The May 28th edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ included an item (from 22:55 here) described in the synopsis thus:
“And the news media may love an anniversary, but some of its senior correspondents have dates they’d sooner forget …”
Presenter Kate Adie introduced the piece as follows:
“Anniversaries are a regular feature of news coverage these days. Words like ‘it’s 12 months since’ or ‘100 years ago today’ preface many a tale. This can be useful for editors: it provides not only an opportunity to revisit and reassess a story but also, of course, a way to fill up space and airtime. But some anniversaries – as Jeremy Bowen knows – are marked more quietly, away from the public gaze.”
There is nothing “away from the public gaze” about the anniversary Jeremy Bowen chose to mark by broadcasting this particular item on national radio and – as can be seen in the examples in the related articles below – Bowen does not mark that anniversary “quietly”: he in fact makes a point of recounting the story annually.
But whilst the story and its yearly narration by the BBC’s Middle East editor are not novel, it does provide some insight into why the corporation’s coverage of Israel is as it is because it reveals what lies behind the long-standing approach to that country adopted by the gatekeeper of BBC Middle East content.
JB: “Sixteen years ago this week my friend and colleague Abed Takkoush was killed by the Israeli army. Abed was Lebanese from Beirut. He’d worked for the BBC since the [Lebanese] civil war started in the 1970s. Abed was in his early 50s with three boys and a wife. His business card said ‘driver producer’. He was a fixer: the kind of person without whom foreign correspondents could not function. We rely on people like Abed around the world, though he was exceptional because of his experience, his sense of humour and his bravery. He used to pick me up in his battered Mercedes taxi when I arrived at Beirut airport and accelerate away into the traffic, boasting that he was a better driver than Michael Schumacher. Istill miss him when I arrive at the airport and he isn’t there. I’ve never had the heart to delete his phone number from my contacts book.
On the day Abed was killed the Israelis were ending a long occupation of southern Lebanon. They were driven out by Hizballah – the Shia militia that also became a political and social movement. We kept a safe distance from the Israeli forces as they retreated. My big mistake was deciding to stop to do a piece to camera near the Lebanese border with Israel. I didn’t think they’d shoot from the other side of the wire. I asked Abed to pull over. He stayed in the car making a phone call while the cameraman Malek Kenaan and I got out. A couple of minutes later an Israeli tank about a kilometer away on their side of the border fired a shell into the back of the car. Somehow Abed forced his way out of the window and then dropped down onto the road. Malek told me not to go up to the remains of the car, which was on fire, because Abed was dead and the Israelis would kill me too. A colleague on the Israeli side heard the tank crew saying they’d got one of us and they’d kill the other two with a heavy machine gun. When I stuck my head out of the place where Malek and I had taken cover, they opened fire as they said they would. I’m as certain as I can be that the Israelis would have tried to kill me too if I’d gone up to find him. But I still feel guilty that I didn’t.
A few weeks later when I was back in Israel where I was based at the time, I went to see a General in Tel Aviv whom I’d been promised would explain their version of events. He said they’d thought we were terrorists about to attack them. Hizballah did not drive Israel out in 2000 by sauntering along a road in the midday sun of South Lebanon. They’re way cleverer than that. When I said that to the General he shrugged and said there were frightened boys in the tank who’d been warned they might be attacked.
I believe the soldiers in the tank could see us clearly for what we were – harmless civilians. It was a bright, blue sky day and the optics in Israeli tanks are excellent. I think, for them, Lebanese lives were cheap and they assumed we were a Lebanese news team – not the BBC. […] Reporting wars is a dangerous business, obviously. I think it’s more dangerous now than it was when I went to my first war in 1989 or in that dreadful week in 2000. The reason is the 24/7 news cycle. Killing journalists is a good way of sending a message about power and ruthlessness.
I gave up going to wars for a while after the awful few days sixteen years ago. But it would be impossible to report the Middle East as it is now without accepting a degree of risk. I try to stay away from the front lines but sometimes they’re part of the job. Many of my working days in the Middle East involve men with guns. If I get an easier job I won’t regret saying goodbye to them. But for now they’re part of my working life and of increasing numbers of journalists in our troubled world.”
In short, the BBC has allowed Jeremy Bowen to use this item to once again promote the unsupported, unproven and unfounded allegation that Israel deliberately targets and kills journalists/civilians. And yet, for the last decade (since the creation of the position of Middle East editor in 2006) the man shooting that accusation from the hip at every opportunity has also been the person entrusted with ensuring that BBC coverage of Israel is accurate and impartial.
That, sadly for the BBC’s reputation, says it all.