Saturday 24 November 2012

BBC: Firing bias into Israel?

Some parts of the domestic BBC clearly remain open to charges of bias. Radio 4's The World Tonight on this week has struck me offering a view instances of that. I'll spread out the evidence for this claim over a few posts, lest this first one reach infinity and beyond.
Presenter Carolyn Quinn began the Israel/Gaza bit on Monday night's edition by focusing on the 'plight' of those in Gaza, rather than on focusing on the 'plight' of people in both Gaza and Israel: 
"People in Gaza are bracing themselves for what could be another night of bombardment as Israeli forces continue the air strikes they say [her emphasis] are intended to stop Hamas firing rocket attacks [sic] in Israel. The death toll in Gaza has exceeded 100. 3 Israelis have been killed since Wednesday."
The introduction to her first guest then began:
"Since 2007 the Gaza Strip has been subject to an intensified Israeli blockade. It was captured during the 1967 war and Israel still maintains control of Gazan airspace and its waters in the Mediterranean. It's one of the most densely-populated and poorest areas in the world with a population of approximately one and a half million Palestinians. Just over half of its inhabitants are under the age of 18. Unemployment is high and 80% of the population is dependent on aid to survive. So where is its population drawn from and why do they stay there? Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish is a Palestinian doctor and infertility specialist. In 2009 three of his daughters were killed in the family home in Gaza by Israeli shells. He now campaigns for peace in the Middle East and teaches at the University of Toronto. I asked him when his family had first arrived in Gaza."

[Sue"It's one of the most densely-populated and poorest areas in the world with a population of approximately one and a half million Palestinians."
This particular phrase is one of these “We’ve heard it all befores”, of course it’s inaccurate, as for that matter, is the term Palestinians, but that’s another story.]

The interview then ran as follows: 
Dr Abuelaish:  "My family came to Gaza after 1948, after they were exiled from their homeland and became refugees in the Jabalia refugee camp."
Carolyn Quinn: "And how long did they remain in that camp?"
Dr Abuelaish: "It's the whole of their lives. I was born in that camp. I was raised and lived in that camp till now. My extended family is living there. My house is still there."
Carolyn Quinn: "So you still have family living in Gaza?"
Dr Abuelaish: "My five brothers and three sisters, my nephews, my nieces, my cousins, all of my people are living there."
Carolyn Quinn: "And as a place to live it has obviously been extremely traumatic for people living there under bombardment. Can you describe what it was like to be a Gazan?"
Dr Abuelaish: "You know the life to be Gazan there, where everything in your life you want for yourself in London and you are enjoying it..but for Gazans, the people there, and they're teenagers who are working as the graduate of the universities and they are at the process of building their life and to say to them their life to turn its back to them. Unemployed. There is no life in Gaza Strip. There is no electricity. There is no future  in Gaza Strip. But all of this...who made it? It's man-made."
Carolyn Quinn: "What about those people who would wish to leave?"
Dr Abuelaish: "We need to ask why do they want to leave. They want to survive. They are forced to leave. It's not by their choice. But life was hard for them to push them to leave. They are pushed to leave."
Carolyn Quinn: "Now, you have spent much of your life trying to seek peace in the conflict between Israel and Palestine. You yourself have sustained a terrible tragedy with three of your daughters being killed in your family home in Gaza. What hope do you hold that there could, some time, be an end to this?"
Dr Abuelaish: "You know, when you speak about peace, peace is not a word. Peace is an action. Peace is a way of life. Peace, where we engage in it, we touch it, we live it. And even now, the peace issue, it became a peace industry, peace business, and we don't see peace. 
Carolyn Quinn: "That's Dr Izzeldin Abuelaish there, who campaigns for peace in the Middle East."

[Sue: That programme you've written about is typical. Poor Carolyn Quinn is wrong, and the Palestinian doctor has become quite a celebrity since his family was killed. It’s very sad in so many ways. But that life-in-Gaza  approach is cheap. And how often do you really get to see what life is like for Israelis under these random rocket attacks.  I’ve experienced one by the way, so I’m not just romancing. And how many times do we get to see the wealthy areas in Gaza on the MSM. Of course it is terrible that people in Gaza have no shelters etc etc, but they could have if Hamas hadn’t diverted resources to their precious Jihad. The lack of electricity is, I believe self-inflicted.]

The World Tonight's little history lesson then continued:
"Let's look back at the history of Gaza now. Rosemary Hollis is Professor of Middle East Policy Studies at City University and is here with me. First of all, Professor Hollis, can you place it on the map for us and explain why it had such a role in the war in 1948?"
Prof. Hollis: "Ah, well, it's on the eastern Mediterranean, on the coast. It's about 25 miles long and no more than about five and a half miles wide. That is the area into which you now have 1.7 million Palestinians. It can date its history back to pre-Roman times. There's all sorts of archaeological remains there. It was a coastal thoroughfare  for making you way up the eastern Mediterranean coast. It was part of Mandate Palestine when the British were in charge of the mandate for Palestine between the First World War and the Second World War and then after the Second World War, when the British decided to withdraw and the first war between Israelis - or the about-to-be Israelis -  and the Arabs, including the Palestinians, broke out in 1948, during the course of that year many, many thousands, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled their homes or were forced out and fled in all directions. They are the original Palestinian refugees of 1948 and many of them fled south, along the coast, and came to a halt at the Egyptian border. That's the origins of the fact that 80% of the population of Gaza today are refugees or the descendent of refugees."
Carolyn Quinn: "It's under blockade, as we've heard. It has no statehood. What impact does that have on it?"
Prof. Hollis: "Well, it's a curious entity. The Israelis make great emphasis of the fact that they pulled out of the Gaza Strip. Yes, they removed their settlers, some 7,000 of them that they had there since they captured the Gaza Strip after 1967, and that effectively it belongs to the Gazans; however, who are the Gazans? They don't have a state. They have laissez passer as opposed to citizenship of anywhere. By a combination of elections and a putsch Hamas is in control and effectively if you removed Hamas it would almost be like a madhouse in some senses. You have a lot of traumatised youngsters in there and a lot of people who, as we were just hearing, feel that they have no hope. I don't anybody knows what to do with Gaza to make it liveable but the U.N. has actually said that as of 2020 it won't be liveable." 
Carolyn Quinn: "Professor Hollis, thank you very much for that history of Gaza."

Was that biased? Prof. Hollis's own leanings can, I think, be discerned from the way she said "The Israelis make great emphasis of the fact they pulled out of the Gaza Strip" rather than merely saying "Israel voluntarily pulled out of the Gaza Strop and removed all their settlers..." and, even more, by her remarkable statement that "if you removed Hamas it would almost be like a madhouse in some senses." Carolyn Quinn's questions guided her along. Moreover, not following Dr Abuelaish with someone prepared to put a pro-Israeli slant on the story of Gaza seems a bit remiss.

[Sue: Prof. Hollis’s little lecture was biased, as it was couched in fauximpartiality mockedemia. That’s a new title for an old phenomenon.The language she chose to use, as you noticed, was designed to deceive. Apart from the ‘great emphasis’ point, which she could have phrased as you suggested, there was the glossing over of the way Hamas took power, that dear little putschy wutschy, but who are the audience -  described so eloquently by Mehdi as “people who don’t have a clue”  - to judge?]

Of course, you could say that the sensitivity of the subject matter and the deeply entrenched historical differences can often make it difficult to say anything without being accused of bias. What followed was an interesting discussion which aired that very issue.

The two guests were a strong critic of Israel (Mehdi Hasan) and a critical friend of Israel (Jonathan Freedland), each coming from a similar (left-of-centre) part of both the political spectrum and the media spectrum and each professing admiration for the other. They do, however, have differing outlooks on the subject of Israel. It is questionable, I would say, that the programme chose not to invite a strong supporter of Israel (rather than a critical friend) to balance out the intense anti-Israel propaganda of Mehdi Hasan, but Mr Freedland did forcefully project a number of points supporters of Israel will have greatly appreciated being put across to the listening public.

The interview is worth transcribing in full (for the sake of posterity), as it gives a good deal of food for thought:
Carolyn Quinn: "Well, reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a challenge for journalists seeking to present a factual record of what's happening. The sensitivity of the subject matter and the deeply entrenched historical differences can often make it difficult to say anything without being accused of bias. To discuss this we've brought together two journalists - Mehdi Hasan, political editor of The Huffington Post U.K., and The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland. I asked Mehdi Hasan first whether it is possible to achieve balanced coverage of a conflict like this?"
Mehdi Hasan: "I think it is possible to achieve balanced coverage. It's never going to be perfect balance. It's never going to make everyone happy, but I think we can do a much better job than we're doing at the moment where it's so imbalanced. And not just at the moment. This has been happening over many years. Israel has gotten a bit of a pass from the Western media, as well as Western governments, and I think we're seeing that again now in this current Gaza conflict, just as we saw it in the last Gaza conflict, where there's some sort of role reversal, where the stronger, the more powerful, the more oppressive side is unfortunately being portrayed as the victim."
Carolyn Quinn: "Jonathan Freedland, what do you think about this question about whether it's possible to achieve balanced coverage of a conflict like this?"
Jonathan Freedland: "I certainly think it is possible. People often say, 'Well, we were attacked by both sides, which means we must be getting something right, to which actually can mean getting it doubly wrong. So I don't think that's the kind of balance you necessarily want to achieve. Doesn't have to be a numerical balance, an actual sort of statistical balance, but if you are fair to the two different narratives, if both get an airing...Remember, here's a conflict where both sides see almost the last century in history almost entirely differently and if you can give an airing to both those two narratives, if both sides feel heard, then I think they will feel that there's been some kind of balance. I don't think that most supporters of Israel - or even plenty of neutrals - would completely share Mehdi's description. They would feel actually that most of the coverage does pretty clearly cast them, Israel, as the bad guy. The idea that they're somehow the object of sympathy, when you look newspaper The Guardian but also The Independent and certainly the BBC in other coverage, I don't think anyone is making that mistake of thinking that Israel is being given, sort of, the rose-coloured, soft-focus treatment and cast as the good guy. I mean, I think in many cases quite the reverse."
Carolyn Quinn: "Mehdi Hasan, do you think that because Israel is a Western-style democracy that the media here are tougher on them?"
Mehdi Hasan: "Well, I'm not sure it is a Western-style democracy but it is clearly seen as a Western-style democracy and, yes, that's one of the factors. There's a fair few factors that influence the coverage I was referring to - and, yes, I'm exempting The Guardian and The Independent from it - but with the greatest respect to both of those papers they're not read by that many people compared to some of the papers I'm referring to.  I would say there's the Western-style state factor definitely. That definitely colours our coverage. We instinctively empathise with people who look like us, sound like us, live like us more than with others. There's a separate issue, which is that the media always tends to have a bias towards the powerful over the powerless. There's an issue of access, that the Israeli government and its supporters have much greater access to media organisations in this country. And, of course, there's the legacy of anti-Semitism and, of course, the Holocaust, which means a lot of journalists are very, very nervous - rightly so -of how they say certain things about the government of Israel or the actions of Israel, because they are worried about being accused of anti-Semitism."
Carolyn Quinn: "Jonathan Freedland, what about this point then that people are, perhaps, holding Israel to higher standards when they report this story?"
Jonathan Freedland: "Well, that's what I see. I think rather than that empathy for Israel as a Western country I think quite the reverse. It's sort of held to a Western standard, a different standard, so that, for example, since this started - the conflict over Gaza last Wednesday - over in Syria 530 people have been killed, which will be on any estimate more than 5 times the number killed between Israel and Gaza, and yet if it's got a hundredth of the coverage I would be amazed. But nor is it actually the case that we are always tougher on Western countries, cos there's the United States engaged in drone warfare - and here Mehdi Hasan is an honourable exception because he does talk about the U.S. drone war on, for example, Pakistan - but, on most estimates, since 2004 upwards of 3,000 people killed, estimate 800 or more of those were civilians. Now where is the huge BBC team in Pakistan watching rocket by rocket, drone by drone, as those land and describing the impact, live tweeting?"
Carolyn Quinn: "Mehdi Hasan, you want to come in."
Mehdi Hasan: "To an extent I would agree with Jonathan. There's definitely a case that there's double standards. We should hold the U.S. to account on the drone wars. We've actually lost a lot of moral high ground in terms of what we can and can't judge Israel on. No doubt about any of that. But hold on here! All these conflicts are not the same. We can't just hold them all to the same criteria. In Israel - and it's rarely mentioned, and that's the problem - Israel is an occupying power. Israel is a colonial power. This has been going on for 45 years. The problem with a lot of the coverage is none of these facts get into the coverage, none of the history gets into the coverage. People who don't follow Middle Eastern events as closely as Jonathan and I, if they pick up a newspaper, switch on the news, they don't have a clue of the history. If I was a Martian landing on Earth, picking up some of the British newspapers I wouldn't have a clue that Gaza has been under siege for six years or  the West Bank and Gaza's been occupied for 45. We're just not told that. They've just woke up one morning and decided to start chucking rockets for no reason!" 
Carolyn Quinn: "But is it the practicalities of that, the media failing to put this in a historical context, because if you say, look, you've got to go back, you've got to start the clock at a certain point when you report on this story, different people have different views about when that clock should start? These are entrenched views going back over decades."
Mehdi Hasan: "You say that Carolyn yet the majority of the coverage, including Jonathan's own otherwise excellent column at the weekend, started the clock on Saturday - the Saturday before last - and assume that this conflict  began with rockets out of Gaza. And I would argue, well, several days earlier the Israelis crossed into Gaza and killed a 13-year old boy. That's got very, very little coverage in the British press."
Carolyn Quinn: "Jonathan Freedland, the point is that the media are required to put this in a historical context and perhaps they've failed to do that and failed to reflect the entrenched views that there are on both sides?"
Jonathan Freedland: "It is very, very hard. Look, in a minute-long dispatch to sudden cycle through a century of history because Mehdi's right, you can go further back and say who started these rockets and the kind of tit-for-tat of rockets, how long is the news cycle? Is it 24 hours? Is it a week? But then, also, you have to be aware there's an occupation in the West Bank, certainly since '67. In Gaza it's a (?) situation, not quite the same occupation situation. And then there's a century of history to take in. Do you go with the re-establishment of the State of Israel in '48, the Balfour Declaration in 1917?  And all those judgements matter because, actually, your perspective on who is David and who is Goliath here will change depending on when you start the clock. So Israelis and their supporters around the world hear themselves being depicted and cast as some kind of Goliath figure, they think if you go back a century when they were the stateless people in this situation, they were the landless people desperate for a haven, they think the history begins to look a bit differently...."
Mehdi Hasan [interrupting]: "But surely you would agree that right now Israel is the Goliath? You would accept that that right now Israel is the Goliath? That's just indisputably true."
Jonathan Freedland: "To Mehdi..and, you know, when I'm writing about the occupation situation, I too would describe Israel as the powerful party but you widen the lens a bit geographically, Israel sees itself as a tiny little country - you know, the size of New Jersey, the size of Wales, whichever cliché you want to use - surrounded by 22 more or less hostile countries who outnumber Israel's population by factors of about a hundred to..."
Mehdi Hasan [interrupting]: "Although they don't have nuclear weapons like Israel does. Something else that's never mentioned in the British media."  
Jonathan Freedland [interrupting]: "Right, but this is my point, my earlier point about narrative. Each side sees itself as David and each side, rightly or wrongly, sees the other as Goliath and, therefore, the challenge for journalists who are covering it is not to air only one of these two narratives - although, at one point or another, one of these might seem much more plausible than the other - but actually to air both because part of the conflict itself is the way they see each other. The media has a huge responsibility, a power here, because if they can get each side to actually in some ways to walk in the others shoes and see how the other sees themselves then they will not just be impeding the problem, they could actually make a contribution."
The conditions for unbiased reporting that Jonathan Freedland described are that being attacked by both sides doesn't necessarily mean that you are 'getting it about right' and that there doesn't have to be a numerical balance if you give both competing narratives a decent airing and if you are fair to both competing narratives.

How did The World Tonight fare in this light? Due to Jonathan Freedland's participation a pro-Israel voice (albeit a rather qualified pro-Israel voice) was given an airing by The World Tonight alongside two, possibly three (if you count Rosemary Hollis) anti-Israel voices. A numerical imbalance certainly, but that's acceptable according to what we might call the Freedland Rules; however the frequently critical nature of Mr. Freedland's support for Israel (well-known to those who read his articles) does cast a bit of a shadow over this concession and the imbalance was rather a strong one. Moreover, the commentary and the questions from the presenter, Carolyn Quinn, certainly seem to me to be much more in line with what pro-Palestinian listeners would have wanted to hear than pro-Israel listeners, which casts another shadow over the idea of the programme being fair to both competing narratives. Adopting one particular narrative isn't being fair to the other one. I'm calling this edition "biased" then.

[Sue: Jonathan F is what you say he is, but again, how are these ill-informed listeners to know this?
Mehdi is doing what Mehdi does. (Being new-left-wing, being a Muslim, and being opposed to Israel.) Whether he actually gives a fig for Palestinians is unknown, because I’d say both he and Jonathan F are doing quite nicely where they are thanks very much. In with the in crowd. Their current positions suit both of them, and they behave accordingly. That goes for Carolyn Quinn and the BBC too. They are biased against Israel and they think it’s fine to look at the world through that - I have to say prism, sorry - Prism.
I wish the BBC could be bothered to gather some fresh faces in, to bestow their expertise upon us.]

Tuesday night's edition 

The following night's edition had just one interview on the ongoing conflict and it further swelled the imbalance towards 'the Palestinian narrative'. Ritula Shah interviewed Mustafa Barghouti, "a leading independent Palestinian activist". (Mr. Barghouti is the sort of Palestinian activist that the Palestine Solidarity Campaign likes to invite to London). And that was it. No one was invited to put the Israeli side.

Still, did Ritula''s questioning of the former Palestinian presidential candidate counter this bias? I'll give that a "no".

Mr. Barghouti was speaking from a hospital in Gaza and described what was going on as being "like a massacre". "Nothing but scenes of massacre", he added. In response Ritula asked him about a possible ceasefire, and how would he use a ceasefire to "promote the cause of peace". He thinks a unified Palestinian leadership would help. Ritula asked him who would lead that unified leadership. He replied there should be a collective leadership and elections and complained about the West not respecting the outcome of the last election ("the first Arab Spring", he called that). Ritula asked if that unified leadership had been agreed or was on the verge of agreement. No, it's only being worked on, he answered. And that was that.

So Mustafa Barghouti was allowed to make repeated charges of "massacre" without challenge or a balancing voice. That's not on, is it?

Of course, the BBC rightly would answer that this was just one programme. Balance is achieved over time. However, the imbalance on Monday's edition was made worse by Tuesday's edition, so that's two programmes then!

[Sue: As for scenes in hospitals, massacres etc, that’s the BBC for you. Prism. The BBC is an open prism from which they send out home-made epistles aimed randomly at civilians with total disregard for the consequences. The blockade that prevents them passing in and out freely is entirely of their own making. Haha de-ha. 
Barghouti is one of those permanently incandescent Israel haters, so it was  certainly biased to let him glow undimmed.]

Wednesday night's edition

On the midweek edition, it was largely BBC reporters talking to Robin Lustig, beginning with Lyse Doucet in Gaza, talking of praise for Hamas and a noisy, celebrating city. How different to the previous night, she went on, when "Gaza was shaking from the ferocity of Israel." Will their lives improve now?, wondered Robin. It's not just relief that people are celebrating here tonight, Lyse answered, people feels it's a victory parade here too. Hamas has shown themselves to be "a power to be reckoned with". It's now "incumbent" on Israel to open the border crossings, thanks to a clause in the peace agreement.

Following Lyse Doucet in Gaza, Robin talked to Michael Friedson of The Media Line in Jerusalem. Aha, a pro-Israel voice? No. The Media Line is an organisation which seeks to be strictly impartial, like the BBC. The Media Line is, consequently, also well-regarded by many prominent anti-Israelis on the Palestinian side, such as the editor-in-chief of Al-Quds and the chairman of the Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation. Mr. Friedson said pretty much what a BBC reporter would say, including calling Benjamin Netanyahu on his "blustery words".

Then it was onto the BBC's Jon Leyne (who also appeared in Tuesday's edition) to talk about President Morsi of Egypt and his role in the Middle East.

Thursday night's edition

In this final edition, presenter David Eades gave space to two "normal" people on both sides of the Israel-Gaza border to reflect on the conflict in the wake of the ceasefire. So, there's a spot of numerical balance and an airing to both of the conflicting narratives - except that the "normal" Gazan was representative-sounding (bemoaning the "devastation in Gaza" and attacking Israel) while the "normal" Israeli (who, in fact, described herself as "American" rather than "Israeli") from across the border in Kiryat Gat was not so representative-sounding, saying that she wasn't part of the 70% of Israelis who wanted the air strikes on Hamas to continue. She came across, rather than Jonathan Freedland, as a critical friend of Israel - as might be seen from this exchange:
David Eades: "The next step is Israel's to take, isn't it really? To end the blockade for Gaza and open some of the crossings". In fact, you're not far from one crossing point. How do you feel about that?"
Lisa (in Israel): "I hope they do. I know that Israel has been sending in, you know, as much supplies as it's able during this type of situation but I have nothing against, you know, the people of Gaza and I think withholding supplies goes against everything that we need to do. You know, we don't want to alienate the people. There's know, we don't want to hurt any,you know, the individual and I really do think that's one thing Israel has to take this next step to, to see how they can best get across supplies and goods that they need to get across to, you know, help support the economy."
David Eades: "An important practical step. Eiman [in Gaza], I just wondered, the impression that we're given out of Gaza...." [moving on to a different issue]. 


Lisa in Southern Israel sounded like a very pleasant, liberal-minded lady and didn't opt to robustly defend Israel. Jonathan Freedland turned out to be the strongest defender of Israel across the week on The World Tonight. He, however, was also full of liberal-minded openness to the other side's point of view. Set them against the strong, no-concessions-given criticism of Israel from Eiman in Gaza, Dr Abuelaish, Mustafa Barghouti and Mehdi Hasan and the choice of guests begins to look imbalanced in more than a statistical way. Clear bias is detected here.

The two commentators from outside of the BBC, Prof. Hollis and Mr. Friedson, don't change the equation much, though they will have been welcomed more by pro-Palestinians than by pro-Israelis (especially those of Prof. Hollis).

The commentary and questioning by the presenters calls for some debate too. What do you make of David Eades's "An important practical step"? Was he just clarifying Lisa's point for his listeners, or emphasising it?

All in all, across the week, I think it is hard to disagree that The World Tonight's coverage was markedly tilted (i.e. biased) towards the Palestinian side. Those who claim that the BBC's coverage has been pro-Israel (as they are all over Twitter) will find very little to back up their contention here - and, as Jonathan Freedland said, saying that you are being attacked by both sides doesn't necessarily mean that you are 'getting it about right'. They aren't. The BBC should try much harder.

[Sue: The people who say the BBC is pro-Israel really do consider anything-whatsoever-that-might-conceivably-be-seen-to-justify-any-single-one-of-Israel’s-actions as pro Israel propaganda. That’s largely because the BBC has only just lowered its blockade on such things, and after being told to think Israel is synonymous with evil for such a long time people go “What?” “What are all these lies we don’t want to hear?” (The BBC is just toying with peoples’ emotions.) “If we can’t hate Israelis, who can we hate?” Watch out, BBC, it might be you.]

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