Saturday 8 December 2012

Settling the issue of bias?

A couple of weeks ago, we at Is the BBC biased? (me and Sue!) laid out evidence for why we think that BBC Radio 4's The World Tonight has been biased towards the Palestinian side in its coverage of the latest conflict between Israel and Gaza. (You can review that evidence and form your own judgements here.) How has the programme faired in its coverage of Israel in the two weeks that have passed since?

Well, last night's edition featured an interview (beginning about 32 minutes in) between presenter Robin Lustig and Professor Beverley Milton-Edwards, "a specialist in Middle Eastern and Islamic politics at Queen's University, Belfast" (as Robin described her). Interpreting tone of voice is a deeply subjective thing, of course, but Prof. Milton-Edwards sounded (to me) as if she was rather gloating at Netanyahu's "mortification" at the hands of "conquering hero" Meshaal and at the "popular ascendence" of Hamas. When asked whether Israel could ever "do business" with Meshaal, she drew parallels between Meshaal and peace-maker Gerry Adams and between Netanyahu and Ian Paisley, placing equal blame between the Israeli government and Hamas for their "mutual intransigence". She clearly believes in negotiations with Hamas and in the need for outside forces to push the hand of both sides to move things on. 

Who is Professor Beverley Milton-Edwards (pictured below)? Well, we know she's "a specialist in Middle Eastern and Islamic politics at Queen's University, Belfast", because Robin told us she was. Anything else? Yes, she's a prolific author. That's one of her books above - the one with the little old Palestinian lady standing in front of a stern, armed Israeli soldier (with two other Israeli soldiers looking on), subtitled "A People's War". She has co-written books and articles with Alastair Crooke, the former MI6 man who sparked controversy by advocating negotiations with Hamas and Islamic Jihad. 

Wikispooks tells us, "In June 2007, Melanie Phillips accused the BBC's Newsnight and Radio 4 of relying on pro-Hamas interviewees, citing Crooke, Azzam Tamimi, William Sieghart of Forward Thinking and Professor Beverley Milton Edwards." (Sadly there's no working link to Mel's post.) Bev's testimony also played a major part in Abu Qatada's victory over the government during his latest appeal against deportation to Jordan. I think we can safely mark her invitation to comment on yesterday's The World Tonight as another notch on the pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel side of the account sheet then. 

We step back five days from there to Monday's edition for discussion of Israel's settlement plans in the E1 area of Jerusalem and the West Bank following last week's U.N. vote in favour of greater recognition for the Palestinians. First BBC Middle East correspondent Wyre Davies went to have a look at the E1 district. It's "what Palestinians and the international community regard as occupied Palestinian land. This is the occupied West Bank," he said. "For a Palestinian perspective", Ritula Shah then talked to Sabri Saidam, deputy speaker of the Fatah Council. He was critical of Israel, as you might expect ("act of piracy", "act of revenge", "overkill"). Then Ritula talked to one of Israel's strongest defenders in the U.S., Alan Dershowitz. Evidence of balance? Indeed. However, it's not as simple as that. Here's how Ritula introduced Mr. Dershowitz: 
"Alan Dershowitz is Professor of Law at Harvard Law School and he's also the author of a book called The Case For Israel. He was highly critical of the Palestinians' decision to ask for recognition at the U.N. and might have been expected to support Israel's building plans, but he too believes the moves will make hopes for a two-state solution more difficult."
For starters there, unlike with Prof. Milton-Edwards above, Prof. Dershowitz's standpoint is made crystal clear in advance by the BBC presenter. Listeners were forewarned that he's a pro-Israeli advocate (in more senses than one). Secondly - and at the risk of sounding like a typical BBC-hating conspiracy theorist -, I am entertaining the suspicion that Prof. Dershowitz's invitation may have been sent by The World Tonight precisely because he too is critical of the Israeli government's actions over the proposed area E1 settlements. So, yes, the programme balanced a pro-Palestinian advocate with a pro-Israel advocated, but the pro-Israel advocate was on the programme being critical of the Israel government and no-one was invited on to defend the Israeli plans (unless the team at The World Tonight were taken by surprise at Prof. Dershowitz's critical position as their pre-recorded interview with him unfolded?) 

Back on the Thursday 29 November edition, the programme discussed the Palestinians' successful bid for greater recognition at the U.N. with Carne Ross, a former U.K. diplomat who resigned from the service in protest at the Blair government's support for the Iraq, went on to found  the advisory group Independent Diplomat role, is a campaigner for a U.N. parliament (modelled on the European parliament) and a member of the Occupy Wall Street Working Group on Alternative Banking. (That list of beliefs will raise may a right-leaning critic of the BBC's eyes sharply towards heaven!) Mr. Ross doesn't think the vote has helped the Palestinian cause. As he wrote elsewhere:
All a bit depressing and familiar.  In my humble opinion, this illustrates an eternal truth of the Israel/Palestine dispute at the UN.  The UN is not the place where this will get sorted out, but there is a  more subtle truth too.  Thanks to the huge mountain of UN resolutions denouncing the occupation and demanding a just resolution, from 242 and 338 onwards, the impression has been created that it is here that the Palestinians will find justice, and perhaps progress to liberation.  This is a grotesque illusion.  If I were a Palestinian in Gaza or Hebron (which I am not, and am thus ill-placed to judge), I would forget the UN, and instead start a non-violent uprising.  The lessons of the Arab Spring could not be clearer: this is the way to create political change, not pettifogging negotiation over words, commas and procedures in corridors at the UN.
From Mr. Ross's commentary here (and elsewhere), it is clear that he is sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, though not of the course they are presently pursuing, and critical of the "obdurate" Benjamin Netanyahu. He is no Beverley Milton-Edwards though, describing Hamas's path as "the dead end of violence". In the above passage, is he advocating a non-violent uprising by the Palestinians or is he disinterestedly pointing out that such a course of action would be a better way to get what they want? 

His appearance on this edition of The World Tonight didn't make this any clearer (which isn't a bad thing in a diplomat, of course!). He said that his "Palestinian contacts" were telling him that Abbas had "talked himself into a corner", poured more cold water on the bid, thinking it wasn't "much of a step forward" (as only other states can recognise states), pointed out that Israel and the U.S. were "by no means isolated" in opposing the bid and he said that "Nobody in the international community really accepts Hamas as being the international voice of the Palestinians. Most countries do not deal with Hamas in any case." 

From all this, I'm feeling confident that the evidence continues to support my contention that The World Tonight reflects a pro-Palestinian bias on the BBC's part. The tilt against Israel continues.

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