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On Target Britain
Jan 2004. Food for Thought: When I say that a thing is true, I mean that I cannot help believing it. I am stating an experience as to which there is no choice.
Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.,
The Mind and Faith of Justice Holmes, edited by Max Lerner
MEDIA COVERAGE OF THE ISRAEL PALESTINE CONFLICTTam Dalyell, M.P., father of the House of Commons, is a most measured and courteous man of vast experience. In May, 2003, he was called before the Chief Whip of the British Labour Party to answer a complaint that, in an interview with the magazine Vanity Fair, he had stated that a "cabal of Jewish advisers" functioned behind both the British and American Governments. The truth of this in successive governments over many years is easy enough to establish by simple analysis. Moreover, if we are alert, we can identify the existence of these connections not only in Great Britain, Europe and the North America, but in countries as far apart as Australia and Latin America. This relatively small, internationally organised element of no more than 17,000,000 Jewish people world wide is forever on the watch, not least for the slightest infringement of Jewish or Israeli interests. Any challenge to, or exposure of, these influences, such as that by Tam Dalyell, is invariably confronted with terms such as "fury" and "outrage", and an automatic charge of anti Semitism. But we only need refer to Jewish authors themselves, like J.J. Goldberg, to learn of this extensive Israeli oriented Power in the United States; in Government and in the Media(1). Indeed, Tam Dalyell had no more than hinted at the tip of an iceberg. Is this orchestrated and ruthlessly aggressive power of protest a coincidence? Does it operate as a network? Is it that certain extremely talented, industrious and assimilated people, mainly adhering to the Jewish faith, simply wish to live in peace in their chosen countries, but draw atten tion to the Jewish community as a whole as a result of the systematically pursued objectives of a select few? It is difficult on occasions when faced with this concentration of Power nationally and internationally in the Uni ted Kingdom drawn from no more than 300,000 people in all not to visu alise it like fish swimming randomly deep in the ocean; when a large body suddenly detaches itself for some reason and swarms angrily in unison.
WHY THE B.B.C. DUCKS THE PALESTINIAN STORY
Tim Llewellyn was a B.B.C. Middle East correspondent, based in Beirut from 1976 1980 and in Cyprus from 1987 1992. He is now a free lance writer and broadcaster on Middle East affairs, and an Executive Board member of the Council for the Advancement of Arab British Understanding (C.A.A.B.U.), in London. We have edited his article, which follows, only by running some paragraphs together for reasons of space:
Watching a peculiarly crass, inaccurate and condescending prog ramme about the endangered historical sites of "Israel" that is to say, the a Israeli occupied Palestinian Territories on B.B.C.2 in early June 2003,(a) I determined to try to work out, as a former B.B.C. Middle East correspon dent, why the Corporation has in the past two and a half years been failing to report fairly the most central and lasting reason for the troubles of the region: the Palestinians' struggle for freedom.
The approach of the programme made by Arts rather than News and Current Affairs reflected the general run of B.B.C. domestic coverage of the issue; the strained effort at "balance"; the failure to question the circ umstances of the beleaguered historical sites (why are they beleaguered?), the acceptance of the "equivalence" of the two peoples fighting over this territory, the indigenous population and an occupying army; the assump-tion on which the whole programme was built; that in the then looming Anglo American invasion of Iraq these historical and holy places might be damaged by missiles fired from Iraq. Perhaps B.B.C. Arts was not aware before their team arrived that many ancient Arab monuments had already been besieged, shelled, violated, ransacked, bulldozed, and in many cases closed to their worshippers and their inheritors by Israel's occupying army.
It was not that the B.B.C. did not tell the Palestinian story graphic ally and shockingly but that "the other side" of the story had to be told as well, diluting the central and violent issue of The Wall and all it symbol ises of Israel's fears, greed and brutal dismissal of its Arab neighbours. Since the beginning of the Aqsa Uprising, or Second Intifada, in Septem-ber, 2000, there have been countless examples throughout the B.B.C.'s news broadcasts, discussion programmes, features, documentaries and even online of this muddying of the clear waters of the Israel Palestine crisis. Elsewhere in this book academics and analysts such as Greg Philo give a scientific, actuarial account of this carelessness with the public broadcaster's duty. Without the room to print my long litany of the B.B.C.'s sins of omission and commission, I can best highlight my find-ings this way: Channel 4 News at 7pm is the only mainstream television news current affairs bulletin that has tried consistently to do justice to this story, which sits at the centre of world affairs and the West's political engagement overseas.
Where Carlton TV has shown John Pilger's graphic Palestine is Still the Issue (c) and Channel 4, Sandra Jordan's death defying story of the International Solidarity Movement (d) , the B.B.C. has made no effort to tell us truly as did these two documentaries how this occupation demeans and degrades people; not just the killing and the destruction, but the humiliation, the attempt to crush the human spirit and remove the identity; not just the bullet in the brain and the tank through the door, but the faeces Israel's soldiers rub on the plundered ministry walls, the trashed kinder garten; the barriers to a people's work, prayers and hopes.
In the news reporting of the domestic B.B.C. TV bulletins, "bala nce", the B.B.C.'s crudely applied device for avoiding trouble, means that Israel's lethal modem army is one force, the Palestinians, with their rifles and home made bombs, the other "force"; two sides equally strong and culpable in a difficult dispute, it is implied, that could easily be sorted out if extremists on both sides would see reason and the leaders do as instruc ted by Washington. In London, respectful B.B.C. presenters talk calmly to articulate Israeli politicians, spokesmen and apologists in suits in studios; from Palestine comes the bad quality, broken voice on a dusty wire from some wreckage of a town. It is true that B.B.C. teams risk their lives in the midst of the violence, but soon they are back in their Jewish Jerusalem studios, finding the balance for their pieces, so that the rolling tragedy of occupation can somehow be ameliorated by the difficulties inside Israel.
In South Africa, the B.B.C. made it clear that the platform from which it was reporting was one of abhorrence of the state crime of apart heid. No Afrikaaner was ritually rushed into a studio to explain a storming of a township. There is no such platform of the B.B.C.'s in Israel Palestine, where the situation is as bad apartheid, discrimination, racism, ethnic cleansing as rife as ever it was in the Cape or the Orange Free State. We are not reminded, continually and emphatically, that this strife comes about because of occupation. Occupation. Occupation. This should be a word never far from a reporter's lips, stated firmly and repeatedly as the perm anent backdrop to and living reason for every act of violence on either side.
Much of the explanation of events the B.B.C. offers from the scene reminds me of the "on the one side on the other side" reporting that bede villed so many years of B.B.C. reporting from Northern Ireland. The per formance in the London studios is little better. Presenters and reporters are, on the whole, not well briefed on the Middle East. They are repeatedly bamboozled by Israel's performers. Time and again, presented with an Israeli or some inadequately flagged American or other apologist for Israel, the presenter will accept the pro Israel version of the truth at face value, respectful of an American accent, a well dressed politician or an ex diplo mat (who is often nothing like as disinterested as it would appear), (e) while pressing hard on the recalcitrant Arab(f).
The Arab view is not properly heard. This is partly an Arab prob lem, in that there are not enough articulate and willing Arabs readily avail able to go to studios or answer the telephone. But this is only part of the problem; the B.B.C. has been plied with lists of suitable people by organis ations such as the Council for the Advancement of Arab British Under~ standing (C.A.A.B.U.), the Arab League, individual embassies and private people, only for these lists to be ignored. Whether this is through ineffici ency or deliberation, it is hard to say. I do know, for example, that the Ambassador for the Arab League had, between January, 2003, and the end of the Iraq war in early April, appeared once on B.B.C. TV; a colleague of mine who is one of Britain's most articulate and intelligent Palestinian spokespersons is missing almost completely from mainstream B.B.C. television and rarely heard on domestic radio(g).
The difference between the B.B.C. and other private concerns, however, is that in the B.B.C.'s case its only shareholder is the British Government; it prospers or fails by its licence fee, which is fixed by the Government. The more generous the government is to the B.B.C. the more unwilling is the B.B.C. to cross that Government in any significant way. Why rock a comfortable boat? It is also true that the more one owns the more one loathes to lose it. This was not true of the B.B.C. of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. Since the advent as director general of John Birt, (h) the Blair government has smiled on the B.B.C. We thus have what might be termed a Blairite tendency at the B.B.C, an unwillingness to cross New Labour on matters close to its heart; and the Middle East has been at the very centre outside Europe of Tony Blair's foreign policy concern.
The Blair vision of the Middle East that the Americans have all the answers, but need a little gentle coaxing from Whitehall, that the Israelis are victims of terror, and "terror" is our main universal enemy, that the Palestinians are their own worst enemies and must do what they are told will have been sensed at the B.B.C. and passed on down the line. It is no secret that Blair is very close to Israel. His old crony and party financier, Lord Levy, has been rewarded with the post of special adviser on Middle East matters. Lord Levy is a peer who has close contacts with Israel and a multi million pound villa near Tel Aviv his son Daniel Levy worked in the office of Israel's former Justice Minister, Yossi Bellin. The first stress in any New Labour comment on the Palestine Israel crisis is always on Israeli security or on "terror", that easy bête noir of the modern politician (the B.B.C. has uncritically accepted "The War on Terror" as a phrase with meaning).
Eager to help in this insidious process, squatting there in the gardens of Kensington, is the Israeli embassy, emanating influence and full of tricks, with many powerful friends and supporters. The first bloody month of the Second Intifada took the Israelis by storm. Their responses were crude and ill thought out. They received a highly critical intema tional press after Ariel Sharon stormed on to the Haram al Sharif, the Palestinians erupted and the Israelis started their killing spree. The Israeli machine recovered quickly, and immediately turned its attention to the B.B.C. One experienced reporter in the field told me how producers from the Today Programme would ring the office in Jerusalem with story ideas launched by the Israeli embassy; how the Israeli version of events was so often received as the prevailing wisdom in London; how Israel successfully amended the very language of reporting the crisis.
For a short while on B.B.C. news, "occupied" territories became "disputed". We heard much of Palestinian "claims" of occupation rather than of the 33 year long fact of it. Illegal Jewish settlements near Jerusa lem became "neighbourhoods". Palestinians are killed (it happens); but Palestinians kill Israelis (that is deliberate); dead Israelis have a name and identity, dead Arabs are just, well, dead Arabs. When Palestinians die their bereaved vent "rage" at apparently riotous funerals; Israeli survivors express shock. The list goes on. The news speak of the crisis was adjusted to favour the Israeli side(i) Then, unfortunately, the B.B.C.'s experienced team in Jerusalem was removed at the beginning of this new upheaval in Israeli Palestinian affairs not through any Zionist inspired plot but bec ause correspondents' and producers' contracts or tours of duty were expiring. I do not wish to malign the new reporters' professional expertise, as reporters, but it was a bad moment for an across the board reshuffle. The B.B.C. should have staggered the changeovers and deployed people more experienced in Middle East or even in similar crises the Balkans, for example.
London and its attendant Israeli pressure teams were thus writing on blank sheets for a while. The worst excesses of that early period have ended and the use of language is more accurate though phrases like "cease fire", implying the existence of two armies, and "terrorist", too often used as a synonym for "resistance , underscore the already false projection of the conflict. Through it all, the policies of artificially striving for balance and equivalence remain, and the people on the ground have neither the skills nor strength to resist this policy or circumvent it with subtlety. To be fair to them, perhaps they would quickly be removed if they tried.
The profile of the listening and viewing world is changing. Many people, especially the young, now listen to and watch all kinds of channels at all times of night and day. Stations like B.B.C. Asia Network and Radio Five Live are boisterous and irreverent, with well informed callers, many of them from Muslim, Arab, Asian and other ethnic groups. Britain's political leaders and Israel's supporters, however, do not apply themselves to these people's forums. What they care about are the mainstream outlets, Today, The World at One, PM, Breakfast News, the one o'clock, six o'clock and ten o'clock television bulletins. The B.B.C., alert to this, shapes the tone of its correspondents' and reporters' coverage, and its presenters' and producers' attitudes accordingly; very cautiously, in lock step as close as can be with the Government and the policy makers at No. 10 Downing Street.
As I write this chapter, in mid June 2003, the B.B.C. has consigned a profile of the Palestinian intellectual, author and activist [now the late] Edward Said, a giant mind of his time by any measure, to a late night showing on B.B.C., a minority channel(m). It was not advertised; its time was changed from 8.30pm (a prime slot right after the B.B.C. news bulletin) to 10.00pm at the last minute, again without publicity. Much of this kind of programming is shunted to the late hours or minority channels. The only decent documentary the B.B.C. has made about Israel, a search-ing examination of the Vanunu affair, was also postponed a day, from a prime time, and dismissed to a late night showing(n) (To be fair to the B.B.C., Carlton also put John Pilger's Palestine programme out late at night. After it was shown, the chairman, [Anglo Jewish] Michael Green, excoriated the programme, saying it should never have gone out(o). Many other friends of Israel joined Green in complaining to the Independent Television Commission (I.T.C.), about bias, but the Commission resound-ingly endorsed and vindicated the programme(p). At least the chairman of the B.B.C. Board of Governors does not publicly revile his organisation's programmes hours after they have been transmitted.)
There are less easily avoidable reasons for the B.B.C.'s mishand ling of the Palestine Israel issue. Much of the seeming bias in the coverage and not just at the B.B.C. is endemically and accidentally cultural. To a westerner sitting at a screen in London a dead or suffering Arab in the rubble of a bazaar is more remote than a dead or suffering Israeli in a shopping mall with a Wal Mart in shot; studios favour good English speakers rather than men with heavy accents; producers like quality sound and vision. It is a presenter's inclination, in many cases, to take more seriously a representative of a state and an authority, a uniform or a dark suit, than a denizen of what is, after all, not quite a state but still a national revolutionary and resistance movement, a man perhaps in a kefflyeh or a militia uniform, speaking poor English or being translated or subtitled.
It seems, however, that the policy makers at the B.B.C. are not as brave as the reporters, producers and cameramen they send into the field. It is more troubling for a boss to field an angry phone call from the Board of Deputies of British Jews or receive an abusive letter from Golders Green or to read a bilious article in The Daily Telegraph than it is for a camera crew and correspondent to venture down the road to Nablus, past those trigger happy roadblocks and into those dangerous alleyways, and still find their cut story watered down with the countervailing view from a balcony in West Jerusalem.
Despite all this, the sheer imagery of the crisis tank against stone, soldier against civilian is making its weight felt. The British public are becoming more and more uneasily aware that the words do not quite match the pictures. The euphoria that greets each new peace plan the [so called Ed.] "Road Map" is the latest and is picked up so eagerly by a flag waving, cheer leading broadcast media which no longer takes with it, I think, the average viewer. The Corporation's timidity about telling the truth from Palestine is not about informing the viewer, however, but about keeping protectively in step with Government and projecting its future into the twenty first century.
(a) The Road to Armageddon, B.B.C.2, 8pm, 7 June,
(1) Goldberg, J.J. Jewish Power - Inside the
American Jewish Establishment. Perseus Books, 1996.
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