BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Balfour Declaration centenary special – part one

The November 2nd edition of BBC Radio 4’s flagship news and current affairs programme ‘Today‘ included no fewer than four separate items concerning the Balfour Declaration centenary.

In her introduction to first of those items (from 51:49 here) co-presenter Mishal Husain repeated a practice seen time and time again in BBC coverage of this story (see ‘related articles’ below). Her inaccurate paraphrasing of the Balfour Declaration concealed from audiences the fact that the document specifically referred to the “civil and religious rights” of non-Jewish communities.

[emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Husain: “A hundred years have passed since Britain pledged support for a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. The Balfour Declaration, issued by the then foreign secretary in the midst of the First World War has become a source of celebration for Israelis and anger for Palestinians over what they see as the failure to stick to its promise that the rights of non-Jewish communities should not be prejudiced. The British government says it will mark the centenary with pride but its description of the pledges made at the time as ‘unfinished business’ has done nothing to soften Palestinian calls for an apology. Our Middle East correspondent Tom Bateman reports.”

Bateman began his report in Be’er Sheva where commemoration of a battle in 1917 recently took place. Failing to clarify that battle’s First World War context to listeners, he went on to promote a theme previously seen in his reporting of the Balfour Declaration centenary: the notion that Palestinian Arabs were ‘dispossessed‘ – thereby inaccurately implying that the territory on which Israel was established was ‘Palestinian’. 

Bateman: “The Balfour Declaration was issued two days later. Palestinian Arabs would come to view it as a historic source of their dispossession. For many Jews it amounted to a form of salvation; recognition of their claim to their ancestral homeland.”

A brief interview with former MK Shlomo Hillel included a reference to the British Mandate which once again raises the question of whether BBC reporters understand the difference between the Mandate for Palestine – drafted and confirmed by the League of Nations – and the British role as administer of that mandate.

Bateman: “Shlomo Hillel – now 94 – an Iraqi Jew, was among the waves of Jewish immigrants in the years after the declaration was written into Britain’s international mandate for Palestine.”

Listeners heard nothing on the subject of why Hillel and tens of thousands of other Jews left Iraq, even though – as told in an interview some years ago – it is relevant both in the context of the wider topic of the effects of British policies in the Middle East and in relation to the part of the Balfour Declaration that has been consistently and glaringly absent from BBC coverage of the topic: “the rights and political status enjoyed by Jews in any other country”.

“After World War I, the British took over the country and appointed a king, and in 1932 Iraq became independent. “Suddenly the situation changed,” explains Hillel.

“Already by 1933, my father understood this was the end.”

That was the year of a massacre of Assyrian Christians in the north of the country.

“We were watching the Iraqi army’s ‘victory’ parade from our house in Baghdad and we thought if that’s what they can do to the Christians, what can they do to us?” Hillel moved to Palestine in 1934 to be with his older brothers and was followed by his parents in 1935.

During World War II, a Nazi-inspired pogrom (farhud) erupted in Baghdad in 1941, finally bringing to an end any hopes of continued peaceful existence for the city’s Jewish minority. “This was a huge traumatic event for Iraqi Jews. Young Jews started to organize self-defense organizations and an underground,” Hillel relates.”

Following an archive recording in which listeners heard a reference to “the wandering Jew”, Bateman continued with an airbrushed portrayal of the scope of and reasons for British restrictions on Jewish immigration:

Bateman: “Britain ultimately curbed Jewish immigration. Mandate rule struggled to deal with Arab unrest and Jewish paramilitary groups seeking a state.”

Bateman’s next interviewee was Rima Tarazi.

Bateman: “Rima Tarazi’s father was a civil servant for the British in Jerusalem in those years. She says he helped other Palestinians who fled or were forced from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war after Britain had pulled out.”

Tarazi’s father was Musa Nasir – also a member of the Jordanian parliament and a minister in the Jordanian government. Listeners then heard another inaccurate paraphrasing of the Balfour Declaration.

Tarazi: “My father was a great advocate of our cause – of the Palestinian cause – and he was always trying to make the British understand. Ever since the Balfour Declaration there have been…hard feelings started to arise. And the travesty of the problem is that they said we promise a Jewish homeland provided it doesn’t prejudice the rights of the non-Jews, so we became the non-Jews. We were the majority. We were 90% of the people, the population. It has polarised religion in our region.”

Bateman’s next interviewee, historian and MK Michael Oren, did point out that “the national aspirations of Arabs were widely realised in places like Syria and Iraq” but Bateman did not expand on the topic. His final interviewee was introduced thus:

Bateman: “The political leadership in the West Bank sees Mr Netanyahu’s invitation to Downing Street as an insult. Dr Nabil Shaath is an advisor to the Palestinian president.”

Shaath: “It’s not enough that you…you’ve done this but you celebrate it with the man who runs Israel today and who is doing everything possible not to allow the Palestinians any bit of sovereignty or survival on their land.”

Failing to remind listeners of the numerous occasions on which the Palestinians have rejected the opportunity to have their own state over the past eighty years, Bateman closed his report.

Bateman: “A hundred years after it issued the Balfour Declaration the British government concedes all its pledges have yet to be fulfilled but it has made clear it will not be saying sorry.”

While Radio 4 listeners got to hear a balanced quota of Israeli Palestinian voices in this interview, they also heard two inaccurate portrayals of the Balfour Declaration’s specific reference to the “civil and religious rights” of non-Jewish communities, one inaccurate reference to Palestinian ‘dispossession’, a curious portrayal of the Mandate for Palestine and the unchallenged accusation that Israel is exclusively to blame for the absence of a Palestinian state.  

Related Articles:

BBC’s Bateman amplifies PLO’s Balfour agitprop

More Balfour Declaration agitprop promotion on the BBC News website

BBC News portrays propaganda installation as a “museum”

BBC report on UK Balfour dinner follows standard formula

More BBC Balfour Declaration centenary reporting from Yolande Knell – part one

More BBC Balfour Declaration centenary reporting from Yolande Knell – part two

 

 

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8 comments on “BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Balfour Declaration centenary special – part one

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