Article published: Monday, June 21st 2010
31 May 2010: Twelve hours after the Free Gaza flotilla was fired at from Israeli helicopters in international waters, a protest was gathering outside the BBC on Oxford Road in Manchester. It has been a regular site for pro-Palestinian protests in the city since the December 2008/January 2009 Israeli attacks on Gaza. People considered the BBC’s coverage bias, and anger against the Corporation intensified when it refused to air the Disasters Emergency Committee’s subsequent Gaza appeal.
After a few emotional speeches, we marched across the city and back, gathering supporters as we went. At its busiest, the protest was estimated to have been more than 1,000 people. On arrival back at the BBC some protesters entered the building and were pushed outside by the police. A door was smashed as police tried to remove the crowd back from the entrance. To much cheering from the crowd, an activist climbed on to the foyer of the building and hoisted a Palestinian flag on the BBC’s flag pole. A bit of a scuffle ensued as people prevented the police from arresting him.
Oxford road is one of busiest bus routes in the country. It was blocked for about an hour: people were not inclined to disperse.
The size of the crowd and atmosphere on the streets indicated that anger over Palestinian human rights violations has been simmering under the surface of the city for some time. That the BBC is a legitimate target is obvious to those of us who follow events in the Middle East and how they are reported closely. But perhaps this position requires a bit more explanation.
The BBC has a guide for its journalists that provides background to the situation and advice about the type of language that should be used to describe events, which MULE has managed to obtain. An abbreviated version is available on the BBC website for the public. What is absent from the public version, however, is the stress placed on not referring to the legality of, well, anything, unless it is specifically attributed. Under the heading ‘ILLEGAL OCCUPATION’ is the instruction to “Be very careful indeed.”
This means that BBC reporters are effectively barred from describing Israel’s occupation, walls, attacks on civilian populations, population transfers, detention of children, torture of prisoners, detention without charge, siege of Gaza or, presumably, acts of piracy on the high seas, as illegal.
The implication is that for the BBC to come down on the side of international law and entities that support it would be bias. The Geneva Convention, designed to prevent the atrocities that were committed against Jews before the end of the Second World War happening again elsewhere in the world, and which Israel repeatedly flouts, apparently represents a position that the BBC could not possibly take. Similarly, the International Court of Justice and their ruling against the Walls and multiple UN Security Council resolutions. The BBC is, apparently, above the law.
Does this mean that anything that Israel has done or will do will never be described by the BBC as ‘illegal’? The attack on the flotilla is a contravention of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea. A search on the BBC website indicates that this was an unreported fact.
The Gaza flotilla Q & A section on the BBC website states that “The activists also say they wanted to make the point that, in their view, the blockade is illegal under international law.” But the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights has also stated that the blockade is illegal. Although this was apparently not reported by the BBC, it was widely reported on international news wires such as Reuters on the day prior to this page being updated. The statement is misleading.
It is also stated on this web page that who started the violence was disputed. However, it goes on to say that the video released by the Israeli military, showing soldiers being beaten by passengers, “stops just before the shooting begins”. Clearly, the BBC accepts the Israeli story.
I first visited Palestine in 2002 and vividly remember being confused as to why we had to go through a checkpoint when we weren’t going from Palestinian territory to Israeli territory or vice versa. I quickly learned that that was the reality of a military occupation. I later learned that the military occupation that Palestinians live under can also mean being fired at by soldiers on your way to school/university/work; being told what crops you are allowed to grow; being prevented from taking your crops to markets; being told whether or not the person that you are married to can live in the same place as you, or being forced to irrigate your land with sewage water because of extreme water scarcities. I learned none of this from the mainstream media. These are the small stories that don’t hit the headlines.
A BBC report about an event in Palestine or Israel typically involves a brief description of the event, followed by interviews with supposedly relevant commentators. On a good day, these will present the Palestinian as well as the Israeli perspective. What is utterly absent is context. It is this lack of context in mainstream media reports that I believe has led to the majority of British citizens being so ignorant about the reality of the situation in the Middle East, despite the fact that events regularly hit the headlines. Prior to visiting Palestine, I was one of those people. The results of a study conducted by Glasgow University in 2001 found that, out of a sample of 300 young people, 71 per cent did not know that it was the Israelis who were occupying the territories.
I spoke to one BBC journalist recently who expressed professional pride in having worked for one BBC news programme because it could “get away with more” than other news programmes, precisely because of the requirement for it to provide a context to stories. The programme was the children’s news slot Newsround.
I didn’t watch a lot of the BBC coverage about the attack on the Free Gaza flotilla because I was too busy trying to find out what had really happened. I am told that it regurgitated the footage released by the Israelis when footage shot by those on the boats was available on other channels.
Israel’s media blackout of the event, which involved firstly blocking the ships’ communication systems, then confiscating all audio and visual equipment and media and finally holding prisoners for several days, meant that the mainstream British media failed to show evidence of the event that was not released by the Israelis. As Craig Murray has pointed out, by the time the witnesses were released and the real story came out, the event was no longer “news”.
In the hours after the attack, while the BBC reported that various people were calling for an independent, impartial inquiry, they failed to mention Israel’s confiscation of all evidence, which surely precludes the possibility of this happening.
The events surrounding the flotilla raid did not shock me in the same way that they did others. I’m familiar with the brutality of the Israeli regime, which I believe people in this country are shielded from by our media. My feelings are horribly familiar: surely they have gone too far this time, something must change now. Followed by a hole of despair opening in my stomach: no, they haven’t. They will get away with it. Some sources have claimed that the attack may even have been sanctioned by Washington, as White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel met with Netanyahu on the day it was confirmed that the Israeli Navy would intercept the ships.
Another issue that has apparently been completely absent from any BBC reports is that the released people have reported widespread physical abuse and humiliation during the days of their detention.
Bias in media reporting isn’t just about what is said, it’s about what isn’t said. But at what point do we shift from claiming the BBC is biased, to claiming that it actively covers up acts of Israeli brutality?
Here are a few clangers from the BBC journalists’ guide:
- “Under international law, Israel is still the occupying power in Gaza, although it no longer has a permanent military presence there. We need to be careful with our language so as not to give the impression that the BBC is favouring one side’s position. In BBC programmes it is more accurate to talk about an ‘end to Israel’s military presence’ rather than the end of occupation.”
- “The word ‘assassination’ is often used to describe a senior figure who has been murdered but the word ‘killed’ or ‘killing’ may be perfectly adequate. Plain simple language is preferable to more complex or emotive language.”
- “So, for example, it is preferable to say that ‘Sharon’s visit and Palestinian frustration at the failure of the peace process sparked the intifada or uprising’ rather than it ‘led’ to it or ‘started’ it.”
- Hebron: “The West Bank town is a frequent flashpoint for violence… Hence the small but rather militant group of settlers living in an overwhelmingly Palestinian, or Arab, city, and the need for a continuing IDF presence to keep the factions apart.”
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