BBC News is in turmoil. Having last year dropped a report on claims of sexual abuse against the late DJ and television presenter Jimmy Savile, the flagship Newsnight programme this month wrongly implicated Tory peer Lord McAlpine in child abuse. As a result, after just 54 days in his job, the BBC director-general, George Entwistle, ‘stepped down’ on November 10. The BBC’s head of news, Helen Boaden, and her deputy, Stephen Mitchell, were then also ‘asked’ to ‘step aside’. Peter Rippon, the Newsnight editor responsible for the Savile decision, had already ‘stepped aside’.
The Lord Patten-led BBC Trust, which is supposed to ensure that the BBC is run in the public interest, has once again been revealed as a useless, dangling appendage.
Newsnight’s journalistic failures on child abuse are bad enough, rightly heaping pressure on the broadcaster. But there was no comparable pressure for senior staff to ‘step aside’ over the BBC’s truly catastrophic failure to challenge US-UK propaganda on Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction and the country’s supposed ‘threat’ to the West. This failure paved the way to war in Iraq and the subsequent brutal and bloody occupation at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives. As Media Lens noted recently on Twitter: ‘If you think Newsnight failed badly now, compare with anchor Jeremy Paxman’s 2009 confession on Iraq’: namely, that he and his media colleagues were ‘hoodwinked’ by propaganda about Iraq. Paxman made these extraordinary comments:
‘As far as I personally was concerned, there came a point with the presentation of the so-called evidence, with the moment when Colin Powell sat down at the UN General Assembly and unveiled what he said was cast-iron evidence of things like mobile, biological weapon facilities and the like…
‘When I saw all of that, I thought, well, “We know that Colin Powell is an intelligent, thoughtful man, and a sceptical man. If he believes all this to be the case, then, you know, he’s seen the evidence; I haven’t.”’
In other words, BBC journalism ended where serious journalism, and simple common sense, begins.
How Can This Be ‘Self Defence’?
The role of BBC News as handmaiden to power is exemplified by its reporting on the latest series of brutal Israeli assaults on Gaza. On the first day of Operation Pillar of Cloud, thirteen people, including three children, were reportedly killed, and about 100 wounded. Israeli forces succeeded in their objective of ‘assassinating’ Hamas military chief Ahmed al-Jabari in a clear act of extrajudicial state execution.
On November 16, Israel was reported to have hit 150 sites in Gaza the previous night, with 450 strikes in total. And yet the main BBC headline that morning read: ‘Egypt PM arrives for Gaza mission.’ What would the BBC headline have been if 450 targets in Tel Aviv had been hit by F-16 bombs, drone missiles and artillery?
The Israeli attacks have routinely been reported as ‘retaliation’ for Palestinian ‘militant rocket attacks’ on southern Israel. In a study of news performance in 2001, the Glasgow Media Group noted that Israelis ‘were six times as likely to be presented as “retaliating” or in some way responding than were the Palestinians.’ A BBC correspondent in Gaza said ‘there are now fears now (sic) of a major escalation of violence’. But the Israeli execution of Ahmed al-Jabari was a major escalation of violence. BBC News reported three Israeli deaths by rockets fired from Gaza with the briefest mention of the earlier deaths of ‘eleven Palestinians – mainly militants but also children’. As ever, there was no explanation of how a Gaza civilian is distinguished from a ‘militant’.
The sequence of recent events, so lacking in ‘mainstream’ reports, that led to Israel’s massive attacks on Gaza can be summarised thus:
- October 29: The BBC reports that ‘Militants in Gaza have fired 26 rockets into Israel, officials say, amid a flare-up in fighting which shattered a brief ceasefire between the two sides. No injuries were reported from the barrage, in the south of the country.’ The BBC said that, ‘It came hours after Israeli aircraft hit targets in Gaza, after militants fired rockets following the killing by Israel of a Gazan who Israel said fired mortars at its troops.’
- November 4: an innocent, apparently mentally unfit, 20-year old man, Ahmad al-Nabaheen, is shot when he wanders close to the border with Israel. Medics have to wait for six hours to be permitted to pick him up and they suspect that he may have died because of that delay.
- November 8: Israeli soldiers invade Gaza, shooting and killing a 13-year old Gazan boy, Ahmad Abu Daqqa, who was playing football.
- November 10: Palestinian resistance fighters attack an Israeli army jeep near the boundary with Gaza, injuring 4 Israeli occupation soldiers. An Israeli shell kills two children in Gaza. An Israeli tank later attacks a funeral service killing two more civilians, wounding more than 20 others.
- November 11: Palestinian resistance fighters reportedly agree a ceasefire.
- November 13: Reuters reports that truce between Palestinians and Israel appears to be holding.
- November 14: Israel breaks ceasefire by killing Ahmed al-Jabari and launching intense attacks on Gaza. According to investigative journalist Gareth Porter: ‘Israeli assassination of Jabari destroyed possibility of mediated Israeli-Hamas truce.’
Stop the War concluded:
‘Israeli government claims that they are conducting a “defensive” operation in response to rocket fire from Hamas is not true. Israel is directly responsible for the latest round of violence and must cease attacking Gaza immediately.’ (Email, November 15, 2012)
On November 15, retaliating to the escalation in Israeli violence, Hamas missile strikes launched from Gaza into southern Israel killed three people. Every violent death is a tragedy but Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the Jerusalem Fund, gave much-needed perspective in an article published the same day:
‘While Israeli officials are quick to rattle off the numbers of projectiles fired from Gaza, rarely do they tell you what they fire into Gaza, what the effects of this fire is and what the fallout from it is.
‘For example, in 2011, the projectiles fired by the Israeli military into Gaza have been responsible for the death of 108 Palestinians, of which 15 where (sic) women or children […]
‘Through September 2012, Israeli weaponry caused 55 Palestinian deaths and 257 injuries. Among these 312 casualties, 61, or roughly 20 percent, were children and 28 were female. […] It is important to note that these figures do not represent a totality of Israeli projectiles fired into Gaza but rather only Israeli projectiles fired into Gaza which cause casualties. The total number of Israeli projectiles fired into Gaza is bound to be significantly larger.
Munayyer added: ‘more Palestinians were killed in Gaza yesterday than Israelis have been killed by projectile fire from Gaza in the past three years.’
The Israel-based journalist Jonathan Cook noted via Facebook on November 15:
‘Here, according to the BBC, are the five most important stories relating to Israel’s attack on Gaza. (Screengrab via Nour Bakr):
‘Gaza missiles fired at Tel Aviv
‘Israel’s Gaza rocket problem
‘”Hamas targets our children”
“‘Determined to follow the path of jihad”
‘UK’s Hague criticises Hamas’
As Cook observed, it was as though ‘nothing newsworthy is happening to the people of Gaza’.
A letter signed by Noam Chomsky and a number of other signatories noted the relentless corporate media channelling of the Israeli perspective over the Palestinians’ and summarised:
‘It doesn’t take an expert in media science to understand that what we are facing is at best shoddy and skewed reporting, and at worst willfully dishonest manipulation of the readership.’
On Newsnight (November 14, 2012), BBC presenter Gavin Esler allowed Daniel Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, to present his state’s propaganda view essentially unchallenged. The ‘taking’ of Ahmed al-Jabari, Ayalon said, was ‘self-defence, it’s a classic self-defence’, adding:
‘There is no other way to deal with terrorists who you cannot reason with but by defending yourself in a way that they will not be able to operate again.’
Esler did not counter the Israeli ‘self defence’ argument by pointing to the actual chronology of recent events. Ayalon then went on to state that Israel ‘gave Gaza, entirely so, to the Palestinians. We left Gaza altogether in 2005, seven years ago.’
Again, Esler failed to offer any serious journalistic challenge. He did not point out that although Israel says it ‘withdrew’ from Gaza in 2005, its control of Gaza’s water, electricity, sewage and telecommunications systems, and its control of Gaza’s land and sea borders and airspace, means that the UN still views Israel’s control of Gaza’s population as an occupation. As indeed does the UK government. The Minister of State for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is on record as saying in November 2010:
‘Although there is no permanent physical Israeli presence in Gaza, given the significant control that Israel has over Gaza’s borders, airspace and territorial waters, the UK judges that Israel retains obligations under the fourth Geneva Convention as an occupying power.’ (Hansard, 30 Nov 2010 : Column WA425).
There was also no mention during Newsnight of released Israeli state documents revealing that the blockade of Gaza is state policy intended to inflict collective punishment. The documents showed that ‘the dietary needs for the population of Gaza are chillingly calculated, and the amounts of food let in by the Israeli government measured to remain just enough to keep the population alive at a near-starvation level. This documents the statement made by a number of Israeli officials that they are “putting the people of Gaza on a diet”.’
By contrast, Al Jazeera English broadcast a powerful interview with Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian American journalist and co-founder of Electronic Intifada. He referred to the largely unreported timeline of events which emphasises once again how absurd it is for the corporate media to echo the Israeli claim that its violent acts can properly be described as ‘defending itself’:
‘How can Israel be defending itself if it is crossing into Gaza, killing children, that when Israeli occupation forces are attacked – and Palestinians have a right to self-defence, they have a right to resist occupation – Israel responds by shelling civilians. I mean who in their right mind would call that “self-defence”? Who would call a siege – a six-year long siege where they count the calories of children in Gaza and only allow a drip-feed of food in to meet the minimum calories to avoid starvation – who would call that self-defence? Who would call it self-defence, the fact that Israel shells fishermen on a daily basis?’
Noam Chomsky recently visited Gaza and reported his impressions in a moving piece.
‘Even a single night in jail is enough to give a taste of what it means to be under the total control of some external force. And it hardly takes more than a day in Gaza to begin to appreciate what it must be like to try to survive in the world’s largest open-air prison, where a million and a half people, in the most densely populated area of the world, are constantly subject to random and often savage terror and arbitrary punishment, with no purpose other than to humiliate and degrade, and with the further goal of ensuring that Palestinian hopes for a decent future will be crushed and that the overwhelming global support for a diplomatic settlement that will grant these rights will be nullified.
‘The intensity of this commitment on the part of the Israeli political leadership has been dramatically illustrated just in the past few days, as they warn that they will “go crazy” if Palestinian rights are given limited recognition at the UN. That is not a new departure. The threat to “go crazy” (“nishtagea”) is deeply rooted, back to the Labor governments of the 1950s, along with the related “Samson Complex”: we will bring down the Temple walls if crossed. It was an idle threat then; not today.’
The ongoing blitz on Gaza is surely another horrific example of Israel’s willingness to ‘go crazy’.
Fear Of The Israeli Phone Call
Between December 2008 – January 2009, Israeli forces mounted a massive campaign of violence against Gaza in Operation Cast Lead. B’Tselem estimates that 1,389 Palestinians were killed including 344 children. In addition to the large numbers of killed and wounded, there was considerable damage to Palestinian medical centres, hospitals, ambulances, UN buildings, power plants, sewage plants, roads, bridges and civilian homes.
Amena Saleem, a campaigner with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, points to the BBC ‘keep[ing] the truth about Israel’s illegal actions from its audiences’, a clear failing which is ‘spread across the whole of BBC programming, from news right through to entertainment.’
Why is this? One factor is the intense pressure applied by a powerful pro-Israeli lobby. The flak sometimes originates from the Israeli government itself. The Glasgow Media Group’s Greg Philo and Mike Berry noted in their 2009 book, ‘More Bad News From Israel’:
‘to criticise Israel can create major problems. Journalists spoke to us of the extraordinary number of complaints which they receive. We have presented our findings to many groups of media practitioners. After one such meeting a senior editor from a major BBC news programme told us: “we wait in fear for the phone call from the Israelis”. He then said that the main issues they would face were from how high up had the call come (e.g. a monitoring group, or the Israeli embassy), and then how high up the BBC had the complaint gone (e.g. to the duty editor or the director general).’ (p. 2)
In our book ‘Newspeak in the 21st Century’ (Pluto Press, 2009), we devoted two whole chapters to the BBC: the first, exposing the fiction of BBC ‘balance’, the second comprising an A-Z compendium of BBC propaganda. Further examples were sprinkled throughout the book. One Media Lens reader was so determined to get the book’s message across that he paid for 100 copies of ‘Newspeak’ to be sent to the BBC. Thanks to his generosity, and the efforts of our publisher, the book was sent to virtually all senior BBC news journalists and editors, members of the BBC Executive Board, as well as the BBC Trustees. A letter from the publisher, enclosed with the book, asked politely for a response from each BBC person approached. A dedicated email address was provided to receive BBC replies. The response? Almost complete silence.
Over a number of years, Helen Boaden, the now suspended BBC head of news, was a sparring partner – or often non-sparring partner – of Media Lens and our readers. In 2006, we challenged Boaden about the assertion from BBC reporter Paul Wood, who was embedded with ‘coalition’ troops, that British and American forces ‘came to Iraq in the first place to bring democracy and human rights’. (BBC, News at Ten, January 5, 2006). Her defence: ‘this was indeed one of the stated aims before and at the start of the Iraq war – and I attach a number of quotes at the bottom of this reply.’ (Boaden, email to Media Lens, January 20, 2006)
Boaden supplied no less than six pages of quotes from George Bush and Tony Blair ostensibly proving her point that the war on Iraq was waged ‘to bring democracy and human rights’. This summed up the tragicomedy of BBC News reporting.
Instead of providing responsible, public-service journalism, the BBC acts as a conduit for government propaganda. It is particularly noxious that the organisation relentlessly channels the state’s supposedly benign intentions abroad. This is the diet of daily bias and distortion we are all fed. When will BBC heads roll for that?
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to: Fran Unsworth, acting head of BBC News