[DEBATE] : BBC reporting on Mid-East - Take care over caution
b.miles.teg at gmail.com
Tue Jan 13 08:09:24 GMT 2009
Take care over caution
Jan 12 2009 08:59
In 2002 I made a series of films for the BBC on the Israel-Palestine
conflict. In the first episode of The Ugly War the crew followed
commando units of the Israeli army making raids into Palestinian territory.
In the next I spoke to fighters of the al-Aqsa brigade in a bomb-making
factory in Jenin. BBC guidelines allowed us to film members of
officially recognised organisations but not to be party to preparations
for suicide bombings. There was no attempt made at "internal balance".
The aim of the documentaries, together awarded "film of the year" by the
UK's Foreign Press Association, was to see life entirely through the
eyes of each set of protagonists.
As I have watched and listened to the BBC's coverage of the Gaza
conflict over the past two weeks, it seems less likely than ever that
the corporation would take the same risky approach again.
The latest escalation is the first real test of guidelines on the BBC's
reporting of the Middle East brought in after criticism of
pro-Palestinian bias levelled at the corporation in 2005. In the past
two weeks, the signs of caution have been more in evidence than before.
With some honourable exceptions (a post-holiday Jeremy Paxman and
Newsnight), the questioning of Israeli spokespersons has been weak.
Compare, for example, Channel 4 News's grilling of Mark Regev, the
Israeli government's chief spokesperson, on 8 January, with much of the
BBC output. Alex Thomson asked Regev "in the name of humanity" to
apologise for the refusal of the Israeli army to allow the International
Committee of the Red Cross to get to "starving children". Thomson put it
to Regev that the Red Cross workers had to "walk one kilometre" to reach
the scene. Regev stonewalled, but Thomson did not relent. It was good,
objective, non-hedged questioning.
Compare that with various BBC outlets, including similar allegations put
on The World at One on January 9 to another Israeli spokesperson, Yigal
Palmor. Palmor was allowed to fob off the charges with relative ease in
an interview with the usually rigorous Brian Hanrahan. These
spokespeople, along with Major Avital Leibovich of the Israeli army,
have been ever present on the news channel, but rarely have they been
Sometimes the problem can be put down to workload: rolling news anchors,
by the nature of their work (one minute Israel, next Gordon Brown on his
round-Britain tour, next English cricket), do not have time to prepare
for interviews. In order to achieve balance, both sides are allowed to
give their view. But then, in visual terms, a hospital overwhelmed with
dying and injured children is given equivalence to the funeral of a
single Israeli soldier.
In the most highly charged part of the world, the BBC has a special
locus. A public service broadcaster financed by the licence fee, it
regards its requirements to impartiality and accuracy as sacrosanct.
Accused of a liberal bias by its detractors, it has found itself almost
constantly in the firing line. Since a 2005 report into its Middle East
coverage by an independent panel, by the then governors, the BBC has
Among the report's many observations was that "our credibility is
undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value
judgements". And yet superimpose that approach to other theatres of
conflict. Was such restraint used in the Russian bombardment of Georgia
in August? For much of the time, one side was seen as the attacker, the
other the embattled victim. Burma? Tibet?
Language, as any propagandist knows, is the most important tool. Hamas
fighters are called "militants".
That, I am told, is a halfway house between "terrorist" and more
sympathetic labels such as "guerrillas". The Israeli army is often
referred to by its formal title, the Israel Defence Forces. The
bombardment of Gaza has regularly been described as "the Israeli
operation". Such language denudes coverage of impact.
The reporters, led by the experienced Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen,
are operating in the most frustrating of environments. At the time of
writing, they had still not been allowed inside Gaza. When it comes to
Zimbabwe, each presenter's cue into a reporter's package invariably
states: "The BBC is banned from reporting inside Zimbabwe, and so here
is X from South Africa". The refusal by the Israelis to allow
correspondents access inside Gaza has been mentioned, but not as a
matter of course and not as prominently.
Peter Horrocks, head of the multimedia newsroom at the BBC, rejects
criticism that it has shown undue caution. "We have sought to explain
the Israeli mindset, but in no way can we be seen to have held back from
the effects of the military action," he says.
He points to the work of Palestinian, Gaza-based producers, and to an
interview with an angry Norwegian doctor inside a hospital last week as
examples. But he acknowledges special care is taken when it comes to the
"There is an established contentiousness that might mean the language we
use is more precise and that we measure it more carefully."
Obviously, a three-minute package cannot go into detail, but there are
issues that should be aired more thoroughly: during the six-month truce,
to what extent did living conditions inside the Gaza Strip improve? How
often, even in the West Bank, do Israeli soldiers mount raids?
Led by Regev, a charismatic, Australian-born spokesperson, Israel has
amassed a formidable public relations operation. Following the failures
of the Lebanon war it has created a National Information Directorate.
The power of the message has long been at its strongest in the US, where
academics and journalists know that criticism of Israel may harm their
careers. It has become slicker in the UK too. There is nothing wrong
with that. But it should be acknowledged to be much better funded and
more professional than anything the Palestinians have mustered.
When I became editor of the New Statesman, I made clear my determination
to alter the tone of the NS coverage of Israel after a cover in 2002
that showed a gold Star of David impaling a Union flag and the headline:
"A kosher conspiracy?" My view was that careless use of symbols and
language -- words such as "holocaust" -- provided an open goal to
denounce legitimate critics of Israeli military excess as antisemitic.
But care should not correspond to caution. The school of thought that
says Israel has nothing to reproach itself for, that Hamas is solely to
blame and that anyone who thinks otherwise must be hostile to Israel is
strong on the blogosphere. People are entitled to that view, but it
should not lead to self-censorship by editors.
In 2005, I described the BBC as "broken, beaten, cowed" in a
controversial article. I argued -- on the basis of evidence from people
inside the corporation - that the organisation was displaying an
increasing reluctance to challenge authority. In this case, it was New
Labour after the BBC had raised the white flag over the Hutton report.
My article upset Mark Thompson, the director general. However, in the
ensuing days I was contacted by many managers, editors and reporters
saying their experiences bore out my argument, and expressing gratitude
for putting the case.
The BBC is no longer broken or beaten. It carries strong journalism,
allowing senior figures such as Nick Robinson on politics and Robert
Peston on business to speak their minds. But I wonder whether - when
confronted by governments, media and other organisations that wield real
power over it -- the BBC remains too cowed.
# John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship -
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media 2009
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