Speaking at Chatham House in May 2010, the BBC’s former Director General Mark Thompson closed his address with the following words:
“The BBC’s motto is ‘Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation’ – the idea being that access to news, information and debate about different countries and cultures can ultimately help foster mutual understanding and tolerance.”
That concept can, of course, only be said to be viable if the news and information delivered is – as the BBC’s constitutional documents demand – both accurate and impartial. Indeed, as Thompson also said in the same address, those values form part of the BBC’s reputation.
“Every BBC person I met in Afghanistan knows exactly what the BBC, and in particular BBC journalism, stands for: accuracy, impartiality, independence, seriousness.”
When combined with the BBC’s unrivaled outreach to millions of people world-wide, that reputation creates an authority which also bears a heavy responsibility. According to Thompson:
“[T]he BBC continues to enjoy a level of trust from audiences across the world which is unique among international news providers.”
The BBC claims that one of its mechanisms for meeting standards of accuracy and impartiality is the provision on its website of more detailed information than it is possible to give in a news bulletin. In a document prepared by BBC News editors in 2006 for the Thomas Report, the editors stated that:
“Among the requests from both sides in the conflict is that we should more frequently recount its history in our daily journalism. We do not think daily news journalists have the time in their reports to go into such a level of detail, not least as there are two versions of the history. Instead, our strategy is to supplement our news coverage by providing detailed background on BBC News Online. It has the space to carry more information than broadcast news programmes, helping readers to understand the political, historical or economic background to an event. “.
The document also states that:
“A member of the audience who watches, listens and reads the full range of our output should be coherently and cogently informed about events in Israel and the occupied territories, and should better understand the complex forces that are at work.”
It should, therefore, go as read that information provided by the BBC on its much-read website (ranked in the top 50 in the world and fifth in the UK) would meet the self-defined criteria of accuracy and impartiality, not only as a value in itself, but also because information placed on the BBC website is expressly defined as part of the strategy to ensure the BBC’s impartiality and accuracy.
The Mid-East section of BBC Online’s News pages includes a series of ‘country profiles’ (compiled by BBC Monitoring), ostensibly providing readers with factual background information about countries in the Middle East and North Africa which compliments on-going news stories. The information contained in these country profiles is not – unlike news items – compiled in the heat of events, and therefore may be expected to adhere even more rigorously to the BBC’s obligations of accuracy and impartiality.
The first page of the country profile for Israel contains an overview which is replete with errors – mostly by omission.
Paragraph two of the overview states that:
“It [Israel] has been locked in conflict with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours over ownership of land considered holy by Jews, Christians and Muslims since its creation in 1948.”
This statement reduces the Arab-Israeli conflict to one solely of religion: it is by no means an accurate representation and one which fails to reflect its true –and considerably more complex – nature.
The overview continues:
“After the Nazi Holocaust pressure grew for the international recognition of a Jewish state, and in 1948 Israel declared its independence following a UN vote to partition Palestine.”
This statement omits the fact that the UN General Assembly resolution 181 – the partition plan – was accepted by the Jews in Palestine, but rejected by the Palestinian Arabs and the Arab states, thereby preventing the concurrent establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state.
Likewise, the overview neglects to mention the fact that surrounding Arab nations planned and began implementing their invasion even before the termination of the British Mandate in Palestine. No mention is made either of British involvement in the designs to over-run the new Jewish state or of the financial and logistical support provided to the Arab Legion by the British government. Instead, the attacking Arab nations are presented as mere ‘good neighbours’ to the Palestinian Arabs.
“Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced in the fighting in 1948, during which Israel’s Arab neighbours came to the aid of the Palestinian Higher Council.”
The fact that the war of 1948 also resulted in the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Jews – both inside Mandate Palestine and from surrounding Arab and Muslim nations – is ignored, as is the prior displacement of Palestinian Jews as a result of the Arab revolts of 1929 and 1936, among others. So whilst neglecting to mention the fact that a significant proportion of Israel’s population began new lives in Israel as refugees either from post-war Europe or the Middle East and North Africa, the article states that:
“It [Israel] has absorbed Jewish immigrants from Europe, the rest of the Middle East, North America and, most recently, the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia along the way.”
Next, the overview continues with a rather laconic paragraph in which no attempt is made to inform the reader of the fact that all three of its listed “full-scale regional wars” were in fact attempted wars of annihilation of the Jewish state by surrounding Arab countries or to provide the context of terrorism as contributing factors to others.
“Its [Israel's] political life has nonetheless been dominated by the conflict with its Arab neighbours, including full-scale regional wars in 1948, 1967 and 1973, and many smaller-scale conflicts including the 1956 invasion of Egypt and the Lebanon wars of 1982 and 2006.”
Leading on from that, the subject of ‘the occupation’ is therefore not contextualized either. The reader has no idea that some of the territories acquired by Israel in a defensive war in 1967 were previously part of Mandate Palestine, but that they were captured by invading Arab armies in 1948 and that their annexation was not recognized by the international community.
“The Palestinians in the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem have lived under Israeli occupation since 1967.”
Next, a cursory reference to “international law” fails to take into account both the complexity of the subject (for example the fact that the area termed ‘the West Bank’ was never legally the territory of a High Contracting party) and the many opposing legal opinions.
The citing of the number 500,000 as the Jewish population of ‘settlements’ appears to include eastern Jerusalem, which would imply that the BBC writer is suggesting that Jordan’s unrecognised annexation of parts of the city of Jerusalem (seized in 1948) from 1950 to 1967 was legitimate.
“The settlements that Israel has built in the West Bank are home to nearly 500,000 people and are deemed to be illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.”
In a sub-section entitled “Gaza conflict”, the overview conforms to BBC editorial guidelines by describing Hamas as a “militant Islamic group”, despite its being recognized – including by the British government – as a terrorist organization. Further, the implication that the partial blockade (rather than mistermed “economic blockade”) on the Gaza Strip is purely an Israeli reaction to Hamas’ seizure of power there is both erroneous and misleading in that it ignores international reactions (including those of members of the Quartet and Egypt) to Hamas’ gain of power in Gaza in 2006 as well as the de facto state of armed conflict between the Gaza Strip and Israel – as evidenced by Hamas terror attacks on Israeli civilians using weapons smuggled into Gaza, which the blockade is designed to counter.
“Israel evacuated its settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and withdrew its forces, ending almost four decades of military occupation. However, after the militant Islamic group Hamas seized control of Gaza in June 2007, Israel intensified its economic blockade of the Strip.”
According to the BBC’s editorial guidelines – designed to protect the BBC’s all-important reputation as a trustworthy news provider:
“We seek to uphold the BBC’s Editorial Values in all we do. They embody our freedoms and responsibilities and, like the Editorial Guidelines, apply to all our content, whether it is made by the BBC itself or by an independent company working for the BBC, and whether it is made for radio, television, online, mobile devices, interactive services or the printed word.“
And: [emphasis added]
“Impartiality lies at the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences. We will apply due impartiality to all our subject matter and will reflect a breadth and diversity of opinion across our output as a whole, over an appropriate period, so that no significant strand of thought is knowingly unreflected or under-represented. We will be fair and open-minded when examining evidence and weighing material facts.”
“Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area. They may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views in BBC output, including online, on such matters.”
This overview suffers from bias – mainly by omission of key facts – and fails to reflect and represent views which cannot be termed anything other than significant since they pertain to the very basis of the conflict which the BBC attempts to describe.
Such bias is damaging to the BBC’s self-declared declaration of what it stands for: “accuracy, impartiality, independence, seriousness”.
That biased approach is not, however, confined to the overview and future articles here will deal with other parts of the BBC’s country profile of Israel.