BBC slammed for blanking historic hunger strike
Logo from Tony Greenstein’s blog,
The Palestine Solidarity Campaign, together with other groups, sent a letter to Helen Boaden, the BBC’s Director of News, calling for full and balanced coverage of Palestine. This followed a protest outside the BBC.
Dear Ms Boaden
For four weeks, during April and May, around 2,000 Palestinians held in Israeli jails were on hunger strike, protesting against Israel’s use of administrative detention, its policy of placing Palestinian prisoners in solitary confinement for years at a time, and the denial of family visits to inmates.
These prisoners joined others who had been refusing food since March 2012 and who, by the time a deal was reached on 14 May, were close to death.
This mass hunger strike, possibly the biggest in modern history, received minimal coverage on BBC Online and, until its final few days, none on BBC television and radio news.
During this time, the BBC gave prominent coverage to the hunger strike of Ukrainian politician Yulia Tymoshenko, and to Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, yet ignored the 2,000 Palestinians on hunger strike, and the 27 Palestinian MPs imprisoned by Israel, some of whom were also refusing food.
The excuse given by the BBC during the third week of the Palestinian hunger strike for its failure in reporting was that its coverage was in line with other news organisations, citing, specifically, Al Jazeera.
We find it extraordinary and disturbing that the UK’s public-funded broadcaster should point to other news outlets, with the implication that it is content to follow rather than lead in covering world events, in an effort to distract from its own failings.
When BBC News at 10 did finally provide some coverage (11 May), close to four weeks after the mass hunger strike began, it did so without context, without reference to the prisoners’ demands, with no mention of the appalling health conditions, requiring hospitalisation, that many of the hunger strikers were suffering, and with absolutely no comment from a Palestinian spokesperson. Instead, the report by Kevin Connolly, featured Israeli government spokesperson, Mark Regev, speaking without challenge, comparing those who had taken the drastic step of engaging in a hunger strike to ‘suicide bombers’ and talking, falsely, about an ‘Islamist cause’.
His complete statement was: “It’s difficult when you’re dealing with someone who wants to commit suicide. It’s a problem with suicide bombers, who are prepared to blow themselves up when they want to kill innocent people, and in this tactic if they think for their Islamist cause if they want to kill themselves, it’s a challenge. We could not have as a precedent that every prisoner who goes on hunger strike, gets – to use a term from the game Monopoly – a get out of jail free card.”
This interview, which insulted and totally misrepresented the hunger strikers, was also used on News 24 and on Radio 4 news bulletins during 11 May. None of these reports was balanced with a Palestinian viewpoint, and the Israeli perspective of the hunger strikes was allowed to prevail on the BBC.
The BBC’s attitude towards the hunger strikes and its eventual, biased coverage is appalling in itself. It is also symptomatic of the BBC’s general attitude towards reporting on Palestine and the occupation and the tendency of BBC news programmes to tilt their coverage and analysis in favour of Israel.
It is, unfortunately, an attitude that cuts across the whole of the BBC, from the Director General and his refusal to broadcast a DEC appeal for Gaza to Radio 1Xtra and the censorship of the word ‘Palestine’ from an artist’s rap performance.
We would like to see an end to this bias against Palestinians and news coverage from the region that is balanced, fair and reflective of the values of international law, rather than of the narrative provided by the dominant player in this struggle. It is the very least that licence-fee payers, who look to the BBC for honest information, deserve.
Sarah Colborne, Palestine Solidarity Campaign
Lindsey German, Stop the War Coalition
Diana Neslen, Jews for Justice for Palestinians
Daud Abdullah, Middle East Monitor
Rev’d Chris Rose, Amos Trust
Zaher Birawi, Palestinian Forum of Britain
Mohammad Sawalha, British Muslim Initiative
Shehnaz Bunglawala, iEngage
The Editors, Media Lens Message Board
Subject: BBC complaint re bias in news
Sent to the BBC.
On Friday May 11th 2012, a news item in the 6pm Radio 4 slot, gave some rare BBC coverage of the long-running and very serious hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. The item was repeated on the World Service later that night (midnight GMT). In this very serious matter, the BBC chose only to interview the Israeli spokesman, when your reporter was in Hebron, where there is easy access to Palestinian sources. Not to mention those available in London. It is yet another disgraceful example of BBC pro-Israeli bias, to add to an enormous list of similarly biased reports and programmes. The BBC has admitted that some of these broke its guidelines. There may be a World Service audience in Israel, but the numbers are vastly outweighed by those in the Arab World and Iran/Turkey etc. who are very aware of the BBC bias against them. Mark Regev is a frequent interviewee on the BBC, including the Today programme, where his contributions are never balanced by those of Palestinians, as they were not in the case of this bulletin. I therefore complain in the strongest terms, of yet another incident of blatant pro-Israeli bias, this time in a knife-edge situation, where balance is imperative. It cannot be right, in a touchy two-sided situation, to only broadcast the views of one side.
Accusations of Pro-Israeli editorial stance
A number of commentators have suggested that Thompson has a pro-Israeli editorial stance, particularly since he supported the controversial decision by the BBC not to broadcast the DEC Gaza appeal in January 2009. Complaints to the BBC, numbering nearly 16,000, about the decision were directed to a statement by Thompson.
Journalist Yvonne Ridley wrote in CounterPunch [Why you won't see me on the BBC] that “D-G Mark Thompson might not care much for the BBC’s reputation but he should have a duty of care to his staff because it looks as if his pro-Israel stance is now endangering the safety of his own news teams, many of whom find his views repugnant in any case” and with respect to his 2005 meeting with Ariel Sharon, wrote “Never before had any BBC Director-General embarked on such a meeting and references to it are removed continually from Thompson’s biography on Wikipedia, an indication of just how sensitive the whole event remains.” Tam Dean Burn wrote in The Herald (Glasgow) “I would argue that this bias has moved on apace since Thompson went to Israel in 2005 and signed a deal with prime minister Ariel Sharon on the BBC’s coverage of the conflict.”
The BBC’s Nadir
The Way of Izvestia
By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, Counterpunch
‘The BBC cannot be neutral in the struggle between truth and untruth, justice and injustice, freedom and slavery, compassion and cruelty, tolerance and intolerance.’
Thus read a 1972 internal document called Principles and Practice in News and Current Affairs laying out the guidelines for the BBC’s coverage of conflicts. It appears to affirm that in cases of oppression and injustice to be neutral is to be complicit, because neutrality reinforces the status quo. This partiality to truth, justice, freedom, compassion and tolerance it deems ‘within the consensus about basic moral values’. It is this consensus that the BBC spurned when it refused to broadcast the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC)’s video appeal to help the people of Gaza.
The presumption that underlies the decision is that the BBC has always been impartial when it comes to Israel-Palestine. An exhaustive 2004 study by the Glasgow University Media Group – Bad News from Israel – shows that the BBC’s coverage is systematically biased in favour of Israel. It excludes context and history to focus on day-to-day events; it invariably inverts reality to frame these as Palestinian ‘provocation’ against Israeli ‘retaliation’. The context is always Israeli ‘security’, and in interviews the Israeli perspective predominates. There is also a marked difference in the language used to describe casualties on either side; and despite the far more numerous Palestinian victims, Israeli casualties receive more air time.
Many of these findings were subsequently confirmed in a 2006 independent review commissioned by the BBC’s board of governors which found its coverage of the conflict ‘incomplete’ and ‘misleading’. The review highlighted in particular the BBC’s selective use of the word ‘terrorism’ and its failure ‘to convey adequately the disparity in the Israeli and Palestinian experience, reflecting the fact that one side is in control and the other lives under occupation’.
These biases were once more evident in the corporation’s coverage of the recent assault on Gaza. A false sense of balance was sustained by erasing from the narrative the root cause of the conflict: instead of occupier and occupied, we had a ‘war’ or a ‘battle’ – as if between equals. In most stories the word occupation was not mentioned once. On the other hand the false Israeli claim that the occupation of Gaza ended in 2005 was frequently repeated, even though access to the strip’s land, sea and airspace remain under Israeli control, and the United Nations still recognizes Israel as the occupying authority. In accepting the spurious claims of one side over the judgment of the world’s pre-eminent multilateral institution, the BBC has already forfeited its impartiality.
The BBC presented the assault as an Israeli war of self defence, a narrative that could only be sustained by effacing the 1,250 Palestinians (including 222 children) killed by the Israeli military between 2005 and 2008. It downplayed the siege which denies Gazans access to fuel, food, water, and medicine. It presented Hamas’s ineffectual rockets as the cause of the conflict when it was Israel’s breech of the six-month truce on November 4 which triggered hostilities. It described the massacre of refugees in an UNRWA compound in the context of Israel’s ‘objectives’ and ‘security’. The security needs of the Palestinians received scant attention. Selective indices were used to create an illusion of balance: instead of comparing Palestinian casualties to those suffered by Israel (more than 1300 to 13) the BBC chose to match them with the number of rockets fired by Hamas. No similar figures were produced for the tonnage of ordnance dropped on the Palestinians.
A parade of Israeli officials – uniformed and otherwise – were always at hand to explain away Israeli war-crimes. The only Palestinians quoted were from the Palestinian Authority – a faction even the BBC’s own Jeremy Paxman identified as collaborators – even though the assault was described invariably as an ‘Israel-Hamas’ conflict, much as the 2006 Israeli invasion was framed as an ‘Israel-Hizbullah’ war. This despite the fact that Israel made no attempts to discriminate between the groups it was claiming to target and the wider population. As one Israeli military official bragged, Israel was ‘trying to hit the whole spectrum, because everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against Israel’. Indeed, given the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths, it would have been far more accurate to describe the assaults as ‘IDF-Lebanon’, and ‘IDF-Palestine’ conflicts.
To be sure, Palestinian civilian deaths were mentioned, but only in terms of their ‘cost’ to Israel’s image. Where Israeli crimes were particularly atrocious, the BBC retreated to condemning ‘both sides’. Israeli civilian deaths were elevated to headlines; Palestinians relegated to the bottom. The aforementioned massacre of Palestinian refugees received the same amount of coverage as the funeral of a single Israeli soldier. A hole in an Israeli roof from a Palestinian rocket often received the same attention as the destruction of a whole Gazan neighbourhood. There was also no investigation of Israel’s widely reported use of White Phosphorus, and of the equally illegal Dense Inert Metal Explosive (DIME) munitions. The coverage of the unprecedented worldwide protests was also minimal. Critical voices were by and large excluded.
If there were no occupier and occupied in the conflict; no oppressor and oppressed, no state and stateless; then clearly assisting victims on one side would compromise ‘impartiality’. This view posits the Palestinian population as a whole as an adversary to the Israeli war machine. The BBC’s decision not to acknowledge the victims of the conflict is a function of its biased coverage. When it spent three weeks providing a completely distorted image of the slaughter carried out by one of the world’s mightiest militaries against a defenceless civilian population, it is unsurprising that it should fear viewers questioning how such a ‘balanced’ conflict could produce so many victims. And if the Israelis are able to look after their own, why should the Palestinians need British assistance?
When there is no mention of the violent dispossession of the Palestinians, or of the occupation; no mention of the crippling siege, or of the daily torments of the oppressed, viewers would naturally find it hard to comprehend the reality. For if these truths were to be revealed, the policy of the British government would appear even less reasonable. As a state chartered body, however, the BBC is no more likely to antagonize the government as a politician in the government is to antagonize the Israel lobby. Indeed, the BBC’s director general Mark Thompson can hardly be described as a disinterested party: in 2005 he made a trip to Jerusalem where he met with Ariel Sharon in what was seen in Israel as an attempt to ‘build bridges’ and ‘a “softening” to the corporation’s unofficial editorial line on the Middle East’. Thompson, ‘a deeply religious man’, is ‘a Catholic, but his wife is Jewish, and he has a far greater regard for the Israeli cause than some of his predecessors’ sources at the corporation told The Independent. Shortly afterwards Orla Guerin, an exceptionally courageous and honest journalist responsible for most of the corporation’s rare probing and hard hitting reports, was sacked as the BBC’s Middle East correspondent and transferred to Africa in response to complaints from the Israeli government.
But this decision to refuse a charity appeal has consequences that go far beyond any of the BBC’s earlier failings: as the respected British MP Tony Benn put it, ‘people will die because of the BBC decision’. It is so blatantly unjust that the only question the BBC management might want to mull over is just how irreparable the damage from this controversy might be to its reputation. The organization that only days earlier was reporting with glee a letter by Chinese intellectuals boycotting their state media is today itself the subject of boycotts across Britain, not just by intellectuals, but by artists, scholars, citizens and even the IAEA. Much like Pravda and Izvestia during the Cold War, today it is the BBC that has emerged as the most apposite metaphor for state propaganda.
MUHAMMAD IDREES AHMAD is a member of Spinwatch.org, and the co-editor of Pulsemedia.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .
BBC Chief holds peace talks in Jerusalem with Ariel Sharon
Guy Adams, The Independent
November 29, 2005
The BBC is often accused of an anti-Israeli bias in its coverage of the Middle East, and recently censured reporter Barbara Plett for saying she “started to cry” when Yasser Arafat left Palestine shortly before his death.
Fascinating, then, to learn that its director general, Mark Thompson, has recently returned from Jerusalem, where he held a face-to-face meeting with the hardine Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Although the diplomatic visit was not publicised on these shores, it has been seized upon in Israel as evidence that Thompson, who took office in 2004, intends to build bridges with the country’s political class.
Sources at the Beeb also suspect that it heralds a “softening” to the corporation’s unofficial editorial line on the Middle East.
“This was the first visit of its kind by any serving director general, so it’s clearly a significant development,” I’m told.
“Not many people know this, but Mark is actually a deeply religious man. He’s a Catholic, but his wife is Jewish, and he has a far greater regard for the Israeli cause than some of his predecessors.”
Understandably, an official BBC spokesman was anxious to downplay talk of an exclusively pro-Israeli charm offensive.
Apopros this month’s previously undocumented trip, he stressed that Thompson had also held talks with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.
Mark Regev formerly Mark Freiberg, is an Australian-born Israeli diplomat and media spokesman. He is currently the spokesman for the Prime Minister of Israel and an advisor on foreign press and public affairs, a position he has held since his appointment by the former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in 2007.
Regev was born Mark Freiberg in Melbourne, Australia, in 1960 to Martin and Freda Freiberg. He graduated from Mount Scopus Memorial College, received his Bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History at Melbourne University, and a Master’s degree in Political from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, as well as a Master of Science in Management from Boston University.
In his youth Regev was a prominent member of the Socialist-Zionist youth movement, Ichud Habonim, and was active in the Melbourne University Jewish Students Society. In 1982 he emigrated to Israel and worked at kibbutz Tel Katzir. In Israel he changed his name from Freiberg to Regev, taking the Israeli family name of his adoptive kibbutz parents. He is married and has three children.
Regev joined the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1990, serving at Israeli embassies in Beijing, China and Washington, D.C., as Deputy Chief of Mission at the Consulate General in Hong Kong, and as a lecturer on International Relations and Strategy at the Israel Defense Forces Staff College. Prior to the appointment to his current position he was a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem.
Regev received prominence in international media when he presented the Israeli position in numerous interviews to English-language TV and radio channels during the 2008-2009 Gaza war, and on U.S. President Barack Obama’s proposals for Israel-Palestinian negotiations put forth on May 19, 2011.