An Exchange With The BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen
The media reported last week that at least 22 people, including five Palestinian children, had been killed during Israeli ‘incursions’ into Gaza. The Israeli military ‘operations’ were ‘sparked’ by a Hamas ambush that had left three Israeli soldiers dead. Reporting followed the usual script that Israel’s state-of-the-art weaponry is deployed as ‘retaliation’ for ‘militant’ Palestinian attacks.
The latest deaths followed the killing in early March of over 120 Palestinians under a massive Israeli assault on Gaza. (See our Media Alerts: ‘Israel’s Illegal Assault on the Gaza “Prison”’, March 3, 2008 and ‘Israeli Deaths Matter More’, March 11, 2008)
One of last week’s dead was a Reuters cameraman, a 23-year-old Palestinian, killed by a shell fired from an Israeli tank he was filming. Few details emerged of the other numerous victims of Israeli violence.
Media Lens emailed Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor:
“In the BBC’s recent reports about the violence in Gaza, the only victim of Israeli firepower that I can recall the BBC naming is Fadel Shana, the Reuters cameraman.
“As you know, 22 people were killed, 5 of whom were children. Why are their names not provided by the BBC? Where are the further details that tell us something about them as individuals? Where are the interviews with their grieving families?
“If logistical problems make it difficult to do this, shouldn’t you explain this clearly and prominently to your audience?
“Surely if 5 Israeli children had been killed, the BBC’s news coverage would have been significantly different.” (Email, April 17, 2008)
Bowen responded on the same day:
“You imply that we have double standards in marking the deaths of Palestinian and Israeli children. I can assure you that we do not.
“After twenty years of reporting wars I believe strongly that it is important to humanise the victims. But we cannot broadcast long roll calls of the dead. News is often about death. If we read out the name of everyone whose death we covered, we would have no room for anything else, including a proper explanation of how and why they died.
“Our coverage yesterday did that I thought excellently. Paul Wood’s piece on the Ten O’Clock news was particularly strong, though the work of all the staff in our Jerusalem bureau, supported by our Palestinian staff in Gaza stood out.
“There were no interviews yesterday with grieving families because as the death of the Reuters cameraman showed, it was very dangerous to move around. They may well surface in the next few days. Very little video came out of Gaza yesterday. In a piece I did the night before last I interviewed the father of an 11 year old boy, Riad al Uwasi from al Burej camp, who was killed last week. When he was killed it was impossible to get to al Burej, which is where the Reuters cameraman died. When things were calmer, it became possible, until the next incursion.” (Email, April 17, 2008)
We replied the following day:
“Many thanks for responding. I appreciate your remark that ‘it is important to humanise the victims.’ Your response, however, tacitly acknowledges that you cannot do this so readily for Palestinian victims of deadly Israeli force.
“Justifiable concerns for the safety of BBC staff severely constrain timely and extensive coverage from the scene of Israeli attacks, or their aftermath. And so we hear too little from bystanders and grieving families, or Palestinian spokespeople. Compare and contrast with the headline BBC coverage of attacks on Israelis, such as the recent shooting at the Merkaz Herav Yeshiva in Jerusalem [See our March 11 Media Alert]. Your Middle East webpages are full of reports, analyses and commentaries on that single event alone.
“Five Palestinian children in Gaza have just been killed by Israeli forces. How has the BBC’s recent coverage ‘humanised’ these young victims? Where are the interviews with those on the receiving end of overwhelming Israeli firepower? You say such interviews ‘may well surface in the next few days.’ I hope so. But sadly, the record shows that this is not the norm in BBC reporting.
“Instead, the record shows that the BBC does a poor job of reflecting the huge disproportionality of killings, violence and force under Israel’s military occupation. As of March 13, 2008, 1,033 Israelis and at least 4,604 Palestinians [had] been killed since September 29, 2000. The ratio of more than 4 Palestinians killed for every Israeli is even more stark when we look at the number of children killed: more than 9 Palestinian children for every Israeli child (http://www.ifamericansknew.org)
“The extent of relative media coverage to both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian ‘conflict’ does not have to reflect exactly these tragic statistics. Nor does the BBC viewer require endless reminders of the vast US financial, military, diplomatic and other aid to Israel. Nor do we need to hear again and again the array of UN resolutions targeted at Israel over 60 years [since its founding in 1948], and routinely ignored by that state. But, certainly, the BBC audience would have a hard time finding such salient facts in your reporting. And yet, you promise ‘a proper explanation of how and why they [the victims] died’.”
We then quoted Glasgow University media analysts Greg Philo and Mike Berry who noted, on the basis of extensive research of media coverage of Israel-Palestine:
“The emphasis here is on ‘hot’ live action and the immediacy of the report rather than any explanation of the underlying causes of the events. One BBC journalist who had reported on this conflict told us that his own editor had said to him that they did not want ‘explainers’ – as he put it: ‘It’s all bang bang stuff.’ The driving force behind such news is to hold the attention of as many viewers as possible, but in practice, as we will see, it simply leaves very many people confused.” (Philo and Berry, ‘Bad News From Israel’, Pluto Books, London, 2004, p. 102)
Israeli Perspective Routinely Highlighted
We invited Professor Philo to comment directly on our exchange with Jeremy Bowen; in particular, on Bowen’s assertion that the BBC is even-handed in its coverage of Israeli and Palestinian victims. In response, Philo pointed to the findings of ‘Bad News From Israel’:
“[T]he focus on Israeli victims, both in terms of the quantity of coverage and the language used to describe them, led some viewers to believe wrongly that the Israelis had the most casualties and these beliefs were attributed directly to what they had seen on television.” (Email, April 18, 2008)
In fact, as we saw above, there have been over four times as many Palestinian as Israeli deaths between September 2000 and March 2008. And the ratio is as high as nine when it comes to children’s deaths. It is highly doubtful whether ‘consumers’ of corporate news media, the BBC included, are aware of this.
The Glasgow University study also cited an unnamed “very experienced” Middle East BBC correspondent who noted “the difficulties of movement applied to media teams trying to reach Palestinian areas.” This is an important point implicitly conceded by Bowen in his reply to us above. This limitation is bound to affect media coverage. As Philo and Berry warned:
“This cannot be an acceptable situation for a publicly accountable broadcasting corporation that is committed to impartiality. Broadcasters cannot absolve themselves from the requirement for balance by accepting a status quo in which one side can ensure that it receives more favourable treatment by imposing restrictions on the other. The broadcasters really have to devote the necessary resources to make sure that both sides are properly represented.” (Philo and Berry, op. cit., p. 137)
Their careful research concluded that news headlines “highlight Israeli statements, actions or perspectives.” Palestinian views do appear in the media “but tend to be buried deep in the text of news bulletins. […] it is hard to avoid the conclusion that one view of the conflict is being prioritised.” (Ibid., p. 144)
Put more explicitly, it is “the Israeli perspective [which] is highlighted in terms of causes, motives and preferred outcomes.” (Ibid., p. 166). Moreover, Philo and Berry point to “a continued emphasis on Israeli deaths and injuries, both in terms of the amount of coverage which they receive and the consistently detailed accounts which are given of them.” (Ibid., p. 184). This is a pattern that persists to the present day.
Jonathan Cook, an independent journalist (www.jkcook.net) whose honest and incisive reporting from Israel puts the corporate media to shame, told us:
“It is a terrible irony that, precisely because Israel has created an environment in the occupied territories in which it can unleash so much violence so unpredictably, journalists are increasingly fearful of venturing there to tell the human stories of the Palestinian casualties behind the simple numbers. It is, of course, equally ironic that, because life inside Israel is relatively safe, journalists can easily humanise the stories of the far smaller number of Israeli casualties. Unfortunately, Bowen and most other journalists fail to appreciate this irony or to act in useful ways to counter its effects on their reporting.
“When Bowen tells us that ‘we cannot broadcast long roll calls of the dead’, he’s implicitly accepting a set of news priorities that mean the more Palestinians killed the less importance their deaths have to news organisations like his. Conversely, the fewer Israelis killed the more seriousness their deaths are accorded.” (Email to Media Lens, April 21, 2008)
Israelis Are ‘People Like Us’
We contacted Tim Llewellyn, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, for his view. He praised Jeremy Bowen‘s impact on the BBC‘s performance:
“My view of the BBC’s Israel/Palestine coverage has changed a little, and mainly because Jeremy Bowen’s presence on the ground and in London has brought some sense and balance to the operation. The standard of reporting from Palestine has also improved in the past couple of years or so, since Jeremy took over and especially since the departure of James Reynolds.”
“Jeremy has some licence from the BBC, and its trillion on-line producers, managers and editors, because of his knowledge, authority and status, which he has built up as both a Middle East afficionado and broadcasting professional over the past twenty years. He has taken the trouble to do his homework and get into the region.”
Llewellyn, however, pointed to the deep constraints that preclude fair and balanced reporting:
“The problem [of bias] is not with him and cannot be dealt with within his aegis.”
“Editors, producers, presenters, and their immediate bosses, live in the heated climate of London and very much still within their own cultural heritage: the politics of the day plus the memories of an English education. […] the story ‘concept’ in London is still, I am afraid, that Israelis are ‘people like us’, who should not be shelled every day while they drive their Polos to recognisable branches of Asda or whatever; while Arabs are ‘tricky’ and ‘emotional’ and if they weren’t all firing rockets and hating Jews in the first place none of this would be happening. This is still the platform off which most Western journalists in London jump. To take a different tack is to run into that wall of ‘anti-semitic’ or ‘unbalanced’ reportage that any of us who tries to explain the facts on the ground in the region runs into.”
John Pilger is one journalist who has been on the receiving end of such flak in his extensive reporting on Palestine over several decades. His award-winning 2002 television documentary, ‘Palestine is Still the Issue’, is one of his most powerful, and most watched, films on the crisis. (http://video.google.co.uk/videoplay? docid=1259454859593416473)
We sent Pilger our exchange with the BBC’s Middle East editor, highlighting Bowen’s assertion that “You imply that we have double standards in marking the deaths of Palestinian and Israeli children. I can assure you that we do not.” Pilger replied:
“Jeremy Bowen’s quote is indefensible. One only has to read the acclaimed study, ‘Bad News from Israel’, to understand the difference in the reporting of the humanity of Israelis and Palestinians. However, Bowen himself has been an able and brave reporter — I acknowledged this in ‘Hidden Agendas’ (pages 47 & 50).”
Pilger then recounted an example of the BBC’s institutional bias that systematically suppresses uncomfortably honest perspectives:
“A few years ago, [Bowen] invited me to take part in a BBC special about war correspondents, and we spent an enjoyable hour or so ‘in conversation’. Although it was clear that tales of derring-do would have been preferred, I raised the unwelcome subject that the BBC was an extension and voice of the established order in Britain and its reporting on the Middle East and elsewhere reflected the prevailing wisdom — with honourable exceptions from time to time. My contribution was cut entirely from the programme. I emailed Bowen and sometime later received an unsatisafactory response that there wasn’t ‘time or space’ in the film — something unsurprising like that. Censorship by omission is standard, if undeclared practice.” (Email, April 18, 2008)
Regular readers of our alerts will be familiar with the corporate media claim that lack of ‘time’ or ‘space’ somehow ‘explains’ the regular omission of honest reporting and critical analysis.
As a result of this undeclared media censorship, public understanding of the Middle East remains limited; and challenges to Western support of brutal Israeli policy are easily diffused and minimised. Sadly, the net effect is that the BBC provides cover for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. This is a tragedy that stretches back to the ‘Nakba’: the ‘catastrophe’ of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians which was the prerequisite for the founding of the Israeli state in 1948. Now seems as good a time as any to exert pressure on this publicly-funded institution to report painful truths.
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: Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East news editor
Email: [email protected]
Write to Helen Boaden, BBC news director
Email: [email protected]