A BBC journalist’s chosen Twitter header compromises impartiality

Readers may recall that in January 2016 the BBC refrained from reporting a story concerning an activist with the non-transparently funded political NGO ‘Ta’ayush‘ – Ezra Nawi – that appeared in the Israeli media.

“Key activists in two of Israel’s best-known left wing NGOs were caught on camera admitting that they entrapped Palestinians interested in selling land to Israelis and then reported them to the Palestinian Authority, despite knowing that these Palestinians faced near-certain torture or murder at the hands of the PA’s secret police.

The story was first reported yesterday by Uvda, a prestigious Israeli television news magazine that is the local equivalent of 60 Minutes. The two activists are Nasser Nawaja, a Palestinian and a prominent field researcher for the human rights group B’Tselem, and Ezra Nawi, a Jewish resident of Jerusalem and a key figure in the pro-Palestinian, pro-BDS group Ta’ayush. They were secretly recorded by members of another NGO, called Ad Kan, who then delivered the tape to Uvda’s reporter Omri Assenheim.

“He’s not the first to call me, he’s maybe the fourth,” Nawi bragged on tape, while speaking of a Palestinian real estate agent who contacted him with offers of land for sale to Israelis. “And right away I send their pictures and their phone numbers to the Palestinian security services.”

Speaking off camera, an unnamed Ad Kan activist asks Nawi what the PA does then.

“They catch these guys and they kill them,” Nawi says.

“Physically kills them?” asks the Ad Kan activist, sounding surprised.

“Yes,” Nawi replies, grinning widely.”

Several days after that programme was aired, Nawi tried to leave the country.

In 2009 Ezra Nawi was convicted of assaulting police officers and rioting. Shortly before Nawi was sentenced, the BBC’s Tim Franks – at the time based at the corporation’s Jerusalem bureau – produced a report for BBC Radio 4 titled “Non-Jews ‘treated worse than fifth class'”.

“A peace activist [sic] in Israel is due to be sentenced today after being found guilty of assaulting Israeli paramilitary policemen in the West Bank. Ezra Nawi was protesting about the Israeli demolition of a Bedouin shack deep inside the occupied West Bank in 2007, and his arrest was filmed and posted on youtube. Middle East correspondent Tim Franks, returned with Ezra Nawi back to the same West Bank Bedouin encampment.”

In 2011 an Irish politician abandoned a presidential bid after it emerged that in 1997 he wrote a letter on official Irish parliamentary stationary appealing for clemency for his partner at the time – Ezra Nawi – who had been convicted of statutory rape of a 15 year-old Palestinian boy. The BBC reported that story too – albeit with incorrect representation of Nawi’s name.  

Given Ezra Nawi’s record and the blatantly partisan agenda of the political NGO with which he is linked, one might perhaps have thought that one of the last places one would find a photograph of him (apparently from 2009) would be on the header of the official Twitter account (active since 2010) of a BBC journalist committed to editorial standards of impartiality – including in relation to social media – particularly as that journalist still produces content relating to Israel and the Palestinians.

However, one would be mistaken.

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The NGO story the BBC avoided

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The NGO story the BBC avoided

Over the last few days, a report broadcast on Channel 2’s investigative journalism programme ‘Uvda’ has attracted a lot of attention in Israel. David Collier has written a concise summary of the story:

“A few days ago, an Israeli investigative TV show (UVDA – ‘fact’) ran an expose that involved an Israeli infiltrating Ta’ayush, a NGO that promotes itself as ‘a grassroots movement of Arabs and Jews working to break down the walls of racism and segregation.’ The Israeli also encountered Nasser Nawajah, a member of B’tselem. These two NGO’s are cited as leading ‘human rights organisations’ whose self-stated purpose is highlighting alleged human rights abuse. Very few, if any, of the organised tours that set out to sell ‘the brutal Israel’ narrative do not involve engaging one or both of these movements.

The operation itself was simple, and involved riding with Ezra Nawi, an Israeli Jew and well known ‘peace activist’ from Ta’ayush, as he went about his daily business. The Israeli, using the pseudonym ‘Arik’, went on to capture on camera that these activists, senior members of B’tselem and Ta’ayush, have been informing on Arabs who wish to sell land to Jews. Nawi was recorded boasting that the Palestinian security forces would torture and execute those Palestinian land brokers and ‘take care’ of the Palestinian families willing to sell their land.”

A clip from the programme with English language sub-titles can be found here.

Given the BBC’s penchant for promoting domestic Israeli stories it may at first glance seem rather curious to see that it has avoided reporting this one.  However, this story is not about a supermodel, a corrupt Rabbi or a ‘right-wing’ politician embroiled in scandal: it is one which is much closer to home for the corporation which regularly produces content based on material provided by inadequately presented Israeli NGOs from one particular side of the political spectrum.Nawi Today 2009

Both the main actors in this story have appeared in BBC reports. In September 2009 Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme promoted (and still does in an item which remains accessible on the internet) assorted allegations from Ezra Nawi – described by the BBC’s Tim Franks as a “peace activist” – including the headlined claim that “Non-Jews [are] ‘treated worse than fifth class'”.

In July 2015 audio and written reports produced by the BBC Jerusalem bureau’s Yolande Knell relied heavily on input from Nasser Nawajah whilst failing to inform audiences of his day job with B’tselem (the Israeli NGO most promoted by the BBC in 2014 and 2015) and that NGO’s connection to the subject matter of her story.Knell Susiya

BBC Watch has frequently documented the BBC’s failure to comply with its own editorial guidelines on impartiality by clarifying to audiences the agendas of the NGOs it quotes and promotes. As this story shows, that failure is not only important from the point of view of the failure to supply relevant information which would enable audiences to put the contributions to BBC content made by NGOs and their representatives into its correct context.

Were it standard BBC practice to comply with those editorial guidelines, its staff would have to engage in close examination of the political agendas of NGOs and their funders, ditching the apparently existing assumption that any organization labelling itself a ‘human rights group’ and any individual promoting him or herself as a ‘peace activist’ is automatically worthy of that title and the accompanying ‘halo effect’.

That would mean that BBC journalists would be better positioned to assess the relevance and reliability of material provided by NGOs and their staff, as well as the motivations behind the content provided. The gain would not only be to BBC audiences, but also to the reputation of the media organization which claims to provide them with accurate and impartial reporting.

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Promoted and quoted: the BBC’s preferred NGO contributors in 2015

Guardian once praised Israeli activist who ‘helps kill Palestinians selling land to Jews’ (UK Media Watch)