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Friday, May 12, 2006

The BBC is pro-Israel?

There's a great comment in today's (actually, now yesterday's) Times of London from Martin Walker. A little background for those of you who may have missed it.

The BBC issued a report this week about an investigation into the question of whether their reporting on Israel is 'biased.' Now, I know what you are all thinking. You're all thinking that BBC reporting is biased in favor of the 'Palestinians' and that the BBC would undoubtedly try to cover that up in their report. Ah, but they did better than that.

According to one of several JPost articles on the subject:

According to the 38-page report prepared by the panel, the BBC's Middle East reporting did "not consistently constitute a full and fair account of the conflict but rather, in important respects, presents an incomplete and in that sense misleading picture."

While no evidence of "systematic or deliberate bias" was found, "gaps in coverage, analysis, context and perspective" have led to a failure to "maintain consistently the BBC's own established editorial standards" of impartial reporting, the panel found.

There's only one problem. In Walker's words, after the report made the statements above it "then went on to list a series of measurements by which the BBC could be said to be biased in favour of Israel."

Several Jewish groups, including BBC Watch, have attempted to put the best face on the report. The Jerusalem Post interviewed Trevor Asserson, the founder of BBC Watch:

Asserson, who immigrated to Israel last year, said that some aspects of the report would prompt "the nitpicking media watchers to say we won and you lost." But this was "missing the point," he said, as "the real essence of the report is that they have hit the BBC quite hard."

"The report was not trying to analyze whether or not the Israelis or Palestinians are more to be vilified or more to be praised. It was asking whether the BBC was doing a good job and it clearly said it was not," Asserson said.

"It basically said, 'You the BBC have got problems... You've got no management structure we can see at all,'" he told the Post. "That's a very severe criticism" and the source from which the broadcaster's "mistakes flow," Asserson said.

Asserson said the BBC has "done much internally to improve what was a lamentably poor coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," coverage that began to go "very badly wrong at the start of the intifada." The coverage reached a low point "when Israel began to treat the BBC as an unfriendly organization," he said.

Asserson neglects to mention that the report only covers the last six months of broadcasts, so some of the most blatantly biased material was not considered.

But Walker hits the BBC hard by recounting one incident of bias after another:
There was the hagiographic send-off for Yassir Arafat by a BBC reporter with tears in her eyes and that half-hour profile of Arafat in 2002 which called him a “hero” and “an icon” and concluded that the corrupt old brute was “the stuff of legends”.

There was Orla Guerin’s unforgettably inventive spin on the story of a Palestinian child being deployed as a suicide bomber, which most journalists saw as a sickening example of child abuse in the pursuit of terrorism. Guerin had it as “Israel’s cynical manipulation of a Palestinian youngster for propaganda purposes”.

There was the disturbing case of Fayad Abu Shamala, the BBC Arabic Service correspondent, who addressed a Hamas rally on May 6, 2001, and was recorded declaring that journalists in Gaza, apparently including the BBC, were “waging the campaign shoulder to shoulder together with the Palestinian people”. Pressed for an explanation, the subsequent BBC statement said: “Fayad’s remarks were made in a private capacity. His reports have always matched the best standards of balance required by the BBC.”

There was the extraordinarily naive coverage of the London visit of Sheikh Abdur-Rahman al-Sudais, the predominant imam of Mecca, to open London’s largest new mosque. He was described as a widely respected religious figure who works for “community cohesion”, and a video on the BBC website was captioned “The BBC’s Mark Easton: ‘Events like today offer grounds for optimism’.”

The BBC must have missed his sermon of February 1, 2004, that said “the Jews of yesterday are the evil fathers of the Jews of today, who are evil offspring, infidels . . . calf-worshippers, prophet-murderers, prophecy-deniers . . . the scum of the human race whom Allah cursed and turned into apes and pigs . . . These are the Jews, a continuous lineage of meanness, cunning, obstinacy, tyranny, licentiousness, evil, and corruption . . .”

These are isolated examples, but they stick longer in the memory because they are reinforced by a broader pattern of coverage that seems to play down that Israel is a democracy that elects Israeli Arabs to the Knesset and which does not engage in systematic terrorism and suicide bombing of civilians. So it was startling to read the report for the BBC governors finding so much bias in favour of Israelis. This was based largely on the quantitative content analysis done by outside researchers which found “significant differences across BBC news programmes and services in the allocation of talk time”.

Much of the leadership of the British Jewish community would apparently agree with Walker and not with Asserson:

Jon Benjamin, chief executive officer for the Board of Deputies of British Jews... questioned... the methodology used to prepare portions of the report that suggested pro-Israel bias on the part of the BBC. "Many observers of BBC coverage will be surprised at the report's finding that the situation of the Palestinians is not adequately explained," he said, as "almost without exception, Palestinians are shown as suffering from 'the occupation.'" "Whilst this is perhaps a reflection of the situation for many, what is not shown is the fact that others live more affluently due to corruption and abuse of power."

Dr. Irene Lancaster of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester also questioned the study's assumption that the fact that the BBC broadcast more interviews with Jews and Israelis than with Palestinians demonstrated a pro-Israel leaning.

The BBC regularly reports the opinions of anti-Israeli Jews, Dr Lancaster said, which under the report's methodology would count as a pro-Israel broadcast.

A look at a recent BBC story shows that - at the very least - much anti-Israel bias remains:
A story by the broadcaster's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, on the Palestinian Authority's funding crisis stated, "Without foreign donations the PA cannot do the most basic things, like pay its staff, let alone address the desperate economic and social problems faced in the territories, many of which have been caused by nearly 40 years of military occupation by Israel." The BBC mentioned no other cause for the PA's economic and social problems other than military occupation by Israel.
And according to Walker, it is likely to remain:

It is important to consider the context of the report’s finding that Israeli deaths tend to get more coverage is that the Israeli victims are overwhelmingly and deliberately civilians, targeted at random. The Palestinian fatalities vary widely. Some are killed in internal feuds between Hamas and Fatah, and some are executed as “collaborators”, some are terrorists caught in the act and some are the victims of Israeli targeted killings. These tend to be the ones that result in the tragic collateral killing and wounding of civilians and children. And it can be difficult for journalists, even those with the resources and exemplary bravery and professional persistence of most BBC reporters, to establish which is which in time for a news report.

The report on which the governors will now rely to develop new guidelines for BBC coverage tends to skate over some of the professional problems that make even-handed reporting difficult in Gaza and in the West Bank. Journalists have been kidnapped and cameras stolen, and their sources are often intimidated.

By contrast, Israeli politics are easily followed in Israel’s free press, where critics of the occupation and of Israeli military tactics abound and where the Israeli media does sterling work, including the kind of combative investigative reporting that is virtually unknown in the Palestinian press.

There is one piece of good news. BBC reporters will henceforth be allowed to use the T-word to describe “relevant events, since it is the most accurate expression for actions which involve violence against randomly selected civilians with the intention of causing terror for ideological, including political or religious, objectives, whether perpetrated by state or non-state agencies”.

But even here BBC reporters will be faced with a tricky dilemma, since the report goes on to say: “While those immediately responsible for the actions might be described as terrorists, the BBC is right to avoid so labelling organisations, except in attributed remarks.”

It's a pity that British subjects have to pay tax money to fund this kind of reporting (the BBC is a government-funded entity, and as in Israel, there is a television tax). They should at least get fair, unbiased reporting in return for their tax support.


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