BBC News website kicks off 2020 election reporting

A report now headlined “Israel will hold unprecedented third election in a year” which was published on the BBC News website’s ‘Middle East’ page on December 11th opens:

“Israel will hold an unprecedented third general election in less than a year after politicians again failed to form a majority coalition in parliament.

Members of the Knesset voted to set the election date for 2 March hours after a midnight (22:00 GMT) deadline passed.”

Explaining the background to the new election, the report tells readers that:

“With neither party [Likud or Blue and White] able to build a coalition that could command a 61-seat majority, President Reuven Rivlin called on them to form a national unity government.

But the negotiations broke down over who would serve as prime minister first; Mr Netanyahu’s insistence that ultra-Orthodox parties allied to him be included; and Mr Gantz’s refusal to serve under a prime minister facing criminal charges.” [emphasis added]

While such statements have been made in the past by the Blue and White party, as Gil Hoffman reported at the Jerusalem Post, it apparently compromised on that stance in the latest round of (unsuccessful) negotiations.

“This time, an agreement between the Likud and Blue and White on a unity government was written in great detail. Lawyers from both sides hammered out arrangements to facilitate a coalition to the smallest details.

They worked hardest on the most complicated issue: how to enable Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to leave his post – as soon as possible for Blue and White, and as respectfully as possible for him. […]

Netanyahu was to leave office on May 4, 2020, right after Independence Day celebrations. Both Netanyahu and Gantz would have been sworn in as prime minister this month – Netanyahu as prime minister and Gantz as the prime minister-designate in a rotation.

A law would have been passed to create Gantz’s post and ensure that Netanyahu left his on time. The bill would have even prevented the Knesset’s dispersal before the end of the term, ensuring long-awaited stability.”

The BBC’s report states:

“Mr Netanyahu has not yet announced whether he will ask parliament to grant him immunity from prosecution. But most analysts believe he is hoping to improve his chances of obtaining immunity with a third election.”

It does not however inform readers that the time limit for such a request is January 2nd 2020 or that there are two stages to that procedure: a vote in the House Committee and – if immunity is granted by the committee – a second vote in the Knesset.

Although the BBC’s report was updated the day after publication, amendments did not include Netanyahu’s announcement that he will step down from his ministerial posts on January 1st and readers were not informed of the pending decision by the Attorney General as to whether or not Netanyahu could be tasked with forming a government despite the indictments against him should the Likud win the March 2020 election.

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BBC News’ Plett Usher fails on fact checking

BBC News’ Plett Usher fails on fact checking

On the evening of November 22nd the BBC News website published an article headlined “Israel’s Netanyahu facing fight of his political life” on its Middle East page.

Written by Barbara Plett Usher who is currently based in Jerusalem, the article was one of six items relating to the announcement of indictments against Israel’s acting prime minister to have appeared on that page in less than 24 hours, indicating that the BBC considers it a major story.

In the rush to publish content, fact checking however fell by the wayside with Plett Usher telling readers that:

“A lot will depend on senior members of Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party. Until now they have maintained their tribal loyalty to the prime minister, but he is facing a possible challenge from within.

The education minister, Gideon Saar, has called for party primaries to replace him. There may well yet be others.” [emphasis added]

Gideon Sa’ar has not been the Minister of Education for over six years. He held that post between March 31st 2009 and March 18th 2013 and since then there have been three other ministers.

Plett Usher also told readers that:

“He’s [Netanyahu] been preoccupied with efforts to form a right-wing government that would vote to grant him immunity from prosecution.

Despite failing to do so, his status as a member of the Knesset gives him 30 days to ask the legislative body to grant him such immunity. The indictment cannot be formally filed unless this process happens.

But that request for immunity cannot be made until there is a functioning government. There isn’t one now and won’t be for even longer if Israelis are forced to vote yet again.”

As Lahav Harkov explains at the Jerusalem Post, there are in fact two stages to that procedure : [emphasis added]

“…when an MK is charged with a crime, the attorney-general must submit a copy of the indictment to the Knesset. Then the MK may go to the Knesset House Committee and ask for immunity. At that point, the legal proceedings against him or her are frozen and [Attorney General] Mandelblit cannot submit the indictment to the courts.

The House Committee would then vote, and if it grants the lawmaker immunity, it must go to a second vote in the plenum. […]

It does not look like Netanyahu has enough votes in the Knesset, in its current makeup, to get immunity. The religious-Right bloc that supports him has 55 seats, and the Center-Left has made it very clear they oppose the move.”

BBC Watch has written to the BBC News website requesting a correction.

BBC clarifies inaccurate claim by Jeremy Bowen but fails to meet editorial guidelines

Earlier this month we documented an inaccurate claim made by the BBC’s Middle East editor during the September 26th edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘From Our Own Correspondent’.

In an item relating to post-election Israeli politics Jeremy Bowen told listeners that:

“Netanyahu has a compelling reason to stay in office. He faces serious allegations of corruption, which he denies. They’re due to come to court next month.” [emphasis added]

As was noted here at the time:

“That, however, is not the case: “next month” – i.e. October 2019 – pre-indictment hearings before the attorney general will take place over four working days commencing on October 2nd. As the Times of Israel notes:

“The hearings, which will see Netanyahu’s lawyers argue his conduct was entirely proper and within the boundaries of the law, will stretch over four days and wrap up before the start of the Yom Kippur fast on Tuesday evening.

Prosecution officials told Channel 12 news on Tuesday they hoped to reach a final decision on whether to indict the premier by the end of the year.”

In other words, Bowen’s claim that allegations against Netanyahu will “come to court next month” is inaccurate and misleading to audiences both from the point of view of the time frame presented and with regard to the implication that indictments have already been made. Any potential indictment is dependent upon the outcome of the ongoing hearings and as we see above, that process will take time.”

BBC Watch submitted a complaint concerning Bowen’s inaccurate claim which BBC Complaints initially tried to dismiss with the following response:

“Thank you for contacting us regarding From Our Own Correspondent, broadcast on Thursday 26th September.

We have spoken with the programme team about your concerns. During his report Jeremy Bowen says, “Netanyahu has a compelling reason to stay in office. He faces serious allegations of corruption, which he denies. They’re due to come to court next month.” Although a verdict is due to be made by the end of the year we don’t believe it was inaccurate for Jeremy to say “they’re due to come to court next month”, as he was referring to the allegations that were due to be bought forward at this time. We hope this clarifies Jeremy’s statement.”

BBC Watch submitted a second complaint, pointing out that the response received was unsatisfactory:

“What is “due to be made by the end of the year” – is a decision by the Attorney General’s office whether or not to indict Netanyahu on all or any of the three cases. Hence “the allegations” are not “due to come to court next month” as claimed by the BBC – i.e. October – because as yet no indictment has been made. Reasonable members of the audience would understand from Bowen’s words that a court case is due to commence in October and would necessarily conclude from that that an indictment has been made. That is not the case and so Bowen’s claim is both inaccurate and misleading.”

On October 28th we received a further response from BBC Complaints in which once again we see that the BBC takes the liberty of declaring a second response at Stage 1b of the procedure “your first reply”. [emphasis added]

“Thank you for taking the time to contact us again. We are sorry to learn that you were not satisfied with our earlier response.

We’re sorry you had to come back to us and we appreciate why. We always aim to address the specific points raised by our audience and regret any cases where we’ve failed to do this. Your [sic] previous reply didn’t tackle the exact issue you raised and we’d like to offer you a new response here. The following should now be considered your first reply.

We have spoken with the From Our Own Correspondent team about your concerns. They would like to respond with the following:

“Thanks for writing in again and I’m sorry you weren’t happy with the previous reply.

You are right to suggest that Jeremy was referring to the pre-trial hearing with the attorney-general, which took place behind closed doors at the Justice ministry.

Jeremy was using a turn of phrase, to indicate the legal process was reaching its crucial next stage, but in case listeners thought the case was actually coming to court next month we can clarify the point on our complaints website.

The Attorney-General has of course already indicated that charges are likely.”

Thank you again for getting in touch.”

On October 28th the following correction was posted on the BBC’s ‘Corrections and Clarifications’ page:

However, no notification of that correction has been added to the programme’s webpage, where the item is still available to audiences.

The new BBC editorial guidelines published in July state that:

“Where mistakes in our on-demand content, which is available online after broadcast, are unlikely to be a serious breach of editorial standards, a correction should be published on that platform, so that it is visible before the output is played. Such on-demand content does not then normally need to be changed or revoked.

Where mistakes to our on-demand content are likely to be considered a serious breach of editorial standards, the content must be corrected and the mistake acknowledged, or in exceptional cases removed. We need to be transparent about any changes made, unless there are editorial or legal reasons not to do so.”  [emphasis added]

Unfortunately, BBC audiences will continue to be misled by Jeremy Bowen’s inaccurate account because BBC Radio 4 has not complied with those editorial guidelines.

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BBC’s Middle East editor warns against premature claims yet makes one

BBC Complaints makes it up as it goes along

BBC publishes new Editorial Guidelines

BBC’s Middle East editor warns against premature claims yet makes one

The September 26th edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ was titled “Who Will Lead Israel?” and the synopsis to the programme’s lead item reads as follows:

“Last week’s general election in Israel produced an indecisive result, but President Rivlin has asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form the country’s next government, after Mr Netanyahu and his main political opponent Benny Gantz failed to agree a deal on a unity government.

Many observers suggested this election would be the end of an era for Israel’s longest-serving PM, but as the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen points out, the pre-emptive writing of Mr Netanyahu’s political obituary has proved premature before.”

That synopsis resembles the introduction given (from 00:23) by presenter Kate Adie. Listeners then heard the BBC Middle East editor’s reminiscences from Israeli elections in 1996 and 1999, with Jeremy Bowen providing a crude and unhelpful caricature of Israeli politics:

“In Israel, the more opposed you are to concessions to the Palestinians, the more Right-wing you are and vice-versa.”

Later on in his monologue, listeners were told that: [emphasis in italics in the original]

“He [Netanyahu] will repeat his conviction that he is the only man who can protect Israelis against Iran and its allies and against the Palestinians – both those in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and Gaza and the Palestinians who make up around 20% of Israel’s population.”

Not only did Jeremy Bowen continue to amplify his new narrative defining Arab-Israelis as Palestinians regardless of how they self-identify but Palestinian terrorism – the reason why Israelis require ‘protection’ – was whitewashed from the Middle East editor’s simplistic analysis.

Radio 4 listeners also heard the following claim (from 04:32) from the man tasked with providing “analysis that might make a complex story more comprehensive or comprehensible for the audience”.

“Netanyahu has a compelling reason to stay in office. He faces serious allegations of corruption, which he denies. They’re due to come to court next month.” [emphasis added]

That, however, is not the case: “next month” – i.e. October 2019 – pre-indictment hearings before the attorney general will take place over four working days commencing on October 2nd. As the Times of Israel notes:

“The hearings, which will see Netanyahu’s lawyers argue his conduct was entirely proper and within the boundaries of the law, will stretch over four days and wrap up before the start of the Yom Kippur fast on Tuesday evening.

Prosecution officials told Channel 12 news on Tuesday they hoped to reach a final decision on whether to indict the premier by the end of the year.”

In other words, Bowen’s claim that allegations against Netanyahu will “come to court next month” is inaccurate and misleading to audiences both from the point of view of the time frame presented and with regard to the implication that indictments have already been made. Any potential indictment is dependent upon the outcome of the ongoing hearings and as we see above, that process will take time

One would of course expect the BBC’s main gatekeeper of Middle East news to be sufficiently familiar with the story so as to avoid making such a “pre-emptive” and “premature” false claim.

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Israeli election coverage continues to advance a new narrative

Do BBC audiences get the ‘range and depth of analysis’ promised?

The BBC’s explanation of the first of its public purposes includes the following:

“It should offer a range and depth of analysis and content not widely available from other United Kingdom news providers…so that all audiences can engage fully with major…global issues…as active and informed citizens.”

In contrast to that fine declaration, here is an example of actual practice taken from an article published on the BBC News website’s ‘Middle East’ page on July 20th under the headline “Benjamin Netanyahu becomes Israel’s longest-serving leader”.

“As head of the right-wing Likud party, Mr Netanyahu has a reputation as a hardliner on the Israel-Palestinian peace process.

Although he carried out a partial withdrawal from the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank in 1998 – handing most of it over to the Palestinian Authority – he is a staunch opponent of the land-for-peace formula.

He has since declared there will be no more evacuations of Jewish settlers or settlements under his rule, nor the creation of a fully fledged Palestinian state.”

The redeployment of Israeli troops from 80% of Hebron – in accordance with the protocol signed during Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister – took place in January 1997 rather than in 1998 as claimed by the BBC.

In those three short paragraphs the BBC tells its audiences that Netanyahu is “a hardliner”, supposedly justifying that description with the claim that he is “opponent of the land-for-peace formula” and will not evacuate Israeli communities or agree to a Palestinian state.

Audiences are given no explanation of what the “land-for-peace” formula is, how it originated or whether or not it has been successful and hence are not provided with the tools to judge Netanyahu’s alleged opposition to it for themselves. They are not informed that the two examples of treaties signed by Israel and Arab countries based on the concept of ‘land-for-peace’ – the agreements with Egypt and Jordan – have resulted in what some Israelis might describe as ‘land-for-not-war’ rather than peace.

The BBC’s would-be cameo refrains from mentioning the cases in which Israeli withdrawal from territory – for example parts of Gaza and Judea & Samaria in the early 1990s and the Gaza Strip in 2005 – not only failed to bring peace but was actually followed by greater violence. No mention is made of the effects that has had on perceptions of the concept of ‘land-for-peace’ in Israel: according to that BBC definition of a ‘hardliner’, it would include a significant proportion of the Israeli public as well as people such as former Labour politician Eitan Cabel, the ‘Blue & White’ party’s Moshe Ya’alon and writer A.B. Yehoshua.

Significantly, the BBC’s portrayal erases Palestinians (and their multiple refusals to accept ‘land for peace’ offers) from the picture entirely, promoting the narrative that Israel alone – and specifically its current prime minister – is responsible for the absence of peace.

A further example of how the BBC is more interested in narrative than fact comes in the article’s closing lines.

“He [Netanyahu] faces a tough challenge from political opponents seeking to topple him in elections on 17 September. Among them are another former prime minster, Ehud Barak, and a former military chief-of-staff.”

According to the latest opinion polls, Netanyahu’s ‘Likud’ party is on track to secure 32 Knesset seats in the election in two months’ time while Ehud Barak’s ‘Israel Democratic Party’ is polling four to five seats.

The BBC’s “depth of analysis” apparently defines that as a “tough challenge”.  

Ten days, four reports on the same story on the BBC News website

On February 28th the BBC News website published two reports pertaining to the anticipated announcement from Israel’s attorney general that the prime minister would be charged, pending a hearing, in relation to three separate cases.

February 28

The first of the two reports – titled “Benjamin Netanyahu: Israel PM faces corruption charges” related to the attorney general’s announcement.

In addition to details of the allegations in the three cases (which had previously been reported in an article published on December 2nd), the article included the first brief reference to the factual background concerning relevant Israeli legislation and procedures that audiences have seen in all the BBC’s generous coverage of this story. 

“A final hearing, probably after the election, will determine whether the charges go forward. The prime minister will have an opportunity to make his case then. […]

Mr Netanyahu is presumed innocent unless proven otherwise and there is currently no legal barrier to stop him staying in office if he’s re-elected – even if the attorney general makes a final decision to charge him after a hearing due in the coming months.”

As pointed out at the Times of Israel, “the coming months” is more likely to be early next year.

“Legal officials have taken pains to point out that the hearing is not a simple technical matter but could have significant bearing on the case. Only after a hearing can formal charges be filed.

The right to a hearing is anchored in Israel’s Criminal Procedure Law, which states that “the suspect will be entitled to apply in writing to the prosecution authority… and to make a reasoned petition to abstain from the filing of an indictment.”

Under the law, this request can be made within 30 days of the suspect receiving  notification of the intention to indict him. […]

Mandelblit, in his written statement Thursday, promised to examine the defense team’s arguments “willingly and with an open heart.” His final decision on whether to indict Netanyahu is unlikely to come before early 2020.

February 28

The reasons for the delay are manifold. For one, the attorney general has decided not to release all case files until after the Knesset election, lest they be used for political purposes and campaign propaganda.

In practice, that means that Netanyahu’s lawyers will only be able to view all the charges against their client after April 9. They then need to be given enough time to review the entire material and properly prepare their counter arguments. Given the complicated nature of Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, it appears reasonable to grant them several months to do that.”

The second article published on February 28th is titled “Benjamin Netanyahu: What are the corruption allegations?” and it purports to provide audiences with details of the three cases.

Readers may recall that just days earlier the BBC News website had published a similar filmed backgrounder by Tom Bateman of the BBC’s Jerusalem bureau and that report still appeared on the website’s Middle East page on February 28th.

February 20

The following day, March 1st, an article by the BBC Jerusalem bureau’s Yolande Knell appeared in the ‘features’ section of the BBC News website’s ‘Middle East’ page under the headline “Netanyahu charges: Is Israel PM in more trouble now than ever before?”.

March 1

A significant proportion of that article comprised material recycled from an audio report by Knell that had been aired on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme on February 6th.

Radio, 6/2:

Knell: “Ha’aretz journalist and Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer sees the PM on the attack.”

Pfeffer: “He’s very much under pressure, he’s very much acting impulsively. The more time passes, the more these indictments will create more problems for him and these challenges on the political scene with a new party like the Gantz party and with rivals within Likud perhaps starting to speak out against him, we’ll see less the statesman and more the local politician fighting a very dirty battle of survival.”

Written, 1/3:

“He’s very much under pressure, he’s very much acting impulsively,” says Anshel Pfeffer, a Haaretz journalist who wrote a recent biography of the prime minister.

“The more these indictments create problems for him and the more the challenges on the political scene with a new party, like the Gantz party – and with rivals within Likud perhaps starting to speak out against him – we’ll see less the statesman and more the local politician fighting a very dirty battle of survival.”

Radio, 6/2:

Knell: “Grass roots Likud voters strongly support their leader.”

Unidentified Man: “Currently there is no-one that is nearly as strong or as intelligent or as experienced as Netanyahu is.”

Unidentified Woman: “Netanyahu I think is the best prime minister we had here, not just for security – also for the economic situation.”

Written, 1/3:

“Likud members firmly back their leader.

“Currently, there’s no-one that’s nearly as strong or as intelligent or as experienced as Netanyahu is,” Zohar Tal, a candidate, told me at a Likud primary event last month.

“Netanyahu, I think he’s the best prime minister we had here,” added Iris, a grassroots supporter. “Not just for security but also for the economic situation.””

Radio, 6/2:

Knell: “Guy Lurie of the Israel Democracy Institute says it’s not clear what happens next.”

Lurie: “No prime minister in Israeli history has been indicted while in office. It’s really difficult to see how he could conduct himself in court facing serious potential multiple corruption charges and continue to conduct government. We are in uncharted waters. We don’t know how that will take shape.”

Written, 1/3:

“This is the first time that a serving prime minister has been put on official notice of planned prosecution. While there are currently no legal barriers to him staying on, it creates an uncertain situation.

“We’re in uncharted waters. We don’t know how this will take shape,” says Guy Lurie, a legal expert at the Israel Democracy Institute.

Mr Netanyahu is presumed innocent unless proven otherwise. However, if he is re-elected, indicted and then refuses to resign, it is thought likely that the Supreme Court would rule on his position.

“It’s really difficult to see how he could conduct himself in court facing serious – potentially multiple – corruption charges and continue to conduct government,” Mr Lurie notes.”

Radio, 6/2:

Knell: “Here on a main road by the Likud polling station you can see how Mr Netanyahu is building his campaign around that belief. There’s a huge billboard showing him with President Trump, beaming and shaking hands. ‘Netanyahu – a different league’ reads the slogan. The prime minister is stressing how his close relations with this White House has helped deliver a tough approach on Iran and the Palestinians as well as US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”

Written, 1/3:

“Recently, huge billboards were put up in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem showing the prime minister with President Trump, beaming and shaking hands. “Netanyahu: a different league” read the slogan.

The prime minister aims to show how his close relations with this White House have helped deliver a tough approach on Iran and the Palestinians as well as US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.”

In summary, throughout all of the ten days between February 20th and March 1st, the BBC News website’s Middle East page carried at least one of four different but remarkably similar reports on this story.

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BBC WS ‘Newshour’ framing of Iranian activity in Syria – part two

As we saw in part one of this post the lead story in the afternoon edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour‘ on February 18th focused on the Israeli prime minister’s speech at the Munich Security Conference earlier in the day, with listeners hearing remarkably little about the relevant topic of Iranian activities in Syria and the broader Middle East while contributor Laleh Khalili promoted a grotesque caricature of Israel.

The evening edition of the programme also led with that same story.

“Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a stinging verbal attack on Iran, telling a Munich Security Conference Iran is the “greatest threat to our world”.”

Presenter James Coomarasamy introduced the first item on the subject (from 00:45 here), yet again implying to listeners that the incursion of an Iranian drone into Israeli airspace on February 10th is a matter of opinion: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Coomarasamy: “We begin though at the Munich Security Conference – a forum for discussing global security threats – where the talk today came with added props and the sense that a conflict between Israel and Iran could be getting closer. A week after the Israelis lost their first fighter jet in more than a decade, in military action which followed what they say was the incursion of an Iranian drone into Israeli airspace, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu used his appearance at Munich to deliver a message to Tehran. And it was a none too subtle one: here he is, prop in hand, sending his rhetoric hovering over his fellow conference participant the Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif.”

Listeners once again heard recorded excerpts from the Israeli prime minister’s speech and the Iranian foreign minister’s speech at that conference before Coomarasamy went on:

Coomarasamy: “So, how does Israel’s closest ally the United States stand on this issue? Well just have a listen to the US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster speaking during Saturday’s question & answer session in Munich.”

Recording McMaster: “What Iran is actually doing is applying the Hizballah model to the greater Middle East in which they want weak governments in power. They want the Arab world to be perpetually weak and they have weak governments in power that are dependent on Iran for support while they grow terrorist organisations, militias, other illegal armed groups that are outside of that government’s control, that can be turned against that government if that government acts against Iranian interests. So that the time is now, we think, to act against Iran.”

Coomarasamy then introduced his contributing guest: a conspiracy theorist who has in the past suggested that chemical weapons used against civilians in Syria may have been an Israeli “false flag” operation aimed at implicating Bashar Assad’s regime.

Coomarasamy: “Now we’re joined now by Lawrence Wilkerson: retired US army colonel who was Chief of Staff to the US Secretary of State Colin Powell from 2002 to 2005. And you see echoes in what Colin Powell said and did in the run-up to the Iraq war and what you’re seeing and hearing now.”

Wilkerson: “Yes I do and I kind of chuckled to myself when H.R. said what he said because – let’s face it – he was describing Saudi Arabia far more precisely than he was describing Iran. And I had to chuckle when Netanyahu said what he said to Zarif about the drone because as the Lebanese foreign minister said recently – I’m sorry: the Lebanese defence minister said recently – he has an Israeli drone over his head almost 24/7.”

Coomarasamy: “So when you see what the Israeli prime minister did in Munich and hear what he said, what sort of intent do you think is behind it?”

Wilkerson: “This is all propaganda. It’s all bombast, it’s all bellicosity on Netanyahu’s…Netanyahu’s part at least aimed at deflecting some indictments that might remove him from office at any time, reminding me of a mantra that’s going around in the rumour channel inside the Beltway right now here in Washington: will Trump start a war to save his presidency? I think there’s some of that; that’s the political aspect of it. But I understand Prime Minister Netanyahu – just like Israeli prime ministers from the past – has to seem as if he is ten feet tall in order to dissuade those who are arrayed around him from testing him.”

Coomarasamy made no effort to clarify to listeners that no indictments have been issued against the Israeli prime minister to date or that even if they had, the notion that they would be ‘deflected’ by a speech made at a conference is just plain ridiculous. Neither did the BBC’s presenter bother to point out the relevant fact that the source of ‘rumours’ concerning the US administration’s supposed intention of starting a war with Iran is Wilkerson himself and that he published an op-ed promoting such claims (which has been called out for its antisemitic undertones) in the New York Times less than two weeks before this ‘Newshour’ appearance took place.

Coomarasamy: “But the presence of Iran and the influence of Iran in the region; that’s a real concern – isn’t it – to those countries?”

Wilkerson’s reply revealed the redundancy of soliciting military analysis from a former soldier in an army that does not fight wars on its own territory and does not have to defend its own civilian population at such a time.

Wilkerson: “Well it is a concern to the Arab countries to be sure. It should not really be of much concern to Israel because the Israel Defence Force, as I well know, is competent sufficiently to defeat all of them in combination were it to have to do so. Now I’m sure Mr Netanyahu doesn’t want to have to exhibit that competence but he’s gonna play with it as much as he can. If you put the Quds Force, the IRGC, the Syria regular army and every other element that Iran and Syria could marshal, Israel would still outdo it and if that weren’t true it has 200 nuclear weapons to back that up. So this is really a lot of bombastic rhetoric to try and get the other side scared, try to get the other side to do what you want it to do. The real issue here is what are the United States’ interests in this area? And I’m really worried because I see absolutely – and this includes McMaster’s just now uttered statements – I see absolutely no real strategy from the United States. I see a muddling through and I see remarks by H.R. McMaster and others in the administration to be demonstrative of that lack of a strategy.”

Coomarasamy: “Isn’t muddling through better though than all-out confrontation?”

Wilkerson then promoted – as he has done in the past – a context-free caricature of prior conflicts:

Wilkerson: “Well it just depends on what you mean by all-out confrontation. I don’t think…I don’t think we’re looking at an all-out confrontation here. If we’re looking at anything we’re looking at Israel getting ready to do what it does about every six to ten years and that is bomb the bejesus out of Lebanon and maybe bomb the bejesus out of Hizballah in Syria and Lebanon and maybe a few other things. And it feels like it has to demonstrate once again that it can obliterate the rest of the region should it chose to do so.”

Coomarasamy: “But it has lost a fighter jet over Syria [sic] and you know that hasn’t happened for some time.”

Wilkerson: “That actually hadn’t happened for about thirty years but I mean you do lose implements of war when you fight.”

Coomarasamy closed the interview at that point but Wilkerson’s baseless claim that “Israel getting ready to do what it does about every six to ten years and that is bomb the bejesus out of Lebanon” was aired again later on in the programme when Coomarasamy returned to his “top story” at 44:00. Listeners also then heard a repeat broadcast of much of the interviews with Giora Shamis and Laleh Khalili which had been aired in the earlier edition of the programme, including the allegation of “constant fear-mongering” by Israel and the redundant linkage between this topic and the domestic issues facing the Israeli prime minister.

It is of course abundantly clear that when ‘Newshour’ invited Lawrence Wilkerson to comment on this story its producers knew exactly what kind of ‘analysis’ they were going to get. That of course raises the same question that was posed by Liel Leibovitz when the New York Times recently published Wilkerson’s op-ed:

“Why the paper of record would give such a man a spot in its vaunted op-ed page is anybody’s guess, though it’s hard to believe that kooks of other stripes would’ve been welcomed so warmly.”

The answer of course is disturbingly obvious. ‘Newshour’ did not seek to meet its obligation to provide audiences with accurate and impartial information which would enhance their understanding of the background to this highly promoted story. Instead it invited a discredited conspiracy theorist and an activist academic to advance narratives of Israeli ‘aggression’ and ‘expansionism’ and promote the baseless notion of linkage to domestic Israeli politics, all the while downplaying Iran’s actions in the Middle East to the level of a sideshow that distracts from what ‘Newshour’ would have its listeners believe is the ‘real’ story.

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BBC WS ‘Newshour’ framing of Iranian activity in Syria – part one

The lead story in the February 18th afternoon edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour‘ was described as follows in the synopsis:

“Israel’s prime minister launches a stinging attack on Iran, telling a security conference in Munich the country is the “greatest threat to our world”. Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would “not allow Iran’s regime to put a noose of terror around our neck”.”

Presenter James Coomarasamy opened the item (from 00:45 here) by insinuating that an Iranian drone may or may not have breached Israeli airspace the previous week. [emphasis in bold added, emphasis in italics in the original]

Coomarasamy: “We begin now at the Munich Security conference – a forum for discussing security threats but today it put a case of insecurity very firmly on display. The conference became the backdrop to a rhetorical clash between Israel and Iran a week after the two countries’ militaries came into conflict over Syria. Well Israel lost a fighter jet in that clash which followed what it said was the interception of an Iranian drone which had crossed from Syria into Israeli territory. It was the first time an Israeli war plane had been downed in more than a decade.”

After listeners had heard excerpts from the Israeli prime minister’s speech and the Iranian foreign minister’s speech at that conference, Coomarasamy introduced his two guests – Giora Shamis of the controversial Debkafile website and Iranian-American SOAS professor Laleh Khalili.

So what did BBC audiences worldwide learn about the activities of Iran and its proxies in Syria and the wider Middle East or why Israel views the Iranian presence and influence on its borders as a threat? The answer to that question is not much. Listeners did however hear quite a bit of dubious, politically partisan analysis from Khalili – none of which was challenged by the BBC presenter.

Khalili: “There are obviously three elements about what is going on at the moment that makes it all a bit scary, the first of which is that the Trump administration is in place which is probably more likely to give a green light to conflict by Israel, although the Trump administration itself is quite divided on this issue with some of the higher echelons of the military not wanting to cause further conflict in the region. The second element is of course the major rapprochement between Israel and the Gulf Arab states and especially Saudi Arabia. The third thing which I think makes things particularly dangerous is the fact that Netanyahu has over the course of his entire rule in Israel been accused of corruption a number of times but now the police have referred him to the attorney general in Israel and of course the wag the dog situation [laughs] is extremely relevant here and could potentially result in further conflict, which is what Netanyahu would want: the more conflict there is in the region, the better it benefits the Israeli security establishment if not the Israeli people.”

Coomarasamy made no effort to question that ‘theory’ or to remind listeners that it was Iran that sparked the recent clash by infiltrating Israeli airspace. After Giora Shamis had mentioned the establishment of Iranian military bases in Syria and additional factors, Coomarasamy asked Khalili about “events on the ground” – meaning the drone infiltration – but allowed her to avoid the question and instead promote more unchallenged propaganda aimed at downplaying Iran’s activities.

Khalili: “The fact is that there are confrontations, whether by proxy or directly, happening between Israel and Iran for decades now and what Netanyahu does – and in fact actually most of the conservative Israeli security establishment do – is constant fear-mongering. The problem is really not with whether or not there are other threats or real threats or real clashes. The problem is with Israel’s militarist, expansionist policies that have essentially become more and more entrenched and more and more fired up whenever Netanyahu feels his own power domestically threatened.”

After Khalili had referred to Netanyahu as “preening quite a bit and posturing quite a bit”, Coomarasamy asked Shamis for his “response to the idea that what is happening now is in part the prime minister of Israel trying to divert attention from his own domestic challenges”, to which Shamis replied that in his opinion, the current Israeli government will be in power for at least another year.

Coomarasamy next asked Khalili about Javid Zarif’s “dismissive” response to Netanyahu and “how worried are the Iranians?”.

Khalili: “They have to consider this but also I’m sure the dismissiveness comes from the direction of remembering how much Netanyahu is into these kinds of theatrics. I mean we haven’t forgotten his UN presentation which was of course the subject of much mirth and mockery later. […] But it is also really important to know that it’s not just the Iranians that are being dismissive. I just have been looking on Twitter and all the people who are at the actual security conference, a lot of the Europeans who are Tweeting are also being in equal measures concerned about Netanyahu’s posturing and also dismissive of, again, its theatrical elements.”

She went on:

Khalili: “…this conflict has been on a low simmer for decades. It’s not new. I mean the fact that the Israeli security establishment have been assassinating Iranian scientists inside Iran and Iranian military people outside of Iran, it’s not like there’s been all love and roses [laughs] for the past few decades and yet this conflict has been going on. But the fact is that the conflict has been ongoing so its being ratcheted up is perhaps what’s interesting, dangerous and worrying.”

Without questioning or qualifying Khalili’s allegations or even reminding listeners of, for example, the relevant topic of Iranian military activities along Israel’s border with Syria, Coomarasamy closed the item there.

The BBC’s public purposes oblige it to “provide accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming of the highest editorial standards so that all audiences can engage fully with issues across the UK and the world”. The unchallenged efforts of activist academic Laleh Khalili to frame the story as being about “theatrics”, “fear-mongering” and Israeli domestic politics – while completely erasing Iran’s activities from the picture – are of course not in the least surprising.  However, such blatant propaganda obviously contributed nothing to BBC audience understanding of the serious topic of Iranian expansion and belligerency in Syria and the Middle East in general or of Israel’s position on that issue.

However, Newshour’s partisan framing of that story was not over yet – as we will see in part two of this post.

Key background absent from BBC reporting on Israel PM allegations

On February 14th the BBC News website published a lengthy article titled “Israel PM Netanyahu defiant in face of bribery allegations” on its Middle East page in which readers were told that:

“A police statement on Tuesday said there was enough evidence to indict him for bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two separate cases.

The attorney general’s office could take months to decide if Mr Netanyahu should face charges.”

Following sub-sections titled “What was Netanyahu’s response?” and “What are the allegations?”, readers found a section headed “What has the reaction been?” in which comments from members of four political parties were highlighted, including the following:

“Earlier, Israel’s centre-left opposition alliance, the Zionist Union, called on the prime minister to resign.”

The last section of the article was titled “What happens now?”.

“A final decision on whether Mr Netanyahu should face charges will come down to the attorney general’s office. A decision could take months to reach.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked said any prime minister who has been charged should not be obliged to resign.”

While it is unclear which particular statement from the Justice Minister the BBC is quoting in this report, significantly at no point did the BBC make any effort to clarify to audiences that – as Ms Shaked has pointed out in the past – under Israeli law, police recommendations are not a legal reason for a prime minister to resign.

Unlike a minister, a prime minister is not obliged by law to resign even if indicted. Only after being convicted of an offence involving moral turpitude – and following any appeals – can a prime minister (and with him the government) be removed from office.

Clearly that information is crucial to understanding of both quoted statements concerning the topic of resignation and the story in general but it was not provided to BBC audiences reading either this report or another one on the same topic that appeared on the previous day in the ‘features’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page under the title “Benjamin Netanyahu: Israel’s dilemma over PM’s future“.