I do tend to write about most of the events that I go to, but walking into a room full of people who do not spend their time spreading lies about Israel is an odd circumstance for me. So despite the serious nature of the BBC Watch events this week, it was a refreshing experience and in an odd way I could relax; I was amongst good friends.
I have no doubt footage of the event will be uploaded, press releases will be made and the Jewish media at least, will cover the story with hands far more skilful than mine. They will hopefully depict the full spectrum of arguments that were made, describing those that laid bare, not just the deep institutional problems at the BBC, but more dangerously the insidious side-effect of increased antisemitic attacks in the UK.
The BBC is the largest and probably the most influential broadcasting organisation in the world. It is also publicly funded, which in turn makes the Jewish community stakeholders. We actually pay for the weapon used to strike us. So to address this issue, I begin with a phrase I have often used when talking of media reporting on Israel:
‘Justice is not half way between the criminal and the policeman’.
In a recent interview on general BBC bias in the Guardian, a comment by the BBC’s news chief James Harding sums up the problem perfectly:
“I’ve a tendency to think that if being told off by everyone you must be doing something right,”
He is wrong. Impartiality does not mean trying to find a balance between the cop and the robber. In reporting the story to the public, the role of the media, is to give the criminal context where relevant and to act as a checks and balances system against the police, but never to allow the lines to become blurred. From the comment above, it seems as if the BBC have lost their way.
If we take a moment to step back a few decades to the Middle Eastern narrative of the mid 1980’s, the PLO (Fatah) were being portrayed in the west as the extremists, leaving the Israelis no real choice of a partner and any moderate Palestinians that existed had little or no voice at all. After 1993, the western media began to equate the PLO and Israel, with Hamas being portrayed as the extremist element, or the ‘spoiler’ at the Oslo party. Since 2005, the media began to move towards equating Israel and Hamas, leaving Fatah to represent the moderate position with no real choice of partner. This is a horrific slide in the narrative and yet in truth each of the players have fundamentally retained the same position. If in an equation, all else remains equal, then the changing variable (in this case the narrative), becomes the focus of the research. In turn then we can ask this:
If Fatah, Hamas and Israel are all promoting virtually the same ideology that they were 30 years ago, how has the narrative shifted so dramatically that it now almost equates Israel with Hamas? This question is serious and requires an answer from all the major media outlets. When you internally consider this question for yourself, don’t be misled by the updated media narrative, Fatah are openly inciting this latest round of violence and have not moved on the major issues of dispute at all. Fundamentally, the Palestinian leadership as a whole still does not accept Israel behind any borders. In reality then the equation remains just as it did in the 1980’s, there are some moderate Palestinians, but given the fractionalised state of Palestinian society, they have little or no voice at all. The Palestinians are not some golden child of the Middle East, they are an extension of what is occurring in Syria and Iraq.
As evidence of this attempt at equivalence, at the Oxford University (Oxford Union Society) debate a few days ago, they actually argued the motion: “This house believes that Hamas is a greater obstacle to peace than Israel.” It is worth watching Dennis Prager not just skewer the argument, but react to the motion itself. For people still living in the real world, it is clearly difficult to fathom just how far this false perception has been allowed to shift.
As Dennis Prager implies, it would also be wrong to place the blame for these internal incapacitating and extremist divisions within Palestinian society on Israel. Look around the Middle East, it is an unfortunate development, but nations are disintegrating and even in those nations where a police state still rules, internal terrorism is a difficult and dangerous issue. Just last week in Egypt, terrorists seem to have blown a passenger airline out of the sky. On what grounds do we suggest that of all the people of the Middle East, only the Palestinians need an external influence to engage in religious / civil conflict?
As we heard last night at the BBC Watch event, there are extenuating circumstances that do inflict some damage on the impartiality of journalists reporting on the conflict. Israel cannot help that it is a free society that accommodates and welcomes journalists, nor can it change the fact that within the West Bank and (especially) Gaza, journalists have to conform to have a productive career there.
- A journalist in Gaza cannot move freely
- Journalists in Gaza see what they are shown
- A journalist in Gaza who wants to earn his keep, needs to report
- A new journalist in Gaza is shown the ropes by the ‘old hands’
- Journalists are subject to a police state mechanism where a ‘witness’ may not be what they seem
- Gaza has no apparatus to check, confront or question the Hamas line
- A journalist who gets ‘kicked out’, will have to face an angry editor back home
In these circumstances, you would expect an ‘impartial’ media to report on the existence of such an environment. So great is the complicity, so low the current standard, that none do. Only the comments from one or two reporters who have left the arena, shed light on the truth that every expert on the region already knows. We also now know what happens when a free press reports from a police state, because of market pressures, the free press buckles and conforms to compete. It can be argued that independent news outlets have the right to err and face the consequences, however the BBC are governed by the BBC Charter, they have no such editorial luxury.
We need to bring this into context. Remember, that outside of the disintegrating states and the police states, in the Middle East, there is just one nation that stands apart, Israel. There is no media bias required to report this. Israel was founded on the back not just of historical ties, but of a range of legal instruments from around 1920 until 1948. Certain elements within the Arab society refused to accept it, some, perhaps a minority (no one can know), still reject it today. This rejectionism brought about the civil conflict, partition, the end of Oslo and what we see today in Gaza. It distorts facts, creates myths, and uses religion to incite. It wants the 17 year old boy to stab an innocent 72 year old woman and it also wants his 12 year old brother to pick up the knife that he dropped as he was killed in the act. It also does not blink twice when it claims it never happened and will weave wild conspiracy theories and blood libels to drive the message home even further. This is the unfortunate nature of the Middle East today. Media ‘impartiality’ here is exactly the type of comparison of cop and robber that has to be avoided. If you are the news media, especially if you are the BBC, you *have to* tell the truth.
And yet the BBC don’t. Not at all. And here is another truth, an uncomfortable one for left and right alike. Israel has this problem today precisely because it is not, nor ever was, the monster it is being made out to be. So why is this image, the one of the nation struggling to do its best in a dirty neigbourhood, not making it to our media outlets? Groups such as BBC Watch, Camera, UK Media Watch and an army of bloggers, check and report daily on instances of gross media bias, yet minor correction aside, nothing ever changes. Baroness Deech suggested it wasn’t some type of conspiracy, referring to the false image of an evil antisemitic boss making sure that this personal bias spread into every report, item or documentary produced. And whilst I believe she is right, and it is far more complicated than this, no real answer has been given to the underlying question. Why doesn’t the BBC tell the truth?
Why when mentioning Israel, the BBC deliberately equates the statements from a democracy and a terrorist group, yet when mentioning the UN or UNRWA, it never remembers to inform readers that UNWRA is riddled with terrorists and the UN is dominated by police states. How can a reader ever know why there are so many UN resolutions against Israel, or understand why UNRWA are so septic, without the BBC providing the ‘impartial context’ on these issues every time these bodies are referenced? On these matters, the BBC choose to play the straight line.
I do not have a definitive answer, although I believe that wider societal issues are at work, including pandering to those that should never be pandered. Certainly from the talk last night it is clear that one of the major problems is their complaints procedure. Both Jonathan Turner (UKLFI) and Hadar Sela (BBC Watch) described an organisation that goes out of its way not to accept or correct its mistakes. Tales of a lengthy and near futile complaints process, bullying those that complain (even banning them from complaining further), documents going missing, inconsistent logic and wild deflection all seem to be methods used to ensure most of those complaining tire before reaching the end. A staggeringly low statistic of successful complaints implies this process is more suited to the 1950’s Soviet Union than 2015 Britain.
There is also the news creation process. One man does not create an article, many do. From the conflict environment, to the original source, the reporter, the fact checker, the regional news teams, the editors, the archivist, the one that picks the picture, the one that writes the caption, there can be many hands stirring the soup. What if within this group, only one individual’s bias can play its part?
I am a Jew in the UK, my children now go to school behind a security team that would have been unimaginable 30 years ago. Antisemitism, not in the old fashioned National Front style, but modern Islamic antisemitism is considered a major threat. David Cameron in a speech on extremism in July, said this:
Therefore, it is clear logic, that distorted reporting on the conflicts Israel has with its neighbours, incites antisemitism on the street. And from there, the extremist world view becoming the ‘gateway’ to violent Islamic terrorism. First it is the Jews, then it is everyone, we have all been down this road before. Anything that deliberately fails to address the growth of this extremist view or worst still, in the case of the BBC, actually feeds that word view, is a clear and present danger to the Jewish community on the streets of the UK. By failing to place events in historical context, by failing to tell the truth, the BBC are sharpening the knives of the next generation of terrorists, right here, right now, on the streets of the UK.
Last night at SOAS, 10/11/2015. An event took place to commemorate, to glorify, the terrorist attacks against Israel. Reports from the evening suggest an exchange with some people who protested the deliberate labelling of terrorists as having been ‘murdered’. There are reports of the existence of video footage of a toxic exchange during which violent extremist views were expressed, but at this point I have yet to see it.
Some of these photos represent terrorists who pulled knives on innocent civilians walking down a street and simply started stabbing them. And in London, in our universities, these people are being honoured. Nor is SOAS, simply being ‘SOAS’. This from the LSE Student Union Palestine Society
And this, the classic antisemitic blood libel (and its comment) from the University College London Friends of Palestine Society
And this one incredibly from the Glasgow University Palestine Society
So what has all this got to do with the BBC bias? Everything. Because we live in a free and democratic society, it is not the role of the government, but the role of the media to report the news factually and to place it in historical context. None more so than the BBC, who have this demand embedded into its basic contract. There is a dual responsibility here, firstly to lead by example, tell the truth, place light on the context and secondly to understand how failing to grasp these issues, incites violence, leads to radicalisation and in turn will bring terrorism onto the streets of the UK. If the BBC are not going to tell the students at these universities the truth, then who will? If it is not the BBC’s job, then whose job is it?
BBC, I charge you with failing to adhere to your charter, distorting the truth, failing to provide factual historical context to your news reports, blatant bias on reporting on Israel, pandering to ideologies that entirely reject the fundamental freedoms that you operate in, and in turn declare that you are contributing directly to an atmosphere of incitement and hatred of the west, that will extract a heavy price from the Jewish community of the UK and eventually the British people as a whole. I can also inform you that having used pretty much the same standard of internal checks as you do, that I find you guilty as charged. You can appeal, but the process is long, arduous and you have a 0.002% chance of success.
The day will come when people look at what occurred in the opening decades of this century in Europe, just as they look at what happened at the opening decades of last century. Your archives will be opened, your names will be recorded and I guarantee you that the verdict will be much harsher than mine. I can also tell you, that those such as Hadar Sela at BBC Watch are currently compiling a very comprehensive, detailed and damning evidence pack. I have no doubt it will come in useful.