In recent days we have seen a number of BBC programmes broadcasting ‘special editions’ from Jerusalem. While the benefits to the BBC’s funding public of flying presenters of domestic programmes such as Radio 4’s ‘Today‘ and ‘Sunday‘ out from the UK for a jaunt to Israel may remain a mystery to many, the May 11th edition of Radio 4’s ‘World at One’ provided a prime example of the perils of ‘parachuting’ reporters into an environment with which they are less than adequately familiar.
Presenter Mark Mardell introduced the item (from 27:49 here) with what was by that time an inaccurate claim regarding a “high alert” in northern Israel and a decidedly presumptuous prediction of its continuation. Interestingly though, he had nothing at all to say about the missile attacks by Iran against Israel the previous day.
Mardell: “Northern Israel is still on high alert and will stay so for a few days yet after the full-scale attack on Iranian bases within Syria. It’s obviously a tense time and next week the State of Israel will be 70 years old. My colleague Edward Stourton is in Jerusalem.” [emphasis added]
Evidently – and not only in this programme – the BBC has elected to ignore the fact that Israelis celebrated the 70th anniversary of their country’s independence on April 19th and instead has adopted the staggeringly patronising policy of deciding for itself (in a manner similar to that in which it presumes to decide where Israel’s capital is – and is not) that Israel’s independence day should be marked according to the Gregorian calendar rather than the Hebrew one.
Edward Stourton also began his item by erasing Iranian missile fire at Israel from the picture. [emphasis in bold added, emphasis in italics in the original]
Stourton: “Mark, Israel was of course born in war and – as the exchange of fire into Syria over the past few days has reminded the world – its history has been scarred by conflict ever since. The way events unfolded seven decades ago is a deeply and bitterly contested story but the bare bones of it go something like this: in the autumn of 1947 the newly-formed United Nations voted to partition what was known as Palestine between an Arab and an Israeli state with an internationally managed special enclave around Jerusalem and Bethlehem.”
Stourton made no effort to inform listeners that the Arabs rejected the UN’s Partition Plan recommendation, thus rendering it irrelevant, before going on:
Stourton: “Violence between the two sides escalated into civil war and the British, who had a mandate to run Palestine, lost control.”
Listeners then heard an archive newsreel recording in which the founders of the Jewish state were portrayed as “lawless” and “thugs” – a recording which was also used by the BBC in the same programme last month.
Archive recording: “Against a background which daily gains resemblance to war-scarred Europe, Palestine is now gripped with almost unrestricted racial warfare. With British influence waning and United Nations actions still delayed, the lawless elements of Jew and Arab populations take over from the servants of a policy of law and order. In the back streets of Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Jaffa the thugs of both sides build up the armoured cars for war against each other. In between them – victims of the struggle – stand the great majorities of civil people on both sides.”
Stourton: “Well that was the way Pathé News reported the story and Britain in fact dictated the timetable by announcing its mandate would end on May the 14th 1948. That afternoon, here in Jerusalem, David Ben Gurion – Israel’s first leader – declared independence.”
The declaration of independence was of course made in Tel Aviv rather than Jerusalem. After listeners had heard an archive recording of Ben Gurion speaking, Stourton went on:
Stourton: “Well the new state came into being at midnight and the following day four Arab states attacked Israeli forces.”
Stourton then introduced his two guests – Sami Adwan from Bethlehem and Israeli ‘new historian’ Tom Segev – who, unsurprisingly, expressed remarkably homogeneous views.
Listeners heard Adwan claim that in 1948 Palestinians were “deprived from their national rights…their rights, their resources and their property, their places”. Awad went on to claim that “they were expelled without any reason, without any cause”.
Stourton – whose sole response to those claims was “well indeed” – refrained from clarifying to listeners that the overwhelming majority of Palestinians who left in 1948 were not driven out by the Israelis, but left of their own accord – often because they were urged to do so by their own leaders. He likewise failed to mention that the Palestinians were not the passive actors portrayed by Awad, but also took part in what was intended to be a war of annihilation initiated by the Arab states and then he went on to give a context-free portrayal of the Six Day War.
Stourton: “Well indeed and just staying with you for a moment, this weekend marks Jerusalem Day which remembers the moment in 1967 when Israel took the east of Jerusalem in the Six Day War. Fair to say that that period added another sort of layer of disputed history if you like.”
When Adwan went on to claim that “the British, the Israelis are responsible for our catastrophe”, Stourton made no effort to question him on the topic of Arab and Palestinian responsibility.
Listeners heard highly partisan portrayals of the relocation of the US embassy to Jerusalem from both Stourton and Segev, with the latter describing it as an “unnecessary development” and opining that the Palestinian refugee issue is a “burden…on our [Israel’s] morality and on the justification for the existence of Israel”.
When Adwan later presented a partisan view of the UN Partition Plan, Stourton failed once again to inform listeners that the proposal was rejected by Arab leaders – including representatives of the Palestinians – and hence has no relevance.
Obviously the aim of this unbalanced and partisan report – riddled as it was with important omissions and inaccuracies – was to advance the narrative of “disputed history”. No effort was made to get beyond that falsely ‘balanced’ label and to provide Radio 4 listeners with accurate and impartial information that would enhance their understanding of a complicated story.
Nevertheless, one would expect that if the BBC is going to go to the expense of sending UK based journalists abroad to report on a story off their usual beat, it would at least ensure that they are au fait with the basic historical facts and ensure that they provide them to the corporation’s funding public.