Thursday 15 February 2018

Getting your story across

What is wrong with Jeremy Bowen’s reporting of the Israeli Palestinian conflict? 

I listened to the whole 28 minutes of Jeremy Bowen’s interview with communications guru Mike Sergeant, but for now I’m sticking to Craig’s transcription of excerpts from it. 
‘I’ve got a very thick skin now. It doesn't really bother me’ […]“if I'm going through a particularly troll-like period”
On a personal level Jeremy Bowen refuses to listen to criticism, which he dismisses as ‘trolling’, and he consistently claims to be impartial and unbiased. It’s conceivable that he sincerely believes this himself,  but has he ever asked himself why supporters of Israel are the ones that dispute his impartiality, while pro-Palestinian audiences are generally satisfied with his reports?  

It’s difficult to articulate what the BBC’s pro-Israel audience expects from its Middle East reporting without being accused of demanding a pro-Israel slant to every report. That’s not the case; what pro-Israel audiences actually want and deserve is fairness. The problem is that a consensus on what constitutes fairness and balance is unreachable if the interested parties are equipped with nothing but a long record of incomplete and one-sided reporting. You need to start from a level playing field.
“Both sides want to be seen as victims” 
he says, elaborating on the difficulties of finding himself in the midst of “the rough and tumble” of the situation, almost as if he’s defending fairness in the refereeing of a rugby game. 

No, if he really believes both sides are competing over victimhood like the ‘hardship’ sketch from Monty Python, that is clumsy and  inaccurate. Only one side ‘wants’ to be seen as helpless victims, and they make sure they promote this delusion, with the help of Jeremy Bowen and co., as far and wide as they can. 

Even if the Israelis did want to be seen as victims, they are never portrayed as such by the media, and apart from the obvious vilification Israel endures from the outside world, Israelis neither see themselves as victims nor want to be seen as such, as far as I know.

Most listeners to the BBC are reliant on the knowledge and intelligence of the reporting team. For the BBC, the history of the Israeli Palestinian conflict starts after or immediately before the 1967 six-day war. This predates Jeremy Bowen’s editorship, but the absence on the BBC of reliable pre ’67 information on Middle East history remains to this day. 

It’s widely understood that Bowen was appointed by the BBC to rescue its damaged reputation at the time of the Balen report, as this piece by  Keith Dovkants in the Evening Standard, written  way back in 2009, attests. Effusive in its praise for Jeremy Bowen’s skill and integrity, the piece contains some unpleasant insinuations about the Israel lobby and alleges that the BBC is terrified of antagonising the Israelis. 
“The BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen is considered one of the corporation's treasures, a highly-talented reporter and presenter who has covered stories in 70 countries. His reports on the Gaza incursion, and the terrible loss of civilian lives, have been models of fairness while never losing the humanity for which he is known.”
Keith Dovkants is entitled to his opinion, but one cannot be sure how he came to reach it. Perhaps he has much greater knowledge than most of us on the topic; or perhaps much less.

Jeremy Bowen has always come across as an intellectual lightweight, out of his depth in the role as BBC Middle East editor for two reasons. One, he lacks an overall, ‘long-view’ grasp of the Israel Palestinian conflict, and two, he holds a personal grudge against the Israelis. Both are drawbacks that seriously affect his approach to the incidents and analyses he brings to our screens. 

On the positive side, he’s willing to put himself into risky situations - reviewers of his war book quote him as being addicted to them - which makes him an ideal war correspondent, but if meaningful analysis or editorial control is what you need, he’s the wrong guy.

Feeding the audience with  isolated, cherry-picked glimpses of an incident, like that extremely biased report on Ahed Tamimi’s ‘slap’,  leads the unwary into a trap. Crucial information he omits from this report amounts to ’non-disclosure.’ In other words, withheld information can turn any situation on its head, as in the recent rape trial where the case collapsed as soon as previously undisclosed phone texts came to light. If non-disclosure is intentional and designed to hamper the defence, this is a moral rather than a procedural issue.

Israel-supporters will be contradicted  and shouted down by Israel-haters no matter what. Lazy language has moved in, settled down and become part of the furniture. The pro-Palestine movement, mingled with left-wing ideology and student politics is huge, aggressive and pro-active. Debates are always on their terms, and  the pro-Israel argument is invariably forced into a defensive position. 
“You can't just say, as if you're in the pub or something, 'Well, you know, what this is all about is...'. You have to explain your reasoning.”  
I do recall comparing Bowen’s analyses to those of a pub philosopher - superficial, gossipy and inflammatory, and there was nothing in this interview to disabuse me of that view.
“Ahed Tamimi, who slapped an Israeli soldier. And the story was not all that it seemed.” 
Despite the thick skin and ‘ain’t bothered’ attitude, Bowen is obviously wounded by the criticism he received for this report,  and is using tricksy language to defend himself. 
“Quite a lot of people want her to be kept in jail for quite a long time for doing what she did” 
he said. Doing what she did?  If all Ahed Tamimi  had actually done was ‘slap an Israeli soldier” he might have had a point. As he said, ‘the story was not all it seemed,’ but he wasn’t referring to the content he omitted from his film; just the opposite. He was talking about the content he gratuitously included in his report, which was  angled to justify her actions. “50 years of occupation” and so on.
  “But, you know, he was a great big bloke, armed to the teeth, and I think he knew that a small 16 year old was not going to be a real threat to him.”  
No indeed, ‘the slap’ itself wasn’t the threat. What was much more of a potential threat, not to those two soldiers, but to Israel’s image, was the intended entrapment, provocation, filming, the fact that she was technically a child (at the time) and the propaganda the Tamimis hoped to gain from the stunt, had their ‘child’ succeeded in provoking the response they’d hoped for, namely one violent enough to put Israel in the wrong, but not violent enough to jeopardise the health of the useful little heroine. Even if that particular propaganda stunt didn’t go to plan, the subsequent arrests were enough to work with, and Jeremy Bowen took full advantage.

Mike Sergeant the interviewer, gushing with admiration, stepped in. “and the boy” he reminded his guest. 
“And the boy. There's a boy too” […] “a cousin who was shot in the face and in his brain by an Israeli soldier with a rubber-coated metal bullet,” 

said Jeremy, though not quite clarifying whether or not this incident was the catalyst for the slap, it served the purpose of rationalising it.   The interviewee exposed his unshakeable self belief. The theme - ‘communicating’ seemed more suited to a  college lecturer advising a media studies class how to find work in film or advertising. “How to get your story across on film.”  

Bowen was quite frank about one thing. He knows how to get his story across, but is much less interested in getting the story across.


  1. Most BBC bias can be criticised in the same way, one side would like to see both sides of the story, ideally told in an impartial way, the other side complains that their side, the 'correct' view, isn't being pushed hard enough. The BBC then says they must be getting it 'about right'.
    It is like watching a football match where the referee never allows the ball to cross the centre line. One team complains that they would like to see the ball go to the other end of the pitch sometimes while the other can't understand why they don't win all the calls for foul, free kicks and penalties, after all the referee is wearing their team's colours!

  2. Certain things are written in stone. In the cheesiest 70s cop show or even cheesier 90s politico-media thriller, if the ‘hero’ is too close to the story, they are booted off it.

    The reason is because the are and cannot be impartial, and no matter how much they say they can or their bosses believe they can be, they cannot.

    Except when it is the bbc.

    I fully concede that when standing with folk at the wrong end of a tank barrel, it can be life changing if it goes off and some of those folk are no longer standing with you.

    However as the basis of a gilded career ‘reporting’, supposedly professionally and objectively, on one of the most febrile regions of the world it is pretty poor.

    That the bbc keeps him in place, there, all this time, tells me all I need to know about their commitment to impartiality.


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