By: Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, The Electronic Intifada, 4 February 2009
“The BBC cannot be neutral in the struggle between truth and untruth, justice and injustice, freedom and slavery, compassion and cruelty, tolerance and intolerance.” Thus read a 1972 internal document called Principles and Practice in News and Current Affairs laying out the guidelines for the BBC’s coverage of conflicts. It appears to affirm that in cases of oppression and injustice to be neutral is to be complicit, because neutrality reinforces the status quo. This partiality to truth, justice, freedom, compassion and tolerance it deems “within the consensus about basic moral values.” It is this consensus that the BBC spurned when it refused to broadcast the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC)’s video appeal to help the people of Gaza.
The presumption that underlies the decision is that the BBC has always been impartial when it comes to Israel-Palestine. An exhaustive 2004 study by the Glasgow University Media Group, Bad News from Israel, shows that the BBC’s coverage is systematically biased in favor of Israel. It excludes context and history to focus on day-to-day events; it invariably inverts reality to frame these as Palestinian “provocation” against Israeli “retaliation.” The context is always Israeli “security,” and in interviews the Israeli perspective predominates. There is also a marked difference in the language used to describe casualties on either side; and despite the far more numerous Palestinian victims, Israeli casualties receive more air time.
Many of these findings were subsequently confirmed in a 2006 independent review commissioned by the BBC’s board of governors which found its coverage of the conflict “incomplete” and “misleading.” The review highlighted in particular the BBC’s selective use of the word “terrorism” and its failure “to convey adequately the disparity in the Israeli and Palestinian experience, reflecting the fact that one side is in control and the other lives under occupation.”
These biases were once more evident in the corporation’s coverage of the recent assault on Gaza. A false sense of balance was sustained by erasing from the narrative the root cause of the conflict: instead of occupier and occupied, we had a “war” or a “battle” — as if between equals. In most stories the word occupation was not mentioned once. On the other hand the false Israeli claim that the occupation of Gaza ended in 2005 was frequently repeated, even though access to the strip’s land, sea and airspace remain under Israeli control, and the United Nations still recognizes Israel as the occupying power. In accepting the spurious claims of one side over the judgment of the world’s pre-eminent multilateral institution, the BBC has already forfeited its impartiality.
The BBC presented the assault as an Israeli war of self-defense, a narrative that could only be sustained by effacing the 1,250 Palestinians (including 222 children) killed by the Israeli military between 2005 and 2008. It downplayed the siege which denies Palestinians in Gaza access to fuel, food, water and medicine. It presented Hamas’s ineffectual rockets as the cause of the conflict when it was Israel’s breech of the six-month truce on 4 November which triggered hostilities. It described the massacre of refugees in an UN relief agency compound in the context of Israel’s “objectives” and “security.” The security needs of the Palestinians received scant attention. Selective indices were used to create an illusion of balance: instead of comparing Palestinian casualties to those suffered by Israel (more than 1300 to 13) the BBC chose to match them with the number of rockets fired by Hamas. No similar figures were produced for the tonnage of ordnance dropped on the Palestinians.
A parade of Israeli officials — uniformed and otherwise — were always at hand to explain away Israeli war crimes. The only Palestinians quoted were from the Palestinian Authority, a faction even the BBC’s own Jeremy Paxman identified as collaborators, even though the assault was described invariably as an “Israel-Hamas” conflict, much as the 2006 Israeli invasion was framed as an “Israel-Hizballah” war. This despite the fact that Israel made no attempts to discriminate between the groups it was claiming to target and the wider population. As one Israeli military official bragged, Israel was “trying to hit the whole spectrum, because everything is connected and everything supports terrorism against Israel.” Indeed, given the ratio of civilian to combatant deaths, it would have been far more accurate to describe the assaults as “Israeli army-Lebanon,” and “Israeli army-Palestine” conflicts.
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