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The leaning tower of BBC — which way does it tilt?


Not a humanitarian disaster: children sheltering after much of Gaza has been reduced to rubble, January 2009. The BBC was heavily criticised for refusing a request by the Disasters Emergency Committee to make an appeal for aid for the people of Gaza. See second article.

The BBC: Impartial Reporting or Pro-Israel Bias?

By Lesley Docksey, Global Research
March 22, 2013

The British Broadcasting Corporation has often been accused of anti-Semitism, usually by representatives of the Israeli government, the Israeli Ambassador to the UK or the Chief Rabbi.

Any passing mention of the plight of the Palestinians on the news used to result in either Ambassador Proser or Rabbi Jonathon Sacks elbowing their way into the Today programme studio the following morning to bleat about Israel’s actions being misrepresented.  The current Ambassador and Chief Rabbi are not quite so vocal but just as sensitive.  Palestinians do not have that ease of access.

But is the BBC anti-Semitic as Israel claims or, as many others claim, does the BBC have a pro-Israel bias in its reporting?

Back in January 2009, when Operation Cast Lead was in full swing with Gaza being reduced to rubble, and its inhabitants had nowhere to flee, the Disasters Emergency Committee issued an appeal on behalf of the Gazan people.  DEC is made up of 14 leading UK aid charities.  When some major humanitarian crisis occurs they combine their fundraising efforts.  The appeal is broadcast on all major TV and radio stations and large adverts appear in the press.  The response from the British public is usually swift and generous.  But, where the Israeli attack on Gaza was concerned, the BBC said ‘No’.  And because the great BBC was refusing to air the appeal, the other channels felt they had to follow suit.

The public outcry was massive.  The BBC instantly received over 11,000 complaints.  The Minister for the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Lord Malloch Brown, was similarly bombarded although protesters were forced to write to him as the FCO took down his email address.  Proser and Sachs applauded the BBC’s decision.  And the Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, was forced into making the following statement, justifying his decision:

“Inevitably, an appeal would use pictures which are the same or similar to those we would be using in our news programmes but would do so with the objective of encouraging public donations, …The danger … is that this could be interpreted as taking a political stance on an ongoing story. When we’ve turned down DEC appeals in the past on impartiality grounds, it has been because of this risk of giving … the impression that the BBC was taking sides in an ongoing conflict.”

Apart from the fact that the BBC were not showing any pictures from inside Gaza because Israel was preventing any reporters from entering, I was very puzzled by the statement that the BBC had turned down appeals in the past.  I couldn’t recall any occasion when they had done so.  Using the Freedom of Information Act, I wrote to Mark Thompson, quoting his statement and asking for the answers to the following questions:

  • On how many occasions has the BBC turned down an appeal by the DEC?
  • On what dates did the BBC turn down these appeals?
  • On behalf of which countries/people were the DEC appealing?

It took a month, but I received a very nice reply from the Information & Compliance Manager (the BBC is after all run on public money so they can’t afford to antagonise us too much) stating that the questions I asked were not covered by the FoI Act because…

“Your request falls outside the scope of the Act because the BBC and the other public service broadcasters are covered by the Act only in respect of information held for purposes “other than those of journalism, art or literature” (see Schedule I, Part VI of the Act). We are not therefore obliged to supply information held for the purposes of creating the BBC’s output or information that supports and is closely associated with these creative activities.”

Silly me. I thought that an appeal for aid came under “other than those of journalism, art or literature”, but BBC logic dictates otherwise.  They were certainly being ‘creative’ in their interpretation of the Act. However, the writer did volunteer this:

 “Since April 2006, the date when the BBC Executive took over the role of deciding on Emergency appeals from the BBC Governors, the BBC declined requests for appeals for the Middle East in August 2006 and for Gaza in January 2009.”

DEC has never issued an appeal for ‘the Middle East’ although, with the way things are developing there, they may yet have to.  Even worse, when I checked with the DCE website, their Appeals Archive page listed no appeals for anywhere at all in 2006.  Ooops!

It seems that under other circumstances, the BBC is not worried about appearing to be taking sides in an ongoing story, as they have just aired the DEC appeal for Syria.  So, whose side are they on?  Are they anti-Semitic in the real meaning of the term, or is it more accurate to say that they have a pro-Israel bias?

Quite a lot of people think the answer to that is ‘Yes’.   They are demanding that the BBC Trust holds a Public Inquiry into whether there is pro-Israeli bias at the BBC.  They reached their target of 10,000 signatures yesterday, but more would be welcome.  It is time this issue was settled once and for all, time for the BBC to be what it claims it is – fair and impartial in the reporting of news.


The BBC’s Nadir
The Way of Izvestia

By Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, CounterPunch
February 03, 2009

‘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 m.idrees@gmail.com


 Useful links
The BBC Trust: Hold a Public Inquiry into Pro-Israeli Bias A petition, change.org
Is the BBC biased TOWARDS Israel? (Laugh.. go on!) Commentator on above petition
BBC slammed for blanking historic hunger strike JfJfP post
Don’t talk about the Palestinians – media silence deepens, JfJfP post
UK activists protest ‘grotesque’ BBC bias — in favor of Israel Times of Israel, November 2012
Supreme Court upholds BBC’s refusal on Israel report BBC journalism exempt from FoI act, Feb. 2012
Balen Report: The case continues BBC on the legal dispute about Freedom of Information
Why won’t the BBC come clean over its bias against Israel – a moral country that deserves our support?
Daily Mail on anti-Israel bias of BBC, reflecting establishment bias
A family slaughtered in Israel – doesn’t the BBC care? Daily Telegraph accuses BBC of anti-Israel bias, 2011
Independent Panel Report on BBC coverage Israel/Palestine conflict, 2006
BBC report on Middle East conflict coverage Why BBC did nut publish its Balen report
What you get in 20 seconds Greg Philo on the report Bad News From Israel
More Bad News from Israel by Greg Philo and Mike Berry, all coverage

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