When the BBC’s ‘context’ fails to make the grade

Context: The circumstances that form the setting for an event, statement, or idea, and in terms of which it can be fully understood.”

On November 21st the BBC’s Jerusalem-based correspondent Tom Bateman used Twitter to promote a filmed report concerning a restored piano in the Gaza Strip which had been published on the BBC News website that morning.

Previously Bateman had produced an audio report on the same story that was aired on BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service radio earlier in the month. Three and a half years before that, the BBC had told the story of the same piano’s restoration on the BBC News website, on BBC Radio 4, on BBC World Service radio and on the BBC News TV channel.

Bateman’s latest report is titled “Gaza Strip’s only concert grand piano makes music again“.

“There is only one concert grand piano in Gaza and it has been played in a rare public performance after being restored.

The work, first documented by the BBC three years ago and now completed, was led by a charity that supports musicians in areas of conflict.”

Most of the report tells the piano’s story and depicts the concert that is its subject matter. However, the BBC also found it necessary to provide viewers with what was apparently supposed to be context.

“Gaza is blockaded by Israel and Egypt, who cite security concerns.” [emphasis added]

As was noted here when Bateman made a similar statement in his earlier audio report, this is by no means the first time that BBC audiences have heard that ‘Israel says’ portrayal of the reasons why it was necessary to introduce a ban on the entry of weapons to the Gaza Strip and controls on the import of dual-use goods.

Obviously BBC reporters such as Tom Bateman know full well that the context to Israel’s policy is the Palestinian terrorism which increased after Hamas’ violent take-over of the territory in 2007 and yet we nevertheless continue to see BBC journalists whitewashing that terrorism (even in a week following unprecedented terror attacks against Israeli civilians) by repeatedly describing the actions taken to counter it in terms of a ‘narrative’.

Viewers were also told that:

“Live music is rare in Gaza, which is run by the Islamist group Hamas”

No effort was made to explain to audiences the connection between the decline in live music events (and other social freedoms) and the fact that the Gaza Strip was violently taken over by an Islamist faction over a decade ago.

Although in both the above examples the BBC has ostensibly ticked boxes by providing audiences with background information relevant to the story, that ‘context’ is actually nothing of the sort. Rather than providing the full range of information required for proper enhancement of audience understanding, in both cases the BBC elected to skirt around ‘sensitive’ topics: Hamas’ terrorism and Hamas’ repression of the people who live under its extremist rule.

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The BBC, jihadists and Islamists

Back in December 2014 the BBC News website published a backgrounder titled “What is jihadism?” which included the following section:

islamists-vs-jihadists-backgrounder

In other words, audiences can apparently conclude that when the BBC uses the term ‘jihadist’ it is telling them that the group described as such uses violence and that when the term ‘Islamist’ is employed, they can understand that those described in that way are non-violent.

With that in mind, it is interesting to see how an article published on January 26th under the headline “Syria war: Rebels unite after attack by Idlib jihadists” describes differing factions in Syria. [all emphasis added]ahrar-al-sham-art

“Insurgent factions in Syria have joined together to fight off an assault by a powerful jihadist group which launched an attack on rebels this week.

Several militias formed an alliance with key Islamist group Ahrar al-Sham amid some of the worst inter-factional clashes in recent times.

Jabhat Fateh al-Sham has accused the rebels of conspiring against it at peace talks in Kazakhstan this week. […]

JFS has been involved in clashes with rebels in Idlib and neighbouring west Aleppo since Tuesday.

Ahrar al-Sham, which has rejected calls by outside powers to dissociate itself from JFS, blamed the jihadists for starting the fighting. […]

On Thursday, Ahrar al-Sham said JFS had rejected its attempts to mediate. The Islamists warned JFS that any attack on its members would be considered a “declaration of war”, according to Reuters news agency.”

The Reuters article also provides more detail:

“Rebel factions Alwiyat Suqour al-Sham, Fastaqim, Jaish al-Islam’s Idlib branch, Jaish al-Mujahideen and al-Jabha al-Shamiya’s west Aleppo branch said in a statement they had joined Ahrar al-Sham.

The Ahrar al-Sham statement also mentioned a sixth group, the Sham Revolutionary Brigades, and said “other brigades” had joined.”

In other words, based on the information previously provided in the BBC’s backgrounder, audiences are encouraged to believe that while Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al Nusra) is a jihadist group that uses violence, Ahrar al-Sham is an ‘Islamist’ group which – by the BBC’s definition – does not. That is clearly not the case at all and obviously the terminology used by the BBC in this report is not sufficiently accurate.

Meanwhile, since that January 26th BBC report was published, Reuters and other outlets have reported the formation of another ‘coalition’ in Syria.

“An online statement issued by the Islamist factions announced the formation of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (Liberation of the Levant Committee).

It said the alliance was formed to mend splits among insurgent groups and strengthen opposition to the Damascus government.

The signatories were Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly al Qaeda’s Nusra Front, the Nour al-Din al-Zinki group, Liwa al-Haqq, Jaish al-Sunna and Jabhat Ansar al-Din.”

The FDD reports that the leader of that new coalition – which the BBC would presumably have described as ‘jihadist’ had it reported on the topic – was previously the head of the group it portrays as ‘Islamist’.

“In a statement released online, the joint venture partners say they have merged to form Hay’at Tahrir al Sham, or the “Assembly for Liberation of the Levant.” It is led by a jihadi known as Abu Jaber (also known as Hashem al Sheikh), the former head of Ahrar al Sham, which continues to operate under its own name in Syria. […]

Some reports have identified Abu Jaber as a former member of al Qaeda in Iraq. […]

The establishment of Tahrir al Sham comes after weeks of reported clashes and fierce disagreements between different jihadi factions and other insurgents in northern Syria. It is difficult to discern how the situation unfolded, but JFS and Ahrar al Sham have reportedly disagreed over the direction of the insurgency, leading to some clashes. The two groups have long fought side-by-side against the Assad regime and others. Indeed, Ahrar al Sham has its own links to al Qaeda and openly models itself after the Taliban.”

Clearly audience understanding of this complex topic is not enhanced by the BBC’s use of inaccurate and confusing labels.

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BBC Sport whitewashes Islamist bigotry with a euphemism

An article by BBC Sport titled “Rio Olympics 2016: Egyptian judoka Islam El Shehaby sent home for handshake snub” appeared on the BBC News website’s homepage and Middle East page on August 15thReaders of the report were told that:Egyptian judoka story

“The Egyptian had come under pressure from some conservative voices in his homeland to withdraw from the bout.”

The same euphemistic statement appeared three days earlier in BBC Sport’s previous article on the same topic (in which, at the time of writing, the Israeli judoka’s name has still not been corrected).

Other media outlets were less coy about informing their audiences of the ideologies behind the pressure on the Egyptian judoka to withdraw from the competition against an Israeli.

Times of Israel:

“The 32-year-old Egyptian, a world championship medalist in 2010, had faced pressure on social media and from hardline Islamist groups in his homeland to withdraw from the fight.”

Telegraph:

“The athlete, who is an ultraconservative Salafi, had come under pressure from hardline Islamists on social media and from television pundits not to participate in the match.

“You will shame Islam. If you lose, you will shame an entire nation and yourself,” one comment read.”

AP:

“Islam El Shehaby, an ultraconservative Salafi Muslim, had come under pressure before the games from Islamist-leaning and nationalist voices in Egypt to withdraw from the first-round heavyweight bout against Or Sasson. […]

On Thursday, Moutaz Matar, a TV host of the Islamist-leaning network Al-Sharq, had urged El Shehaby to withdraw.

“My son, watch out. Don’t be fooled, or fool yourself, thinking you will play with the Israeli athlete to defeat him and make Egypt happy,” he said. “Egypt will cry; Egypt will be sad and you will be seen as a traitor and a normalizer in the eyes of your people.””

The Oxford dictionary defines ‘conservative’ as:

“Averse to change or innovation and holding traditional values”.

Clearly the BBC’s portrayal of “conservative voices” is not conducive to full audience understanding of the story. It would of course be very surprising to see the BBC describe anyone urging an athlete not to compete against a gay or black opponent as “conservative” and such bigotry portrayed as a ‘traditional value’.

But – not for the first time – we see that the BBC is reluctant to explain discriminatory Islamist ideology to its audiences in clear and precise language.  

Related Articles:

BBC Sport reports snub to Israeli judoka – but gets his name wrong

 

Kevin Connolly gives insight into BBC group-think

The BBC Jerusalem bureau’s Kevin Connolly has recently been on the road in order, he tells us in one of the resulting reports, “to find out what governments and peoples in the Arab world are doing to push back against violent extremist ideas”.

In Connolly’s written report about his travels – “Battle of ideas at heart of fight against Islamic State“, BBC News website, March 17th – readers found the following assertion:Connolly Islamists

“Back in 2011, when the street protests of what we used to call the Arab Spring still appeared to represent an irresistible pulse of democratising energy, no-one foresaw that the violent Islamist extremist movements which had long been part of life in the Middle East would be among the main beneficiaries.”

That paragraph is of course very revealing – and inaccurate. In fact there were people who at the time cautioned that the uprisings the Western media so enthusiastically and unquestioningly embraced as heralding the dawn of democracy in the Middle East had the potential to turn out rather differently. One of those scholars was the late Professor Barry Rubin who in February 2011 wrote:

“…the conclusion that the usual rules of Middle East politics have disappeared is greatly exaggerated. If you think that democracy cannot lead to violent Islamists taking power, consider the Muslim-majority country in the region with the longest tradition of democracy: Lebanon, where Hezb’allah and its allies now run things. Consider Algeria, where free elections (you can blame it on the military if you want) led to a bloody civil war. Think about Turkey where, though the regime still operates basically by democratic norms, the noose is tightening (though there it may well not be irreversible).”

In May 2011 Connolly himself conducted an apparently forgotten interview with Israeli minister Moshe Ya’alon who, whilst discussing the prospects for Israeli-Egyptian relations in the light of the ‘Arab Spring’ noted that:

“…what we have to be aware of is that it [a future Egyptian regime] might be the Muslim Brotherhood – might change the course of Egypt.”

Even some BBC journalists recognised the possibility of an Islamist ascendency at the time – as documented in the Mortimer Report on the corporation’s coverage of the ‘Arab Spring’.

“Presenters and correspondents at times appeared almost obsessed with the possibility, if not likelihood, that Islamists – and the Brotherhood in particular – might turn out to be the main beneficiaries of the upheaval, especially if it resulted in a “power vacuum”. The probability of this happening, and the implications if it did, were the points routinely put to every Western expert and policy-maker; and there were many interviews with members of the Brotherhood itself – some rank-and-file, some described as leaders. All of these stressed that their movement favoured freedom and democracy, and did not seek to impose an Islamic order on people against their will. Some of the expert commentators accepted these statements more or less at face value, stressing the Brotherhood‟s evolution towards pragmatism during its long years in opposition and semi-clandestinity, while others were more sceptical. Conspicuously absent in this phase of coverage, however, whether as subjects or objects of commentary, were the “Salafists” – Islamists more rigid and conservative, though perhaps less organized than the Brotherhood – who later turned out to have widespread popular support and ran second to the Brotherhood in the elections.” [emphasis added]

As reflected in Edward Mortimer’s words, part of the reason why Connolly is able to convince himself today that “no-one” foresaw the rise of Islamist extremists five years ago is because he and many of his colleagues had bought into the notion of ‘moderate’ Islamists. That approach is demonstrated in an interview given by one of the BBC’s Middle East correspondents at the time – Wyre Davies – to ‘Wales Online’ in July 2011.

“Asked to what extent in Syria it was ordinary people wanting a voice and to what extent it was Islamic extremists, he said: “I think people over-play the role of Islamic parties. Yes of course in Egypt and Tunisia, these are Islamic countries so you would expect the Muslim Brotherhood and political parties who take some of their moral guidance from Islam to play a role. […]

 “It is ironic that Israel for so long has called itself the only democracy in the region, and yet when democratic movements arise in countries like Egypt, Israel was basically against it. Israel wanted Mubarak to stay in power.

“The West is aware of this. What happens if the Muslim Brotherhood wins the election in Egypt? Now I don’t think they will, but there are some pretty moderate members of the Brotherhood. I don’t think there’s any danger that these major Middle Eastern countries are going to be overrun by Islamic extremists.”” [emphasis added]

In an article written for the Guardian in 2012, Magdi Abdelhadi – who was a BBC Arab affairs analyst at the time of the uprising in Egypt the year before – told readers that:

“It’s true that notorious jihadi groups have been inspired by the teachings of Qutb – namely that modern society is pagan and ungodly and that true Muslims should reject it and take up arms against it.

But the Muslim Brotherhood of today has distanced itself from such ideas and is committed to normal politics.”

Were BBC correspondents less preoccupied with the promotion of a political narrative which requires the framing of Hizballah and the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot Hamas as ‘resistance’ groups, they might have been better placed to view Islamist ideology in all its manifestations in a more informed and objective light. That in turn would have allowed them to listen at the time to the voices Kevin Connolly now erroneously claims did not exist.

Related Articles:

The BBC and the Brotherhood

Must read article by former BBC journalist

BBC’s Yolande Knell promotes Muslim Brotherhood messaging

UK government’s MB review shows 2014 BBC report misleads

 

 

 

Mainstreaming Hizb ut-Tahrir ideology on BBC Radio 4

On September 8th BBC Radio 4 broadcast an episode of ‘Beyond Belief’ titled “Religious History of Iraq. Here is the programme’s synopsis:Beyond Belief

“Today life for religious minorities in Northern Iraq is perilous as the militant Islamist group, Islamic State, continues to attack a range of diverse groups across the country in its pursuit of establishing a new Caliphate. But in this programme Ernie Rea and guests explore how up until the 20th century Iraq was known as a harmonious melting pot of religious and ethnic diversity. How true is that assessment? What has happened to change that? Is there any way for Iraq to step back from the brink? And could a Caliphate ever be part of the solution?

Joining Ernie Rea to discuss the current situation in Iraq from a religious perspective are Gerard Russell, former British and United Nations diplomat and author of “Heirs to Forgotten Kingdoms: Journeys into the Disappearing Religions of the Middle East”; Dr Erica Hunter, Senior Lecturer in Eastern Christianity in the Department of Religions at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London: and Dr Reza Pankhurst author of The Inevitable Caliphate.”

Part of the programme relates to the topic of the former Iraqi Jewish community and there are few better qualified to assess the BBC’s treatment of that topic than Bataween at the excellent Point of No Return blog.

“You can hear Edwin Shuker (at 10 minutes into the programme) give an eloquent potted history of his life in Iraq, how the ancient Jewish community was persecuted again after the murder of King Faisal ll in 1958 and most of its remaining members fled to freedom over the mountains of Kurdistan in the 1970s.

Shuker was introduced by presenter Ernie Rea as an ‘Arab’ Jew, approved BBC-speak. Shuker told Point of No Return that he has never used this expression in his life to describe either Jews or Christians.” […]

“Ernie Rea and his guests projected the BBC party line that until the 20th century Iraq was known as a ‘harmonious melting pot of religious and ethnic diversity’. No mention of the 1941 Farhud.

All agreed that the persecution of the Jews (attributed solely to the Ba’ath party) was ‘political’ rather than religious.”

Zooming out a little though, this programme raised another issue which is becoming increasingly pertinent as Europe debates its approach to the topic of the thousands of young Muslims born and raised in Europe who have gone to fight with Jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq during the past few years – and in some cases, later returned to Europe.

As some observers – at least outside Europe – have noted, the issues of what strain of Islam young Muslims in Europe are being taught in schools and mosques and their exposure to extremist groups is obviously of paramount significance to that debate. The UK is one country in which a less than robust approach to the topic of extremism has often prevailed in recent years, with one manifestation of that being the mainstreaming of extremist opinions by the media – including the BBC – and a prominent example being the frequent appearance of Jihadist recruiter Anjem Choudary on BBC television.

More than twenty-four minutes into this thirty-minute BBC Radio 4 programme, listeners suddenly get a clue to the fact that Dr Reza Pankhurst is in fact not just some tweedy academic – and certainly not an objective commentator – when presenter Ernie Rea says:

“Reza, I’m interested in your response to this particular question about a Caliphate because as I understand it you would support a new Caliphate. You are a member of Hizb ut-Tahrir; the main plank of their platform is really the re-establishment of an Islamic Caliphate, so I wonder how you would think an authentic Caliphate would differ from what IS are proclaiming?”

Beyond that brief “main plank” description, Rea makes no attempt to clarify the ideologies of his guest and the group to which he belongs (an organization about which the UK government has for years said it has “serious concerns”) and listeners are therefore unable to put Pankhurst’s opinions into their appropriate context.  Pankhurst’s links to the London-based Hamas support group MEMO and his sharing of platforms with assorted extremists, hate preachers and supporters of terrorism seeking to promote the notion of “the Islamophobic nature of the criminalisation of those who believe in fighting in Syria” are not revealed to listeners.

Moreover, in the last five minutes of the programme when Dr Erica Hunter challenges Reza Pankhurst about the discriminatory nature of marriage laws under a Caliphate, Rea quickly cuts off the conversation.

EH: “But that’s discriminatory because a man can marry a Jewish woman or a Christian woman but not vice-versa. If you’re a Christian man you can’t marry a Muslim.”

RP: “That’s…that’s…that’s fine Erica. There’s reasons for that but the point being is that’s the rules. I mean you won’t find anyone saying otherwise.”

EH: “But that’s discriminatory. That’s discriminatory.”

RP: “I don’t believe it is.”

Ernie Rea: “Well we must bring this programme to an end…”

Had the conversation been permitted to continue, listeners might at least have discovered more about the kind of ideology to which the BBC obviously considers it appropriate to give a platform, including the discrimination against minorities and women and the rejection of secularism, human rights, pluralism and democracy.

One of the public purposes defined in the BBC’s Charter is “sustaining citizenship and civil society”. In the opening paragraphs of the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines on impartiality it is stated:

“Due impartiality is often more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing viewpoints.  Equally, it does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or detachment from fundamental democratic principles.” [emphasis added]

As we have remarked here before:

“Needless to say, it would be perfectly obvious to most licence fee payers that “detachment from fundamental democratic principles” includes the promotion and amplification of the views of people to whom democracy is an anathema to be rejected on the basis of ideology.”

And of course the vast majority of people who fund the BBC – including those who share Reza Pankhurst’s faith – most likely view democratic principles as underpinning the kind of citizenship and civil society they expect their national broadcaster to sustain.

There is obviously a conversation to be had about the BBC’s provision of platforms to the proponents of extremist ideologies and the resulting legitimization and mainstreaming of those views. As time goes by, that conversation becomes increasingly urgent. 

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BBC CoJ debates the use of the term ‘Islamist’

For some interesting insights into views on the use of the term ‘Islamist’ by BBC journalists, see this post by Cathy Loughran from the BBC College of Journalism’s blog. 

“The Russian editor was joined by BBC Urdu’s Aamer Ahmed Khan and Josephine Hazeley of the BBC African Service to chew over an issue that presenter David Amanor said had already sparked heated debate in the BBC African newsroom. The concerns of journalists there seemed to centre on the use of ‘Islamist’ as journalistic shorthand for Islamist militant/extremist/rebel/terrorist, or in circumstances when the militancy or violence referred to has nothing to do with Islam.

Aamer’s view was that precise language is the only way to avoid misleading readers and audiences. “The confusion is where you use [Islamist] interchangeably with the words ‘militant or extremist’. It’s just plain wrong – as wrong as calling a tortoise a coconut,” he argued colourfully.

Besides, not all militant groups are Islamist. The Taleban in Pakistan? Yes. It would be inaccurate to describe the Taleban as just a militant organisation, Aamer believes. But al-Qaeda? In his opinion it is not necessarily an Islamist militant group because its driving political focus is anti-Americanism.”

The BBC’s ‘official’ interpretation of the word is also included: tell us in the comments below what you think about it.