understands Israel’s situation and its challenges. And we have had influence on the BBC as well.
29) Another example of bias is manifested by the BBC’s practice of buying Israeli-produced programmes and showing un-mediated, non-attributed IDF propaganda footage. For example, “The siege of the Church of the Nativity” was produced by an Israeli company, a fact that was not publicised nor deemed objectionable by BBC editors.
30) In the spirit of fair-mindedness, we ask the panel to imagine the BBC giving prime airtime to film coverage supplied by a Palestinian crew from a Palestinian perspective.
31) Though there are several Israeli nationals reporting from Jerusalem for the BBC, there are no Palestinian journalists with similar responsibilities – these are just “stringers.” It would seem that there would be issues of objectivity and balance when hiring such journalists to write on Israel and Palestinian issues. Would the BBC send a Palestinian journalist to report on Israeli issues? Obviously this would be unthinkable even in terms of how such a reporter would traverse checkpoints and avoid closures, let alone obtain a press pass from the occupying power.
32) Despite a burgeoning film industry, an incredible achievement of for a people living under occupation, the BBC chooses to operate what amounts to a boycott of films produced by Palestinians, including feature films.
33) Naomi Klein and Aaron Mate wrote in The Guardian on July 4th, 2005:
“Rarely in the media do we hear the many anti-occupation voices that challenge the consensus that the Palestinians are to blame for their own misery. But it’s not just Palestinian resistance that is distorted or ignored: so too are Palestinians themselves, their faces, their lives.”
34) Klein and Mate have touched on a matter that deeply aggrieves us: the lack of Palestinian voices in your coverage of issues even though Palestinians are the victims of Israel’s brutal, illegal occupation. Israeli or American spokespersons are frequently called upon to comment on events that directly affect Palestinians, while no Palestinian voice is heard. Coverage of Palestinian lives is restricted to the minority of individuals involved in violent activities. The courageous, non-violent demonstrations against the occupation, especially those against the apartheid Wall have not been given any attention by the BBC. Surely, non-violent resistance ought to be encouraged? We understand that the Israeli government restricts access to such demonstrations by the media, however, if Haaretz can cover these demonstrations, why not the BBC?
35) We have frequently noted that when Palestinians are interviewed, there is a stark contrast between the rudeness with which they are often treated, as opposed to the deference shown to Israeli spokespersons, many of whom could be indicted as war criminals for activities in which they are currently involved. (Afif Safieh on Newsnight/Shimon Peres on Newsnight).
36) In a BBC Newsnight interview with Diana Buttu, a PLO legal advisor, and Daniel Taub on December 18, 2003, Kirsty Wark constantly steered the discussion to “Palestinian violence” and interrupted Ms Buttu every time she tried to add context. In contrast to her hectoring of Diana Buttu, Mr Taub was allowed to rattle off his points without interruption. Yet again, the BBC obliged the occupying power and silenced a Palestinian voice. The technique of forcing a Palestinian interviewee to face off with an Israeli official on a narrow RT10 agenda such as “terrorism” or “reform” ensures there is no opportunity to challenge Israel’s behaviour. This is the pattern in the few cases where a Palestinian is actually invited to take part in such programmes.
37) The BBC appears to be at pains to avoid posing hard questions about the illegality of Israel’s actions when interviewing Israeli leaders. Nor is the bloody past of Ariel Sharon and others, well documented even in the Israeli press, ever brought up.
38) PSC contacted Women’s Hour in May this year, near the anniversary of the Nakba, to inform them of the availability for interview of a secular, feminist Palestinian woman activist who is Director of The Jerusalem Centre, an organisation that works with Israeli women on issues such as domestic violence and checkpoint watch. Although no such voice has been heard on Women’s Hour, our offer was politely declined on the grounds that as Jocelyn Hurndall (mother of murdered student Tom Hurndall) had been on the programme two months earlier it would not be ‘balanced’ to have a Palestinian woman interviewed so soon. Firstly, Jocelyn Hurndall is not Palestinian and, no doubt, would have been horrified if she knew that her appearance on Women’s Hour had precluded a Palestinian woman from being heard. Secondly, claiming that ‘balance’ was being achieved in this case was quite extraordinary in view of the lack of Palestinian women’s voices in general and on Woman’s Hour in particular.
39) What is left out of BBC reportage is often more significant than what is included. For instance, house demolitions have not been adequately covered, despite massive coverage of the demolitions in Zimbabwe and emphasis on illegality and international human rights conventions in the case of Zimbabwe.
40) Human interest stories are largely ignored. For example, of the 60 women who had to give birth at Israeli checkpoints over the last 4 years, 36 lost their babies; a few of the mothers died too. Our concern is that if these were Israeli women and babies, the story would probably be reported. Why is the BBC silent on such stories?
41) It is noticeable that words such as “quiet” are often used to describe periods in which no suicide bombings have occurred, even as Israeli targeted killings, house demolitions, land theft and mass arrests continue on a daily basis. If we did not know otherwise, it could be assumed “nothing” was happening. This indicates that Palestinian lives are considered less significant than Palestinian ones.
42) Although we recognise that obstruction by the Israeli army and Government creates difficulties for reporters, there are many reliable sources of information including Israeli human rights organisations such as B’Tselem and Palestinian civil society organisations who collect information about political prisoners, assassinations, random killings, land theft and wall and road building on a day to day basis.
43) It is puzzling and deeply disturbing that the great imbalance between the occupying power, a powerful nuclear state supported by the USA, and the stateless, weapon-less, Palestinians, is mirrored in the coverage of the occupation and dispossession of Palestine by the BBC.
44) The informed listener/viewer has to ask why this is happening. Is it due to pressure from the pro-Israel lobby, or a more subtle form of self-censorship? It is as if ‘balance’ involves not reporting anything that shows Israel in a bad light. For example, any Israeli violence is almost always presented by the BBC as retaliatory. In the interests of ‘balance’, why is Palestinian violence never referred to by the BBC as retaliatory?
45) Further evidence of the BBC’s penchant for bowing to Israeli demands was manifested in March, 2005, when Simon Wilson, deputy bureau chief in Jerusalem was barred from the country for failing to submit for censorship an interview with Mordechai Vanunu. We understand that many BBC journalists have objected to this climbdown on the grounds that it will compromise their work in Israel. We ask members of the panel familiar with the Vanunu case to consider the implications of collaboration with this unnecessary censorship.
46) The BBC has a long and distinguished tradition of independence and accuracy. Its record in this particular area is a sad break with that tradition. This has repercussions outside Britain, as so many people worldwide are used to tuning in to the BBC for responsible reporting. In the Arab world, where the public are generally well-informed on the region, people are now seeing the BBC as the mouthpiece of the British government on these issues. The BBC’s projected venture into television programming in the Arab world, going head-to-head with Al Jazeera, looks set to create even more problems concerning the BBC’s bias and self-censorship. Peter Preston summed up the perception of this project when he called it, Al Blairzeera (Guardian, 31st October, 2005)
47) Israeli journalist Daphna Baram interviewed the editor of the Guardian Alan Rusbridger on February 11, 2004, about the sustained, vociferous campaign accusing his newspaper of anti-semitism. We draw the panel’s attention to his comment regarding the BBC:
“There has been a deliberate policy to target Israel’s critics, and the more beleaguered Israel becomes – the more pronounced this tendency becomes. The prolonged assault on the Guardian has been remarkably successful in achieving a worldwide circulation of a view that the Guardian is anti-semitic. And, of course, once they’ve finished with the Guardian they’ll move onto the Independent, or the BBC, or whoever.”
48) In her book Disenchantment: The Guardian and Israel, Ms Baram identifies the website organisation HonestReporting as the organiser of an “email bombardment” of The Guardian which included a hate campaign against their correspondent Suzanne Goldenberg which was so intense that it prevented her from carrying out her job. (p.199 ibid)
49) In light of the above, it is difficult not to conclude that this review is in itself a response to the demands of the pro-Israeli lobby. The organisations listed in your terms of reference, from which you intend to gather opinions, mirrors the David and Goliath nature of the occupation. BRICOM, for example is a multi-million pound PR operation, while organisations such as our own, operate on a shoestring and are entirely reliant on volunteers and members’ subscriptions for our existence.
50) For the purposes of this submission we combed the BBC’s Newswatch webpage in which are listed details of complaints of bias by the BBC in relation to Israel-Palestine. Over last two periods reviewed on line, we did not find a single example of a complaint being taken up from a complainant sympathic to the Palestinian perspective.
51) Despite our misgivings, based on past experience, we trust that your review will resist the blandishments of the pro-Israel lobby and go some way to rectifying the problems we have outlined above. We would be happy to provide a representative to answer in person any questions raised by our submission.
With best wishes,
PS. For your reference we print below an extract from an article by Paul de Rooij. We are grateful to Mr de Rooij for his permission to use extracts from his articles. We commend the work of the Glasgow University Media Project to your panel.
This is not journalism, it is apologia.
Few articles display the BBC’s bias better than Chris Morris’s “Lost hope in Mid-East conflict”. Although not the worst example, it displays the full panoply of the apologist’s toolkit [Lost Hope in Mid-East conflict, BBC Online, Jan 19, 2004]. Morris ignores key contextual information, delves into specifics instead of looking at the wider context, and offers a clear example of apologia.
Morris reports on the case of a pregnant woman held up at a gate by Israeli soldiers, impeded from reaching the ambulance, and forced to give birth next to the gate where she miscarried her twins. But Morris doesn’t tell us that there have been many other cases where women have been forced to deliver at checkpoints resulting in dozens of miscarriages. When it suits the propagandist, the relevant context is ignored.
Equally curious is the fact that Morris only refers to a mysterious “gate” without mentioning the wall that is being built straight through the West Bank village of Deir Balut – where the incident Morris describes took place. One would almost think that the gate stood on its own next to the village, but the key context, the wall, is not mentioned; not even one of the euphemisms (barrier, fence) is used. However, from the account of an Israeli peace activist, Dan Shohet, one would think that the wall being built would be difficult to miss [Electronic Intifada, December 26, 2003]:
“The Wall will circle the village from three directions, will separate it from its lands and from the road to the south (the road to the east was blocked three years ago, and was never opened again). The inhabitants will be pushed into a crowded enclave, a ghetto, together with a few nearby villages — surrounded by walls, fences, road blocks, army and settlements.”
Eight houses of the village, most of the arable land and the chief water source will fall on the “wrong side” of the wall, and effectively the village will be eliminated. But Morris mentions none of this.
However, what is astonishing is the way in which Morris discusses the soldiers who barred the pregnant woman from reaching the ambulance. Under the heading “What would you have done?” Morris states:
“Change the perspective in this story and what do you see? Conscript soldiers wary of attack at a checkpoint surrounded by darkness. What would you have done, really? Would common humanity have won through? Would you have taken the risk? Or would you have played it safe, fearful of a trap? Who knows? There are no easy answers. I’d like to think the soldiers on that checkpoint, on that cold winter night, didn’t want two new-born babies to die. But die they did, and Israel is damaged and devalued by tragic tales such as this. All the talking has led nowhere. And so it goes on — another week in the Middle East.”
Judith Brown from Exeter University had the right riposte: “… it was not a question of ’what would you do’ if you were in the position of the conscript soldier. It should be a question of ’why did he not uphold the international law […]’, as he was obliged to do as a soldier of the occupying power” [Reply, by Judith Brown].
Several photos accompanying the article summarize the thrust of the piece:
Caption: “You can’t blame soldiers for being jumpy at checkpoints.” This amounts to bald-faced apologia. Caption: “Most roads are blocked to Palestinians.” Morris sees no reason to explain why this is the case – no references to the wall or the checkpoints.
Morris throws in this conclusion: “Never mind whose fault it is — all the talk, all the well-meaning mediation will come to nought [sic]. I think now that there is a real possibility that this will simply drag on and on.” The only thing that the text doesn’t capture is Morris’s sigh after the last sentence. Nothing we can do about this, and we can’t apportion blame. The plight of the Palestinians is portrayed as a fact of nature.
Paul de Rooij, Counterpunch, Feb 2004