Palestine and the Media: Talk at the University of Kent during
Israeli Apartheid Week – 26/2/13
Let’s start with the case of local rapper, Mic Righteous, from Margate, whose freestyle ‘Free Palestine’ was censored by the BBC’s Radio One: a sound effect was inserted over the word “Palestine” by the station’s duty editor. Following hundreds of complaints the corporation issued a statement:
“All BBC programmes have a responsibility to be impartial when dealing with controversial subjects and an edit was made to Mic Righteous’ freestyle to ensure that impartiality was maintained.”
With colleagues from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, I met Helen Boaden, then Head of News at the BBC, early last year. She attempted to explain the obliteration of the word Palestine: it was a mistake by a tired, hapless editor, late at night, trying to avoid controversy. The point is, why would any BBC employee feel that to mention Palestine is controversial?
By contrast, last week, Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, a flagship Sunday programme, repeated on Friday mornings, featured the columnist, Julie Burchill. Celebrities are invited to choose eight tunes they’d like to take with them were they to be marooned on a desert island. Burchill chose the Israeli National Anthem, the theme to the film Exodus and a Zionist pop song.
A word about Exodus: this film was huge when it came out starring one of the biggest Hollywood icons of the day, Paul Newman. It showed the power of cinema to shape people’s perceptions, even though the film has long ago been thoroughly exposed as myth-making propaganda…along the lines of D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of a Nation, which presents the ethnic cleansing of Native Americans as heroic nation-building.
Burchill’s choices were all aired without censorship. Such hypocrisy would be laughable if it wasn’t for the tragic situation underlying the BBC’s double standards.
I’ve been following the BBC’s coverage of the so-called ‘Israel-Palestine conflict’ for many years and gave evidence to the 2006 independent panel on impartiality that produced the Thomas Report. This document was shelved, despite its helpful findings. Ironically, the review was set up at the behest of the Zionist Federation who like to maintain the fiction that the BBC is biased against Israel. Instead, Thomas found that BBC coverage fails to convey the asymmetry of the conflict and doesn’t provide sufficient context to viewers and listeners to enable them to understand the background.
The BBC, like most western media, has unquestioningly adopted the Israeli narrative and language.
In fact, even the analogy of a ‘dual narrative’ is itself misleading, as the Israeli and Palestinian narratives are not equally valid. One represents the occupier and the other the occupied. The dispossession and occupation of Palestine is often referred to as ‘The Israel Palestine Conflict’ implying a conflict between two equal parties.
I’ll focus on the BBC because of its vast global footprint and its role as a public broadcaster obliging it to educate and inform its viewers and listeners. The Murdoch empire would require a whole other talk, but I recommend a quick look at what Sam Kiley has written from his point of view as a journalist who experienced the atmosphere of fear in the newsroom at The Times whenever Ariel Sharon’s close friend, Rupert Murdoch, telephoned.
In 2004 Greg Philo and Mike Berry of the Glasgow Media Group published a groundbreaking piece of research called “Bad News from Israel” establishing that most people get their information from television. They uncovered astonishing levels of public ignorance about Israel and Palestine and established a clear link between this information gap and the way the situation is reported. Respondents told researchers that even the phrase “occupied territory” doesn’t make clear who is occupying what. Just a couple of words could make that clear. Lack of time or space, doesn’t justify the omission of crucial words, and only adds to incomprehension and a feeling of helplessness. An impression is created that the problem is too difficult, too intractable and too complicated to understand.
Perhaps this is explained by a statement from the Israeli embassy press secretary, 21st September, 2001, carried by the The Independent newspaper.
“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.”
The BBC changes its terminology to fit current Israeli PR requirements. For instance, Israel’s initial descriptor for its grotesque Wall was “separation fence”. When it became clear that comparisons with apartheid were invoked by reference to “separation” this term was dropped. In lock-step with Israel’s PR concerns, the BBC duly began using the new preferred term “security fence’.
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.’
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 slaughter as ‘pitched battles with militants.’
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. Imagine the BBC giving prime airtime to film coverage supplied by a Palestinian crew from a Palestinian perspective.
Though there are several Israeli nationals reporting from Jerusalem for the BBC, there are no Palestinian journalists with similar responsibilities – these are just “stringers.” 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.
Despite a burgeoning Palestinian film industry, an incredible achievement of a people living under occupation, the BBC chooses to operate what amounts to a boycott of films produced by Palestinians, including feature films.
The courageous, non-violent demonstrations against the occupation, especially those against the apartheid Wall have not been given any attention by the BBC. The Israeli government restricts access to such demonstrations, but if Haaretz and Al Jazeera can cover these demonstrations, why not the BBC?
And there’s ample YouTube material: in the case of Syria and Iran, the BBC has no qualms about using uploaded mobile phone clips.
There’s a stark contrast between the rudeness with which Palestinians are often treated, as opposed to the deference shown to Israeli spokespersons, many of whom could be indicted as war criminals. The BBC appears to be at pains to avoid posing hard questions about the illegality of Israel’s actions when interviewing Israeli leaders.
Tzipi Livni, the former Israeli foreign minister (in post during Operation Cast Lead) was in London on 6 October, last year, to meet William Hague. This led to a seven-minute interview with her on the ‘Today’ programme.
Evan Davis listened to Livni without a single challenge or interruption of any kind.
Having her on the Today programme was an opportunity to grill her on the arrest warrant issued against her in the UK in December 2009, which led to her cancelling a previous visit to London for fear of arrest. The warrant gave details of war crimes she is alleged to be guilty of: the use of phosphorous bombs, the avoidable massacre of civilians, attacking an unarmed, occupied population. As a result of Livni’s warrant, and the cancellation of visits by other Israeli officials, the Conservative Party took out a full page advert in the Jewish Chronicle in the run-up to the 2010 General Election, pledging to amend the legislation on universal jurisdiction that allows such warrants to be issued. They began work on this after taking power in May 2010 and, on September 15, 2011, the changes came into place as part of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act. Despite this change in the law, which makes it harder for war criminals to face arrest in the UK, Livini was also granted ‘special mission’ status by the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office to enable her to make last October’s visit without fear of arrest.
Not a single question was asked on the Today programme about this extraordinary situation and Livni was in complete control of the interview. International law was ignored and Davis ratified illegal occupation and war crimes by referring to them as the ‘robust position’ taken by Israel.
What is left out of BBC reportage is often more significant than what is included. You could call this censorship by omission. For instance, as far as the mainstream media is concerned, the long-lasting campaign of hunger strikes by political prisoners has not been happening.
It is noticeable that words such as “quiet” are often used to describe periods in which no Palestinian resistance has occurred, even as targeted killings, house demolitions, land theft and mass arrests continue on a daily basis. If we didn’t know otherwise, it could be assumed “nothing” was happening. This indicates that Palestinian lives are considered less significant than Israeli ones.
Jerusalem is often referred to as the capital of Israel, rather than Tel Aviv, the internationally recognised capital; Palestinian towns such as Bethlehem and Jericho are frequently cited as being part of Israel; settlements are referred to as ‘Jewish neighbourhoods.’
Any Israeli violence must be presented as retaliatory, when all sources outside Israeli governmental circles show that this is not the case. It is as if ‘balance’ involves not reporting anything that shows Israel in a bad light. Can this bias be unintentional when we consider for example that the BBC Board of Governors has included Pauline Neville Jones, prominent member of Conservative Friends of Israel (incidentally also a director of weapons company Qinetiq, which trades arms with Israel, specialising in drones)?
In November 2009, Channel 4 broadcast a programme about the pro-Israel lobby, presented by Peter Oborne, of The Daily Telegraph. Dispatches approached Jonathan Dimbleby, who’d authored a powerfully argued article for the UK-based website Index on Censorship, criticizing the BBC’s betrayal of Jeremy Bowen, its Middle East editor. Dimbleby was keen to be interviewed by the show’s producers and the Dispatches team was baffled when he abruptly backed out.
In 2000, near the Lebanese border, Bowen witnessed an Israeli tank attack that incinerated his local colleague and driver, Abed Takkoush. Andrew Balcombe, Zionist Federation Chair, immediately wrote to the BBC Trust demanding Bowen’s removal as Middle East editor, claiming this incident was a “tragic mistake” that “may have colored [his] views about Israel.” Ever since, Israel’s allies have targeted Bowen.
He was accused of using language that “appears to be calculated to promote hatred of the Jewish state and the Jews.”
The BBC Trust upheld a complaint that Bowen had breached their standards of accuracy and impartiality by stating: “Zionism’s innate instinct to push out the frontier” and “the Israeli generals, mainly hugely self-confident Sabras in their late 30s and early 40s, had been training to finish the unfinished business of 1948 for most of their careers.”
Moreover, Dispatches discovered that the BBC’s Dimbleby began to experience exactly the same process of complaints that he described in the Bowen case. After attacking Bowen, the Zionist Federation’s Turner argued that Dimbleby’s defense of his colleague made him unfit to host the BBC’s popular radio program Any Questions.
In addition to those at the BBC, Dispatches discovered other members of the media who’ve been targeted by the Zionist lobby. Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian newspaper, described a 2006 visit from Gerald Ronson, chairman of the Community Security Trust, a charity for British Jews, and Henry Grunwald, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The meeting was triggered by an article in the Guardian by Chris McGreal that compared Israel to apartheid South Africa. After an emergency meeting at the Israeli ambassador’s residence that was also attended by British Israel Research and Communications chairman Poju Zabludowicz, Grumwald and Ronson were dispatched to confront the Guardian editor. Ronson accused the Guardian of fomenting anti-Semitic attacks, stating that “There is a line which can’t be crossed, you’ve crossed it, and you must stop this.”
The Guardian’s relationship with Israel has evolved. In 1914 the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann met with the editor of the then Manchester Guardian, C.P. Scott, a meeting that led to the Balfour Declaration of 1917. But the Guardian has fallen out of love with Israel now.
The website organisation HonestReporting organised 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.
Other journalists who’ve been hounded out of their Middle East postings include Orla Guerin and Barbara Plett of the BBC.
BBC coverage of the Palestinian/Israeli prisoner exchange, in October 2011, entirely focused on the released Israeli prisoner, Gilad Shalit, a serving IDF soldier, who was described as ‘a shy little boy’. Palestinian prisoners were lumped together as a group ‘who have committed appalling crimes’. The BBC never asked if the Palestinian prisoners had been properly tried in court and held under a legal framework, or had been seized and held without trial. There was no mention of detained Palestinian children. The only references to Palestinian prisoners were in a context of terrorism and how their release would affect grieving/fearful Israeli families.
BBC coverage of the 2012 onslaught on Gaza slipped below even its previous low point – its 2008/09 reportage of ‘Operation Cast Lead,’ when the BBC refused to broadcast a routine charity appeal and allowed Israeli spokesperson, Mark Regev, to take over its air waves.
Israeli attacks on Gaza were presented as ‘in response to Palestinian attacks’. Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel are never presented as ‘in response’ to 64 years of Israeli occupation or four years of siege.
Again it was demonstrated that the concept of rule of law, international human rights law and the Geneva Conventions are apparently irrelevant to the BBC’s pre-determined lack of balance. Failure to rigorously challenge Israeli army and state spokespeople is a hallmark of the BBC’s bias in favour of the occupying power and against the occupied Palestinian people and amounts to complicity with Israeli war crimes.
The weighted concern for Israeli civilian deaths and injury as compared to those of the entrapped, besieged civilians in Gaza who were being bombed in 2008-2009 and again in 2012 represents corporate cruelty towards Palestinians as the BBC’s default policy.
The setting up of a false equivalence has always been the main feature of BBC coverage and was again deployed from the outset of Operation Pillar of Cloud, the Israeli name for its latest attack on Gaza.
This began with the slaying of a boy playing football and was deliberately escalated by Israel’s targeted assassination of Ahmed Al Jabari. Despite the political significance of Mr Al Jabari’s role as a seasoned negotiator and participant in the formulation of a longer-lasting ceasefire, there was barely any analysis of this extreme provocation and its implications. Neither was the peaceful Palestinian initiative to apply for non-state membership of the UN given due importance alongside Israel’s upcoming election as the motive for Israel’s aggression.
Unless Israel is under rocket attack, apparently nothing is happening that is of interest to the BBC’s listeners and viewers.
During ‘Operation Cast Lead’ and its aftermath, the BBC frequently invited Jonathan Sacerdoti, introducing him as a ‘political analyst’ when in fact he has been a Director of Public Affairs at the Zionist Federation. Mr Sacerdoti was again in BBC studios to defend the attacks and massacres in Gaza, just as he was when Israeli forces attacked the aid ship Mavi Marmara in international waters, killing nine passengers who were trying to break Israel’s inhumane siege of Gaza. On 15 November last year he joked on Facebook that he ‘may as well move in’ at the BBC after yet another interview was lined up.
Over 1,500 complaints were received by the BBC after it aired a Panorama programme called Death in the Med in which it claimed that the human rights defenders aboard the Mavi Marmara were responsible for their own deaths. Ms Boaden described critics of the programme as ‘obsessives.’
She went on to describe Death in the Med as a ‘brave, thorough and highly forensic examination of what went wrong [on the Mavi Marmara]’, and described the programme’s presenter, Jane Corbin, as ‘one of our absolutely best reporters’.
A BBC Trust inquiry into complaints about the programme conceded that it failed to use the autopsies on the nine passengers killed by Israeli commandos, failed to mention the mistreatment of passengers by Israeli soldiers, failed to mention the amount of aid being carried on the Mavi Marmara and unfairly dismissed the medical aid as being out of date.
Towards the end of last year the Palestine Solidarity Campaign requested a further meeting with Helen Boaden to review matters discussed at our previous meeting when PSC offered to provide a list of contacts based in Palestine and outside experts who’d be available 24/7 for interview and comment. We were told that we’d already had one meeting in 2012 and we couldn’t have another one so soon.
In light of comments made by Ms Boaden about the number of times she meets with ‘the other side’ as she put it, and the boast of Mr Sacerdoti about moving into the BBC studios, I made a Freedom of Information request asking how many times last year Ms Boaden had met the Zionist Federation, the British Board of Deputies and BICOM. This was refused on the grounds of journalistic exemption.
Despite all this, I believe there’s been a major shift in public understanding in the past ten years. This is the result of intensified campaigning by Palestine solidarity activists, widespread use of the new media and the horrific actions of Israel itself that no amount of propaganda can whitewash, greenwash or pinkwash. Above all, world opinion is changing because people are witnessing for themselves the steadfastness of the Palestinian people in the face of dispossession, war crimes and apartheid.
The failure to tell the truth makes the media not only complicit but culpable. It’s up to us, international civil society, to tell the truth and spread awareness. So join PSC, take action whenever possible – be a part of the activism that counters the lies which perpetuate Palestinian oppression.