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Published in the 1-15 Oct 2004 print edition of MG; send me the print edition


The BBC: Occupation? What occupation! - ii

By Sharif Hikmat Nashashibi

Judging from BBC Online’s output in the first quarter of 2004, the refugee issue does not seem to be newsworthy. Out of almost 40 relevant articles, most involving Israeli attacks against refugee camps, not a single one explained why those refugees were dispossessed or where they had originally come from.

The furthest one article goes is to state that "hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced", but the reasons and perpetrator - Israel’s ethnic cleansing to establish a Jewish state - are absent. Only one article mentions the refugees’ right to return to their homes, only one indicates how long they have been dispossessed, and only three refer to their dire living conditions.

Only one of these three articles is specifically about such conditions. Entitled "UN warns of Palestinian despair", it is about the UN Relief Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) warning of growing "hopelessness, cynicism and despair" among refugees, that unless they "were given some reason to hope for an improvement in their lives, they would be unlikely to have faith in the Middle East peace process", and appealing for "greater commitment from the international community".

On the face of it, this article is praiseworthy in highlighting refugees’ living conditions, but it still fails completely to explain the root causes of their plight. The same is true of an article by Gaza correspondent James Rodgers on Palestinians displaced by Israel’s house demolitions - no mention of the policies behind the demolitions or their illegality, and no mention that they are taking place on occupied land. And this, during three months, was as good as it got from BBC Online concerning refugees, another core issue of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Why the pitfalls in coverage?
This is a vast topic with various, equally valid theories which could fill an entire book. As such, I will not delve into it, but instead direct readers to a chapter entitled "Why the BBC Ducks the Palestinian Story" by Tim Llewellyn, a patron of AMW and former BBC Middle East correspondent. The chapter is available on the internet and contained in an excellent book published in January this year entitled "Tell Me Lies: Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq", which is available at a 20% discount on the AMW website.

What I can say for certain, however, is that the BBC cannot claim it has not been told. AMW members - including Llewellyn - have been highlighting their concerns to the corporation for years, and since last October we have had several meetings with senior BBC officials and sent them periodic summaries of trends in the corporation’s coverage, which highlighted the same problems illustrated in this article.

However, at one such meeting Richard Sambrook, then head of news and now director of the World Service and global news division, stressed the importance of both sides maintaining open channels of dialogue, and then failed to reply to several of my subsequent e-mails and monitoring summaries.

BBC chairman Michael Grade replied in May to a letter by AMW director Judith Brown that "since the views of your organisation are well known to BBC News, I hope you will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to fulfil your request for a meeting." We have yet to understand.
Greg Philo & "Bad News From Israel"

Our findings echo those of a major three-year study by Professor Greg Philo, research director of the Glasgow University Media Group, into British people’s understanding of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the output of the UK’s broadcasters, including the BBC. His findings, contained in his book "Bad News from Israel", published on June 22 this year and available on the AMW website at a 30% discount, are shocking: Only 9% of people knew that the Israelis were the occupiers and settlers - 11% believed it was the Palestinians! Only 30% knew that the Palestinians had suffered more fatalities than the Israelis, and 80% did not know where the Palestinian refugees had come from or how they had become dispossessed.

One of the book's major findings was that "there is a preponderance of official 'Israeli perspectives', particularly on BBC 1, where Israelis were interviewed over twice as much as Palestinians. On top of this, US politicians who support Israel were very strongly featured. They appeared more than politicians from any other country and twice as much as those from Britain."
Another major finding was that "there was a strong emphasis on Israeli casualties on the news, relative to Palestinians (even though Palestinians had around 2-3 times the number of deaths as Israelis). In one week in March 02 which the BBC reported as having the most Palestinian casualties since the start of the intifada, there was actually more coverage on the news of Israeli deaths. There were also differences in the language used by journalists for Israelis and Palestinians – words such as 'atrocity', 'brutal murder', 'mass murder', 'savage cold blooded killing', 'lynching' and 'slaughter' were used about Israeli deaths but not Palestinian. The word 'terrorist' was used to describe Palestinians by journalists but when an Israeli group was reported as trying to bomb a Palestinian school, they were referred to as 'extremists' or 'vigilantes' (BBC 1 lunch time news and ITV main news (5/03/02)."

Tim Llewellyn, in an article published on June 20 this year in the Observer, gave another example that "is a template for hundreds: when Israeli police killed 13 Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin in October 2000, inside Israel, soon after the armed uprising in the occupied territories began, BBC and ITN coverage was a fifth of that given to the Palestinians who stormed a police station in Ramallah a day later and murdered two captured Israeli soldiers. These Palestinians were 'a frenzied [lynch] mob…baying for blood'. No such lurid prose was used to describe the Israeli killing of their own citizen Arabs."

And while Philo's book came out in June 2004, his findings were first published in the Guardian on April 16, 2002. In that article, he said: "There were many examples of the Israeli viewpoint being adopted by journalists. Palestinian bombings were frequently presented as 'starting' a sequence of events which involved an Israeli 'response'. On Radio 4 it was reported that 'Five Palestinians have been killed when the Israeli army launched new attacks on the Gaza Strip in retaliation for recent acts of terrorism'.

He continued: "In another exchange on BBC Radio 4, David Wiltshire MP was asked 'What can the Egyptians do to stop the suicide bombers – because that in the end is what is cranking up the violence at present?' He replies, 'Well that is one view, the Israeli view…'."

In a letter published in the Guardian in September 25, 2002, Philo stated: "BBC coverage has often used words such as 'terrorist', 'murder' and 'atrocity' to describe Palestinian actions. Its coverage of Jenin was restrained compared with other channels and its main bulletins reported the statements of both sides without endorsing them, noting the Palestinians called it a 'massacre' while the Israelis called it a 'legitimate military operation'. A suicide bomber who killed six Israelis was referred to as a 'mass murderer'."

On April 1 this year, Philo was quoted by the Guardian as saying: "One of the complaints made about the BBC was that it endorsed Palestinian views. In fact it was Israeli views that were more likely to be endorsed and that was very clear on the BBC. Overall the BBC didn't come across at all as being anti-Israeli – there's a good deal of evidence which would show that the imbalance is against the Palestinians."

And on July 14 this year, he wrote in the Guardian: "Between October and December 2001…on BBC1 and ITV news, Israelis were said to be responding to what had been done to them about six times as often as the Palestinians. This pattern of reporting clearly influenced how some viewers understood the conflict."

So Philo's findings have been in the public domain for over two years, ample time for the BBC to rectify the problems highlighted in his research. However, it seems the corporation has not only failed to do this, but has sounded worryingly dismissive of the findings.

The BBC's "Middle East tsar", Malcolm Balen, was quoted in June 2004 by the Jewish Chronicle as saying: "I have never been someone who thinks one can detect bias simply by counting up the number of interviews on TV. There could be 100 interviews with Israeli government spokesmen but they could be quite critical and hard interviews. Equally you could say that if there are fewer Palestinian interviews, it's a sign that the BBC isn't asking enough hard questions of the Palestinians."

So presumably his answer to Israeli predominance on the BBC is to be harder on the Palestinians! Judging from Philo's extensive research and that of AMW, Balen seems unaware of the qualitative inequality in how both sides are interviewed.

The BBC should view this article as an outreached hand rather than a clenched fist, but in reaching out once again, we ask merely that our views and findings be dealt with promptly and genuinely. No more generic e-mails from the BBC claiming its efforts at objectivity, in response to messages whose specific points and grievances are not addressed. No more factual errors that are corrected when pointed out, only to reappear weeks later. No more falling back on the argument that "well, we also receive complaints from the pro-Israel lobby", when those complaints are often sweeping and unsubstantiated. And no more meetings without follow-up.
Let there now be a sincere effort by the BBC to engage with those seeking nothing more controversial than fair, contextual reporting and justice for an occupied people, not least for the benefit, accuracy and reputation of the corporation itself.

And to those reading this article, this is a time for renewed perseverance, a time when Palestinian suffering is at a peak, and the facts and figures regarding BBC coverage are ample. As British citizens, it is our right as licence payers to make our voices heard. As advocates of human rights and objective media coverage, it is our duty. «

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