By Former BBC Middle East Correspondent, Tim Llewellyn
Last year, we were very happy to contribute an article to a new book by Pluto Press: Tell Me Lies – Propaganda and Media Distortion in the Attack on Iraq (David Miller ed., Pluto Press, 2003). The book collates 32 powerful articles by the likes of John Pilger, Edward Herman, Noam Chomsky, Nancy Snow, Robert Fisk and many others on the media omissions and deceit that made war possible. You can find out more at:
Tell Me Lies will be launched in London on 29th January. Contact Hester Rice at Pluto Press for details: [email protected]
Included in the book is the article below by Tim Llewellyn, the BBC’s Middle East Correspondent in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, now a freelance writer and broadcaster on the region. In this article, Llewellyn combines his understanding of the BBC with his understanding of the Middle East to produce a brilliant analysis of how individual human failings combine with institutionalised pressures to distort media reporting. Many thanks to Tim Llewellyn and Pluto Press for letting us use this superb piece of work.
Why the BBC Ducks the Palestinian Story
Watching a peculiarly crass, inaccurate and condescending programme about the endangered historical sites of “Israel” – that is to say, the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories – on BBC2 in early June 2003, (1) I determined to try to work out, as a former BBC Middle East correspondent, why the Corporation has in the past two and a half years been failing to report fairly the most central and lasting reason for the troubles of the region: the Palestinians’ struggle for freedom.
The approach of the programme – made by Arts rather than News and Current Affairs – reflected the general run of BBC domestic coverage of the issue: the strained effort at “balance”; the failure to question the circumstances of the beleaguered historical sites (why +are+ they beleaguered?); the acceptance of the “equivalence” of the two peoples fighting over this territory, the indigenous population and an occupying army; the assumption on which the whole programme was built: that in the then looming Anglo-American invasion of Iraq these historical and holy places might be damaged by missiles fired from Iraq. Perhaps BBC Arts was not aware before their team arrived that many ancient Arab monuments had already been besieged, shelled, violated, ransacked, bulldozed, and in many cases closed to their worshippers and their inheritors by Israel’s occupying army.
A week earlier, in a BBC News documentary about the wall that Israel is building between the Israelis and the Palestinians (2) – much of it encroaching on occupied Palestinian land, destroying houses and olive groves and dividing families – it was again felt necessary to leaven the images of Arab suffering with the “balance” of how awkward the wall would be for a handful of illegal Jewish settlers. To explain this, a sympathetic Irish woman settler told that side of the story in the vivid English of her people.
It was not that the BBC did not tell the Palestinian story graphically and shockingly – but that “the other side” of the story had to be told as well, diluting the central and violent issue of The Wall and all it symbolises of Israel’s fears, greed and brutal dismissal of its Arab neighbours.
Since the beginning of the Aqsa Uprising, or Second Intifada, in September 2000 there have been countless examples throughout the BBC’s news broadcasts, discussion programmes, features, documentaries and even online of this muddying of the clear waters of the Israel-Palestine crisis. Elsewhere in this book academics and analysts such as Greg Philo give a scientific, +actuarial+ account of this carelessness with the public broadcaster’s duty. Without the room to print my long litany of the BBC’s sins of omission and commission, I can best highlight my findings this way: Channel 4 News at 7pm is the only mainstream television news/current affairs bulletin that has tried consistently to do justice to this story, which sits at the centre of world affairs and the west’s political engagement overseas.
Where Carlton TV has shown John Pilger’s graphic Palestine is Still the Issue (3) and Channel 4 Sandra Jordan’s death-defying story of the International Solidarity Movement (4) the BBC has made no effort to tell us truly – as did these two documentaries – how this occupation demeans and degrades people: not just the killing and the destruction, but the humiliation, the attempt to crush the human spirit and remove the identity; not just the bullet in the brain and the tank through the door, but the faeces Israel’s soldiers rub on the plundered ministry walls, the trashed kindergarten; the barriers to a people’s work, prayers and hopes.
In the news reporting of the domestic BBC TV bulletins, “balance”, the BBC’s crudely applied device for avoiding trouble, means that Israel’s lethal modern army is one force, the Palestinians, with their rifles and home-made bombs, the other “force”: two sides equally strong and culpable in a difficult dispute, it is implied, that could easily be sorted out if extremists on both sides would see reason and the leaders do as instructed by Washington.
In London, respectful BBC presenters talk calmly to articulate Israeli politicians, spokesmen and apologists in suits in studios; from Palestine comes the bad-quality, broken voice on a dusty wire from some wreckage of a town. It is true that BBC teams risk their lives in the midst of the violence, but soon they are back in their Jewish Jerusalem studios, finding the balance for their pieces, so that the rolling tragedy of occupation can somehow be ameliorated by the difficulties inside Israel.
When suicide bombers attack inside Israel the shock is palpable. The BBC rarely reports the context, however. Many of these acts of killing and martyrdom are reprisals for assassinations by Israel’s death squads, soldiers and agents who risk nothing as they shoot from helicopters or send death down a telephone line. I rarely see or hear any analysis of how many times the Israelis have deliberately shattered a period of Palestinian calm with an egregious attack or murder. “Quiet” periods mean no Israelis died… it is rarely shown that during these “quiet” times Palestinians continued to be killed by the score.
In South Africa, the BBC made it clear that the platform from which it was reporting was one of abhorrence of the state crime of apartheid. No Afrikaaner was ritually rushed into a studio to explain a storming of a township. There is no such platform of the BBC’s in Israel/Palestine, where the situation is as bad – apartheid, discrimination, racism, ethnic cleansing as rife as ever it was in the Cape or the Orange Free State.
We are not reminded, continually and emphatically, that this strife comes about because of occupation. Occupation. Occupation. This should be a word never far from a reporter’s lips, stated firmly and repeatedly as the permanent backdrop to and living reason for every act of violence on either side.
Much of the explanation of events the BBC offers from the scene reminds me of the “on-the-one-side-on-the-other-side” reporting that bedevilled so many years of BBC reporting from Northern Ireland. The performance in the London studios is little better. Presenters and reporters are, on the whole, not well briefed on the Middle East. They are repeatedly bamboozled by Israel’s performers. Time and again, presented with an Israeli or some inadequately flagged American or other apologist for Israel, the presenter will accept the pro-Israel version of the truth at face value, respectful of an American accent, a well-dressed politician or an ex-diplomat (who is often nothing like as disinterested as it would appear), (5) while pressing hard on the recalcitrant Arab. (6)
The Arab view is not properly heard. This is partly an Arab problem, in that there are not enough articulate and willing Arabs readily available to go to studios or answer the telephone. But this is only part of the problem: the BBC has been plied with lists of suitable people by organisations such as the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, the Arab League, individual embassies and private people, only for these lists to be ignored. Whether this is through inefficiency or deliberation, it is hard to say. I do know, for example, that the ambassador for the Arab League had, between January 2003 and the end of the Iraq war in early April, appeared once on BBC TV; a colleague of mine who is one of Britain’s most articulate and intelligent Palestinian spokespersons is missing almost completely from mainstream BBC television and rarely heard on domestic radio. (7)
Part 2 will follow shortly…
1. The Road to Armageddon, BBC2, 8pm, 7 June 2003.
2. “Behind the Fence”, Correspondent, BBC2, 7.15pm, 25 May 2003.
3. Palestine is Still the Issue, Carlton TV, 11.00pm, 16 September 2002.
4. “The Killing Zone”, Dispatches, Channel 4, 8pm, 19 May 2003.
5. Two good examples of misrepresentation are those of Martin Indyk and, more especially Dennis Ross, both former US diplomats whom the BBC regularly trundles out to pontificate from apparently Olympian, though expert, detached heights about the Israel-Palestine crisis. It is never pointed out that both men are Zionists and former members of the powerful American Jewish lobby organisation, AIPAC.
6. One outstanding example of this was the Newsnight of 30 November 2001, BBC2, when Jeremy Paxman gave the former Israel Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, an astonishingly easy ride then bullied the British Palestinian barrister – Michel Massih – an inexperienced TV broadcaster – with repeated rapid-fire accusations about suicide bombs and terrorism. The BBC bosses reprimanded Paxman. Paxman is not alone in this tendency to let Israelis get away with it but treat Arabs as if they are prisoners at the bar.
7. If three London Palestinians – Dr Ghada Karmi, Afif Safieh, the Palestinian ambassador-equivalent in London, and Abdel Bari Atwan, editor of the Arabic language daily Al Quds Al Arabi – were to fall under buses tomorrow, the Palestinian case would almost cease to exist as far as the BBC is concerned. It has to be said that they are all used far more sparingly than the importance of crisis demands.