By Stephen Franklin
December 1, 2009
The summer of 2008 was not an exceptionally bad season in terms of BBC coverage of the Middle East, but after watching a programme by Jeremy Bowen on “The Birth of Israel” I had had enough of their biased reporting and decided to use their complaints system about four BBC News online reports, a Bowen interview in the Today programme and a totally extraordinary report in The Thirties in Colour. The complaint about the Birth of Israel is still within the BBC Trust complaints system, but the Trust have just published their rejection of other complaints that I made that summer.
The findings showed that misleading reports missing out key facts, that have a major bearing on events the way events are likely to be interpreted, is not sufficient to have a complaint upheld by the BBC Trust when Richard Tait is in the chair. Earlier this year the BBC Trust did uphold complaints against Bowen and the BBC News online team.
The Trust had reached its conclusions in the absence of its chairman, Richard Tait (a Trustee and a former governor of the BBC) who appeared later to comment on the findings on Feedback (on 7th June). Despite the findings of the ESC Mr Tait said on the programme “we have made it absolutely clear that we have complete confidence in Jeremy Bowen. He’s a courageous, experienced and brilliant correspondent in a very difficult area. We have confidence in him. We have complete confidence in the BBC’s news division and in the BBC’s impartiality in this area. We have no evidence to suggest …that we’re biased” Mr Tait said specifically of the findings of the ESC regarding Mr Bowen “They’re not failings that should make anyone think anything other of Jeremy Bowen than he’s an excellent Middle East Editor for BBC News."
I was not so lucky Richard Tait, who thought that a report that was inaccurate and “breached BBC guidelines on impartiality” should make people think that the author is an excellent Middle East Editor for BBC News, then chaired the Trust’s meetings that discussed my complaints, including against Jeremy Bowen and BBC News online.
On 12th (updated 13th) June BBC News online published an article headlined “Israel air strike targets Hamas”.
The article reported an attack on Hamas by the IDF on 12th June but failed to mention that in so doing the IDF had thwarted a major terrorist attack by Hamas on Israel. On 12th June Haaretz had reported that the IDF claimed to have thwarted such an attack.
A Jerusalem Post article published 8.45 AM Israeli time (6.45 AM BST) of 13th June stated “Hamas's military wing, Izzadin Kassam, said Friday that the previous day's deadly blast in the northern Gaza town of Beit Lahiya was caused by an accident as operatives were "preparing for a special jihad operation."
The BBC never did report the thwarted operation. In handling my complaint they said that the IDF’s word wasn’t reliable enough to justify mentioning their claim that an operation had been thwarted, and Hamas’s confirmation came after their last update to the report. This last comment is true, but the report had been updated just a few hours earlier for a much smaller development.
On 23rd June BBC News online published an article about Jewish refugees from Arab Countries, which included the following passage:
“The BBC's Arab affairs analyst Magdi Abdelhadi says the subject is highly controversial as the numbers of Jews who left, and the conditions under which they left, are disputed.
He says one undisputed fact is that Jews were part of Arab societies for centuries, where they were fully integrated in their societies, until Israel was established.”
I was one of many who complained about the sentence that I highlighted in bold. As a result of the complaints they added the word many before Jews, but I still was unsatisfied by the change, and as a result of my appeal to the Editorial Complaints Unit they changed the passage to read
“He says one undisputed fact is that many Jews were part of Arab societies for centuries, although not with equal rights, until Israel was established.”
In the light of the fact that there were pogroms against Jews in many Arab countries in the first half of the twentieth century, including Egypt, Lybia, Syria Yemen and especially Iraq, with its own “kristallnacht” or Farud of June 1st – 2nd 1941 before the establishment of the state of Israel. They were also persecuted in the first half of the twentieth century in Egypt, Lybia, Syria and Yemen.
I felt that the offending sentence remained misleading and appealed to the Trust.
The article was supposed to be about Jewish refugees, but it completely skated over the mass expulsion of Jews from Arab lands, and the BBC, which is frequently mentioning Arab refugees from Palestine never acknowledges the suffering of Jews in Arab lands, a story so well told in “The Forgotten Refugees”.
On 23rd June the BBC published a report headlined “Israelis kill two in West Bank” and the report was changed the next day and given a new headline Rockets ‘violated Gaza ceasefire”.
The original BBC report (with the heading “Israelis kill two in West Bank and) said “No group has claimed responsibility for the mortar attack, which caused no casualties, and Israel said it did not consider the strike to be a breach of the Gaza ceasefire.”
Israel said no such thing. The statement was inaccurate. The article said “Israel said it did not consider the strike to be a breach of the Gaza ceasefire” and Israel didn’t say it. Even this was not considered to be inaccurate by the BBC Trust though.
The Committee noted that there was no evidence to confirm that the Israeli government had said it. In fact it was obvious that the Israeli government hadn’t said it. It would have been reported in the Israeli media if the government had said such a thing, when the Israeli media reported the mortar attack as a ceasefire breach.
The article was inaccurate. (The BBC said that it was changed to update it as there had been more significant breaches, not because there was anything wrong with the original report.)
The BBC report said “Islamic Jihad said it carried out the attack to avenge an Israeli raid in the West Bank in which two died. The two Palestinians were killed in an Israeli military operation in a university building in the West Bank town of Nablus. Islamic Jihad said one of the dead was one of its senior fighters. Local reports said the other man was a student, and not a militant*. The Israeli army said both men were armed.”
The “student” received a full Hamas militant’s funeral (or as close to one as Fatah allow on the West Bank), which was reported on Reuters before the BBC filed the last update of its report, and Haaretz reported that he was from Hamas well before the BBC report was published, yet the BBC still say that he was not a militant.
The journalist, Aleem Maqbool, who said that local reports said that he was not a militant has produced other suspicious local reports, that "show" Israel to be the villain.
Maqbool may have an attachment to one side in the Israel-Palestine conflict. If, as I believe to be the case, he is a Palestinian, such an attachment would be understandable. The BBC ought to take this into account. It is also the case that Palestinian journalists need a licence to operate from Fatah if they are operating from the West Bank and from Hamas if they are operating from the Gaza Strip. If they say something that their host government doesn’t like they are likely to lose their licence. If that happens their career as a journalist covering the West Bank or Gaza respectively is over. (The same is not true for Israeli Arabs working in the West Bank or Gaza Strip.)
On 27th June BBC News online published an article headlined “Gaza truce ‘violated repeatedly’.
The way the article was written made it appear to the reader that the Israeli attack came first. Once a cease-fire has been breached it is reasonable to say that there is no cease-fire any more, so who initially breaches the cease-fire is vital to the story.
In that story it appeared that the Israelis fired breached the cease-fire at least that there was some ambiguity about who breached the cease-fire.
The article started as follows:
“A fragile eight-day-old truce between Israel and Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip appears to have been violated repeatedly by both sides.
A UN source says Israeli troops have opened fire on Palestinian farmers several times, causing injuries. Israel says its forces fired warning shots.
Palestinian militants have also broken the ceasefire, firing rockets and mortars into Israeli territory.”
Anybody reading that would think that Israeli troops fired on Palestinian farmers and in response Palestinian militants fired rockets and mortars into Israeli territory. The article was worded to make it appear for somebody reading this article without having read a previous articles about Hamas firing rockets (and even that article headlined “Rockets ‘violated Gaza ceasefire’ had the violated Gaza ceasefire in inverted commas, as if there was some doubt about the matter) that it was probably Israel that made the original breach the ceasefire.
In order to avoid such an impression the report should have said that the Israeli shooting followed the firing of rockets and mortars by Palestinians into Israeli territory.
Today, BBC Radio 4, 14 July 2008
Bowen said in the interview “Well, on one level you may think that, but to improve things between Israel and the Palestinians, the Israelis in particular have to, in their eyes, give away a lot. I think to get the kind of deal that, that would work, they have to turn over a lot of occupied territory to Palestinians, and they have been very reluctant to do that.”
As a simple fact Israel gave up the majority of the territory that it controlled in the peace agreement with Egypt in 1978 and in the same Camp David accords showed a willingness to do so with the Palestinians.
Arafat refused to negotiate with Israel in accordance with article 3 of the Arab League Khartoum Resolution (no negotiation, no recognition, no peace with Israel).
In 2000-2001 Israel offered 98% of the area of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to the Palestinians in the Camp David/Taba negotiations and in what Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia described as “a tragic mistake-a crime, really”.
Arafat rejected the offer. Israel has withdrawn from Area A of the West Bank as a result of the Rabin-Arafat Oslo agreement, and in 2005 Sharon unilaterally withdrew completely from the Gaza Strip including all military encampments and all settlements. It didn’t bring peace, but it certainly wasn’t reluctance to turn over occupied territory to the Palestinians.
The Thirties in Colour, BBC Four, 3 August 2008
The thirties in Colour was, on the whole an excellent series showing short films made in the 1930s with commentaries, which on the whole are not offensive today.
There was a sequence shown from “Springtime in the Holy Land”, one of two films released at the same time to advertise Jaffa citrus products. After the first showing of the film in Tel Aviv in April 1939 the films were reviewed in the Palestine Post on 25th April in the following terms. “The agency which advertises citrus fruits invited an audience to view some films which are to be used the world over to make people orange conscious. One film was a poster affair of animated oranges and fast moving moons which would not induce me to drink anything but coco cola (sic) or Schweppes Ginger beer. The other was one of those subtle advertising stunts, which should leave the perspective victim absolutely vulnerable to every orange that he comes across. It was a travelogue called Springtime in the Holy Land….”
The commentary then said “Taken in 1939, had the camera been diverted just a couple of degrees, it would have shown you a Palestine that had been completely destroyed by 3 years of rebellion of the Palestinian Arab community against both the Jewish settlers and the British colonial presence. Palestine would have been a fractured landscape of road blocks, of search points, of police presence, of military presence. There were concentration camps. There were collective punishments. Houses were destroyed. Towns…had been laid low. The country was flooded with British troops. It’s remarkable that they could film a film of Palestine at this moment without having a single British soldier or policeman in the frame.”
This was an advertising film. The British Tourist Board films during the “winter of discontent” didn’t show piles of rubbish bags in the streets of London. More serious than that in 1939 Jews were dying in concentration camps at Buchenwald and Dachau. The British didn’t have concentration camps. It was a totally inappropriate comment, and one that was likely to cause offence to Jews who had members of their family under attack by Palestinian Arabs in the Arab revolt and those with family
Members who died in real Nazi concentration camps.
He commentary also said “British control of Palestine was cemented in 1920 when it was granted mandated powers over the territory by the League of Nations. By then the British government had already pledged to create a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. Britain had assured the Arab population that nothing would be done to disadvantage them. But that promise wasn’t kept.”
As a simple matter of fact Britain had never assured the Arab population that nothing would be done to disadvantage them, but it also to be seen in the context of the time.
Britain had already decided to bring out the infamous Palestine White Paper of May 1939, which clearly breached the terms of the mandate by tightly restricting Jewish immigration to Palestine at the time that Jews were most in danger. That was the real breach of their promise and it was confirmed as such by the Permanent Mandates Commission on whose behalf Britain governed Palestine, and who declared the White Paper to be “not in conformity” with the terms of Mandate Resolution of 1922. That breach of international law cost countless Jewish lives in the holocaust that followed.