Loving the hate: BBC coverage of Sharon’s death

One of the notable features of the BBC’s tsunami of coverage of Ariel Sharon’s death – and one which has already received no small amount of criticism on social media for its inappropriate lack of taste – has been the generous inclusion and amplification of hate-filled views of the man and his life.

On the live page which appeared on the BBC News website on January 11th immediately following the official announcement of Sharon’s death under the tacky heading “As it happened: Ariel Sharon dies“, the feed included the following. [all emphasis added]

“1446: Arab Twitter users were celebrating Sharon’s death within seconds of it being announced. Tweets in Arabic seen by the BBC recount what many see as Sharon’s crimes from the 1967 Arab-Israeli war through the occupation of Lebanon in 1982, to the storming of the al-Aqsa Mosque complex in 2000.

“Sharon is a shedder of blood, all the curses of the skies and the Earth are on him, he killed children and women, and displaced families,” read one tweet.

“There are many like Sharon in the school of the Zionists,” read another. “Like many before him he died, and the school of crimes survives.”

Many regretted Sharon had not stood trial. “I did not see him standing behind bars to be tried for the pain and harm he caused for the Palestinian people, but it is fate, yes fate,” wrote one.”

Is the phrase “storming of the al-Aqsa Mosque complex” really an accurate description of the events of September 28th 2000 in the eyes of the BBC? 

“1504: Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement which controls the Gaza Strip, welcomed the departure of a “tyrant”. “Our people today feel extreme happiness at the death and departure of this criminal whose hands were smeared with the blood of our people and the blood of our leaders here and in exile,” said spokesman Sami Abu Zurhi.”

“1505: A former minister in the Palestinian Authority, Ghassan Khatib, has told BBC World Service that Palestinians will never forgive Ariel Sharon for what he did. “We all only have negative and bad memories of Sharon,” he said.

“I think the consensus among Palestinians is that Sharon needed to be treated as a war criminal more than anything else. In all his political life he was a leading figure in the Israeli political camp that worked by all possible means, legal and illegal, in order to maintain the illegal control of Israel over the Palestinians.” “

“1535: Few tears are being shed for Sharon in Egypt, if the blog posts seen by BBC Monitoring are anything to go by.

“Sharon died years ago, today he is being taken to the courtroom,” wrote well-known Egyptian actor and activist Nabil al-Halafawi on Twitter.

Khayri Ramadan, a prominent presenter on one of the most watched private channels in Egypt, CBC TV, tweeted: “The murderer Ariel Sharon. Sharon died and is thrown in the history’s dustbin because of his brutality, maltreatment of our brothers in Palestine and Lebanon.” “

“1620: In the Gaza refugee camp of Khan Younis, correspondents saw some people burning pictures of Sharon or stamping on them, while others distributed sweets to motorists and passers-by.”

“1627:

Image on Iran's Fars news agency

 This image appeared on Iran’s Fars news agency with the caption “The story of the butcher of Sabra and Shatila is over”.”

“1652: Tawfik Tirawi served as Palestinian intelligence chief when Sharon was prime minister. His reaction to his death: “He wanted to erase the Palestinian people from the map… He wanted to kill us but, at the end of the day, Sharon is dead and the Palestinian people are alive.” “

“1658: BBC Monitoring has been watching Iranian media for their coverage of Sharon’s death. For the state TV of one of Israel’s greatest enemies, he was a “criminal Zionist racist” and “mastermind of the brutal massacre of more 3,300 oppressed Palestinians and refugees”. According to a presenter on the channel, Sharon “got involved in the genocide and occupation of Palestinian lands by enrolling in a Zionist group in his youth”.”

“1738: Palestinians who survived the 1982 Sabra and Shatila camp massacre in Beirut show no sympathy or compassion over Sharon’s death, Reuters news agency reports.

“I personally, as a witness and what I suffered from that person, I say to Hell and hellfire Sharon and similar to Sharon,” said one of them, Youssef Hamzeh.

“We have been suffering for the past 32 years, he suffered for only eight years,” said another, named as Milany Botros Alha Borje. “I wish he could for 10 more years so that I would be happy. There is nothing we can do. That’s God’s will.” “

For some inexplicable reason, official BBC Twitter accounts also saw fit to amplify and spread such hateful opinions.

BBC News world sharon tweets 1

BBC News world Sharon tweets 2Similar comments were amplified – and also solicited – in BBC reports appearing on the BBC News website and on BBC television news programmes.

The BBC’s Jim Muir in Lebanon took the trouble of going to Shatila to gather comments from people there. 

Sharon Muir Lebanon

A recording of an interview with Mustafa Barghouti (presented only as a member of the PLC) which appeared on the BBC News website on January 12th was apparently taken from a telephone interview elsewhere, but its source is difficult to determine because the interviewer does not bother to intervene no matter how ridiculous Barghouti’s claims are or how many times BBC style guide rules are breached.

“And the most bad memory we have is – the worst memory – is that he practically undermined and destroyed the peace process – the Oslo process – when he visited Al Aqsa Mosque and launched a campaign against the implementation of the peace process, eventually building what has become the apartheid wall or the segregation wall that is confiscating and occupying big parts of the West Bank. And also he was responsible for the building of so many settlements – illegal Israeli settlements […] besides of course the fact that many people suspect that he was responsible for the assassination of Mr Arafat…”

Sharon filmed Barghouti

A filmed report by Kevin Connolly from January 11th has a ‘man in the Gaza street’ interview and shows footage of pictures of Sharon being burned in Gaza and celebratory sweets being handed out. 

Sharon Connolly street

An additional article from January 11th which appeared on the BBC News website is titled “Ariel Sharon death in Israel: World reaction“. That article features quotes from various Palestinian personalities and, notably, from the politically motivated NGO Human Rights Watch.

“There was little sorrow among Palestinians at Ariel Sharon’s death, both in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. At Khan Younis in Gaza, sweets were handed out and posters of the late Israeli prime minister was burned.

“We don’t say good riddance but I don’t think he has left us anything positive,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. She told the BBC his legacy was one of violence, bloodshed and cruelty. Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005 was a “unilateral redeployment” that maintained a “very strict siege”.

Former minister Ghassan Khatib said “in all his history, he played a negative role” and a senior official in the Fatah movement, Jibril Rajoub, condemned him as a criminal whom Palestinians had wanted to see tried as a war criminal.

Khalil al-Haya of Gaza’s Islamist militant Hamas movement said after eight years Ariel Sharon was going in the same direction as “other tyrants and criminals whose hands were covered with Palestinian blood”.”

“The organisation Human Rights Watch said Ariel Sharon had died without facing justice for the massacre at Sabra and Shatila.”

Another article appearing on the BBC News website on January 12th saw fit to reproduce chosen quotes from the Middle East press such as the one below.

“Antar Farahat in Egypt’s privately-owned daily Al-Misri al-Yawm

His crimes and the massacres he committed against Palestinians and Arabs are witness to unprecedented racism and bloodiness… He has well-deserved the names of ‘Dracula’, ‘the Bulldozer’, ‘the hungry wolf’ and ‘war criminal’ and despite this his people regard him as a national hero in light of the achievements he made for them at the expense of Arab and Palestinian blood by taking part in all the wars Israel waged.”

But apparently the BBC policy of amplifying the hate-speech of anyone and everyone – from the Tweeter in the street to members of terrorist organisations and tame editors of newspapers from theocratic dictatorships – when statesmen and politicians pass away is selective. We certainly saw no evidence of such policy when Mandela recently died and it will be remembered that the BBC saw fit to censor a song about former British PM Margaret Thatcher at the time of her passing on the grounds that it was an inappropriate “celebration of death”.

One wonders how the licence fee-paying public would react if, when their time comes, former British statesmen were treated according to the version of those selective criteria deemed appropriate for a former Israeli Prime minister and their families exposed to BBC-sponsored tirades of hatred before they are even buried.

 

‘Churnalism’ and the BBC

The interesting (despite its sound quality) video below features the head of the BBC Multimedia Newsroom Mary Hockaday in conversation with Steve Hewlett at the Polis Journalism Conference held at the LSE earlier this month. 

Towards the end of the video (at around 21:36), Hewlett raises the subject of ‘churnalism’ which is defined by the Media Standards Trust as follows: 

“‘Churnalism’ is a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added. In his landmark book, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies wrote how ‘churnalism’ is produced by:

“Journalists who are no longer gathering news but are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false” (p.59).

According to the Cardiff University research that informed Davies’ book, 54% of news articles have some form of PR in them. The word ‘churnalism’ has been attributed to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir.

Of course not all churnalism is bad. Some press releases are clearly in the public interest (medical breakthroughs, government announcements, school closures and so on). But even in these cases, it is better that people should know what press release the article is based on than for the source of the article to remain hidden.”

However, the sheer number of organisations putting out statements for use by the media makes it important for BBC journalists not just to make do with identifying the source of the press release, but also to inform readers of any political and/or ideological affiliations which may have a bearing upon the impartiality of the information put out by the organization concerned – as indeed they are required to do by the Editorial Guidelines with other outside contributors.

On April 11th the BBC News website ran an article on its Middle East page entitled “Hamas failed to probe Palestinian ‘collaborator’ deaths“. To its credit, the article states clearly that it is relating to a statement made by the NGO Human Rights Watch, but it makes no attempt to explain to readers the well documented record of HRW on subjects connected to the Middle East. 

Unless he or she takes the trouble of also reading the HRW press release upon which the BBC article is based, the reader will also not be aware of how much of the article is original BBC content and what proportion of it is merely rehashed from the NGO’s statement.

The article opens:

“Human Rights Watch says Gaza’s Hamas government has failed to investigate the killings of seven Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel.”

The HRW press release begins:

“The Gaza government has apparently not even begun a promised investigation more than four months after gunmen killed seven Palestinian prisoners accused of collaboration with Israel.”

The BBC article continues:

“The men were shot in public and the body of one was dragged through the streets by a motorcycle.

The incident took place in November during the eight-day conflict between Hamas and Israel.”

HRW states:

“The men, who were last seen alive in custody during the November 2012 fighting with Israel, were executed on a public street. One of the men’s bodies was dragged behind a motorcycle.”

The BBC report goes on:

“HRW said a promised inquiry into their deaths seemed not to have begun, a claim denied by Hamas.”

The first part of that sentence is clearly taken from the opening line of the HRW press release. The last five words appear to be original BBC content. The BBC article continues:

“The men had already been convicted by a military court in Gaza of spying for Israel, before armed men seized them from custody.

But HRW said their convictions may have been based on evidence extracted through torture.”

The HRW statement says:

“Military courts had convicted the men primarily on the basis of coerced confessions, ignoring credible evidence that interrogators tortured at least six of them.”

The BBC article goes on to use a quote taken directly from the HRW press release:

“Hamas’s inability or unwillingness to investigate the brazen murders of seven men makes a mockery of its claims that it’s upholding the rule of law in Gaza,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of the New York-based HRW.

“Even before the killings, the abuses the men suffered made the criminal justice system a travesty, regardless of their guilt or innocence.”

The BBC article then states:

“At the time, Hamas deputy leader Moussa Abu Marzouk called the killings “unlawful” and said the perpetrators should be punished.”

The HRW statement says:

“Other Hamas leaders, including deputy politburo chief Musa Abu Marzouq, condemned the killings and called for those responsible to be held accountable.”

The next paragraph of the BBC report appears to be original content.

“On Thursday Hamas spokesman Ihab al-Ghusain denied the HRW allegation, saying that an inquiry headed by the prosecutor general had been set up just after the incident and had already made recommendations to the cabinet.”

The BBC article goes on:

“The HRW report came on the day Hamas had set as a deadline for suspected collaborators with Israel to turn themselves in, promising them an amnesty.”

The HRW press release says:

“Meanwhile, the Hamas government has set a deadline of April 11, 2013, for suspected collaborators to turn themselves in, promising them an amnesty.”

The BBC article concludes with two sentences of original content:

“Collaborators are widely loathed in Palestinian society.

Gaza’s Interior Ministry spokesman Islam Shahwan said security forces would conduct large-scale arrests of suspected collaborators as soon as the amnesty period ended on Thursday evening.”

So, out of a total of 284 words in this report, only 73 can be regarded as original BBC content, with the vast majority of the article having been reproduced from the HRW statement.

Acting as an amplifier for Human Rights Watch or any other NGO is clearly not to be found in the BBC’s remit and ‘making do’ with this sort of rehashed ‘churnalism’-style report certainly does not replace the necessity for serious investigative journalism into the subject of whether these murdered men were ‘collaborators’ at all, as well as the broader subject of the way in which the taboo of ‘collaboration’ is often used as a smoke screen for the summary execution of political opponents and others in both Hamas and PA controlled territories.

BBC still citing erroneous civilian/combatant casualty ratio

On December 24th 2012 an article was published in the Middle East section of the BBC News website pertaining to the statement put out on the same day by ‘Human Rights Watch’ which deemed the rocket attacks on Israeli civilians by Palestinian terror organisations to be a violation of the laws of war. 

BBC report on HRW

In an apparent attempt to inject an air of moral equivalence early on in the piece, the article’s third paragraph states:

“Last week, HRW said Israeli attacks on media facilities and journalists in Gaza also violated the laws of war.”

In the fifth paragraph we find the BBC still touting erroneous claims about casualty figures from Operation ‘Pillar of Cloud’ [emphasis added]:

“At least 170 Palestinians and six Israelis were killed in the fighting. Most of the Palestinian fatalities were civilians, although Israel says 30 senior militants were among the dead. Four of the Israelis killed by rocket strikes were civilians, and two were soldiers.”

Apparently the BBC is not yet aware that a list of names of casualties from the Gaza Strip was published on December 16th by the Meir Amit Intelligence and Terrorism Information Center. The list was compiled by cross-referencing the names of casualties published by the Hamas Ministry of Health with those appearing on the websites and social media forums of the various terror organisations active in the Gaza Strip and in the Palestinian media. 

The list is not perfect: for instance it categorises four year-old Mahmoud Sadallah as an uninvolved (civilian) casualty despite the fact that there is very good reason to believe that his death was the result of a misfired rocket by one of the Palestinian terror groups. 

Nevertheless, it does give us the names and affiliations of 169 casualties out of a maximum number of 178. Nine names – all adult males – were unidentifiable. Some of the people identified have been shown to have died from natural causes unconnected to the conflict, but their names were added to the Hamas Ministry of Health list anyway. 

Of the 169 casualties identified, 101 (some 60%) were shown to be members of terrorist organisations. Sixty eight (around 40%) of the casualties were uninvolved civilians who died during attacks on terrorists and terrorist installations. Of the terrorists killed, 71 belonged to Hamas, 17 to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, 6 to the Popular Resistance Committees, three to Fatah, two to the Army of Islam, one to the PFLP and one to a Salafist-Jihadist group. 

Unless the BBC can come up with any concrete evidence which contradicts the information provided on that list, it should – according to its own standards of accuracy – cease to use the claim that “most of the Palestinian fatalities were civilians” and correct its existing reports accordingly. 

Another misleading claim in this article states that:

“Israel’s declared aim in launching its offensive on 14 November was to stop rocket attacks from Gaza. Thousands of rockets have been fired into Israel since 2005 when it pulled Jewish settlers and troops out of the territory.”

The average reader of that paragraph would understand that rocket fire into Israel began in the year 2005. That of course is not the case, with rocket and mortar attacks on Israeli civilians living in villages inside the Gaza Strip having begun on January 30th 2001 and attacks over the ‘green line’ having commenced two months later in March 2001. Whilst the phrase “thousands of rockets” is not strictly speaking incorrect, a more accurate choice of wording would have been “tens of thousands of rockets” and even better would have been to give the readily available precise numbers. 

The article concludes by returning yet again to the prior HRW report which accused Israel of ‘targeting journalists’, with the BBC still insisting on categorizing members of the propaganda arm of a terrorist organisation as “Palestinian cameramen”, even though their affiliations have been clarified on a Hamas-linked website.

al Kumi & Salama

Unless the BBC can produce evidence which contradicts Hamas’ acknowledgement of Hussam Salama and Mahmoud Al Kumi as part of its media arm, or unless it can come up with any legal basis to support the implied claim that journalists working for terror organisations are not categorized as non-civilians in the same manner as journalists working for regular armies are, then according to its own standards of accuracy it should cease to refer to them as merely “Palestinian cameramen”. 

In conclusion, what we have in this article is an inaccurate civilian/combatant casualty ratio, a misleading statement concerning the duration of rocket attacks and – in a report ostensibly about Palestinian violations – no fewer than six paragraphs about a different HRW report altogether, used to suggest moral equivalence between the deliberate targeting and killing of civilians and the targeted killings of members of terrorist organisations.

 

Compromising public perceptions of BBC impartiality

Sadly – for both its colleagues in the field in which it operates and the many people around the world in need of the human rights sector – there is nothing novel about the seemingly interminable ability of ‘Human Rights Watch’ to bring itself into repeated disrepute and compromise its own reputation for impartiality. 

A long line of scandals includes fund-raising in Saudi Arabia, an HRW employee with a penchant for Nazi memorabilia, cooperation with the Ghaddafi regime and accusations – including from its own founder – of poor research methods.

Only last week the Wall Street Journal informed us of yet another problematic aspect to HRW. It turns out that HRW’s Executive Director of almost twenty years, Kenneth Roth, does not consider Iran to be in violation of the UN Genocide Convention.

“Asked in 2010 about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s statement that Israel “must be wiped off the map,” Mr. Roth suggested that the Iranian president has been misunderstood. “There was a real question as to whether he actually said that,” Mr. Roth told The New Republic, because the Persian language lacks an idiom for wiping off the map. Then again, Mr. Ahmadinejad’s own English-language website translated his words that way, and the main alternative translation—”eliminated from the pages of history”—is no more benign. Nor is Mr. Ahmadinejad an outlier in the regime. Iran’s top military officer declared earlier this year that “the Iranian nation is standing for its cause that is the full annihilation of Israel.”

Mr. Roth’s main claim is legalistic: Iran’s rhetoric doesn’t qualify as “incitement”—which is illegal under the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948—but amounts merely to “advocacy,” which is legal.”

As the article’s author David Feith rightly points out, Roth’s approach conveniently ignores Iran’s sponsorship of its proxies Hamas and Hizballah which are quite open about their aims.

Three days after the Roth story broke, HRW published yet another of its rapidly produced reports – this time accusing Israel of “a clear violation of the laws of war” during the latest conflict between it and terrorist organisations in the Gaza Strip.  Like its problematic 2006 report on the Second Lebanon War, this report is based on ‘evidence’ gathered from local residents – with apparently no attempt made to first establish the possibility of their affiliations to terror organisations – and without the author Fred Abrahams – who is not a munitions expert – having been able to inspect the remnants of what he presumes was ” a large aerial bomb”.

Needless to say, the deliberate targeting of Israeli civilians – with fatal results or without – is not yet the subject of a report by HRW.

Of course known Hamas cheerleaders were quick to embrace, publicise and promote the latest HRW report. Among them was professional anti-Israel campaigner, BDS promoter and advocate of the one-state ‘solution’ Ben White who is perhaps best known for his ‘understanding’ of antisemites.  

White chose two BBC journalists – Paul Danahar and Jon Donnison – as recipients of one of his many Tweets on the subject of the HRW report. 

White HRW report

Less than three hours later, Paul Danahar sent Tweets of his own on the subject:

Danahar HRW report

Coincidence?  

Even if White’s Tweet did not prompt Danahar’s own, the many problematic aspects of HRW’s reputation and the fact that its latest report had already been warmly embraced as propaganda material by known anti-Israel activists should surely have prompted Danahar to recall that the BBC Editorial Guidelines state in section 4.4.13:

“Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC – they can have a significant impact on perceptions of whether due impartiality has been achieved.  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.”