BBC’s Jon Donnison displays a professional and ethical conflict of interests

On Saturday, November 24th 2012, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an edition of  ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ (also scheduled to be broadcast on the BBC World Service), which included a piece by Jon Donnison. The broadcast can be heard here or here, or downloaded here

Frankly, this is a subject I would have preferred not to have had to write about. Donnison’s broadcast concerns the death of the son of his BBC colleague, Jihad Masharawi, on November 14th and of course any death – but perhaps particularly that of a baby – is tragic and bound to evoke understandable emotional reactions – especially among those who know the family personally.

But as is the case with professionals in any field, journalists should be able to separate their personal storm of emotions from the task of carrying out their job. It is Jon Donnison’s inability to do that (along with many of his colleagues) which leaves no choice but to address the subject.

Below is a transcript of the programme: [all emphasis added]

Introduction by Kate Adie:

“A fragile ceasefire continues to hold in the Gaza Strip this morning. One Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli forces yesterday near the town of Khan Yunis. He was the first to be killed since the ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel came into effect on Wednesday night, ending a week of fighting between the two sides. Israel launched its offensive in what it said was an effort to prevent Palestinian rocket fire. Jon Donnison has spent the week in Gaza and was there as one of his BBC colleagues heard that his house had been bombed.”

Adie gives no context whatsoever for the shooting of Anwar Qudaih on November 23rd and  her casting of aspersions upon the reasons for Operation ‘Pillar of Cloud’ – although by now standard BBC fare – totally ignores the context of the attack on an army jeep in Israeli territory with an anti-tank missile on November 10th and 110 missiles fired from Gaza at civilian communities between that incident and the operation’s commencement on November 14th.

Next, we hear Donnison’s broadcast:

“My friend and colleague Jihad Masharawi is usually the last to leave our Gaza bureau. Hard working but softly spoken, he often stays late, beavering away on his laptop. He has a cool head – unflappable when others like me are flapping around him. He’s a video editor and just one of our local BBC Arabic service staff who make the office tick. But on the Wednesday before last, soon after Gaza’s latest war erupted with Israel’s killing of Hamas’ military commander Ahmed al Jabari, Jihad burst out of the edit suite, screaming. He sprinted down the stairs, his face ripped with anguish. He’d just had a call from a friend to tell him the Israeli military had bombed his house and that his eleven month-old baby boy Omar was dead.”

Yet again, Donnison promotes the standard BBC line which ignores five days of rocket attacks on civilians prior to the targeted killing of Jabari, thus placing the blame for the hostilities on Israel – and excusing Hamas from any responsibility. Donnison makes an early attempt to establish the supposed bombing of Masharawi’s house by Israel as fact, despite having no proof for that assertion. He continues:

“Most fathers will tell you that their children are beautiful. Omar was a picture book baby. Standing in what’s left of his burnt-out home this week, Jihad showed me a photo on his mobile phone. It was of a cheeky, chunky, round-faced little boy in denim dungarees, chuckling in a push-chair. Dark eyed, with a fringe of fine brown hair pushed across his brow. “He only knew how to smile” Jihad told me, as we both struggled to hold back the tears.

“He could say just two words – Babba and Mamma”, his father went on. Also on Jihad’s phone is another photo; a hideous tiny corpse – Omar’s smiling face virtually burnt off, that fine hair appearing to be melted onto his scalp. Jihad’s sister-in-law, Hiba, was also killed. “We still haven’t found her head”, Jihad said. And his brother is critically ill in hospital with massive burns. His chances are not good.”

Donnison’s unnecessarily graphic descriptions are the audio version of the photographs of dead children (some real and some not – as Donnison well knows) used frequently by Hamas propagandists to incite world opinion against Israel.

 Let us be quite clear: this is war pornography. Its use is designed specifically to shock audiences into oblivion regarding the circumstances and facts and it aims to solicit purely emotional reactions of anger and disgust at the suggested perpetrator.

 Of course we have never (thankfully) heard comparable BBC descriptions of Israeli casualties broadcast in such a manner. 

For those unfamiliar with the BBC’s domestic broadcasts, it is worth pointing out that they are rife with warnings to the effect that “some viewers may find the content disturbing”. No such warning is given at the beginning of this programme. Did its unnamed producer consider the usual niceties unnecessary – or a hindrance? 

Donnison continues:

“Jihad has another son, Ali, four years old, who was lightly injured. He keeps asking where his baby brother has gone. Eleven members of the Masharawi family lived in the tiny breeze-block house in the Sabra district of Gaza City. Five people slept in one room. The beds are now only good for charcoal. On the kitchen shelves there are rows of melted plastic jars full of spices, their shapes distorted as if reflected from a fairground mirror. And in the entrance hall; a two foot-wide hole in the flimsy metal ceiling – where the missile ripped through.”

Donnison is the only person claiming that the Masharawi family home is in the Sabra district. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, as well as numerous media reports, all place the house in the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City and that fact is very relevant indeed. 

Donnison goes on:

“Despite the evidence pointing towards an Israeli air-strike, some have suggested it might have been a misfired Hamas rocket. But at that time, so soon after the launch of Israel’s operation, Israel’s military says mortars had been launched from Gaza, but very few rockets. Mortar fire would not cause the fireball that appears to have engulfed Jihad’s house. Others say that the damage was not consistent with powerful Israeli attacks, but the BBC visited other bomb sites this week with very similar fire damage, where Israel acknowledged carrying out what it called “surgical strikes”. Like at Jihad’s house, there was very little structural damage, but the victims were brought out with massive and fatal burns.”

With all due respect, none of the numerous BBC correspondents in Gaza last week are ballistic or munitions experts, and until an independent study by such a professional comes to light, Donnison’s conjectures based on anecdotal evidence remain precisely that.

Regarding Donnison’s claim of mortars, “but very few rockets” having been fired at the time (BBC Watch has seen no such statement by the IDF, but would be delighted if Donnison could produce it), as is pointed out here, “very few rockets” does not mean no rockets. 

It is at this juncture useful to return to a report on the same subject put out by Donnison on November 15th – the day after the incident. In that report (specifically marked as containing disturbing images), Jihad Masharawi is interviewed by colleagues from the BBC Arabic Service. The report’s synopsis states that:

“Jihad Misharawi said his 11-month-old son Omar died after shrapnel hit the family home in Gaza.”

In the filmed interview, the following exchange takes place between Jihad Masharawi and the interviewer:

Interviewer: “Our condolences, Jihad. Tell me what happened with you.”

JM: “Shrapnel hit our house.”

Interviewer: “Shrapnel?”

JM: “Yes. My sister-in-law was killed along with my son and my brother and my other son were wounded.

Interviewer: “In which area?”

JM: “In al Zeitoun.”

Viewing the timeline of announcements from the IDF Spokesman on the relevant day (and corroborated in numerous media reports from the time) we see that immediately following the targeted killing of Ahmed Jabari, attempts were made to neutralize the arsenal of long-range Iranian supplied Fajr 5 missiles held by Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip so as to minimize the dangers of reactions to Jabari’s killing to Israeli civilians. 

Later that evening, the IDF released an aerial photograph of one such rocket launching site – owned by Hamas – in the Zeitoun neighbourhood in which Jihad Masharawi’s house is – according to him – situated. 

Whether or not Jihad Masharawi’s house was hit by a short-falling terrorist rocket, by shrapnel from secondary explosions of Fajr 5 missiles deliberately hidden by Hamas in built-up residential areas or whether an errant IDF shell targeting those rocket launching sites and weapons storage facilities caused that accident, we may never know.

But it is significant that the BBC has doggedly avoided conducting any sort of investigation whatsoever into the subject of Palestinians killed or injured by at least 152 known shortfalls of rockets fired by terrorists during the week November 14th to 21st and that it has had no inclination whatsoever to report on the use of the civilian population of Gaza as human shields by Hamas and other terrorist organizations storing and launching military-grade weapons from residential areas, despite having frequently (if inadvertently) documented those launchings itself.

In that vein, Donnison continues:

Most likely is that Omar died in one of the more than 20 bombings across Gaza that the Israeli military says made up its initial wave of attacks. Omar was not a terrorist.”

Of course an eleven-month old baby was not a terrorist: we do not need to be told that by Donnison. But let us also take note of the fact that after a week of furious avoidance of that word, the BBC has finally found a use for it: as a means to chastise Israel. 

Donnison goes on:

“Of course every civilian death on either side – not just Omar’s – is tragic. The United Nations says its preliminary investigation shows that 103 of the 158 people killed in Gaza were civilians. Of these, thirty were children, twelve of whom were under the age of ten. More than a thousand people were injured. The Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that every non-combatant death or injury was tragic and an operational failure.”

Significantly, Donnison chooses to quote exclusively figures put forward by the highly partisan UN OCHA. Other sources suggest very different ratios of civilian to combatant deaths with the IDF reporting 120 combatants out of a total of 177 dead and B’Tselem’s initial findings (not complete) showing a ratio of 40 civilians to 62 combatants.

But it in the next part of his report – obviously inserted in the name of ‘impartiality’ – that Donnison truly exceeds himself:

“In Israel too there were casualties. Four civilians and two soldiers. There were also many injuries, but the fact that the Israeli ambulance service was also reporting those suffering from anxiety and bruises is an indication of the asymmetric nature of the conflict.”

Very classy: having spent a week advancing the narrative that not enough Israelis were being killed, the BBC now promotes accusations that Israel inflates casualty figures.

And, quick off the mark to ‘prove’ his point, Donnison continues: 

“Jihad’s son Omar was probably the first child to die in this latest round of violence. Among the last was a young boy – Abdul Rahman Naim – killed by an Israeli attack just hours before the ceasefire was announced. Abdul Rahman’s father, Dr. Majdi, is one of the leading specialist doctors at Gaza City’s Shifa hospital. The first he knew of his son’s death was when he went to treat a patient, only to find that it was his own boy.

Before I left Jihad’s house, leaving him sitting round a camp-fire with other mourners, I asked him – perhaps stupidly – if he was angry over Omar’s death. “Very, very angry”, he said, his jaw tensing as he glanced at the photos on his phone. My thoughts, after a week where I’ve had little time to think, are with Jihad and his family. Remarkably and unnecessarily, he told me his thoughts were with me and the rest of our BBC team. “I’m just sorry, Jon, that I had to go and wasn’t there to help you with your work” he said, before we hugged and said goodbye.”

It is, of course, perfectly natural that Donnison and other BBC staff should be upset about the death of a colleague’s child. It is even perhaps understandable that several of them allowed their emotions to dictate their reactions and actions at the time. 

What is not acceptable, however, is the BBC’s use of this insufficiently investigated story to promote the narrative of a child’s death being the result of Israeli actions – whilst at the same time brushing aside the conflicting unverified versions as to what actually happened and in stark contrast to its point-blank refusal to report on the subject of casualties caused as a result of the use by Hamas of its civilian population as human shields.

No less problematic is the BBC’s collaboration in the promotion of the same narrative outside its own outlet. 

Fisher did indeed use Danahar’s photographs in his article in the Washington Post. 

Jon Donnison has, over the last two days, been promoting his ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ feature with considerable zeal on Twitter

As angry and upset as Donnison and his colleagues may be, they have clearly crossed a line which has led to a professional and ethical conflict of interests. The tragic story of Omar Masharawi is now no longer being reported: it is being used and abused to advance a very specific narrative of Israel as a killer of children.

It is in danger of rapidly turning into a ‘journalists’ blood libel’ – if it has not already done so – and that is because of the fact that despite a number of deaths of children in the Gaza Strip during the recent hostilities, the BBC fails to make clear that none of those children (or any other civilians) were deliberately targeted by Israel and fails to present the events in their true context – part of which is the fact that not only does Hamas deliberately target Israel’s civilian population, but it also intentionally  endangers its own in order to reap exactly the kind of images and stories the BBC is now running so enthusiastically.

One may be tempted to ascribe the BBC’s actions to naivety or ‘battle fatigue’ but that may not necessarily be the case – as indicated in the Tweet below by BBC Foreign Editor Jon Williams. 

“Gaza” did not produce those images: journalists did. And in the case of the BBC it is increasingly emerging that they are knowingly and intentionally being promoted in order to advance a specific – yet unverified – narrative.

 It is that fact which has seriously compromised the BBC’s reputation as an impartial and accurate reporter of the news and tipped it over into the already over-populated category of journalists who wish to define the news and the public’s perception of it for the purpose of furthering a wider agenda.

67 comments on “BBC’s Jon Donnison displays a professional and ethical conflict of interests

  1. The BBC has a “Gaza” bureau filled with locals? Isn’t that in itself rather amazing? I’m paying for that via a compulsory TV Poll Tax.

    Want to bet that its “Jerusalem” bureau isn’t filled with Jews, In fact, does it even have a Jerusalem Bureau?

    • I read this article and I almost threw up.

      I have no idea who writes for BBC Watch, they’re so courageous, they won’t say their name.

      All I know is that people who are so cold-hearted and disregard children’s lives need to be referred for psychological evaluation.

      You bring shame to Israel. Shame on you. You do not deserve to live in Israel, where people value children’s lives. Shame on you.

      • All I know is that people who are so cold-hearted and disregard children’s lives need to be referred for psychological evaluation.You bring shame to Israel. Shame on you. You do not deserve to live in Israel, where people value children’s lives. Shame on you.
        You should not use these strong words speaking about Hamas and their Israeli followers. It is their culture.

        • Only sick people disregard the lives of small children as ‘BBC watch’ did with the life of this BBC guy’s newborn. A BABY.

          Why am I not surprised that people working for ‘BBC Watch’ do not even have the courage to sign their own stories?

          BBC Watch betrays the values of the state of Israel – freedom of the press and right to life.

          • This whole story is a disgrace.

            Why did Ms Sela signed her name in such small characters? Is she ashamed of herself?

      • What’s YOUR name? I see you’re so courageous as to use a “nom de plume” and then criticize others. That’s called projection pal. A condition you seem to suffer from.

        What’s also rather creepy, and odd, is your assumption that people who don’t like the BBC’s pro-Hamas, Jew-dissing bias live in Israel. That one’s a doozy.

        Now that it turns out that it was a Palestinian entity rocket, I guess you’re the one who need s psycho evaluation asap.

    • I saw a great post about this.
      All deaths, whether it was friendly fire or civilians killed collaterally because Hamas fires rockets from civilian areas could have all been avoided if Hamas just did not fire any rockets into Israel at all!
      Again and again and again it is Arab aggression that causes Israeli defensive use of force!
      Arabs cannot ever be trusted to tell the truth. Even when they kill their own, they will blame it on Israel or twist the truth to demonize Israel when it is always the Palestinian Arabs who refuse to live in peace with the Jewish state of Israel, it always has been!
      Due to the many generations of Arab training to hate and kill Jews, i dont see how peace is possible with these hate mongers.
      Palmediawatch has documented this brilliantly.

      • You’re not really a Voice of reason are you? Are you the same VoR that used to post on the BBC message-boards? If so I can safely advise all commentators not to bother with you, troll.

    • OMG… How can you be so ignorant? It’s almost funny.

      It does not matter whether it’s spelled Jehad or Jihad, it’s a tranliteration from Arabic letters.

      • It’s not about knowing the different spelling; it’s about what they show and what not to show to the grossly under-informed BBC viewers/readers it’s you that is being ignorant.

        • Indeed. They know full well how the term “Jihad” is perceived by the general public, so they decide suddenly to change the transliteration (that they’ve been using until now) of the identical personal name.

    • Bio, he does not even know that you exist.

      Get a life, instead of wasting your time getting sick with jealousy.

  2. The biases of the BBC crew in Gaza is appalling. Absolutely appalling.

    I don’t really care if they get their comeuppance from the Savile affair. But they must get their comeuppance.

    Great article Hadar. Great research.

    • What is apalling is to see people here fighting against one of the bases of our democracy: freedom of the press.

      Some people are ready to risk their life to cover wars and inform.

      Other people prefer to do nothing and criticize others.

      • Some people are ready to risk their life to cover wars and inform.
        Inform or spread false information libeling the Israelis with killings of Arab children committed by other Arabs?

        Other people prefer to do nothing and criticize others.
        Like the millions of Israeli civilians risking their lives under the threat of the rockets and the thousands of them risking their lives to eliminate the threat supported by the political propagandists of the BBC masquerading as journalists reporting facts.

        • Peter, Palestinian children were killed in Israeli airstrikes on Gaza last month. This is a fact.

          Your obsessive denial of reality is sad, especially at a time when the Jewish state faces many threats. You need to stop being delusional and face reality. People like Rabin or Sharon did not become leaders by denying reality in a childish way, they became leaders because they faced reality and dealt with it. That’s what real citizens do – they face reality and work to achieve peace and security in the real world, rather than read the delusional stories of activists supporting the settlement policy.

  3. Donnison is so subjective, so obviously emotionally involved with the Gazans, so irredeemably “gone native”, that if the BBC had any scruples and honour at all, let alone concern for objectivity, it would relocate him to another part of the globe.

    • Daphne, your “gone native” comment is sheer racism.

      You should be ashamed of yourself. Racism runs contrary to Jewish teachings and to the values of the state of Israel.

      • That’s odd. Since when is saying “going native” a racist comment? (You are not a South African, are you?)

        And, Nat, with regard to your other comment about Palestinian Arab children being killed in an Israel air raid is a “fact”, and tragic it is, too. I don’t suppose you think that Hamas has anything to do with it? Might you think a bot more about the wider context if more Israelis got killed?

        And have you heard of Pallywood? How many of the so-called victims are staged, or Palestinian people killed by Hamas action. That was already alluded to earlier (by David Guy, 25 Nov 12).

  4. One extraordinary aspect of the PR battle is the number of graphic photographs from Syria, from the previous Gaza War and even from Israel that have been published as Gazan civilian casualties caused by Israel. One would think that even if the UN figures for casualties were correct there would be no need to fake.

    Perhaps the near certain knowledge that the professional media types receiving them would not do elementary checks nor regard previous indiscretions as warranting skepticism leads to carelessness on the part of the Palestinian propaganda effort?

  5. “Propaganda can be effective in starting wars, and keeping them going… it seldom ends them, or well for those involved.” When kids from both sides get older, and possibly wiser, they may reflect on this and turn to those who were most active in the propaganda aspects of any conflict, and wonder what were their motivations, and the results, unintended… or otherwise.

  6. This analysis should be answered by the BBC. I’ve submitted a complaint and quoted the URL to this page. I’m not optimistic that the BBC will do more than their usual sanctimonious brush off but I pay their wages and I am entitled to an answer. If you feel BBCwatch’s analysis deserves an answer, then please complain to the BBC.

    • Howard, the initial BBc response is ALWAYS a brush off. The vital thing is to then escalate the complaint you made to the Editorial Complaints Unit. If they also obfuscate, then take it further to the BBC Trust. It’s only at these higher levels that anyone notices a complaint.

  7. One must, in any encounter with BBC communications, separate the narrative from the news. Unfortunately, this act requires education, thought, and effort, which seems to be in short supply throughout the Arab world and its sympathizers.

  8. “It is that fact which has seriously compromised the BBC’s reputation as an impartial and accurate reporter of the news….”

    It is a fact that any reasonable person has long since recognized that it has been a very long time since the BBC was anything like an impartial and accurate reporter of the news — especially, but not exclusively, as it regards the Palestinian efforts to kill Israelis for existing and Israel’s efforts to defend its people from terrorist attacks.

    But then again, since the BBC did nothing for decades to protect innocent children from sexual abuse by one of its big stars — and indeed helped him procure his victims — why should we accept anything that comes from that corrupt organization?

    • It seems that after 5 decades of terror and murder against Israel.
      The Palestinians might have realized that this campaign of terrorism and rejectionism has failed.

      By the way, how many Muslims have been killed by Muslims this week in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Bahrain, Lebanon, Somalia, Yemen? How many have been killed by Jews? Numbers please.

      Palestinians should get one thing into their heads: the world does not revolve around them. They share the blame for their situation, because they always wanted everything and never wanted to compromise. First and foremost that NOBODY, and least Israel owes them anything.

  9. Two years ago I attended an event whose theme was Israel and the bias and misinformation in the media. During the Q & A a young girl mentioned the type of photographs we’ve seen coming from Donnison (and others) in recent days and asked why the Israelis didn’t counter this with photos showing their own dead and their grieving families. The gasps of horror and the shocked faces of the largely Jewish audience gave her the answer.

    • Indeed, remember the soul-searching that preceded the decision of the Fogel family’s relatives to make public the photos of their massacred loved ones, and the reluctance, and in many cases outright refusal, of many pro-Israel bloggers to show those photos even though the family wanted them shown.

    • Pennylan, the real answer is: the last week of violence caused the death of about 5 Israelis and more than 150 Palestinians, including many women and children.

      Some families were buried beneath their house after airstrikes. Women and children had to be pulled out of the rubble dead or alive. Several babies died, including the son of a BBC staff member.

      Why do you want to hide this reality from the world?

      Most importantly: why don’t YOU want to see that reality?

  10. I do indeed, Daphne. Even though the Fogel’s relatives released the photos, they were heavily pixelated. The childrens’ faces were not shown and the shots were taken exactly as they had been found – that is, almost as one would expect to find in a police file.

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  16. What a surprise! I have heard some of this and am glad to some more context. Anyway, in your report you use the phrase “anecdotal evidence”. I know it is widely used, but that does not make it right. The two words are mutual exclusive.

    Anecdote is not evidence, especially not in the case of the BBC!

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  24. Why does Hamas fire rockets from a school praying that Israel returns fire and kill some of it’s children. Thats Gaza today. The Arabs are the only people in the world that go out day by day figuring ways to get their children to die in front of the world press. Golda Meir 50 years ago talked about this Arab child abuse.
    Hamas Interior Minister Boasts of Using Elderly and Children as Human Shields
    Daniel Greenfield
    November 18, 2012

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