Between 17-19 May, we had a lengthy exchange of emails with BBC Middle East Bureau Chief, Paul Danahar. It began innocuously enough, but Danahar gradually revealed that he had little intention of sincerely addressing the issues put to him, and the exchange ended with increasingly odd burblings from the BBC’s senior Jerusalem-based journalist (the full exchange is archived here in our forum).
We started by presenting Danahar with the same points we had put to the other BBC journalists mentioned in Part 1: namely, that the careful studies by Greg Philo and Mike Berry, published in More Bad News From Israel, demonstrated that BBC News tends to reflect the Israeli perspective. We gave a summary of the detailed statistical findings for BBC News coverage of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009. Quoting Philo and Berry, we noted that the BBC perpetuated ‘a one-sided view of the causes of the conflict by highlighting the issue of the rockets without reporting the Hamas offer’ and by burying rational views on the purpose of the attack: namely, the Israeli desire to inflict collective punishment on the Palestinian people.
Danahar responded on May 17:
‘I wasn’t around during Cast Lead I was in China. So my main observation would be a personal one and that is that I’m not a big fan of the John Motson approach to analysing news.’
We of course recognised the name of the legendary BBC football commentator, but we asked Danahar to clarify exactly what he meant by ‘the John Motson approach to analysing news’. He replied:
‘Personally, I don’t think adding up the number of sentences about coverage is much more useful, when comparing two news organisations, than trying to work out who has won a football match by counting how many times one team kicked the ball compared to the other.’
In fact, Philo and Berry’s comparison was about the relative weight afforded to the Israeli and Palestinian perspectives, not the relative performances of the BBC and ITV. But we understood the point he was making. We asked Tim Llewellyn, the former BBC Middle East correspondent (quoted in Part 1), if he had a response to Danahar’s comment:
‘I like the John Motson reply. Given that counting lines is EXACTLY (to the milli-second) how the BBC reckons up “balance” in election reporting in the UK, they must believe themselves in the Motson approach as an act of Reithian Faith. But your point is the right one, that line-counting is not what counts so much as BBC news content, which as [More Bad News From Israel] finds scientifically and we journalists who observe both the BBC and the Middle East have known for the past ten years or so, reflects to a massive degree the Israeli perspective and fails to report properly the Palestinian plight, the Palestinians’ view of the real causes of the tragedy and how they are forced to react to it, the context of the whole struggle and real cause and effect.’ (Email, May 20, 2011)
We then asked Danahar how, if he believed that BBC News was balanced, he could explain the following:
‘The dominant explanation for the Israeli attack on Gaza was that it was to stop the firing of rockets by Hamas. The offer that Hamas was said to have made, to halt this in exchange for lifting the blockade (which Israel had rejected), was almost completely absent from BBC coverage. There is only the briefest mention that such debate was taking place. On 31 December 2008, a BBC correspondent made this passing reference:
‘ “The human suffering in Gaza and reports that Hamas is offering a ceasefire if Israel lifts its siege, are increasing international pressure on the Israelis which they continue to ignore.” (BBC1 early evening and main News, 31 December 2008)
‘This compares with literally hundreds of references over the same period to the rockets as the rationale for Israeli action.
‘When it comes to the Israeli views, BBC journalists may appear to have no problem in endorsing them. For example, a BBC journalist commented that:
‘ “Israel feels itself surrounded by enemies, with reason.” (BBC1 early evening News, 8 January 2009 – italics added by Philo and Berry)
‘Would the BBC feel able to endorse the Palestinian view in this way? Have you ever seen or heard a BBC report noting that “Palestinians feel themselves to be subject to a brutal military occupation, with reason”?’
But Danahar refused to answer, demanding instead to know why we had not explicitly stated that our challenge was coming from Media Lens. We responded:
‘Fair point – you’re not the first journalist to raise this issue, so perhaps I can point you here for our view.’
We quoted several key passages from earlier work explaining our view. But this did not satisfy Danahar who demanded an answer written specifically for him: ‘I could just as easily refer you to a bucket load of links on the BBC site for “our view”’. He stalled further:
‘all your points [on BBC performance] are from years ago. Does that mean you’re dead chuffed with everything else since jan 2009?’
We emailed him further examples of BBC imbalance, this time from his own period in charge:
‘The essential features of BBC news coverage of Israel-Palestine didn’t change after you took your present position as the BBC’s Middle East Bureau Chief in January 2010. Why should it be any different?
‘Let’s take BBC News coverage of the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla on 31 May 2010. As you know, nine peace activists were killed on the Mavi Marmara.
‘BBC news made extensive use of the Israeli edited footage of the attack. Philo and Berry note that your coverage was “problematic” because “in its description of the events and their sequence, it highlights and at times clearly adopts the Israeli perspective.” The main BBC news reporting that night “move[d] towards clear identification with the Israeli account of events.”
‘On 5 June, press reports noted that five of the people had been shot either in the back of the head or the back. None of the BBC news programmes monitored by the Glasgow University Media Group reported this. But the main news did find space the following day to report on pictures from a Turkish newspaper showing Israeli soldiers “disarmed and beaten”.
‘Philo and Berry observe:
‘ “Let us imagine a different situation in which a controversial event occurred on the West Bank. Would the TV news routinely employ footage supplied by the Palestinians, with captions saying for example, ‘Israeli soldiers shoot unarmed civilians’? Would they do so if the Israelis were denying the validity of the sequence of events? The use of Israeli edited material in this case is indicative of the legitimacy accorded to them, rather than to Palestinian sources.”
‘How would you respond to this?
‘Another example from the period since you took your present position:
‘In September 2010, the UN Human Rights Council published a report on the Israeli attack on the Gaza flotilla. Among its major conclusions were that the Israeli blockade was “unlawful”, that the Israeli forces had used torture on flotilla peace activists, and that at least six of the passengers had been subjected to “extra-legal, arbitrary and summary executions” (for example being shot at close range while lying injured). The UN report also noted that live ammunition was used from the helicopter onto the top deck prior to the descent of the soldiers, thus directly contradicting the Israeli perspective that had featured so heavily in BBC News.
‘The BBC lunchtime, early evening and main news did not cover this report. Why not?
‘As Philo and Berry conclude:
‘ “… given the extent to which the BBC in particular, had highlighted and endorsed the Israeli view of events in the raid, the exclusion of this alternative account is extraordinary. It is difficult in the face of this to see how the BBC can sustain a claim to be offering balanced reporting.”
‘This is just a sample.
‘I’d be interested in your response to any of the above points, please.’
But Danahar was by now firmly entrenched in his Middle East bunker, repeatedly complaining about the ‘ethics’ of not using the Media Lens email address to ask him questions that he clearly had problems answering. Curiously, he claimed he had written down answers to our questions but would not let us see them until we explained our ‘ethics’ to his satisfaction. These antics continued with an increasingly erratic flurry of obfuscatory emails, one of which made a tenuous reference to the past employment history, from two decades ago, of one of us:
‘If you are going to set yourself up as a moral champion and ‘stick it to the corporate man’ you should be able to answer easy questions about ethics.
‘Like, how do you personally reconcile working for Shell for four years during the time Ken Saro-Wira was accusing them of some pretty nasty stuff in the Niger Delta. I remember running out of petrol on the M1 at the time because I wouldn’t use a Shell garage. It really upset my old girlfriend because we had to walk 45 minutes to get some petrol and Yorkshire winters are bloody cold.’
Other bizarre diversionary remarks included the BBC editor comparing the sales of Philo and Berry’s work and a book on alien abductions. (Again, the complete exchange is archived here)
By now we had given Danahar several opportunities to respond seriously to highly credible analysis of BBC News reporting, including its heavily biased and misleading coverage of the Israeli killing of nine peace activists after he had taken over as BBC Middle East Bureau Chief. Danahar did not seem able or willing to answer sensibly.
This was certainly one of the oddest exchanges we have had in ten years of Media Lens. But the refusal to engage seriously with evidence that would undermine false confidence in supposedly ‘fair’, ‘balanced’ and ‘impartial’ reporting was entirely standard for the mainstream media.
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.
Paul Danahar, BBC Middle East Bureau Chief
Email: [email protected]
Jon Williams, BBC world news editor
Email: [email protected]
Jeremy Bowen, BBC Middle East editor
Email: [email protected]
Alan Rusbridger, Guardian editor
Email: [email protected]
Please blind-copy us in on any exchanges or forward them to us later at:
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