BBC’s Davies crafts a narrative by omission

Among the reams of BBC coverage of the recent visit by Barack Obama to Israel was this article written by Wyre Davies of the BBC Jerusalem Bureau on March 20th 2013. 

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Readers will no doubt notice Davies’ decidedly bizarre assertions concerning Israeli democracy:

“A visit by the “leader of the free world” is always a big occasion, nowhere more so than Israel which increasingly sees itself as an isolated beacon of democracy in a troubled region.

That view is, of course, frequently challenged overseas and within Israel itself, but rarely in the United States.”

But it is the next part of Davies’ report which provides an excellent example of how a specific narrative can be crafted through omission.

“Three years ago, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu openly lectured President Obama about the realities of Middle Eastern politics, in his own office.

The president’s aides looked on ashen-faced and Mr Obama listened impassively as the Israeli leader tore into his assertion that a future Palestinian state should be based on the pre-1967 ceasefire lines.”

Davies is in fact referring back almost two years – to May 20th 2011 – the first day of a five-day visit by Israel’s prime minister to the United States. But what he neglects to mention is that on the previous day, as Netanyahu was about to embark on the journey to Washington, Obama delivered a speech of his own in which he stated that a future Palestinian state should be based on what he termed “the 1967 lines” – or as they are more accurately described; the 1949 Armistice agreement lines. 

“The United States believes that negotiations should result in two states, with permanent Palestinian borders with Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, and permanent Israeli borders with Palestine. The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. “

For Israelis – only too aware of the indefensible nature of those armistice lines and the fact that just eighteen years after they were drawn, Israel yet again faced the threat of annihilation from its neighbours – Obama’s declaration was seen as an American adoption of the Palestinian viewpoint, a hindrance to negotiations and back-tracking on the commitments made by Obama’s predecessor in 2004. 

“As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”

Hence, the day after what some saw a public ambush, Netanyahu stated during his visit to the White House:

“I think for there to be peace, the Palestinians will have to accept some basic realities.  The first is that while Israel is prepared to make generous compromises for peace, it cannot go back to the 1967 lines — because these lines are indefensible; because they don’t take into account certain changes that have taken place on the ground, demographic changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.

Remember that, before 1967, Israel was all of nine miles wide.  It was half the width of the Washington Beltway.  And these were not the boundaries of peace; they were the boundaries of repeated wars, because the attack on Israel was so attractive.

So we can’t go back to those indefensible lines, and we’re going to have to have a long-term military presence along the Jordan.  I discussed this with the President and I think that we understand that Israel has certain security requirements that will have to come into place in any deal that we make.”

Wyre Davies, however, neglects to inform his readers of the context to Netanyahu’s words, instead reducing them to the superficial category of a spontaneous ‘lecture’ “in his own office”. Of course for readers to take something from Davies’ jaundiced account beyond the impression of Israeli rudeness (and worse) which he so deftly weaves, that context is vital. The failure to provide it can only be viewed as an attempt to shape a specific political narrative. 

Does the BBC’s Mardell think the language spoken in Israel is called “Israeli”?

One of the BBC journalists flown in to Israel especially for the occasion of the visit by President Obama was the North America Editor, Mark Mardell. On March 22nd Mardell produced an article entitled “Obama plays a Long Game in the Middle East” in which he gave his summing up of the presidential visit. 

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Mardell spends a considerable part of the article advancing his own rather flowery interpretations – psychological and otherwise – of Obama’s words and actions during the trip, but one rather bizarre sentence stands out.

“Before the visit, several American commentators urged him to learn to speak Israeli – now his fluency is almost frightening.” [emphasis added]

Readers of the article can either choose to despair over the fact that a senior BBC journalist does not know the name of the language spoken in Israel or to wonder why – if Mardell was intending to say that Obama had been urged to learn to understand the Israeli viewpoint and how to communicate effectively with the Israeli people – he did not manage to make that clear either by better choice of wording or by means of appropriate punctuation.

Whichever interpretation of that sentence – literal or figurative – one elects to adopt, Obama’s “fluency” is obviously seriously over-exaggerated by Mardell, particularly in light of the fact that the President chose not to address the Israeli people as a whole through their elected representatives, but instead played safe by speaking to a carefully selected audience which excluded certain sectors of the public in advance.  

As for the rather bizarre – and unexplained – use of the words “almost frightening”, one can only speculate as to what would scare a BBC correspondent so much about the possibility of a US President being able to communicate with the people of another country. 

Mardell’s article – which appeared in both the Middle East and US & Canada sections of the BBC News website was opened for comments by the BBC. Once again, a lack of appropriate moderation on that thread meant that the BBC made itself complicit in the spread of antisemitic discourse. 

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Donnison’s ‘woman in the Ramallah street’: professional anti-Israel campaigner

Among the BBC’s Obama visit coverage we find a filmed report from March 21st by Jon Donnison entitled “Palestinian views on President Obama’s visit“, which appeared on BBC television news as well as being featured on the BBC News website. 

Palestinian views Obama

The report begins in the Friends School in Ramallah, with the footage edited so that viewers hear a teacher saying “so Israel triples its size” as the BBC film crew enters a classroom. Two pupils are interviewed, with the second one stating:

“It’s been more than four years and nothing has changed and you saw massacres happening, especially the one in Gaza, and there was no reaction. I mean, we’re still dying here and there’s no reaction from the president of the free world.”

The Friends School in Ramallah is of course associated with the Ramallah Quakers: significant players in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign and other operations designed to delegitimize Israel, and with close connections to Sabeel and PACBI among others. Predictably, Jon Donnison does not trouble his viewers with that information, just as he does not bother to correct or edit the hyperbolic claims made by his interviewee.

At 01:30 minutes into the two-minute and thirty-six second report, the BBC hauls out its old and much-used footage of Gaza in order to show seven seconds of one-sided images of explosions, with Donnison saying in the voice-over:

“They [the Palestinians] were unhappy at US support for Israel in the war in Gaza last year.”

Interestingly, whenever the BBC refers back to Operation Pillar of Cloud, it almost inevitably seems to use that same footage, without balancing it with images from the other side of the border. Donnison goes on to say:

“Palestinians say President Obama has failed to stop Israel expanding Jewish settlements. At the same time Israel has continued to demolish Palestinian property. Israel’s occupation looks no closer to ending.”

That particular parroting of undiluted PA propaganda is done against a background of context-free footage of unidentified bulldozers demolishing unidentified buildings. In a clear breach of BBC editorial guidelines on accuracy and impartiality, there is no mention of illegal construction; no explanation of the significance of Areas A, B and C. 

Randa Wahbe promoting BDS, 2011

Donnison then goes to sit in a Ramallah café with Randa Wahbe, who he describes as being “part of a group that’s been organising protests against President Obama’s visit”. The text on the screen under Wahbe’s name says “Palestinians for Dignity”, but Donnison makes no effort to explain to viewers that the organisation, which came into existence at the beginning of last year, is composed of groups which reject the idea of the Palestinian Authority negotiating with Israel and call for a boycott of Israel.  

Neither does Donnison bother to disclose to BBC audiences that Randa Wahbe works for the highly politicised NGO Addameer as its advocacy officer and that her organisation is a major player in the ongoing campaign to use the subject of Palestinian prisoners for the leverage of international pressure upon Israel.

Donnison also neglects to inform viewers that Wahbe was a founding member of Students for Justice for Palestine at UCLA and Colombia and that she was involved with Adalah-NY before moving to Ramallah. Full disclosure of Ms Wahbe’s various contributions to ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ and her articles describing Israel as an ‘apartheid’ state may of course have detracted from the impression Donnison seeks to create with this interview, but nevertheless, the BBC Editorial Guidelines do stipulate that audiences must be made aware of a contributor’s affiliations. 

“.. we may need to make it clear to the audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their contribution is made.”

There is also a written version of Donnison’s report on the BBC News website. There, he quotes Randa Wahbe at further length, but yet again no mention is made of her political and professional affiliations.

BBC audiences are entitled to be made aware of the kind of ideologies which lie behind the opinions presented to them by the BBC in the wrapping of ‘the Palestinian street’ – not least when those opinions come from professional anti-Israel campaigners.


BBC opens comments on Obama visit article, quotes flotilla organiser

The BBC’s coverage of the visit by Barack Obama to Israel on March 20th 2013 included a rolling article (changes to which can be seen here) featured on the Middle East page and on the Home page of the BBC News website.  

Readers of the article will notice another attempt by the BBC to shape audience perception of the new Israeli government and its usual framing of lack of progress in the peace process as being attributable to “continued Israeli settlement construction” – despite the ten month-long building freeze in 2009/10, during which the Palestinian Authority continued to refuse to enter talks for nine months. 

Photo: US Embassy Tel Aviv

“Correspondents say Israelis are more preoccupied with instability in the wider Middle East region than with breathing new life into the peace process, which broke down in 2010 amid a dispute over continued Israeli settlement construction.

Settlement supporters are a big force in Israel’s new coalition government.” [emphasis added]

Sharp-eyed readers will also notice that the BBC’s article quotes Huwaida Arraf, describing her as a “demonstrator”.

“On Tuesday Palestinian protesters gathered in Ramallah and Bethlehem, some throwing shoes at images of the president and others driving over his portrait, reports said.

Demonstrator Huwaida Arraf told Reuters news agency that Mr Obama’s visit was “a slap in the face”.

“People are angry and disappointed that this far into his presidency, Obama has done nothing, and aid to Israel’s occupation continues to flow,” he (sic) said.”

The article fails to point out to BBC audiences that Huwaida Arraf is one of the founders and leaders of the ‘International Solidarity Movement’ (ISM) and the flotilla-organising ‘Free Gaza Movement’, both of which provide support to Hamas, and who was an active participant in the ISM support group to the Palestinian terrorists who took over the Church of the Nativity in 2002.  

As the BBC Editorial Guidelines clearly state in section 4.4.14:

 “..we may need to make it clear to the audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their contribution is made.”

The fact that Huwaida Arraf is not just a run-of-the-mill Palestinian “demonstrator”, but a dual-nationality professional anti-Israel campaigner with a long record of supporting terrorism, should have been made clear to this article’s readers. 

One of the ‘protests’ against Obama’s visit, which took place in Bethlehem – not far from the Church of the Nativity, was filmed by the Palestine News Network and translated by MEMRI. The footage shows that this BBC report neglects to mention the burning and vandalising of posters portraying President Obama with swastikas. 

The BBC also elected to open this article to comments from the general public, but a lack of appropriate moderation of those comments meant that the thread was soon littered with antisemitic conspiracy theories of “Jewish power” and offensive remarks of other kinds, such as the suggestion that Jews are “driven by greed” or that the US should “start bombing Israeli settlements”. Many of the comments on that BBC article would not be out-of-place on some of the worst Guardian ‘Comment is Free’ threads as highlighted in the 2012 CST report on anti-Semitic discourse. Below are just a few examples.

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As previously noted here in the past, moderation on BBC articles relating to Israel which are open to comments is often very lax – despite the existence of ‘house rules’ prohibiting comments which display racism, abuse or are deemed “otherwise likely to offend”, as well as those which are likely to “provoke, attack or offend others”.

Clearly, there is an urgent need for the BBC to take a much more responsible approach to moderation on its comments boards in order to avoid being any further complicit in the spread of antisemitic discourse.