BBC R4’s Bethlehem crime fiction flunks accuracy and impartiality

A BBC Radio 4 series called ‘Foreign Bodies’ is described as follows:

“Mark Lawson examines how mystery novels reflect a country’s history and political system.”

The episode aired on March 4th (and to be rebroadcast on March 10th) is called “The Bethlehem Murders” and – despite the BBC’s style guide stating that “you should not affix the name ‘Palestine’ to Gaza or the West Bank” – it is described in the synopsis as: [emphasis added]

“Crime fiction set in Palestine. Omar Yussef, schoolteacher and amateur sleuth, tries to clear the name of his former student George, falsely accused of murder in their hometown of Bethlehem. […]

In The Bethlehem Murders, Yussef tries to save the life of his former student George Saba, a Christian recently returned to his home town of Bethlehem, who has fallen foul of a Palestinian militia group. In doing so, Yussef uncovers a world of corruption, cynicism and fear which makes him regret the passing of a time when Christians and Muslims lived peacefully side by side.”

That drama – like another one scheduled for broadcast next week – is based on a novel written by a former Time Magazine correspondent from Britain who was based in Jerusalem from 2000 – 2006.

“This is the second novel of the Palestinian Quartet series by Matt Rees to be dramatised for Radio 4 by Jennifer Howarth. Matt Rees draws on his experience as Time Magazine’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief to create detective stories which give us an insight into life in Palestine in the early 2000’s.” [emphasis added]

Given that latter claim, one would expect the backdrop to the drama to be accurate and impartial. BBC editorial guidelines relating to “factually based drama” state:

“When a drama portrays real people or events, it is inevitable that the creative realisation of some dramatic elements such as characterisation, dialogue and atmosphere may be fictional.  However, the portrayal should be based on a substantial and well-sourced body of evidence whenever practicable and we should ensure it does not distort the known facts, including chronology, unduly.”

Editorial guidelines on impartiality in Drama, Entertainment and Culture state: 

“A drama where a view of ‘controversial subjects’ is central to its purpose, must be clearly signposted to our audience.  Its excellence and insights must justify the platform offered.  It may be appropriate to offer alternative views in other connected and signposted output.”

‘The Bethlehem Murders’ opens with a monologue by the main character and narrator.

“Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Omar Yussef and I’m a teacher in the city of Bethlehem in Palestine. My family, my tribe, have been here nearly 60 years – ever since we were kicked out of our homelands at the point of a gun.” [emphasis added]

The character goes on to explain that “this story opens in 2001”.

“For nearly a year now we’ve been at war with Israel. We call it the second Intifada: the Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation.”

Audiences are not told that by the time the second Intifada began, Bethlehem had been under exclusive Palestinian Authority control for almost five years.

The main character goes on to introduce a secondary character, describing him as living in “Beit Jala – a Palestinian Christian town just south of Bethlehem”.

Beit Jala is of course located to the north of Bethlehem.

The drama includes numerous additional issues of accuracy, impartiality and omission. While central figures in the story belong to what are described as “the Martyrs Brigades”, audiences are not informed that that terror group belongs to the ruling political party Fatah. Terrorists are repeatedly portrayed as “freedom fighters” while audiences are told that Israel “bulldozes the houses” of Palestinians who “won’t collaborate”. Israeli forces entering Bethlehem after a suicide bombing in Jerusalem are portrayed as “here to take revenge”.

Even the image chosen to illustrate the drama’s webpage lacks accuracy. A person presumably intended to represent the main character is shown against the background of a section of the anti-terrorist fence. The fence is not even mentioned in the story itself and the obvious explanation for that is that the drama is set in 2001 and construction of the fence did not commence until July 2003, when the first section was built many miles to the north of Bethlehem. Nevertheless, the BBC selected that anachronistic image to illustrate this programme.

Obviously the BBC’s claim that this radio drama gives audiences “an insight into life in Palestine in the early 2000’s” is unfortunately diminished by such accuracy and impartiality failures.

Related Articles:

Stone-Throwing Chic at Time Magazine   (CAMERA)

Time Magazine’s One-Sided Feature on Palestinians (CAMERA)

BBC amends style-guide breach in R4 synopsis

 

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3 comments on “BBC R4’s Bethlehem crime fiction flunks accuracy and impartiality

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