Is the BBC really pro-Israel?
The idea that the BBC is actually pro-Israel is fantastical. Yet it is now being discussed as a serious proposition. The irony is that the Arab media now seems more critical of Hamas than media in the West
Some 5,000 rowdy demonstrators chanting anti-Israeli (and in some cases blatantly anti-Semitic) slogans, brought traffic to a virtual standstill outside the BBC’s central London headquarters in Portland Place last week. They were protesting what they claim (to the surprise of many) to be the BBC’s pro-Israel bias.
The next day, the BBC flagship ‘Today’ radio news program (a program which is near compulsory listening for the British political elite, including the prime minister), ran an item on the demonstration, examining the absurd proposition that the BBC – which for decades has been at the forefront of providing a worldwide platform for Palestinian extremists (one correspondent, Barbara Plett, even admitted on air that she cried in sorrow when Yasser Arafat died) – was in fact “pro-Israel”.
“Are the protesters right? Have we been biased at the BBC in favor of Israel?” BBC anchor Mishal Husain asked her chosen guest Greg Philo, professor of Communications and Social Change at Glasgow University, and author of one of the most anti-Israeli books published in Britain in recent years.
Philo responded: “I’ve had many senior journalists at the BBC saying they simply can’t get the Palestinian viewpoint across… the Palestinian perspective is just not there.”
Leaving aside Husain’s own bias against Israel, which was well documented by watchdog organizations at the time of the last major Hamas-Israel flare-up in November 2012, the claim by Philo, and the choice to use him as the studio guest, is bizarre.
Indeed sometimes Gaza so seems to dominate BBC foreign coverage that thousands of people killed last week in Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Libya and various African conflicts – including many Palestinians killed in Syria – have barely been mentioned. (The BBC is the world’s largest broadcast network.)
“The BBC has had way more people in Gaza just this week than they had in Baghdad at the height of the Iraq war, more than they ever had in Basra and more than they have had in Afghanistan,” a friend of mine, a seasoned British war correspondent who has extensively covered the Afghan and Iraq wars, wrote to me this week.
The British, American and other militaries have killed far more people in both Afghanistan and Iraq than Israel has ever killed in Gaza. And of course Afghans and Iraqis haven’t fired thousands of rockets indiscriminately into British and American cities.
Those BBC correspondents in Gaza (Jeremy Bowen, Lyse Doucet, Paul Adams, Yolande Knell, Quentin Sommerville, Rushdi Abualouf, Shahdi al Kashif, Kelvin Brown) and several others reporting on Gaza from elsewhere (including James Reynolds, Kevin Connolly, Chris Morris and Jonathan Marcus) have this week, as they have for years, presented Palestinian claims against Israel in the most graphic detail.
And many of those Palestinian claims are misleading at best. On Friday, for example, a BBC reporter in Gaza, replying to the question about how ordinary Palestinians were coping “with Israeli actions”, informed us that “no one has any electricity”.
What he didn’t say, and what the BBC anchor didn’t point out, is that the reason that 70,000 Gazans (not “all Gazans”) have been left without electricity is because Hamas – not Israel – fired a rocket that hit a Gaza power line. (By contrast, NATO did “bomb Serbia into darkness” in 1999, and the U.S. did so in Iraq both in the Gulf War and in 2003.)
Indeed the BBC, along with most of the international media, have failed to tell us that quite a number of Palestinian deaths in Gaza were the result of misfired Palestinian rockets – last week alone at least 100 Hamas rockets accidentally hit targets within Gaza.
The numbers of dead reported are based primarily on Palestinian claims, and these need closer examination over time (as the Jenin “massacre” should have demonstrated to the media).
Indeed if 80 percent of Gazans killed in the last two weeks were random civilians, as the BBC and other Western media claim, it is odd that (according to for example, a careful analysis by al-Jazeera) the majority of fatalities are men of fighting age – this in a territory where more than half the population are aged under 15.
The BBC (and other media) barely mentioned that on Friday – under pressure from Israel and the U.S. – the UN agency UNRWA admitted that 20 Hamas rockets (of the kind used to kill Israeli civilians) have been stored at an UNRWA school in Gaza.
This is, of course, not news to people who follow the region closely; Hamas has for years stored and fired its arsenals at Israel from or near hospitals, schools, ambulances and mosques, in multiple breaches of international law.
The BBC also failed to tell its audiences that UNRWA is a primarily Palestinian-staffed agency, which has often supplied dubious figures about the number of civilian deaths in Gaza. Or that chief UNRWA spokesman Chris Gunness, who has a decades-long record of bias against Israel, previously worked for 23 years in senior editorial positions at the BBC and remains close friends with the BBC’s Chief Mideast correspondent Jeremy Bowen.
A report by BBC world affairs correspondent Paul Adams was one of several on the network in recent days to make use of a Nazi analogy. Israel, we were told, had made “a concentration camp of 1.8 million people”. Other BBC reports made the ridiculous claim that Palestinians were “starving for the past 8 years” (Scroll down here to see photos of food of “Gazans preparing for Ramadan” last month: )
To its credit, “BBC Trending” – one small part of the vast network of TV, radio and online channels that comprises the BBC – ran an item this month admitting that pictures of alleged victims of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza were inaccurate, some for example, actually showing scenes from Syria and Iraq.
One photo circulated by Hamas last week purported to show a teenager in Gaza killed by an Israeli airstrike. It was, in fact, a still image from the Hollywood horror film “Final Destination 4”.
But what the “BBC Trending” item didn’t point out is that some of the most senior BBC correspondents in the Middle East, such as former Gaza correspondent Jon Donnison, have been responsible for sending out inaccurate photos on their BBC twitter feeds.
Of course it is not only the BBC who are allowing their prejudices to get in the way of balanced reporting. On Friday, for example, one of CNN’s Gaza correspondents, Diana Magnay, sent out a tweet calling Israelis “scum” (CNN has since apologized and reassigned Magnay to Russia.) But can you imagine the outcry if she had called Palestinians, or Muslims, “scum”?
Jon Stewart, on the Daily Show, called Hamas “Freedom Fighters”. That’s not very funny for the five million Israelis – 80 percent of the population – who have had to cower in bomb shelters this past week. And it’s not funny for the Gazans who live under Hamas’s highly oppressive rule and risk their lives if they dare to criticize the regime. Hamas refused to accept an Arab League and UN-backed ceasefire, which Israel did agree to accept last week.
Also unfunny was the Washington Post’s Wednesday cartoon, which depicted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly punching a Palestinian baby.
Peter Beaumont, the correspondent for the influential British paper The Guardian has (as of July 17) run 20 articles on the current Gaza conflict, comprising 18,886 words but not one report of his has properly explained Hamas’ use of human shields – even though this is crucial to understanding the story and Hamas itself has repeatedly boasted of this policy as an effective way to deter Israel from attacking its rocket launchers.
By contrast, the Arab media has been full of reports on the use of human shields (which is a war crime under international law).
The tabloid papers aren’t immune either. The second best-selling paper in the UK, The Daily Mirror, was caught last week recycling old photos and adding incorrect information to smear Israelis.
Even Britain’s best selling newspaper the Sun (which in the past, when Rupert Murdoch was more involved, was often sympathetic to Israel) has been stirring up the anti-Israel frenzy with totally out-of-context sensationalist and skewed coverage against Israel. Is it any surprise that anti-Semitic attacks in Britain have doubled this month?
Indeed people in the West might not realize it, but many Arab media are far more honest about the ills of Hamas than most western media.
“Thank you Netanyahu and may God give us more [people] like you to destroy Hamas!” wrote Azza Sami in the leading Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram.
On Egyptian TV, several commentators said they were “sick and tired” of Hamas. There have been similar sentiments in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and even in the Fatah-controlled West Bank. So the next time 5,000 rowdy demonstrators take to the street to protest Western media’s supposed “pro-Israel” bias, they might want to keep in mind the history, the facts and what Arab media are saying about Hamas.
Tom Gross is the former Middle East correspondent of the London Sunday Telegraph. A slightly shorter version of this article is also being published by the National Post in Canada. This and related articles are available at the author's website
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