Tim Llewellyn on the continuing failure of public broadcasting to tell the truth on the Israel-Palestine conflict
Two BBC radio news writers who specialise in Middle East stories, often those concerning Israel-Palestine, told me recently a grim but not, to me, surprising story. I had hoped to hear something different from the words of a former BBC Jerusalem correspondent nearly 20 years ago: “A BBC producer or editor trying to report or hold a discussion on Israel and the Palestinians issue waits constantly for a call from above – how high in the hierarchy depending on how senior is Israel’s supporter.”
These journalists told the same story, except it is worse. There is a culture of fear in the ranks of senior editors, producers and news managers. Any complaint about a story emanating from Israel support groups, such as MEMRI (Middle East Media Research Institute), or the Board of Deputies of British Jews, or Lawyers for Israel, or indeed from prominent Israel-supporting individuals, will immediately be listened to and usually acted upon. These interventions invariably result in the news item being changed to favour the Israeli position. In one example, my informants cited a story about a Jewish settler attacking a West Bank civilian being changed to remove the word “settler” and replace it with “activist”. Furthermore, across the BBC and ITN, including Channel 4, a deadening self-censorship has set in. It is no longer so necessary for the Israel lobby to bother.
In the past six years or so, with the widening of anxiety across the political class, journalism, academe and civil society of anything that might be deemed, however spuriously, to be “antisemitic” – remembering what happened inside Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party – everyone is even more prone to tread softly, especially in a politically beleaguered BBC.
This goes much of the way towards explaining the imbalance in the coverage of Israel-Palestine: the language used; the way the sequence of events is described; the outnumbering of Palestinian interlocutors in studio sessions by pro-Israel ones.
I was first struck, during the al-Aqsa Intifada of 2000-2005, when Israel invaded the occupied territories, how the descriptions of Palestinians and Israelis differed: the former being buried in a kind of mass anonymity; the latter, real people with names and lives. To this day, Palestinians “die”, while Israelis “are killed”. One typical example was in October 2000. Jewish mobs in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Tiberias and Nazareth killed 13 Palestinian-Israeli citizens. ITN and the BBC were restrained, describing these attacks as “responses” to Palestinian attacks on a Jewish shrine in the occupied territory of the West Bank. There was no expressive language.
When a few hours later, scores of Palestinians attacked a police station in the West Bank city of Ramallah and killed two Israeli soldiers being held prisoner, the broadcast media were quick to be descriptive: the crowd was a “lynch-mob”, “a frenzied mob”, “baying for blood”, ”the frenzied crowd could hardly contain their glee“.
Since then, this characterisation of the Palestinian Arab somehow as “the other”, a terrifying, savage if anonymous threat to the state of Israel, which is populated by “people like us”, with a system, a government, international respect and recognition, has intensified despite endless complaints and criticisms from across civil society. The prejudices colonialism engendered are hard to shake.
One of the ways the imbalance of the newscasts and portrayal from London studios is maintained is the acceptance, almost without demur, of the Israeli narrative – well backed up here in the UK by Israel’s diplomats, agents, propagandists and supporters – that Israel’s attacks on the Palestinians (whether the full-scale invasions of Gaza of 2001-2005, 2008, 2012, 2014 and 2021, or the almost daily killings, woundings and arrests of Palestinians in all the occupied territories that are mounting as I write) are responses to Palestinian violence or attack.
This is possibly the biggest lie of all. On a number of occasions, the Israelis have violated a ceasefire; but, more essentially, what is left out of the media’s explanations is the fact that the Palestinians are in their 56th year of an ever-expanding, ever more brutal occupation, violating the international rules of military occupation. They have the right to resist. Across the territories, Palestinians are consistently under physical attack, from soldiers, airmen, the navy, police agents and Jewish settlers. Even the question of why firing missiles into Israel is possibly a war crime is never analysed. We should remember, too, that next year it will be 75 years since all Palestinians lost their nation.
Simply, it is the Palestinians who are responding to violence, not the Israelis. But you will not hear this from our broadcasters – among whom, because of its power, the BBC is most culpable.
The backdrop against which these military excesses take place is mostly ignored by our media. The daily indignities and the steady toll of lives on the West Bank, in East Jerusalem and in Gaza do not rate much notice. So when Israel’s air force begins to fly, its tanks roll and its bombs and shells land, mostly in civilian areas, it is happening – as far as British listeners can tell – in a contextual vacuum. Thus, “in a response to growing Palestinian violence…”, “following a series of rocket attacks on…”, “after weeks of clashes with armed groups in the refugee camps of…”. Here is the (false) context. Who is engendering the violence will be a question not too thoroughly gone into. If it is, the telephones will start ringing in New Broadcasting House.
Jeremy Corbyn recently spoke of his visit to the Guardian while he was leader of the opposition. At the newsroom level, the reporters and sub-editors, he found support for and intelligent questioning of his ideas for social reform and a new international morality. At editors’ level he felt he was being lectured by superiors. It is the same at the broadcast institutions, especially the BBC, to which most people still turn when a major news story breaks. At the working journalist level, there is an understanding of what the Palestinian situation involves: settler colonialism, dispossession, armed aggression, false arrest, and the compliance in all this of the main Western nations. In the realms of management, the bosses are very wary of the British establishment and the Israel lobby, not to mention fake antisemitism charges and the ignominy they can bring. One hundred and five years after the Balfour Declaration laid the groundwork for Israel’s creation and the Palestinians’ dispossession, the British Government remains unremittingly proud of its achievement, and joins in the farcical diplomatic consensus in Europe and the US, Canada and Australia, that Israel is fighting for its survival and has “every right to defend itself”. Certainly, our main journalistic institutions, especially the BBC, are not going to do anything to try to change this, to ask “who is attacker, who is defender?”
It is an uphill slog, given the iron wall of the BBC complaints system, but everyone must keep at the BBC, up to Ofcom, or by contacting individual producers and correspondents. The tide will turn.