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The BBC Pro-Israeli?

The BBC Pro-Israeli?

Despite dozens of examples to the contrary, BBC insists there is bias against the Palestinians.


The official report for the governors of the BBC on its coverage of the Palestine-Israeli conflict found predictably that there was "was little to suggest systematic or deliberate bias," but then went on to list a series of measurements by which the BBC could be said to be biased in favor of Israel.

This produced mocking guffaws in my own newsroom, where some of the BBC's greatest hits -- or perhaps misses -- remain fresh in the memory. There was the hagiographic send-off for Yassir Arafat by a BBC reporter with tears in her eyes, and that half-hour profile of Arafat in 2002 which called him a "hero" and "an icon" and concluded that the corrupt old brute was "the stuff of legends."

There was Orla Guerin's unforgettably inventive spin on the story of a Palestinian child being deployed as a suicide bomber, which most journalists saw as a sickening example of child abuse in the pursuit of terrorism. Guerin had it as "Israel's cynical manipulation of a Palestinian youngster for propaganda purposes."

BBC is waging the campaign shoulder to shoulder together with the Palestinian people.

There was the disturbing case of Fayad Abu Shamala, the BBC Arabic Service correspondent, who addressed a Hamas rally on May 6, 2001, and was recorded declaring that journalists in Gaza, apparently including the BBC, were "waging the campaign shoulder to shoulder together with the Palestinian people." Pressed for an explanation, the subsequent BBC statement said: "Fayad's remarks were made in a private capacity. His reports have always matched the best standards of balance required by the BBC."

There was the extraordinarily naive coverage of the London visit of Sheikh Abdur-Rahman al-Sudais, the predominant imam of Mecca, to open London's largest new mosque. He was described as a widely respected religious figure who works for "community cohesion," and a video on the BBC website was captioned "The BBC's Mark Easton: 'Events like today offer grounds for optimism'."

The BBC must have missed his sermon of February 1, 2004, that said "the Jews of yesterday are the evil fathers of the Jews of today, who are evil offspring, infidels... calf-worshippers, prophet-murderers, prophecy-deniers... the scum of the human race whom Allah cursed and turned into apes and pigs... These are the Jews, a continuous lineage of meanness, cunning, obstinacy, tyranny, licentiousness, evil, and corruption..."

Terms of Reference

These are isolated examples, but they stick longer in the memory because they are reinforced by a broader pattern of coverage that seems to play down that Israel is a democracy that elects Israeli Arabs to the Knesset and which does not engage in systematic terrorism and suicide bombing of civilians. So it was startling to read the report for the BBC governors finding so much bias in favor of Israelis. This was based largely on the quantitative content analysis done by outside researchers which found "significant differences across BBC news programs and services in the allocation of talk time."

The detailed survey found disparities (in favor of Israelis) in the amount of talk time given to Israelis and Palestinians, and that "Israeli fatalities generally receive greater coverage than Palestinian fatalities."

The methodology of the survey may be a complicating factor. The period analyzed went from August 2005, the time of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and January 2005, when Ariel Sharon had his stroke and the Palestinians held their elections.

The greater use of Israeli voices in this period seems reasonable when the big stories were the domestic political implications for the settler movement of the Gaza withdrawal and of Sharon's eclipse. And given the media-wise presence of the Peace Now movement and Israel's lively democracy, much of that nominally "Israeli" talk time would have been highly critical of the Sharon Government.

Israeli victims are overwhelmingly and deliberately civilians, targeted at random.

Moreover, the terms of reference of the report that the BBC governors commissioned excluded both the BBC World Service and the international TV channel BBC World, although it did include the BBC website. This excluded a large fraction of the BBC's international coverage along with the often more detailed coverage that the World Service provides.

It is important to consider the context of the report's finding that Israeli deaths tend to get more coverage is that the Israeli victims are overwhelmingly and deliberately civilians, targeted at random. The Palestinian fatalities vary widely. Some are killed in internal feuds between Hamas and Fatah, and some are executed as "collaborators," some are terrorists caught in the act, and some are the victims of Israeli targeted killings. These tend to be the ones that result in the tragic collateral killing and wounding of civilians and children. And it can be difficult for journalists, even those with the resources and exemplary bravery and professional persistence of most BBC reporters, to establish which is which in time for a news report.

Tricky Dilemna

The report on which the governors will now rely to develop new guidelines for BBC coverage tends to skate over some of the professional problems that make even-handed reporting difficult in Gaza and in the West Bank. Journalists have been kidnapped and cameras stolen, and their sources are often intimidated.

By contrast, Israeli politics are easily followed in Israel's free press, where critics of the occupation and of Israeli military tactics abound and where the Israeli media does sterling work, including the kind of combative investigative reporting that is virtually unknown in the Palestinian press.

Good news: BBC reporters will be allowed to use the T-word.

There is one piece of good news. BBC reporters will henceforth be allowed to use the T-word to describe "relevant events, since it is the most accurate expression for actions which involve violence against randomly selected civilians with the intention of causing terror for ideological, including political or religious, objectives, whether perpetrated by state or non-state agencies."

But even here BBC reporters will be faced with a tricky dilemma, since the report goes on to say: "While those immediately responsible for the actions might be described as terrorists, the BBC is right to avoid so labeling organizations, except in attributed remarks."

So think of the poor hack on deadline in a flak jacket trying to remember whether to say some crazed Jihadist killer was "a terrorist from Hamas" rather than "a Hamas terrorist" while squeezing more historical background and more Palestinian talk-time into the news report. It's amazing that the coverage is as decent as it is, and that most of us in the business concede privately that, for all its flaws, the BBC still does a better job that any other news organization on Earth.

originally printed in The London Times

May 20, 2006

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Visitor Comments: 10

(10) eliora, July 31, 2006 12:00 AM

Guffaws here as well!

I had to laugh also at the headline of the story. Although I've been discouraged by 'big' media coverage of these latest terror attacks, I actually ended up throwing something at the tv during a BBC worldnews cast. Really telling that FOX newschannel is doing the best job in reality reporting. I just hope that Pallywood doesn't start extending into the larger arena... oh, wait Qud. Well, too late for that wish.

(9) s.a. pickersgill, July 19, 2006 12:00 AM

BBC Bias

I have wondered for some time why THE BBC is so biased against Israel.I am just an ordinary lady and always respected The BBC as fair .But the bias has got worse during this war with Lebanon,its a wonder Israel puts up with it and still allows BBC reporters inside its land. I have been told they are biased because so many of them are married to Palestinians!Thank goodness Blair and Bush are with Israel just now. ps,I am not Jewish.

(8) Joe, May 26, 2006 12:00 AM

So they reviewed themselves and said that they were unbiased?

Perhaps a conflict of interest? The European left is almost, but not quite as deluded and annoying, as the Arab media when it comes to Israel.

As is also the case, so many times in history, the Jews seem caught between other movements. I wonder how much of this has to do with the fact that America supports Israel, and the European left hates America.

(7) Alan, May 23, 2006 12:00 AM

BBC World Broadcasts are always anti-Israel

While I cannot comment on overall BBC broadcast content, I do regularly watch the BBC World news broadcasts which appear on PBS stations in the US. The content there in stories on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are always skewed in a propogandistic way in favor of the Palestinians who are always depicted as victims and Israel as a big bad oppressor.Orla Guerin, singled out in this commentary, was the most blatant Israel basher with reporting that often had a subtle anti-Semitic subtext, but she is not unique and thankfully she has been reassigned to Africa. A recent story of Palestinian "militants" firing rockets from the northern Gaza illustrates the common BBC reporting style. The reporter showed "militants" making their rockets with commentary indicating how limited these "militants" are in their production ability. They show 2 being shot in a manner which made 1 feel that they were the science project of a high schooler. To counter this they showed an Israeli tank firing rounds into Gaza. They interviewed a Gaza resident and showed how his life was disrupted and endangered by the Israeli firing. They showed a day's worth of Israeli firing, but other than the description from an Israeli officer of how the Palestinian rockets landed in a nearby village there was no on screen visuals of how Israelis were effected by these indiscriminate rocket firings. All of this was to give the strong visual message: Palestinians are the victims of constant aggression from mean big bully Israel and the actions of "militants" were merely the pranks of misguided impetant abused Palestinians.So much for balance.Readers here should view the PBS broadcats and see for themselves and then protest to their local PBS stations for the broadcast of such unbalnced reporting using PBS member dollars to underwrite the cost.Most Americans mistakenly believe that the BBC equals excellence in unbiased reporting. This must be disspelled.

(6) Anne, May 22, 2006 12:00 AM


This article would be a joke if the subject was not so serious the BBC unbiased is like saying /hamas is a peaceful organisation..

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