BBC R4 airs partisan portrayal of Jenin masked as ‘entertainment’

h/t BF

BBC Radio 4’s entertainment programme ‘Loose Ends’ aired an edition on February 3rd which included a conversation (from 21:05 here) with a guest described by co-presenter Nikki Bedi as “comedian and activist Mark Thomas”.

The purpose of the item was obviously to promote BBC regular Mark Thomas’ latest project which, like some of his previous ones, relates to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Bedi: “But the indefatigable Mark is at it again – raising social and political issues in a funny and thought-provoking piece of theatre. It’s called ‘Showtime from the Front Line’ and let’s talk about the genesis for the show, Mark, because you spent a month at the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied territories – that’s north of the West Bank – and you were trying to set up a comedy club there.”

Thomas began by using the term Palestine to describe a location the BBC’s style guide says should not be described as such and describing a structure that is over 95% fence as a “wall”.

Thomas: “Well what happened was I went to Palestine in 2009 and I walked the length of the Israeli wall in the West Bank. And one of the first places I went to was Jenin which is – as you say – it’s in the north, it’s a rural area, it’s quite poor compared to the rest of the West Bank. And it’s very conservative but it’s very fierce and it’s very proud of its rebelliousness.”

Of course the majority of Radio 4 listeners would not be able to fill in the blanks left by Thomas’ euphemisms and so they would not understand that by “very conservative” he presumably means dominated by Islamist factions such as Hamas. Neither would they be likely to know that “fierce” and “rebelliousness” apparently refer to Jenin’s long history as a place from which countless terror attacks against civilians have been launched, including the Matza Restaurant attack, the 823 bus bombing, the Megiddo junction attack and the Maxim Restaurant attack. Notably, the hundreds of people murdered and wounded in those attacks and many others did not get even a cursory mention in this item.

Thomas went on to recount his 2009 visit to the theatre in Jenin and his meeting with the person who ran it at the time – Juliano Mer-Khamis.

Thomas: “…it’s very volatile, the relationship of the theatre with the camp because there’s all sorts of politics that go on there.”

Interestingly, he refrained from informing Radio 4 listeners that Mer-Khamis was later murdered by a Palestinian.

Nikki Bedi then asked Thomas to describe the Jenin refugee camp.

Bedi: “When you talk about a camp, by the way, can you just give us a picture because I think a lot of people will assume that they’re…they’re living in, you know, structures that could be blown away. And how large…

Thomas [interrupts] “Well they can be blown away and they were in 2002 when the Israeli army came in. But they are buildings. Basically people fled from Haifa and they came to Jenin and they set up there and it’s a really…it’s thousands and thousands of people living in this incredibly dense sort of urban…it’s incredible to be there. It’s just…it’s not like any place I’ve ever been to before.”

Thomas is of course referring in that highlighted sentence to Operation Defensive Shield which was launched in late March 2002 following a series of terror attacks. During that operation the IDF acted in the Jenin refugee camp due to it being a prime base for terrorism. Thomas of course did not bother to tell Radio 4 listeners that terrorists had booby-trapped part of the camp and so the buildings that were “blown away” (less than 10% of the total) were just as likely to have been damaged by Palestinian actions as by Israeli ones.

After talking about the comedy course he ran in Jenin, Thomas turned to the topic of his two fellow actors in the current show.

Thomas: “And what they have to say is hugely complex. We’re talking about people who lived through the second Intifada, who’ve had their homes destroyed, you know…”

The programme’s other presenter, Clive Anderson, then asked:

Anderson: “Are you worried about going into such a complex area? I mean even the terminology of what the country is called…whether it’s, you know, West Bank…”

Thomas [interrupts] “You called it a country, Clive, that’s…that’s a letter of complaint.”

Anderson: “Well exactly. Country, West Bank, whether it’s occupied territory, Palestinians – they’re all areas where somebody’s going ‘oh wait a minute: that’s slightly the wrong terminology’.”

Thomas: “I look at it very, very simply that people confuse Israel and Palestine as a conflict and it’s not a conflict. It’s a military occupation. They’re two very different things. So it’s quite clear for me.”

With no effort made to inform audiences of the history of the area concerned – including its occupation and unrecognised annexation by Jordan, the somewhat obsequious conversation continued:

Bedi: “But you then introduce really cleverly – with great humour, wit, but also in an edifying way – parts of these guys’ history that we wouldn’t know. I mean you make us think of refugees in a different way. What do you want to say?”

Thomas: “What I want to do is confound people’s ideas of what refugees are and to make people challenge their own ideas about how their relationship is with places like Palestine, with people who are refugees…”

While listeners would not of course expect to hear anything other than context-free and partisan messaging from veteran political activist Mark Thomas, they would have expected the two BBC presenters to provide the missing information and context in order to mitigate the severely warped view fed to listeners under the guise of ‘entertainment’.

However, audiences heard nothing of the Jenin refugee camp’s role as a major hub for terror, nothing of the fact that it was established in 1953 while Jordan occupied the area or how that occupation came about and nothing of the fact that the people portrayed as ‘refugees’ have actually been living under Palestinian Authority rule since 1996.

We do however see in this item the continuation of a recent trend in BBC content in which guidance appearing the BBC Academy’s “journalists’ guide to facts and terminology” is ignored:

“…in day-to-day coverage of the Middle East you should not affix the name ‘Palestine’ to Gaza or the West Bank – rather, it is still an aspiration or an historical entity.”

That trend has been apparent on at least three previous occasions (see here, here, and here) since late December and apparently BBC presenters such as Clive Anderson are not sufficiently aware of – or attentive to – the BBC’s own guidelines concerning the use of appropriate terminology in order to adhere to supposed standards of accuracy and impartiality.  

Why is the BBC definition of a ‘human rights activist’ different from all others?

The UN defines human rights as “rights inherent to all human beings, whatever our nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, language, or any other status”. A person portrayed to BBC audiences as a human rights activist will therefore certainly not be understood to be a campaigner for the negation of the rights of a particular group of people.

If one happened to be in Fort Lauderdale last November one could have heard Susan Abulhawa speaking for an organization which negates the right of Jews to self-determination. If one happened to have attended the annual BDS-supporting ‘PalFest’ during the last couple of years, one would also have found Susan Abulhawa there – and subsequently promoting the notion that Israelis must apologise for “the most basic fact of Israel’s existence”. Or one could just take a look at her Facebook posts in order to understand that universal human rights are most certainly not at the top of Abulhawa’s activist agenda.

Nevertheless, listeners to the June 15th edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘The Arts Hour’ heard an interview with Abulhawa (available here from 27:38 for a limited period of time or here as a clip without the introduction) in which presenter Nikki Bedi introduced her as follows:Arts Hour segment

“To literature first though and a Palestinian-American writer and human rights activist, Susan Abulhawa, whose first book ‘Mornings in Jenin’ was an international best-seller about four generations of a Palestinian family set against Palestinian-Israeli tensions. Susan Abulhawa’s new novel – The Blue Between the Sky and the Water – treads similar ground as we follow the Baraka family whose lives are disrupted when Israeli forces enter Gaza and the family is forced to flee. Six decades later, the threats of those events and the personal tragedies that went with them bring Nur, a grandchild of the family now living in America, into an unexpected closeness with the past. In the novel we get both a real texture of daily Palestinian life and yet also a sense of how history affects a family.” [emphasis added]

Bedi also tells listeners that interviewer Anne McElvoy spoke to the writer “noting how Susan Abulhawa humanised the story rather than using politics to tell us what was going on.”

Indeed, McElvoy remarks to Abulhawa:

“And you’re humanising a narrative that’s often told from the position of high politics or legal territorial language so it’s [a] very different way of approaching it….”

Just how far Abulhawa’s novel is ‘removed’ from politics is evident later on in the interview when the writer describes it as being about four generations of women “who are navigating their lives, their marriages, their births, illnesses, education, etcetera, under a military occupation – and a very violent one – and an economic siege that’s quite forbidding.”

The interview also includes the following from Abulhawa:

“I think narrative…narrative is an important part of every culture. It is especially important for societies that have been marginalised or violated in ways and, in particular in the case of the Palestinians, societies who are completely negated and denied; whose existence is denied. So narratives, in a way, and the right to tell one’s story in one’s own voice – not having other people speak for you and about you, which has been the case for decades with Palestinians – but to tell one’s own stories in one’s own voice is an important part of identity. It’s a part of a society’s collective memory.”

Susan Abulhawa is a writer and a political activist and her politics include the negation of a basic human right for a particular group of people. That information is critical to understanding her words and her work in their correct context but, rather than meeting the BBC’s own editorial guidelines on impartiality by disclosing Abulhawa’s ‘standpoint’ to listeners, this programme used the ‘halo effect’ of the misapplied label ‘human rights activist’ in order to whitewash the political agenda behind both the interviewee and her book.

Perhaps the BBC would care to tell its funding public why its use of the term ‘human rights activist’ does not embrace the accepted principle of the universality of human rights.

Related Articles:

 Guardian whitewashes the extremism of Susan Abulhawa (The Facebook updates)   (UK Media Watch)

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‘The Arts Hour’ – e-mail

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