More uncritical amplification of a HRW report from BBC News

On September 22nd an article appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page under the title “Egypt ‘demolishes thousands of homes’ for Sinai buffer zone“. That article is in fact yet another piece of ‘churnalism‘, with almost its entire content being devoted to amplification of a report by one of the BBC’s most frequently quoted and promoted political NGOs – Human Rights Watch (HRW).HRW report Rafah

Despite the fact that the HRW report is based on information gathered from selected media reports, anonymous witnesses and unidentified ‘activists’, the BBC uncritically repeated its claims, with variations of the phrase “HRW says” appearing seven times throughout the article and no attempt made to provide readers with further relevant background material. Thus, for example, readers were steered towards the view that no justification exists for Egypt’s actions on its border with the Gaza Strip.

“The [Egyptian] military aims to eventually clear an area of about 79 sq km (30 sq miles) along the Gaza border, including all of the town of Rafah, which has a population of about 78,000 people, HRW says.

The government says the operation will allow the military to close smuggling tunnels it alleges are used by jihadists to receive weapons, fighters and logistical help from Palestinian militants in Gaza.

But HRW said little or no evidence had been offered to support this justification, citing statements from Egyptian and Israeli officials that suggested weapons were more likely to have been obtained from Libya or captured from the Egyptian military.”

Were the BBC’s own record of reporting on the subject of collaboration between the Sinai based Salafists and elements within the Gaza Strip less dismal, it would of course have been able to provide readers with background information crucial to their being able to put that HRW claim into context. As the Times of Israel reported in January 2015:

“Egyptian intelligence has specific information on assistance that Sinai terrorists have been receiving from the Gaza Strip. Many activists trained in Gaza, and received arms there that they have been using against Egyptian forces.

That is the source of the urgency around creating the buffer zone: the goal is to cut the jihadis off from their Gaza supply route. On Monday Egyptian media reported on a jihadist cell that enjoyed considerable help from Hamas, and tried to infiltrate Sinai through tunnels. Most of the tunnels aren’t open, but occasionally smugglers on both sides of the border manage to build a new one. The Egyptian army recently uncovered a 1,700-meter passage.”

As has been the case on many past occasions, the BBC makes no effort to inform readers of this article of HRW’s political agenda – despite the need to do so being clearly stated in the corporation’s editorial guidelines on impartiality.

That recurrent omission is all the more remarkable in light of the fact that in earlier this year, HRW (once again) took up the BBC’s case at the United Nations periodic review of Rwanda.

“The HRW’s Submission for the Universal Periodic Review March 2015 contains the following recommendations for Rwanda: […]

Allow the BBC Kinyarwanda service to resume its broadcasts in Rwanda.”

Public impressions of BBC impartiality and independence will of course not be enhanced by the appearance of articles uncritically amplifying content produced by a political NGO which just happens to have used its UN platform to promote the BBC’s interests.

Related Articles:

BBC fails to meet its remit in article about Rafah tunnels

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BBC News does its convincing impression of HRW PR department yet again

At the end of last year we noted here that one of the political NGOs most quoted and promoted by the BBC during 2014 was Human Rights Watch (HRW). The media practice of uncritically amplifying press releases and reports put out by third parties – known as ‘churnalism‘ – is of course by no means limited to the BBC but the corporation’s editorial guidelines mean that, in contrast to other organisations, the BBC has an obligation to inform audiences of any political agenda and/or ideological affiliations which may have a bearing upon the impartiality of the information put out by the NGO concerned.  

It is well over five years since HRW’s founder blew the whistle on its obsessive, politically motivated focus on Israel. As has been noted on these pages on numerous occasions since last summer, HRW is one of a number of politically motivated NGOs engaged in the lawfare campaign against Israel. That background is obviously essential knowledge for any member of the BBC’s audience viewing, hearing or reading a report about Israel based on claims made by Human Rights Watch and yet time and time again, we see the BBC self-conscripting to the role of PR promoter for HRW ‘reports’ without any attempt being made to provide that crucial context.

Last month HRW produced yet another of its reports – this time on the topic of Thai agricultural workers in Israel. Having interviewed less than one per-cent of the total number of Thai nationals employed on Israeli farms (who, like all foreign workers, are of course protected by law), the NGO concluded that it had uncovered “serious abuse”.Schick art

Nine days after the publication of HRW’s report, an article appeared in the ‘Features & Analysis’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page under the title “Israel’s Thai farmworkers tell of grim plight“. The freelance writer of this article, Camilla Schick (who ironically claims to have done previous work on the issue of ‘churnalism’) makes no attempt to hide the fact that her article is based on the HRW report, with over a quarter of her word-count composed of amplification of its content or quotes from its author. Schick however devoted no words at all to informing readers of her main source’s record of anti-Israel political campaigning.

Another organization promoted, albeit to a lesser extent, in Schick’s report is Kav Laoved – also known as Workers’ Hotline. How Camilla Schick made contact with the mostly anonymous  Thai workers she interviewed for her report and whether or not HRW and/or Kav Laoved played any part in setting up those meetings is not clarified.

One of the main focuses of both the HRW report and Schick’s piece is an issue described in a sub-heading as “Unexplained deaths”. Schick writes:

“One of the most serious allegations concerns a number of farm-worker deaths.

Between 2008 and 2013, 122 Thai nationals died while employed on Israeli farms, according to government figures reported by Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.

The causes ranged from accidents, alcohol poisoning, heart failure and suffocation, to fire, suicide, beating and stabbing, Israel’s Ministry of Health says.

The ministry notes 43 of these deaths were due to “Sudden Unexplained Nocturnal Death Syndrome” (Sunds), a rare condition, whose causes are little understood.

A further 22 deaths had no autopsy and were noted as “unexplained”.”

She then goes on to use a phone interview with a Thai worker and quotes from officials from the two NGOs highlighted in her report to suggest that the deaths may be connected to long working hours.

“They’re being worked incredibly long hours under incredibly hot conditions,” says HRW’s Nicholas McGeehan, who wrote the report.

“We’ve severe concerns that many are actually being worked to death, and that the Israeli authorities are not properly investigating the extent to which these deaths may be related to living and working conditions, instead falling back on an excuse that Thai workers are genetically predisposed to cardiac death.”

No attempt is made by Schick to properly explain the subject of SUNDS or to clarify to readers that absent from McGeehan’s CV is evidence of any medical training which would put him in the position of being able to make professional statements on that condition, which is also found among young men of South East Asian descent in other countries. As blogger Elder of Ziyon has already pointed out, HRW’s report includes some very questionable pseudo-medical allegations, which the report’s author has further amplified on social media.

HRW tweet 1

HRW tweet 2

HRW tweet 3

Camilla Schick shows no interest in carrying out any serious journalistic investigation of the allegations made by HRW and in fact her entire report is nothing more than an embellished amplification that NGO’s claims which once again highlights the cosy, symbiotic relationship between the media and politically motivated ‘human rights’ organisations – as portrayed in the tweet below from the author of the HRW report and contributor to Schick’s article.

HRW tweet 4

When a BBC article is based on unchallenged repetition of a HRW report and includes input from its author, it is of course to be entirely expected that such ‘journalism’ can be no more than an echo chamber giving publicity to the “same problems”. McGeehan knows that. Schick and the BBC know that. And yet audiences are being led to believe that this is independently sourced impartial news. 

‘Churnalism’ and the BBC

The interesting (despite its sound quality) video below features the head of the BBC Multimedia Newsroom Mary Hockaday in conversation with Steve Hewlett at the Polis Journalism Conference held at the LSE earlier this month. 

Towards the end of the video (at around 21:36), Hewlett raises the subject of ‘churnalism’ which is defined by the Media Standards Trust as follows: 

“‘Churnalism’ is a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added. In his landmark book, Flat Earth News, Nick Davies wrote how ‘churnalism’ is produced by:

“Journalists who are no longer gathering news but are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false” (p.59).

According to the Cardiff University research that informed Davies’ book, 54% of news articles have some form of PR in them. The word ‘churnalism’ has been attributed to BBC journalist Waseem Zakir.

Of course not all churnalism is bad. Some press releases are clearly in the public interest (medical breakthroughs, government announcements, school closures and so on). But even in these cases, it is better that people should know what press release the article is based on than for the source of the article to remain hidden.”

However, the sheer number of organisations putting out statements for use by the media makes it important for BBC journalists not just to make do with identifying the source of the press release, but also to inform readers of any political and/or ideological affiliations which may have a bearing upon the impartiality of the information put out by the organization concerned – as indeed they are required to do by the Editorial Guidelines with other outside contributors.

On April 11th the BBC News website ran an article on its Middle East page entitled “Hamas failed to probe Palestinian ‘collaborator’ deaths“. To its credit, the article states clearly that it is relating to a statement made by the NGO Human Rights Watch, but it makes no attempt to explain to readers the well documented record of HRW on subjects connected to the Middle East. 

Unless he or she takes the trouble of also reading the HRW press release upon which the BBC article is based, the reader will also not be aware of how much of the article is original BBC content and what proportion of it is merely rehashed from the NGO’s statement.

The article opens:

“Human Rights Watch says Gaza’s Hamas government has failed to investigate the killings of seven Palestinians accused of collaborating with Israel.”

The HRW press release begins:

“The Gaza government has apparently not even begun a promised investigation more than four months after gunmen killed seven Palestinian prisoners accused of collaboration with Israel.”

The BBC article continues:

“The men were shot in public and the body of one was dragged through the streets by a motorcycle.

The incident took place in November during the eight-day conflict between Hamas and Israel.”

HRW states:

“The men, who were last seen alive in custody during the November 2012 fighting with Israel, were executed on a public street. One of the men’s bodies was dragged behind a motorcycle.”

The BBC report goes on:

“HRW said a promised inquiry into their deaths seemed not to have begun, a claim denied by Hamas.”

The first part of that sentence is clearly taken from the opening line of the HRW press release. The last five words appear to be original BBC content. The BBC article continues:

“The men had already been convicted by a military court in Gaza of spying for Israel, before armed men seized them from custody.

But HRW said their convictions may have been based on evidence extracted through torture.”

The HRW statement says:

“Military courts had convicted the men primarily on the basis of coerced confessions, ignoring credible evidence that interrogators tortured at least six of them.”

The BBC article goes on to use a quote taken directly from the HRW press release:

“Hamas’s inability or unwillingness to investigate the brazen murders of seven men makes a mockery of its claims that it’s upholding the rule of law in Gaza,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director of the New York-based HRW.

“Even before the killings, the abuses the men suffered made the criminal justice system a travesty, regardless of their guilt or innocence.”

The BBC article then states:

“At the time, Hamas deputy leader Moussa Abu Marzouk called the killings “unlawful” and said the perpetrators should be punished.”

The HRW statement says:

“Other Hamas leaders, including deputy politburo chief Musa Abu Marzouq, condemned the killings and called for those responsible to be held accountable.”

The next paragraph of the BBC report appears to be original content.

“On Thursday Hamas spokesman Ihab al-Ghusain denied the HRW allegation, saying that an inquiry headed by the prosecutor general had been set up just after the incident and had already made recommendations to the cabinet.”

The BBC article goes on:

“The HRW report came on the day Hamas had set as a deadline for suspected collaborators with Israel to turn themselves in, promising them an amnesty.”

The HRW press release says:

“Meanwhile, the Hamas government has set a deadline of April 11, 2013, for suspected collaborators to turn themselves in, promising them an amnesty.”

The BBC article concludes with two sentences of original content:

“Collaborators are widely loathed in Palestinian society.

Gaza’s Interior Ministry spokesman Islam Shahwan said security forces would conduct large-scale arrests of suspected collaborators as soon as the amnesty period ended on Thursday evening.”

So, out of a total of 284 words in this report, only 73 can be regarded as original BBC content, with the vast majority of the article having been reproduced from the HRW statement.

Acting as an amplifier for Human Rights Watch or any other NGO is clearly not to be found in the BBC’s remit and ‘making do’ with this sort of rehashed ‘churnalism’-style report certainly does not replace the necessity for serious investigative journalism into the subject of whether these murdered men were ‘collaborators’ at all, as well as the broader subject of the way in which the taboo of ‘collaboration’ is often used as a smoke screen for the summary execution of political opponents and others in both Hamas and PA controlled territories.