BBC’s Mike Thomson entrenches an inaccurate narrative

The Foreign Affairs correspondent for BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme, Mike Thomson, recently produced a feature on the subject of the kidnappings and murders of Naftali Frenkel, Gil-ad Sha’ar and Eyal Yifrach on June 12th 2014 and Mohammed Abu Khdeir on July 2nd 2014.

That feature appears on the BBC News website’s Middle East page under the title “The lost sons“.  Additionally, an audio version of Thomson’s report was broadcast by the BBC World Service on January 23rd in the programme ‘The Documentary’ under the title “The Lives And Deaths Of Naftali and Mohammed” and the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme featured segments from the audio version on January 22nd (from 2:40:20 here) and on January 23rd (from 2:50:27 here).Kidnappings on WS

On one level, all versions of this feature present the personal stories of two families – Frenkel and Abu Khdeir – coping with the loss of their sons. The chosen format naturally promotes equivalence between the two murders and Thomson does not adequately clarify the differences between them. Whilst he does inform listeners that a Hamas cell carried out the murders of the three Israeli teenagers, the fact that the operation was financed by Hamas in the Gaza Strip is not adequately explained. Neither the issue of the logistical help that the two murderers obviously received from their community during the three months in which they were on the run nor the widespread support for the kidnappings in Palestinian society (which went completely unreported by the BBC at the time) gets coverage in Thomson’s various reports. Significantly too, no mention is made of the condemnation of the murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir at all levels of Israeli society or the fact that he was recognized as a victim of terror by the State of Israel, which entitles his family to monthly financial benefits.

In both the website version and the World Service radio version of the feature, conspiracy theories about the deaths of the three Israeli teenagers are amplified. Whilst one must obviously question the editorial justification for the inclusion of such baseless claims at all, credit is due to Mike Thomson for challenging part of them – although not the one made in the audio version which falsely asserted that the boys were soldiers.

“But Mohammed’s parents insist, despite all the evidence, that Naftali and his two Israeli friends weren’t actually murdered at all – they died in an accident and the Israeli government used the deaths to fuel anger against Palestinians.

His mother says the Israeli government “wanted to bomb Gaza and planned to use this as a justification”.

I ask how widespread is this belief. She replies: “Everyone knows this story, not only us. We didn’t come up with this story.”

But, I point out, senior Hamas figures have admitted that members of the organisation carried out the killings.

Hussein says: “I am not a politician, I am an ordinary man and didn’t hear of this story. The story that we know is that they died in a traffic accident.” “

However, in the World Service audio version Thomson’s conclusion regarding those bizarre conspiracy theories is that they “show the depth of distrust” between Israelis and Palestinians and he makes no attempt to place them within the broader – and highly relevant – context of the baseless rumours and incitement seen in official Palestinian media or heard in sermons in PA mosques on a quotidian basis.

In that same audio version broadcast on the World Service, Thomson adopts the usual BBC practice of failing to meet its own supposed standards of impartiality by refraining from any mention of the existence of legal opinions which do not conform to the spirit of his statement:

“Under international law the West Bank is occupied territory…”

He goes on to say:

“…but many Israelis, like the speaker you are about to hear, still see it as part of Israel and use biblical language to describe it.”

The speaker is an IDF officer who was responsible for the coordination of the search operation for the three teenagers and the “biblical language” Thomson obviously finds worthy of note is the term Judea and Samaria. Of course that term was universally in use  – including by the British mandate administration – until Jordan’s belligerent occupation and later unrecognized annexation of the districts of Judea and Samaria, after which the term ‘West Bank’ was invented in order to cement that occupation in language. In Thomson’s case that rebranding clearly worked.

A particularly significant aspect of this feature is its vigorous promotion of a theme which the BBC has been pushing for months.

Kidnappings Thomson tweet 1

In the introduction to the item in the January 22nd edition of the ‘Today’ programme, listeners were told that:

“The murders further fuelled hatred and bitterness on both sides, sparking riots in the West Bank, rocket attacks by Hamas and the Israeli invasion of Gaza.”

The next day listeners to the same programme were told that:

“After a summer war in Gaza and bloody clashes on the West Bank, Israel has suffered a winter wave of attacks, the latest wounding a dozen bus passengers in Tel Aviv. The catalyst for much of this was the abduction and murder of four teenagers – three Jewish and one Palestinian – in June and July.”

In the written version appearing on the BBC News website, audiences are told that:Kidnappings Thomson tweet 2

“These brutal killings, and those of two other innocent boys, have had far-reaching consequences. Riots in the West Bank, a war in Gaza and a deepened divide between Israelis and Palestinians.”

In the audio version broadcast on the BBC World Service, listeners heard Mike Thomson say:

“There is little doubt that the slaughter of these four innocent and like-minded boys proved a catalyst for the deaths and injuries of thousands more people last summer.”

Since the hostilities ended six months ago, it has become standard BBC practice to promote the narrative of the conflict of summer 2014 as having taken place exclusively “in Gaza”, erasing any mention of the fact that in Israel thousands of southern residents had to leave their homes and millions ran for cover in air-raid shelters from over four thousand missile attacks launched at civilian targets throughout the seven weeks of hostilities.

It is also apparently BBC policy to mislead audiences by downplaying or erasing from audience view the hundreds of missiles launched at civilian targets in Israel between the date of the kidnappings – June 12th – and the commencement of Operation Protective Edge on July 8th. It was of course that surge in missile fire which was the reason for Israel’s military action rather than the kidnappings and murders of the three teenagers, with the later discovery of dozens of cross-border tunnels prompting the subsequent ground operation. The military operation could have been avoided had Hamas elected to take advantage of the ample opportunities it was given to stop the missile fire before July 8th but the terrorist organisation chose not to do so – for reasons by no means exclusively connected to Israel such as the PA’s refusal to pay Hamas employees after the formation of the unity government. 

Over the last six months this same distortion of the background to Operation Protective Edge has been seen time and time again in BBC content. Accurate and impartial representation of Hamas’ motives for instigating that conflict has been usurped by a simplistic narrative promoting the notion of a ‘cycle of violence’ which actively prevents BBC audiences from forming a realistic understanding of events. Mike Thomson obviously put a lot of work into this feature and hence it is all the more unfortunate that one of its main themes is based on an inaccurate narrative which it in turn goes on to further entrench. 

 

BBC blames torture of African migrants in Sinai on Egypt-Israel peace treaty

An article entitled “Sinai torture for Eritreans kidnapped by traffickers” by Mike Thomson appeared in both the Africa and Middle East sections of the BBC News website on March 6th 2013. An audio version of the same article was broadcast on the BBC World Service in the programme ‘Assignment’ on March 7th and can be heard here.

Assignment - Sinai

In the written version of the article, Thomson states:

“Hostage victims are often taken to the largely lawless, desert area of north Sinai, where their kidnappers can operate with near impunity.

In 2012, the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, said that a “criminal network” of smugglers and traffickers was “taking profit of the desperate situation of many Eritreans”.

Egyptian security forces do operate in this region but only in limited numbers because of a long-standing peace agreement with neighbouring Israel.” [emphasis added]

In the audio version, at 16:52, Thomson informs listeners:

“What is clear though is that not enough is being done to combat the kidnap trade in Sinai. But I’m told this is at least partly because of a long-standing agreement with neighbouring Israel which limits the size of Egypt’s security forces in the region. And in one incident alone last year, sixteen Egyptian soldiers were shot dead by supposed Islamist militants there.” [emphasis added]

The agreement to which Thomson refers is of course the 1979 peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, although he does not make that fact clear. Under the terms of that treaty, the Sinai Peninsula was divided into zones with varying degrees of demilitarization. File:Sinai MFO.PNG

In Zone A, Egypt is permitted to hold a mechanized infantry division with a total of 22,000 troops. In Zone B, Egypt is permitted four border security battalions to support the civilian police in the area. In Zone C the Egyptian police and the Multinational Force and Observers operate and MFO camps and outposts are situated in this zone. In Zone D, Israel is allowed to keep four infantry battalions. Thus, as we see, the Egyptian army does have a presence in the majority of the peninsula and the Egyptian police is present in the entire area. The treaty also provides for changes in troop numbers through coordination with both parties.  

It is left unclear in Thomson’s report who the person or persons are who “told” him that Egypt is unable to combat the kidnapping and human trafficking trade due to the restrictions in the peace treaty to which Egypt agreed, but it is clear that Thomson elected to include that misleading information in his reports without checking its accuracy. 

Obviously, with the migrants from Eritrea entering Egypt several hundred miles south of the Sinai from the border with Sudan, the Egyptian authorities have the ability to prevent them from arriving in Sinai at all. An Eritrean migrant I interviewed last year told me how he made the journey:

“He told me that he left Eritrea on foot and crossed into Ethiopia, despite the fact that continuing tensions between the two countries mean that had he been caught by the Eritrean authorities trying to leave, he would have been liable for one to two years of imprisonment. 

From Ethiopia, Ambesagir crossed into Sudan on foot. It was at that point that he abandoned the clothes and belongings he had brought with him, being unable to carry his luggage on the ten-day walk northwards. He and his group of 54 people then travelled by bus to the Nile, where they caught a boat which took them into Egypt. There the journey continued on foot, walking day and night without food or water. One member of the group died along the way. “

Thomson also fails to address the subject of Egypt’s long history of turning a blind eye to the various permutations of the smuggling activities (including weapons destined for Gaza and drugs destined for Israel) of the Sinai Bedouin over the years and the fact that until that August 2012 terror attack in which 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed, it consistently kept troop levels in Sinai lower than those permitted under the terms of the 1979 peace agreement. He also ignores the fact that when it has considered it to be in its interest to do so, Egypt has deployed troops in Sinai in excess of the agreed numbers without prior consultation as required under the terms of the peace treaty. 

“More than a year ago, Israel agreed to allow Egypt to maintain seven military battalions and six companies in Sinai, including tank units, in addition to the forces permitted by the peace treaty itself. Before the August 5 terrorist attack, Egypt had not stationed the full complement of troops in Sinai that it was permitted. “

In a January 2012 report on the Sinai published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Ehud Ya’ari explained (p 13):

“According to the signed Military Protocol between Egypt and Israel, the army is permitted to keep 22,000 soldiers in the Sinai, limited to Zone A, the westernmost portion of the peninsula. But during most periods, the Egyptian army has stationed only 70–80 percent of that number in the area. The military has never established a separate command headquarters for the Sinai forces. Each of the rotating four brigades remains under direct control of its divisional operations room west of the Suez. At all times, each brigade belongs to a different first-echelon division of either the Third or second Army. And during the revolution, some of these forces were withdrawn to the mainland and have yet to return. Moreover, when Israel consented to allowing Egyptian troops into Zones B and C in central and eastern Sinai, Cairo deployed the limited battalions already stationed in the peninsula instead of bringing in reinforcements from the mainland. Israel also agreed to allow twenty Egyptian tanks into Zones B and C, but Cairo abstained from sending them.

This attitude reflects the military’s limited interest in the Sinai, despite constant domestic criticism of treaty restrictions on Egypt’s ability to exercise sovereignty over the entire peninsula. Since the army was not prepared to oversee the Sinai, it had no incentive to commit even the number of units allowed by the Military Protocol. The army, in short, perceived its role to be purely defensive, occupying itself with routine training for crossing the Suez while keeping as much distance as possible from Bedouin affairs.” […]

“Regarding Bedouin smuggling activity into Israel, the general thrust of Cairo’s policy was—and remains—not to interfere. Even when caught, Bedouin drug smugglers headed for Israel have received much lighter sentences than those carrying drugs into Egypt.

This attitude may help explain Egypt’s relative tolerance of the latest Bedouin business endeavor: guiding massive numbers of illegal African immigrants into Israel.”

Rather than blindly repeating the inaccurate information he was “told” by an either uninformed or interested party, Thomson should have checked the accuracy of that claim before including it in his report. His obvious failure to do so means that his assertion that the failure to deal with the kidnapping and torture of African migrants in Sinai is related to the terms of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty becomes nothing more than a gratuitous and misleading inaccuracy which prevents audiences from understanding the real factors at play.  

BBC examines its own record on the Hungarian Holocaust

If readers did not catch the BBC Radio 4 ‘Document’ programme by Mike Thomson on November 12th entitled “The BBC and the Hungarian Holocaust”, it is well worth listening to via this link. The programme is also summarised here.

The programme is interesting – and troubling – in that it discusses the role of Bush House in the “global propaganda battle” of World War II and the BBC’s willing collaboration with the exploitation of its reputation for “impartiality and honesty”.

“And so in a way you had the ethical, legitimate aspiration to impartiality, the values of Reithian BBC, generating the global world-wide following that you needed..”

“The hard-won credibility of the BBC was being used to help sell Britain’s propaganda effort”

At times, the programme seems to be trying a little too hard to suggest that the BBC was lead up the garden path by the man in charge of the BBC’s Hungarian broadcasts at the time – the Foreign Office’s Carlile Aylmer Macartney – and that ultimately the responsibility for the BBC’s having failed to inform Hungarians about the Holocaust, even whilst it was still being perpetrated, was that of the UK government. 

The programme also does little to properly address the antisemitic attitudes laid bare in BBC memos and Foreign Office communiques of the time, preferring to categorise the attitudes displayed as

“Snobbery with a strong racial tinge to it as well”.

 However, as the programme makes clear, BBC principles did not change even after Anthony Eden’s speech in the House of Commons on December 17th, 1942, in which he exposed the full extent of what he termed the “bestial policy” of the Nazi regime. 

When confronted with the question why, the best the BBC’s official historian Jean Seaton can do is to suggest that BBC policy-makers were suffering from “fatigue” and agree with the presenter that they were perhaps “war-weary”. The moral aspects of the BBC’s decision not to expose to 800,000 Hungarian Jews the details of the Holocaust – which there are BBC memos to prove it knew about – are not addressed at all. The programme concentrates instead on the practical aspects of such potential advance knowledge. In fact, it is stated by one of the interviewees that:

“It wasn’t the job of the BBC to warn Jews.”

The programme also avoids discussing the proposal put forward by one of its interviewees, Professor Frank Chalk of Concordia University, in an academic paper from 2003, whereby “Allied broadcasts detailing the fate that awaited Jews sent to “labor in the East” might have contributed more to Allied victory and the survival of some of the Jews who were murdered in Auschwitz than broadcasts encouraging disaffection among Christian Hungarians.”

Disappointingly, the programme ends with the question:

“Can such a judgement ever be fairly made in times of peace, decades later?”

So, rather than coming to any real conclusions, the BBC’s attitude seems to be to file the whole episode away somewhere in between “not really our call” and “understanding the context”.

To those of us interested in the subject of the BBC’s attitude towards present-day Jews in Israel, some of the phrases used in the programme to describe BBC policies seventy years ago, may carry an uncomfortably familiar ring.

“Not inserting lies, but providing directives on what not to say”

“We shouldn’t mention the Jews at all”

Equally unnerving is the understanding that the supposedly ‘written in stone’ BBC values of “impartiality and honesty”, as well as the organisation’s independence, proved to be in fact negotiable  – even when confronted with the knowledge of genocide.

Having avoided the follow-up question of what, if any, safeguards exist today to prevent moral and ethical considerations far broader than the BBC and its Charter being out-shadowed by the realpolitik of a funding, hands-on Foreign Office not immune to racism and particular political sympathies, the overall achievement of this programme is to provide a clue to lessons from history which go unheeded.

 

Upcoming Radio 4 programme on “The BBC and the Hungarian Holocaust”

An upcoming BBC Radio 4 programme may be of interest to readers. The programme – entitled “The BBC and the Hungarian Holocaust” will be broadcast on Monday, November 12th 2012 at 20:00 GMT and its synopsis describes it thus:

“In March 1944 German troops occupied Hungary. In doing so they brought the Final Solution to the largest remaining Jewish population in Europe. Within months over 400,000 people were deported and killed by a now almost perfect mass killing machine.

Mike Thomson investigates documents which suggest that the BBC was directed not to broadcast crucial information and examines claims that it could have saved thousands of lives.”