Arafat ‘poisoning’ case closed: an overview of 3 years of BBC News coverage

On September 2nd an article appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page under the title “Arafat poisoning inquiry dropped by French prosecutors” and a similar report appeared on the BBC Arabic website.

Although this report is about the closure of an inquiry opened three years ago in August 2012 after Suha Arafat filed a civil suit at a court in the Paris suburb of Nanterre claiming that her husband had been murdered, the caption to the main photograph illustrating the English language article continues to infer foul play.Arafat art 3 9 15  

“Swiss tests found abnormal levels of polonium on Yasser Arafat’s body”

That theme is also promoted in the body of the report:

“Arafat died in Paris in 2004, aged 75. His wife says he was poisoned, possibly by highly radioactive polonium.

The claims were seemingly backed up by tests carried out in Switzerland.”

Later on readers are informed that:

“Three teams of French, Swiss and Russian investigators were allowed to take samples from Arafat’s tomb in Ramallah.

But, earlier this year, one French prosecutor said the polonium samples were of an environmental nature.”

Readers are not told that the Russian investigation also ruled out poisoning.

As we know, the BBC’s editorial guidelines state that its content must achieve both “due accuracy” and “impartiality over time“. The BBC’s coverage of this story over the past three years presents an opportunity to examine its adherence to those editorial standards.

The story began in July 2012 when an Al Jazeera ‘documentary’ claimed that Swiss experts had found “significant” traces of Polonium 210 on some of Arafat’s personal effects provided by his widow.

In August 2012 Suha Arafat filed her suit in Paris and BBC coverage at the time informed audiences that:

“…many Palestinians continue to believe that Israel poisoned him. Israel has denied any involvement.”

In November 2012 Arafat’s remains were exhumed. The BBC’s Jon Donnison had already prepared the scene with two reports on Arafat’s ‘legacy’ – here and here – and a filmed item in which he promoted the notion that Arafat was “killed at the hands of Israel”. Additional filmed and written coverage by Richard Galpin also promoted the PA’s conspiracy theory of Israeli involvement in Arafat’s death. The exhumation itself prompted no fewer than five reports on the BBC News website’s Middle East page, three of which again promoted conspiracy theories about Israel.

A year later, in November 2013, the appearance of a Swiss report with findings described as “moderately” supporting the poisoning theory prompted the BBC news website to produce no fewer than thirteen different reports, nine of which amplified conspiracy theories concerning Israel’s involvement in Arafat’s 6 to 8 11

In December 2013 a leaked French report stating that Arafat was not poisoned was covered in two reports on the BBC News website, both of which included repetition of Palestinian conspiracy theories which accuse Israel of being responsible for Arafat’s death.

Later on in December 2013, the Russian team also announced that its findings ruled out foul play and that news was covered in one report on the BBC News website, which again promoted Palestinian conspiracy theories concerning Israel. By this time the website had promoted four times more reports promoting the Swiss report which “moderately supported” the poisoning theory than it had devoted to the French and Russian findings which determined that Arafat died of natural causes.

In January 2015 the BBC’s flagship interview programme ‘Hardtalk’ produced a special programme to “mark the anniversary” of Arafat’s death in which Suha Arafat was provided with a platform to further promote the notion that Arafat was murdered.

In March 2015 French experts officially announced that they had ruled out foul play and that “the polonium 210 and lead 210 found in Arafat’s grave and in the samples are of an environmental nature”. There was no coverage of that announcement on the BBC News website.

In July 2015 the French prosecutor “said there is no case to answer regarding the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat”. The BBC News website’s one report on that announcement promoted the ‘Israel killed Arafat’ conspiracy theory no fewer than three times.

In August 2015 the BBC found it appropriate to rebroadcast its January 2015 ‘Hardtalk’ interview with Suha Arafat despite the fact that it was obvious that the case was heading towards closure.

In this latest article concerning the French authorities’ decision to close the case from September 2015, the Swiss results are once again promoted as noted above.

So has the self-styled “standard-setter for international journalism” covered this story with “due accuracy” and “impartiality over time”? Well, for a start, the fact that the BBC’s backgrounder on the topic has not been updated since December 2013 does not enhance the impression of commitment to accuracy.

The repeated – if not obsessive – amplification of a baseless conspiracy theory even after two teams of experts had ruled that Arafat died of natural causes certainly cannot be said to contribute to the impression of accuracy in BBC reporting and licence fee payers may well be asking themselves how the BBC can possibly justify the use of resources, air time and column space to repeatedly propagate fact-free myth-cum-folklore and why it has spent three years lending an air of plausibility to this particular conspiracy theory.

As for impartiality, the volume of coverage of the Swiss results which “moderately” supported the poisoning theory has clearly been much greater than the BBC’s reporting on the results produced by the other two teams and their continued amplification even in this latest report suggests that “impartiality over time” was not a priority in coverage of this story.

Related Articles:

Why we need to talk about the BBC’s promotion of Middle East conspiracy theories

BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’ keeps Arafat conspiracy theory going

The BBC’s flagship interview programme ‘Hardtalk’ is broadcast on both BBC World News and the BBC News channel. On August 27th, both those channels showed a repeat of a previous edition of the programme originally aired in January 2015 (and previously discussed here) in which Zeinab Badawi travelled to Malta to interview Suha Arafat.  

As readers may recall, Badawi made no effort at the time to correct the inaccurate impressions given to audiences by Suha Arafat via statements such as:

“When there’s a rocket on Israel we have 1,000 people who are killed in the same day.”

“Gaza…the most crowded city in the world…”

“…more than 1,000 people who are still in the coma…” [after the conflict last summer]

“….nothing happen [with the peace process] because Israel continue to do settlements, Israel continue to build the wall….”

Obviously the corporation supposedly committed to editorial standards of accuracy and impartiality did not identify any problem in repeating the broadcast of such inaccuracies.Hardtalk Arafat repeat

The synopsis of the repeat states:

“Earlier this year Zeinab Badawi went to Malta to meet Suha Arafat – the widow of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Ten years after his death, Mrs Arafat gave a rare broadcast interview about their marriage, why she believes her husband was assassinated and why she has chosen to live in Malta and not amongst the Palestinian people who so revered him.” [emphasis added]

Two months after the original interview took place, French experts ruled out the possibility of foul play in Arafat’s death.

“French experts have ruled out that the 2004 death of iconic Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was the result of poisoning, a prosecutor told AFP Monday

The prosecutor of the western Paris suburb of Nanterre said the experts found there was no foul play in Arafat’s death, which sparked immediate and enduring conspiracy rumors. […]

The French experts “maintain that the polonium 210 and lead 210 found in Arafat’s grave and in the samples are of an environmental nature,” Nanterre prosecutor Catherine Denis said.”

Last month – as the BBC itself reported – the French authorities closed the case.

“A French prosecutor has said there is no case to answer regarding the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

A murder inquiry was ordered by a court in Nanterre in August 2012 after his widow Suha alleged he was poisoned with polonium-210, a radioactive element.

On Tuesday, the local prosecutor concluded the case should be dismissed.”

It would therefore be extremely interesting to gain some insight into the editorial considerations which led to this programme being repeated and BBC audiences being yet again exposed to amplification of a conspiracy theory which has already been shown to be a figment of Ms Arafat’s imagination.

Related Articles:

BBC News yet again amplifies Arafat conspiracy theories

‘Special edition’ of BBC’s Hardtalk to commemorate a terrorist

BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’ provides propaganda platform for Erekat yet again

The last thing that can be said about the PLO’s chief negotiator Saeb Erekat is that he suffers from a lack of BBC airtime but nevertheless, the end of May saw him back at one of his regular spots – ‘Hardtalk‘.Erekat Hardtalk May 2015

Not only did Erekat have nothing new to tell host Zeinab Badawi, he even recycled statements made during previous appearances on the same programme. At 10:32 in the video below, Erekat says:

“See, in my opinion Christian and Muslim Palestinians will not convert to Judaism and become Israelis. Jews will not convert to Islam and Christianity and become Palestinians.”

If that sounds familiar, that may be because only last year Erekat made a very similar statement during a previous ‘Hardtalk’ interview.

“Are Christian and Muslim Palestinians going to convert to become Israelis? Or are Jews going to convert to Christianity and Islam and become Palestinians? This is not happen.” 

And if it rang a bell even in 2014, that could be because back in 2011 Erekat told Zeinab Badawi in yet another ‘Hardtalk’ interview:

“I don’t think Christian and Muslim Palestinians would convert to Judaism and become Israelis. I don’t think that Jews would convert to Islam and Christianity and become Palestinian.”

In other words, for four years at least Saeb Erekat has been pushing the same broken record mantra and not one BBC journalist has bothered to follow it up by informing audiences that not all Israelis are Jews – as the country’s two million strong non-Jewish population (25.1%) indicates – or by asking him why Jews cannot be citizens of a Palestinian state.

Let’s take look at some of the other falsehoods propagated by Erekat – with no disturbance from Badawi – in this programme.

“I have as a Palestinian recognized the State of Israel’s right to exist on the ’67 borders.”

“We recognize them to live in peace and security in the ’67 borders – that’s 78% of historic British mandated Palestine – and accepted to establish our state in the remaining 22% of the land.”

There is of course no such thing as “’67 borders” because the 1949 Armistice Lines were specifically defined as not being borders – as even the BBC’s style guide notes. Nevertheless, Badawi makes no effort to clarify the point to viewers.

“In one week of his government he [Netanyahu] issues more than two thousand housing units of settlements in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank. They’re moving their offices – his ministers – to occupied East Jerusalem and today, literally speaking, there are buses in Israel that Palestinians cannot use. They call it sterilized buses and there will be roads that they call sterilized roads.”

Those “East Jerusalem” apartments are in fact located in Ramat Shlomo and have been going through the planning process since 2010. One Israeli minister has approached the Finance Ministry with a request for new offices in Jerusalem. The same ministry has a long existing office in the Sheikh Jarrah neighbourhood of Jerusalem: an area which was classified as no-man’s land throughout the 19 years of the Jordanian occupation of parts of Jerusalem. There are no “sterilized buses” and the restriction on travel for PA registered vehicles on certain small sections of road arises from the very real security issues which of course do not get a mention in this programme at all.

“I’m telling the Israelis if you worry about courts, stop committing crimes. […] I cannot have every two years 12,000 Palestinians killed and wounded in Gaza. I cannot leave the continuation of the settlement activities, by-pass roads – now they call sterilized road – sterilized buses. I cannot continue living a deeper apartheid system in the West Bank and East Jerusalem than the one that existed in South Africa. So what I’m telling the Israelis wake up, wake up. What you’re doing in the West Bank in accordance with the international law – the four Geneva Conventions and the 4th Convention of 1949 – are war crimes.”

Like the vast majority of Palestinians in Judea & Samaria, Saeb Erekat lives under full Palestinian Authority control. The topic of Palestinian self-rule in areas A&B is of course not mentioned at any point in this programme either and Badawi sits idly by as Erekat promotes the false and defamatory notion of a system of ‘apartheid’ worse “than the one that existed in South Africa”.

“I know I have an agreed agenda with them, signed by the Israeli government, saying that permanent status negotiations issues are borders, Jerusalem, water, security. Is Mr Netanyahu willing to utter the sentence two states on the 1967 lines? […] Is he willing to carry out his commitment – not condition – to stop settlement activities in the land that’s supposed to be the State of Palestine?”

“What is between me and the Israelis are elements of contracts, agreements signed. There are obligations emanating from those agreements signed – on me as a Palestinian and on Israel. And Israel must stop settlement activities and must accept two states on 1967 lines and must accept to sit with me to delineate the borders on the basis of the 1967 lines. If they’re willing to honour their commitments we’ll meet tomorrow.”

The “agreements” and “contracts” signed between the Palestinians and Israel are the Oslo Accords. In contrast to the misleading impression given to viewers of this programme, nowhere in those agreements is any restriction placed on building in Israeli towns and villages in Judea & Samaria or Jerusalem and nowhere do they state that the 1949 Armistice Lines – or “67 lines” as Erekat calls them – would be the final borders between Israel and a Palestinian state. That, of course, is precisely why the subject of borders is one of the issues to be discussed in final status negotiations.

“We’re willing to engage seriously on the basis of the agreed terms of reference specified in the Quartet’s statements saying that negotiations should be on the basis of two states on 1967.”

The Quartet’s February 2015 statement makes no mention of “1967” and neither does its 2003 roadmap stipulate that Erekat’s much-touted “1967 lines” are a basis for negotiations.

“The fact that Palestine became and has gained the legal status for observer state meant that it’s a state under occupation. The West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem is identified as now as a Higher [sic] Contracting Party to the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. […] Palestine has a status of a state under occupation like what countries like Norway, Belgium, Holland, France, Korea, the Philippines were in the Second World War under German and Japanese occupation [Badawi: sure, sure…] so the Israelis cannot say it’s disputed territories…”

Legal experts contacted by BBC Watch in connection with Erekat’s claim that the 2012 granting of the status of UN non-member observer state automatically confers High Contracting Party status advised us that “neither joining the Geneva Conventions nor receiving observer status in the General Assembly are procedures for assigning territorial sovereignty, and neither action could give “Palestine” sovereignty over the territory of “West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem.”

“Zeinab, settlements in the West Bank including East Jerusalem are illegal settlements. Actually, in accordance with the 4th Geneva Convention these settlements are war crimes.”

That inaccuracy is reinforced by Badawi at 07:45:

“And of course, as you say, international law says that the settlements are illegal.

Once again the BBC breaches its own editorial guidelines on impartiality by failing to inform audiences of the existence of legal opinions which disagree with the politically partial line it chooses to promote.

Were viewers of this programme provided with factual information which would aid them in building an “understanding of international issues“? Regrettably, no. Were they provided with unchallenged misinformation in breach of BBC editorial guidelines on accuracy and impartiality? Unfortunately, yes. That, however, is par for the course in any BBC content featuring Saeb Erekat.

Related Articles:

 BBC’s Hardtalk provides platform for Saeb Erekat’s fabricated histories – part one

BBC’s Hardtalk provides platform for Saeb Erekat’s fabricated histories – part two


How to Complain to the BBC

BBC’s Sackur touts ‘racist’ Israel in Hardtalk interview with Herzog

The April 21st/ 22nd edition of ‘Hardtalk’ featured an interview with the leader of the Israeli Labour party, Yitzhak (Isaac) Herzog. Readers in the UK can find the programme on BBC iPlayer here and a podcast of the programme is available here.Herzog on Hardtalk

As is not infrequently the case, viewers and listeners heard presenter Stephen Sackur promoting his own ideas about Israel in the form of ‘questions’ and even some belated election campaign advice to Herzog.

10:42: “I tell you what you could have done – and you talk about fear – what maybe you could have done to the Israeli people is say that if we do not negotiate a two state solution with the Palestinians, then there’s only one other realistic alternative: that is we have a bi-national state – a unitary state – which includes all of the Palestinians in the occupied territories as well as Israel proper and the result of that will be in the long run, we Jewish Israelis will be in a minority. So then we either accept that in a democracy or we run an apartheid state. But you never outlined the choice in those terms.”

04:39: “Are you telling me today that you believe Binyamin Netanyahu is in essence a racist?”

06:08: “What does it say about today’s Israel that the argument that you’ve just outlined – that Netanyahu used close to polling day – was so successful? What does that tell us about Israel today?”

21:00: “Before we end, let’s just address a bigger picture thought. Not so long ago the president of Israel, who is no peacenik – he’s a former…he is a Likudnik – Reuven Rivlin, he said Israel right now is a sick society. He was talking about the signs of a new racism and discrimination amongst some elements in Israeli Jewish society. And not so long ago the great writer Amos Oz – he said there is a real danger of Israel becoming an isolated ghetto. When you hear the words of Oz and Rivlin – the worries about where Israel is today – do you share them?”

One particular section of the interview was also promoted by the BBC on social media under the title “Isaac Herzog: Time to amend the nuclear deal with Iran” and with the following synopsis.Herzog on Hardtalk clip

“Isaac Herzog is chairman of the Labour party in Israel. His party has just lost in an election to Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

He tells Stephen Sackur that there are no differences between Netanyahu and himself on the crux of the Iranian challenge to Israel.

Now is the time to amend the Iranian nuclear interim deal, Mr Herzog argues.”

In that clip Herzog says:

“On the crux of the challenge of the Iranian nuclear programme there is no difference [between Labour and Likud]. And I made it clear throughout the elections that there is no difference here: there is no coalition and opposition here. This is a matter of huge impact on the world peace, on Europe, on Britain too by the way and of course on the Middle East and the moderate forces in the Middle East and the security of Israel.”

Whilst Herzog’s stance on the P5+1’s framework agreement with Iran will not come as a revelation to those with a realistic understanding of the Israeli political scene, it does shine a spotlight on the framing chosen by the BBC in its presentation of the issue in recent weeks. That choice of framing has led to a failure to clarify to BBC audiences that concerns regarding the Iranian nuclear programme straddle the Israeli political spectrum and are not – as BBC audiences have been led to believe – the exclusive concern of the Israeli prime minister.

“Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly warned a deal with Iran could threaten Israel’s security.” (21/1/15 – link to source)

“Administration officials have been hitting back at Mr Netanyahu’s aggressive opposition to the nuclear deal they’re negotiating with Iran…”  (26/2/15)

“That issue – Iran and the Bomb – is one of the defining themes of Mr Netanyahu’s career …” (26/2/15)

“To his supporters Mr Netanyahu is something of a visionary on the topic, who has devoted much of his career to warning that the revolutionary regime in Tehran is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons.” (2/3/15)

“Mr Netanyahu says the deal would be inadequate to prevent Tehran from acquiring a nuclear bomb.” (2/3/15)  [links to sources of all of the above]

“Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has warned that the framework deal poses a grave danger to the region.” (30/3/15 – link to source)

“When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the most vociferous sceptics, recently addressed the US Congress. he invoked the history of World War One [sic], and actions of wartime leaders which tragically paved the way to the Holocaust.” (30/3/15 – link to source)

“There was anger though from Israel, whose leader Benjamin Netanyahu has been a vocal critic of Iran and told President Obama the deal threatened the survival of Israel.” (3/4/15 – link to source)

“Mr Obama said he recognised the concerns raised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a fierce critic of the deal…” (7/4/15 – link to source)

As readers are well aware, the BBC has consistently failed to provide its audiences with the background information necessary for them to understand why leaders from across the Israeli political scene (among many others) are concerned by the P5+1’s framework agreement with Iran. Herzog went on to say:

“And we presented – I presented – a full-fledged plan on how to deal with the agreement that’s supposed to be agreed upon by the end of June. Right now is the time to amend whatever needs to be amended and correct and upgrade and improve a lot of issues which are open and disturbing.”

Stephen Sackur, however, was too focused on the niche topic of coalition building to take the opportunity presented by Herzog’s words to contribute to the BBC’s public purpose remit by clarifying to audiences worldwide exactly why two Israeli leaders with such different views on so many other issues see the same pitfalls in the framework agreement.   


BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’ mainstreams anti-Israel delegitimisation

In June 2014, whilst appearing on the BBC radio 4 programme ‘Desert Island Discs’, Raja Shehadeh gave the following account of his family’s decision to leave Jaffa for their second home in Ramallah in the spring of 1948.

“Jaffa it’s very hot and humid in the summer and so they had a summer-house in Ramallah. When hostilities began they decided it’s safer in Ramallah because it was getting rather dangerous actually – physically dangerous – so they decided, towards the end of April, to take that short drive down to Ramallah – short drive from Jaffa – and my father always thought that if the worst happens – that is the partition – Jaffa was going to be on the Arab side so they will always be able to go back. And they took very few things with them and they were never able to go back.”

That did not prevent Zeinab Badawi from making the following inaccurate and misleading claim in her introduction to the March 16th 2015 edition of ‘Hardtalk’ shown on the BBC World News channel. The same claim appears in the programme’s synopsis on the BBC website.Hardtalk Shehadeh

“My guest today is the award-winning Palestinian author and lawyer Raja Shehadeh. For three decades he has written many books about human rights and the Israeli occupation. His family were forced to leave Jaffa in 1948 and settled in Ramallah on the West Bank where he lives today.” [emphasis added]

Notably, Badawi makes no attempt to inform her audience of Shehadeh’s activities beyond “author and lawyer”: no mention is made of his record of political activism with organisations such as Al Haq and Palfest, meaning that viewers – in clear breach of BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality – are denied the ability to put his comments into their appropriate context.

Predictably, Shehadeh uses the platform provided by the BBC to promote the well-worn language and distortions of anti-Israel campaigning. No less predictably, little effort is made by Badawi to counter that propaganda.

Audiences hear mostly unchallenged references to Israelis as ‘colonisers’, promotion of the ‘apartheid’ trope and comparison to South Africa, the claim that “Israel never left Gaza” along with description of the Gaza Strip as a ‘large prison’ and the claim that the Arab-Israeli conflict is “the most important issue in the world today” and “at the core of the problems of the Middle East”. Shehadeh distorts history both actively and by omission with viewers hearing, for example, an account of his father’s post-1967 proposals which is devoid of any mention of the Khartoum Declaration and a euphemistic representation of the 2013/14 round of negotiations which eliminates the Palestinian Authority’s decision to run those talks aground by means of its reconciliation deal with Hamas.  

And so here we have yet another example of the role played by the BBC in mainstreaming anti-Israel delegitimisation and defamation by means of a passive-aggressive failure to challenge the falsehoods and factual distortions promoted by an inadequately introduced political activist.

Related Articles:

Desert Island distortions on BBC Radio 4

Elections 2015: round up of BBC coverage – election day WS radio reports

‘Special edition’ of BBC’s Hardtalk to commemorate a terrorist

At some point in the not too distant past, the producers of the flagship BBC interview programme Hardtalk obviously decided that the tenth anniversary of the death of a notorious terrorist responsible for the killing of thousands of people and the maiming of many thousands more warranted commemoration.

Hence, on January 19th they broadcast what was described as a “special edition” of the programme in order to “mark the anniversary” of the death of Yasser Arafat – according to Hardtalk host Zeinab Badawi who was sent specially to Malta to interview Suha Arafat.

That programme can be viewed in the UK on BBC iPlayer here or as a Youtube video here. An audio version was also produced for the BBC World Service and clips from the interview were promoted on the BBC News website’s Middle East page and on the Hardtalk webpage.Hardtalk Suha Arafat

Despite the fact that Hardtalk bills itself as conducting “[i]n-depth interviews with hard-hitting questions and sensitive topics being covered”, Zeinab Badawi allows Suha Arafat to avoid providing any real answers to questions on the topic of Arafat’s notorious embezzlement of donor funding and to dismiss the topic as “character assassination against my husband”.

Badawi does however provide Suha Arafat with an ample platform from which to once again advance her unproven theories regarding the cause of her husband’s death. She also fails to correct the inaccurate impressions given to audiences by Suha Arafat via statements such as:

“When there’s a rocket on Israel we have 1,000 people who are killed in the same day.”

“Gaza…the most crowded city in the world…”

“…more than 1,000 people who are still in the coma…” [after the conflict last summer]

“….nothing happen [with the peace process] because Israel continue to do settlements, Israel continue to build the wall….”

Badawi herself fails to distinguish between civilian casualties and terrorists when she says that “two thousand people died in Gaza in July and August last year” and her description of Mahmoud Abbas’ signing of the Rome Statute in order to join the ICC as “some progress being made on the diplomatic scene” is of course both creative and revealing.

Far from having even a whiff of “in-depth” or “hard-hitting” about it, this puff piece interview not only does nothing to provide audiences with a realistic view of the man who is the only reason for this woman being interviewed (the word terrorism, for example, is not mentioned once), but audiences are treated to hefty doses of clichés such as “iconic leader”, “great leader”, Arafat’s “legacy” and “hero of the Palestinian cause” from both interviewer and interviewee.

That, together with the fact that this programme was made for the reasons stated by the BBC itself, says it all. 

‘Hardtalk’ interview with Yehuda Glick reinforces entrenched BBC narrative

The January 7th edition of ‘Hardtalk’ – presented by Stephen Sackur and broadcast on BBC World News and on the BBC News Channel with three additional repeats – featured an interview with Yehuda Glick. The synopsis to the programme appearing on the BBC website reads as follows:Hardtalk logo

“Jerusalem boasts one of the most bitterly contested pieces of real estate in the World – known as the Temple Mount to Jews and the Noble Sanctuary to Muslims. Jews aren’t allowed to pray there, many Jewish religious leaders say Jews should not set foot there; but that consensus is breaking down. Hardtalk speaks to Yehuda Glick an activist who’s been variously described as a dangerous extremist, and a campaigner for religious freedom. Three months ago he survived an assassination attempt. Why does he persist with his divisive campaign on Jerusalem’s holiest ground?”

The portrayal of the campaign for equal prayer rights for non-Muslims on Temple Mount as “divisive” is in tune with themes promoted in much of the BBC’s recent reporting from Israel. Indeed, that campaign was the second most promoted factor (after ‘settlements’) used by BBC journalists to ‘explain’ the rioting, violence and terror attacks in Jerusalem and elsewhere during October and November 2014. Whilst the BBC has seen fit to employ political labels such as “extremist” and “right-wing” to describe people involved in that campaign or visiting the site, similar political labelling for those engaged in rioting, violence and terror ostensibly in response to that campaign was absent from all BBC reporting.

Notably, no effort has been made by the BBC to date to examine the real issues behind opposition to equal prayer rights at a site holy to members of three religions. Whatever one’s opinion on the issue of the implementation of such rights (and the Israeli government has made it perfectly clear on numerous occasions that it has no intention of changing the status quo according to which non-Muslims are not allowed to pray at the site), there is clearly a wider discussion to be had about the acceptance of limits on freedom of religion in the 21st century and the ideologies which form the basis for violent opposition to equality for members of all faiths.

Stephen Sackur, however, passed up on the opportunity to use this interview to present a more in-depth view of the topic to BBC audiences and elected instead to further promote the standard BBC approach to the issue. As readers can see for themselves below, viewers of this edition of ‘Hardtalk’ were not even informed who tried to kill Yehuda Glick on October 29th and that would-be assassin was certainly not depicted as a “provocative figure” or an “extremist” – as Sackur did describe his interviewee. In fact at one point (05:50), Sackur’s unfortunate turn of phrase appears to justify violence.

Glick: “…there is no reason in the world why that [non-Muslims praying on Temple Mount] should cause others to be violent towards…”

Sackur: (interrupts) “Well of course there is a reason because it contravenes the agreement upon which access to Temple Mount is currently governed…”

Purporting to explain the underlying issue to audiences, Sackur promotes inaccurate information:

“For some people watching this who don’t know the situation today, let us just lay it out in simple terms if we can. You know, the Temple Mount as you call it obviously is the site of the first and second ancient Jewish temples built by the kings, you know, thousands of years ago. That matters deeply to you. It is also, right now, today, the site of the third holiest Muslim shrine: the Al Aqsa Mosque – it’s known as Dome of the Rock. Of course generally; the compound described as the Noble Sanctuary. Deeply important to Muslims around the world and the arrangement is and has been for many years that Jews do not go into the compound to pray and have limited – very limited – access to the compound as long as they don’t pray.  

The Al Aqsa Mosque is of course not “known as Dome of the Rock”: the two are separate structures. Notably, Sackur’s explanation does not clarify that Temple Mount is the holiest site in Judaism – or why – and his claim that under the terms of the status quo agreement Jews have “very limited” access to Temple Mount is inaccurate, with the right of access also protected by the Protection of Holy Places Law.

Notably, every time the conversation does approach the issue of religious freedom, Stephen Sackur interrupts and redirects it elsewhere in accordance with his all too obvious agenda of reinforcing the framing of this story already so well entrenched in previous BBC coverage.


‘Hardtalk’: a test case for BBC claims of ‘equal coverage’

As has been noted here previously, on July 5th – three days before Operation Protective Edge commenced – the BBC’s World Editor Andrew Roy appeared on the World Service’s ‘Outside Source’ programme to explain how the BBC ensures equal coverage of what the programme termed “Israel-Palestine”.Hardtalk Osama Hamdan

Andrew Roy: “Well we try to look at the entirety of our coverage. We’re not minute counting. We are ensuring that across the whole thing we can look back on our coverage of this and say we did give fair balance to each side. So it’s not a minute by minute thing, no.” […]

Presenter: “When you get people complaining that they feel one side has been given more air-time or more favour than the other, what do you do?”

Andrew Roy: “We answer them by giving them the evidence that we’ve tried to put the other side as often as we can.”

Since the beginning of this year the BBC World News programme ‘Hardtalk’ has conducted interviews with numerous people in connection with the Palestinian – Israeli conflict or touching on that issue as part of the conversation.

The year kicked off with a repeat of an interview with anti-Israel activist Roger Waters on January 1st.  

The following month the programme hosted the PLO’s Saeb Erekat on February 18th and Israel’s Minister of the Economy Naftali Bennett on February 24th.

On April 28th the programme’s guest was Ahmed Kathrada and part of that interview was devoted to the topic of his anti-Israel activism.Hardtalk Yasser Abed Rabbo

June 30th saw an interview with the anti-Zionist campaigner and academic Ilan Pappe.  

The next month saw interviews with former Israeli Ambassador Dore Gold on July 8th, Hamas’ spokesman Osama Hamdan on July 10th, Israel’s former deputy Defence Minister Danny Danon on July 24th and Hamas political bureau leader Khaled Masha’al on July 25th.

On August 18th ‘Hardtalk’ interviewed anti-Israel activist Mads Gilbert and on August 28th Israel’s Minister of Intelligence Yuval Steinitz appeared on the programme.

September 1st saw Stephen Sackur interviewing the Secretary General of the PLO’s Executive Committee Yasser Abed Rabbo and on the next day, September 2nd, Sackur’s guest was journalist Gideon Levy.

Since the beginning of the year, therefore, regular viewers of ‘Hardtalk’ have seen interviews with four guests presenting a mainstream Israeli point of view – three politicians and a former Ambassador. They have also heard from two members of Hamas and two representatives of the PLO. In addition, they have viewed interviews with three foreign anti-Israel campaigners and two Israelis: one of whom is also an anti-Israel campaigner and neither of whom can be said to represent the mainstream Israeli viewpoint. 

Can ‘Hardtalk’ producers look back at that content and honestly say – as Andrew Roy claims – “we did give fair balance to each side”?

Related Articles:

‘From Our Own Correspondent’: a test case for BBC claims of ‘equal coverage’



One to watch: BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’ hosts Gideon Levy

The BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’ team has been visiting the Middle East and the September 2nd edition of the programme on BBC World News will feature an interview with the Israeli journalist Gideon Levy. According to the synopsis:

“HARDtalk is in the city of Tel Aviv which lies only a short distance up the coast from the Gaza Strip. Stephen Sackur speaks to Gideon Levy, a journalist who has made it his mission to tell Israelis what it really means to live in an occupying power. He calls himself a truth-teller but many Israelis see him as a traitor.”

BBC audiences cannot be said to have been deprived of the opinions of this writer for a newspaper read by fewer than 6% of Israelis during the past few weeks. Gideon Levy appeared on the BBC World Service’s ‘World Have Your Say’ on July 29th and on ‘World Update’ on July 28th with his own self-focusing ‘war stories’ being prime subject matter.

Broadcast times can be seen below.

Hardtalk Gideon Levy


BBC content continues to mislead on Gaza casualties

There is still no evidence of the BBC having carried out any independent verification of the casualty figures from the Gaza Strip which it continues to cite in its various reports. Examples of the type of phrasing currently being used in BBC content include:stats

“Close on two thousand died – nearly all civilians – and thousands more were injured, many seriously.” [‘Hardtalk‘, 18/8/14]

“Since then [July 8th], at least 2,029 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian health ministry.” [“Gaza conflict: Israel ‘targets Hamas leader Deif’“, 20/8/14]

“Officials say 2,016 Palestinians and 66 Israelis have died since Operation Protective Edge began on 8 July.” [“Gaza conflict: Israel hits Gaza after rockets fired“, 19/8/14]

“The Palestinian health ministry says that 2,016 Palestinians have been killed since the offensive began, including 541 children and 250 women.” [“Gaza conflict: Truce ends amid fresh fighting“, 20/8/14]

As we see, the BBC continues to cite figures and civilian/combatant ratios provided the “Palestinian health ministry” but without adequate clarification to audiences that the body concerned is under the direct control of Hamas which has issued directives, via its Ministry of Information, to refrain from disclosing combatant casualties.

“The ministry of the interior and national security [in Gaza] calls on all our [Palestinian] people and the resistance factions [i.e. the terrorist organizations] to be wary of disseminating information and pictures of fatalities of the resistance, and [about] mentioning details about [the circumstances of] their deaths as martyrs and where they died. That is because the occupation is collecting all the information and reports [about the martyrs] and uses them as evidence to justify its crimes against [Palestinian] civilians and [to justify] the destruction of buildings and to take advantage [of the information] for security purposes. [We appeal] especially to social network activists and in the media belonging to the resistance factions. During the past few hours we have located many postings with sensitive information detrimental to our people and its resistance. Mention of the acts of heroism of our martyrs and of the men of our resistance should not be a reason for causing greater damage, because our people’s battle against the occupation continues.”

At no point during the last six weeks have BBC audiences been informed that the casualty figures and civilian/combatant ratios it cites are subject to such Hamas manipulation.

The Meir Amit Intelligence and Information Centre has to date issued three reports examining the names provided on Hamas casualty lists – see here, here and here. In the most recent report we see an example of the type of practice which makes independent verification of casualties essential for any reputable news organization – and in particular one supposedly committed to editorial standards of accuracy and impartiality.

“The Palestinian Health Ministry’s list included the names of two young boys aged 13 and 15, who were operatives in a Fatah terrorist network by the name of the Ahmed Abu al-Rish Battalions. The two were killed in the same incident. Our investigation revealed that the first 13-year-old “boy” was a 26-year-old operative. On the other hand, the other boy was indeed a 15-year-old terrorist operative. This shows that when boys appear in the Palestinian Health Ministry’s list, the immediate tendency is to classify them as non-involved civilians, but they may actually be operatives involved in terror.”

In addition, the BBC News website continues to promote and amplify statistics provided by UN OCHA. The inaccurate article titled “Gaza conflict: The hundreds who lost their lives” which was discussed here has now appeared prominently on the website’s Middle East page for twelve consecutive days.

As we reported here over a month ago, UN OCHA figures come from three primary sources.

“Katleen Maes informed us that UN OCHA’s three primary sources are B’Tselem, the PCHR and Al Mezan – all of which are political NGOs with a less than pristine record on impartiality in Israel-related matters. Maes added that the secondary sources used by UN OCHA to arrive at its 77% civilian casualty rate figures are the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, the Palestinian Red Crescent and the local Arabic media in Gaza, some of which is also run by Hamas and with the rest operating with Hamas consent, of course.”

As we have also previously noted, two of UN OCHA’s primary sources – the PCHR and Al Mezan – are actors in the current lawfare campaign against Israel with the former having been heavily promoted by the BBC in recent weeks. B’Tselem’s director was also featured in a BBC report on July 16th.

Via NGO Monitor we learn that one of the primary sources used by B’Tselem’s three field workers in the Gaza Strip to collect data on casualties is none other than Hamas itself.

“We rely on lists provided by other organizations and by the Palestinian Ministry of Health. We try to do a basic check of those lists, which is just cross-referencing them one to another, trying to get the basic data.” 

B’Tselem’s method of verification apparently involves ringing up relatives to ask if their deceased loved ones were members of terrorist organisations.

“With the current military campaign ongoing, B’Tselem is taking testimony from Gaza residents, mainly by telephone. B’Tselem verifies, to the best of its ability, the reliability and precision of the information reported; nevertheless, in these circumstances, reports may be incomplete or contain errors.”

It is of course not inconceivable that families of members of terrorist organisations would be motivated to comply with Hamas’ directives to describe all casualties as ‘innocent civilians’ and conceal their terror connections.

BBC audiences have not been told about that or any other aspects of the all-important background to casualty figures provided by UN OCHA and cited in BBC reports.

One might well have expected that an organization which purports to adhere to standards of accuracy and impartiality would take care to inform audiences that the statistics it quotes are obtained from partisan sources with a distinct political agenda enabled by presentation of those figures in a certain manner. One would certainly also expect such an organization to make audiences aware of the fact that it has not independently verified the information it provides.

Six weeks on, that is still not happening in BBC reporting.

Related Articles:

Documenting the BBC contribution to political warfare against Israel

Documenting the BBC contribution to political warfare against Israel – part two

 The BBC’s Janus-faced approach to the issue of casualties in Gaza

Vital statistics: stealth changes made to the BBC’s Gaza casualty figures article