The BBC: Eyeless in Gaza
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, The Electronic Intifada, 6 January 2009
On 29 February last year the BBC's website reported deputy defense
minister Matan Vilnai threatening a "holocaust" on Gaza. Headlined
"Israel warns of Gaza 'holocaust'" the story would undergo nine
revisions in the next twelve hours.
Before the day was over the headline would read "Gaza militants 'risking
disaster.'" (The story has since been revised again with an exculpatory
note added soft-pedaling Vilnai's comments).
An Israeli official threatening "holocaust" may be unpalatable to those
who routinely invoke its specter to deflect criticism from the state's
criminal behavior. With the "holocaust" reference redacted, the new
headline shifted culpability neatly into the hands of "Gaza militants"
One could argue that the BBC's radical alteration of the story reflects
its susceptibility to the kind of inordinate pressure the Israel lobby's
well-oiled flak machine is notorious for. However, as will be
demonstrated in subsequent examples, this story is exceptional only
insofar as it reported accurately in the first place something that
could bear negatively on Israel's image. The norm is reflexive
To establish evidence of the BBC's journalistic malpractice one often
has to do no more than pick a random sample of news related to the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict currently on its website. In a time of
conflict BBC's coverage invariably tends to the Israeli perspective, and
nowhere is this reflected more than in the semantics and framing of its
More so than the quantitative bias -- which was meticulously established
by the Glasgow University Media Group in their study "Bad News from
Israel" -- it is the qualitative tilt that obscures the reality of the
situation. This is often achieved by engendering a false parity by
stretching the notion of journalistic balance to encompass power,
culpability, and legitimacy as well. The present conflict is no
"Hamas leader killed in air strike," reads last Thursday's headline on
the BBC website. Notwithstanding the propriety of extrajudicial murder,
there are 14 paragraphs and the obligatory mention of the four dead
Israelis before it is revealed that "at least nine other people,"
including the assassinated leader's family, were killed in the bombing
of his home in the Jabaliya refugee camp.
The actual number is 16 dead, 11 of them children; 12 more wounded,
including five children; 10 houses destroyed, another 12 damaged -- a
veritable slaughter. Had a Hamas bombing killed or wounded 28 Israeli
citizens including 16 children you'd be sure to see endless coverage --
of the kind the BBC lavished on the disconsolate illegal settlers in
2005 as they were made to relinquish stolen land in Gaza.
The BBC's Mike Sergeant, sitting in Jerusalem, would not concern himself
with such sentimentality. There is no further mention of Palestinian
civilian deaths. Their tragedy was no more than a sanguine message which
Sergeant tells us will "be seen as an indication that the Israeli
military can target key members of the Hamas leadership."
"Israel braced for Hamas response," blared the ominous headline on next
day's front page. With all references to Hamas in its coverage prefixed
with "militant" and invariably accompanied by images of blood and
debris, the average viewer is very likely to assume the worst. It
transpires what the world's fourth most powerful military is bracing
itself for is merely a citizen's protest called by Hamas in the Occupied
Further on we learn that Israel has been bombing such "targets" as a
mosque and a sleeping family. The BBC's next headline on the same day --
"Gaza facing 'critical emergency'" -- is an improvement. It quotes
Maxwell Gaylard, the UN's chief aid coordinator for the territory,
highlighting the magnitude of the humanitarian crisis.
Following this is a warning from Oxfam that the situation is getting
worse by the day: clean water, fuel and food in short supply, hospitals
overwhelmed with casualties, raw sewage pouring into the streets. And
then we get "balance."
Israel, we learn, has claimed Gaza has "sufficient food and medicines."
It of course ought to be easy to verify which of the competing claims is
valid, but that presumably would violate the "usual BBC standards of
impartiality." There is also a more mundane reason why the BBC won't
present its own findings, but it is tucked away in the very last
paragraph of the article.
Israel, we learn, "is refusing to let international journalists into
Gaza" including no doubt those of the BBC. Ethics of reporting would
require that the BBC preface each of its reports with the disclaimer
that it has no way of knowing what is going on in Gaza other than
through the propaganda handouts of the Israeli military.
The final act of chicanery comes in the shape of a sidebar which lists
the number of rockets fired by Palestinians for each day of the
conflict. This is particularly odd in an article ostensibly about the
consequences of the Israeli blockade and bombing, especially since no
similar figures are produced for the number of bombs, missiles and
artillery shells rained on Gaza.
The source the BBC uses is the Intelligence and Terrorism Information
Center based in Israel. What it does not mention however is that the
"private" think tank is a conveyor belt for Israeli military propaganda
which, according to The Washington Post, "has close ties with the
country's military leadership and maintains an office at the Defense
Ministry." Any Palestinian claim on the other hand would not appear
unless enclosed in quotation marks, even if independently verifiable.
The quotation marks are a useful distancing device deployed to show that
the characterization may not be one shared by the BBC. This would be
understandable if their application were consistent. It isn't. To take
one telling example, after the Lebanon war when both Israel and
Hizballah were accused by Amnesty International of war crimes only in
the case of Israel did the BBC enclose the accusation in quotation
It is through these subtle -- and not so subtle -- manipulations of
language that the BBC has shielded its audience from the ugly realities
of occupied Palestine. In the BBC's reportage lexicon, Palestinians
"die" but Israelis are "killed" (the latter implies agency, the former
could have happened of natural causes); Palestinians "provoke," and
Israelis "retaliate;" Palestinians make "claims," and Israelis
Moreover, schools, mosques, universities and police stations are part of
the "Hamas infrastructure;" militants "clash" with F-16s and Apache
helicopters. "Terrorism" is inextricably linked to Palestinians but
Israelis merely "defend" themselves -- invariably outside their borders.
All debates, irrespective of fact or circumstance, are framed around
Israel's "security" -- Palestinian security is irrelevant.
If Israel's wall annexing land in the West Bank is mentioned, it is in
terms of its "effectiveness." In the odd event that an articulate
Palestinian voice represented, the debate is rigged with a set-up video
that is meant to put them on the defensive. When all else fails, there
is the reliable "both sides" argument -- if reality won't accommodate
the image of an even conflict, the BBC figures, language will.
Then there's the framing: Israel's violence is always analyzed in terms
of its "objectives;" and Palestinian violence is of necessity
"senseless." This is no doubt how it must appear to the average reader
since the word "occupation" rarely appears in the BBC's coverage.
It hasn't appeared once in the last 20 stories on Gaza on its website.
And if occupation is mentioned rarely, then the UN resolutions almost
never. The picture is even worse on television, where the Israeli point
of view predominates.
While Matan Vilnai's threat of a holocaust is consigned to the memory
hole, the statement invented and attributed to the Iranian president
about wiping Israel off the map is still in play. It is this double
standard which also allowed the BBC to cover the story of a British Jew
joining the Israeli military as a human interest story -- which may not
be entirely surprising considering the BBC's man in Jerusalem, Tim
Franks, is himself a graduate of Habonim Dror, a Zionist youth movement.
It is this inhuman devaluation of Palestinian life that allowed the BBC
at the peak of the criminal blockade in July 2007 to have two stories up
on its website related to the occupied territories, both about animals
-- "Israeli paratroopers swoop on pet shop to rescue rare eagles" and
"Kidnapped lioness is reunited with her brother in Gaza Zoo."
While the BBC's refusal to by-line its online reports makes it hard to
trace stories back to individual journalists, a revealing glimpse of the
editorial context in which they work was offered by an article in The
Observer by the BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen -- a man whose
modest analytical skills are matched only by his historical illiteracy.
With the BBC workhorse -- "both sides" -- weaved into the very headline,
Bowen piles inanity upon cliche.
Throughout there is no mention of an occupation. Bowen has been
conveniently transported to Sderot -- an Israeli public relations ploy
to "embed" journalists within range of Hamas rockets in order to make
them report with empathy -- and he is happy to oblige. On the other hand
there is no mention of those at the receiving end of Israel's lethal
ordinance. He mentions civilian casualties only in the context of the
"lot of bad publicity" they get for Israel.
On the basis of this evidence, he then concludes "it is probably fair to
say that [Israel] does not hit every target it wants, otherwise many
more would have died." We then end with speculation on Israel's possible
objectives. Despite "both sides," there is no similar scrutiny of
At a conference in London in 2004, a BBC journalist based in the
Occupied Palestinian Territories told me that when it comes to Israel
the editorial parameters are so narrow that journalists soon learn to
adapt their stories in order not to upset the editors. Similarly,
editors likewise know not to upset their government-appointed managers.
Since the days of Lord Reith, the BBC-founder who assured the
establishment to "trust [the BBC] not to be really impartial," on
foreign policy the corporation has acted as little more than the
propaganda arm of the state (whatever independence it had once enjoyed
evaporated with the purge carried out by Tony Blair in the wake of the
Contrary to the prevailing view in the US, where progressives don't tire
of comparing it favorably against US media, the BBC's record of coverage
in the Middle East is dismal. As media scholar David Miller revealed,
during the Iraq war the representation of antiwar voices on the BBC was
even lower than on its US counterparts.
A Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung study found the corporation to have the
lowest tolerance for dissent of the media in the five countries it
analyzed. Just as its correspondents in Iraq celebrated the fall of
Baghdad as a "vindication" of Blair, its man in Washington Matt Frei
threw all caution to the wind to exult: "There is no doubt that the
desire to bring good, to bring American values to the rest of the world,
and especially now in the Middle East, is especially tied up with
American military power."
The BBC's partiality in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is
a mere reflection of the close affinity of successive British
governments with Israel. Both Blair and his successor Gordon Brown have
been members of the Israel Lobby group Labour Friends of Israel. The
Foreign Minister David Miliband has kin who are settlers in the West
All three major influence-peddling scandals in the past five years that
engulfed the leadership of the ruling New Labour party involved money
from wealthy Zionist Jews (all linked to the Labour Friends of Israel).
If the BBC is not impartial, then the UK government most certainly is
The BBC, as is its wont, merely reflects the latter's tilt. This is
blatant enough that despite pressure from the Israel lobby, the BBC's
own Independent Panel concluded that its coverage of the Palestinian
struggle was not "full and fair" and that it presented an "incomplete
and in that sense misleading picture."
But the gap between the alternate reality that the BBC inhabits and the
reality on the ground witnessed and relayed by independent media is so
great today that it has compelled John Pilger to write: "For every BBC
voice that strains to equate occupier with occupied, thief with victim,
for every swarm of emails from the fanatics of Zion to those who invert
the lies and describe the Israeli state's commitment to the destruction
of Palestine, the truth is more powerful now than ever."
Muhammad Idrees Ahmad is a member of Spinwatch
He blogs at The Fanonite
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