BBC’s Bowen tells his annual Lebanon story on Radio 4

Episode 10 of Jeremy Bowen’s BBC Radio 4 series ‘Our Man in the Middle East’ was broadcast on May 26th. Titled “The Nearness of Death“, the programme is described in the synopsis as follows:

“Jeremy Bowen describes the incident as the worse [sic] day of his working life – the day he and his colleagues came under fire from the Israeli Defence Force. Bowen’s driver Abed Takkhoush was hit when the crew of an Israeli tank fired a shell across the border wire into Lebanon. It hit the back of his Mercedes taxi while he was sitting in the driver’s seat phoning his son.”

Bowen has of course publicly revisited that incident on numerous occasions in the past (see ‘related articles’ below) but this programme once again provides insight into the approach taken by the man the BBC chose to be responsible for all its Middle East coverage twelve years ago.

In this report, Bowen’s scene-setting fails to provide listeners with any background information or context concerning the reason why the Israeli army was in Lebanon in the first place and he fails to clarify that Hizballah did not only act against – or because of – Israeli forces.

“We were looking forward to the day ahead down south on the border with Israel. It was a big story. The Israelis were ending an occupation of a broad swathe of South Lebanon that had lasted 18 years. They’d been driven out by an insurgency mounted by Hizballah – the Shia Muslim militia that head become a highly effective guerilla force with the help of Iran and Syria.”

Later on Bowen tells listeners that:

“By the mid-90s the main fight was in south Lebanon between the Israeli occupiers and Hizballah. Israel claimed self-defence and called Hizballah terrorists. Hizballah regarded themselves as a legitimate resistance to occupation and so did most Lebanese.”

Bowen refrains from explaining why there was no Hizballah ‘resistance’ to the Syrian occupation in Lebanon or to inform listeners of the 1989 Taif Agreement and the fact that under that agreement, all militias – including Hizballah – were supposed to have been disarmed and disbanded.

Although in previous accounts Bowen has said “I’d been talking to my literary agent on the phone” at the time of the incident in which his driver was killed, in this programme his version is slightly different.

“The big mistake I made was deciding to stop to do a piece to camera overlooking an Israeli village. I discovered later that journalists and Israeli civilians were watching from a picnic spot as I got out of the car with Malik. I thought we were safe where we were but I didn’t realise that an Israeli battle tank had us in its sights.” […]

“I said to Malik ‘let’s get up there to help him’. Malik’s face was contorted. ‘No’, he said, ‘don’t do it. Abed is dead; he can’t have survived that and if you go up there too, they’ll kill you’. When cautiously I moved towards Abed’s body I heard bullets fizzing over my head and ducked back into cover. A team from the Times later said they heard the tank crew saying on the radio that they’d get the other two with the heavy machine gun. I’ll feel guilty till my last day that we stopped to film there.”

Bowen adds further context-free anecdotes of Israeli actions, telling listeners that in 1996:

“We joined a UN convoy that was trying to reach besieged civilians. The Israelis turned it back with some heavy shelling.”

And:

“Once, the Israelis were shelling the coastal highway from a war ship to stop people getting to southern Lebanon.”

And – while failing to clarify that the two-week Israeli operation in Lebanon in 1996 came after Hizballah shelled Israeli communities, injuring dozens of civilians:

“106 civilians were killed in a single incident in 1996 by Israeli shelling. They’d been sheltering in a UN peace-keeping base in a village called Qana in south Lebanon. Hundreds more were wounded. The UN didn’t accept Israel’s explanation that Hizballah had fired Katyusha rockets at them from close to the base. I’d been in a briefing in the Israeli Defence Ministry that claimed they knew everything that went on in south Lebanon but that day they said they didn’t know they were killing civilians even when UN liaison officers begged them to stop.”

Bowen goes on to use language that does not adhere to BBC editorial standards of impartiality.

“Qana’s dead were buried together. At the funeral I met Hassan Balhas; a young man who’d been left paraplegic by a stray Israeli bullet. 35 members of his family were killed in the massacre.” [emphasis added]

Listeners are also told by Bowen that:

“I’ve been to the homes of Israelis killed by Lebanese and their families’ grief is tragic to see. But there’s been just so much more of it in Lebanon where civilians have suffered disproportionately at the hands of Israel.” [emphasis added]

Going back to the May 2000 incident, Bowen tells listeners that his driver:

Looking into south Lebanon from the Menara area

“…did stop four years later on the day the Israeli army killed him. The Israeli military said the tank fired at us because they thought we were terrorists. That wasn’t the first assumption of Israeli civilians who were watching from their side of the border whose reaction was caught in video collected by a BBC investigation into Abed’s death.”

Listeners then hear an unidentified voice explaining that video.

“People are now saying in Hebrew this car was shot, it was shot from here. Some civilian is saying ‘they hit a civilian car – we’re going to have Katyushas now’. ‘This is very bad’, he’s saying.”

In fact, the Hebrew speaker is not heard using the term “civilian car” but the word “vehicle”. Bowen goes on:

“I went to see a general in the Defence Ministry in Tel Aviv. He asked for some understanding. ‘Look’, he said, ‘there were young boys in that tank and they’d been warned they might be attacked by terrorists. They were scared’. I wasn’t very sympathetic. They were in a tank and we were civilians.”

Bowen has of course told that part of the story before too and is on record as refusing to accept the results of the IDF investigation into – and apology for – the tragic incident. Hence, seventeen years on the BBC’s Middle East editor is still using his position to promote the notion that it was impossible for Israeli soldiers to mistake three men travelling in a war zone in a car with Lebanese plates, and carrying camera equipment, for Hizballah terrorists dressed – as was very often the case – in civilian clothing. 

He then closes the item with an oblique, but clear, insinuation:

“Fighters in every war, on every side, dehumanise their enemies. They regard them as something less that living and breathing people who can feel love and fear and happiness. That way, it’s much easier to kill.”

Jeremy Bowen will no doubt continue his efforts to promote his version of this story for as long as the BBC and additional media outlets continue to provide him with the platform to do so. Nevertheless, it is worth bearing in mind that the man who repeatedly tells that story from that particular angle is also the person who for the last twelve years has been entrusted with ensuring that what BBC audiences are told about Israel meets editorial standards of accuracy, impartiality and objectivity.

Related Articles:

Middle East Editor – Jeremy Bowen

Jeremy Bowen: “The Israelis would have killed me too”

Jeremy Bowen’s pink shirt

Context-free Twitter messaging from BBC’s Jeremy Bowen

Jeremy Bowen’s annual reminder of why BBC coverage of Israel is as it is

BBC’s Bowen on CAMERA complaint result: still ‘indignant’ after all these years 

BBC WS presenters fail to challenge politically motivated narrative

As noted here previously, among its coverage of the death of former Israeli president Shimon Peres announced just hours earlier on September 28th, the 08:06 edition of BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newsday’ broadcast an interview with anti-Israel activist Ben White. In that interview listeners heard repeated context free and inaccurate promotion of a particular theme.

“And in 1996, notoriously, he was prime minister during a particularly brutal Israeli operation in Lebanon that included the massacre at Qana.” […]

“Remember of course that, you know, the Qana massacre for example, you know, more than a hundred civilians killed in Lebanon…” […]

“That military venture by Peres – and remember; this is ’96: this is sort of 3 years after his apparent sort of conversion to the cause of peace – that campaign was widely seen by people as a pre-election move. OK: so killing Lebanese civilians is a pre-election gesture even if it didn’t…even if it didn’t work.” 

The edition of that same programme broadcast one hour earlier – presented by Bola Mosuro and Julian Keane – included similarly context free promotion of the same subject. After tributes to Peres from past and present US presidents were read out, Keane told listeners:newsday-28-9-0706

“Just worth noting; there are also of course some contrasting views. Sultan al Husseini [phonetic] who is a commentator who’s quite present on Twitter – a commentator from the United Arab Emirates – who was…well he made a reference to the killing…the al Qasa [sic] killing of…when the Israelis shelled a UN compound in southern Lebanon, saying Shimon Peres was an example of how the world can forget someone’s crimes if they only live long enough.”

The programme also included an interview introduced by Mosuro as follows:

“Well let’s go now to Daoud Kuttab who’s a Palestinian columnist for Al Monitor and joins us now from Jordan. Good morning to you, Daoud. We’ve been hearing this morning how Shimon Peres was seen by many Israelis as a peacemaker. How will he be remembered by those in Palest…by Palestinians: how will he be remembered?”

Among Kuttab’s comments listeners heard the following:

“But he [Peres] also made a terrible mistake right after Rabin was killed which is that he attacked Lebanon fiercely and there was one attack right before the elections in which hundred Lebanese and Palestinians were killed in an attack on a village at a UN outpost and that actually cost him the elections and brought to us Binyamin Netanyahu who’s been terrible about peace.”

Of course the real cause of Peres’ loss in that election was the post-Oslo surge in Palestinian terror attacks against Israelis.

In neither of these ‘Newsday’ programmes did BBC presenters bother to provide listeners with the crucial context concerning Operation Grapes of Wrath in general or the Qana incident in particular. The escalation of Hizballah missile attacks against civilian communities in northern Israel that triggered the operation was completely erased from audience view. The fact that Hizballah forces had fired missiles and mortars from the vicinity of the UN compound in Qana (with no intervention by UNIFIL) on several occasions in the hours before the tragic accident goes completely unmentioned.monitoring-peres-art

‘Newsday’ listeners were however not the only ones left with inaccurate impressions concerning the Qana incident. For example, the writer of an article by BBC Monitoring titled “Mixed reaction to Peres’ legacy in world media” (which was published on the BBC News website on September 28th and promoted as a link in several other reports) found it appropriate to give context free amplification to propaganda from a semi-official Iranian regime news agency.

“Fars news agency says: “Shimon Peres is dead; Butcher of Qana dies following two weeks in coma” in a reference to the 1996 shelling of Qana in southern Lebanon that killed over 100.”

There is of course nothing surprising about the fact that elements such as the Iranian regime or anti-Israel campaigners of various stripes would try to exploit an Israeli statesman’s death for the promotion of an inaccurate, politically motivated narrative about an historic event. The problem is that the BBC – supposedly the “standard-setter for international journalism” committed to editorial values of accuracy and impartiality – provides an unchallenged platform for such exploitation.

Related Articles:

Coverage of Shimon Peres’ death promotes the BBC’s political narrative

BBC radio marks Peres’ death with Palestinian propaganda – part one

BBC radio marks Peres’ death with Palestinian propaganda – part two

BBC WS breaches impartiality guidelines with Ben White interview on Peres

BBC WS breaches impartiality guidelines with Ben White interview on Peres

“We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives of charities) are unbiased and 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.” (Source: BBC Editorial Guidelines – Impartiality – News, Current Affairs and Factual Output)

Early on the morning of September 28th one of the lead stories on the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newsday‘ was the death of Shimon Peres which, as the presenters of the 06:06 edition of the show pointed out, had been announced just two and a half hours previously.newsday-28-9-0606

Opening with an interview with Professor Guy Ziv – author of a book about Peres – the programme later went on to broadcast an obviously pre-prepared segment by Kevin Connolly which also appeared in other programmes. Following that – at 31:45 – presenter Julian Keane told listeners:

“Just worth noting: a lot of reaction of course to the death of Shimon Peres coming through on Twitter, by text message, also on Facebook. It’s fair to say it’s a mixed picture with – just to quote some people – you’ll hear a lot of people talking about a great man, an old soldier, a wise man but also many people describing Shimon Peres as a war criminal, a terrorist. So clearly mixed views depending on where you’re coming from on the death of Shimon Peres.”

After listeners heard from former MK Yossi Beilin, presenter Bola Mosuro also propagated a similar theme.

“Eh…a different view – if you like – is being seen…I’m just looking on Twitter here and the journalist and author Ben White has said ‘Shimon Peres epitomised the disparity between Israel’s image in the West and the reality of its bloody colonial policies in Palestine’, adding ‘his many victims – Palestinians and others, the displaced and the bereaved – will see Shimon Peres eulogised as a man of peace’.”

The editorial considerations behind the BBC World Service’s showcasing of anonymous baseless libels such as “war criminal” and “terrorist” against a person already unable to exercise the right of reply are obviously just as much of an issue as those which allowed amplification of the false notion of “bloody colonial policies”. But clearly the misleading portrayal of one of the UK’s most vocal pro-Hamas ideologues – who has made a career out of anti-Israel activism – as a mere “journalist and author” is a breach of editorial guidelines on impartiality.

Moreover, a later edition of the same programme at 08:06 saw those editorial guidelines breached yet again after ‘Newsday’ editors elected to provide the promoter of that false notion with further amplification. At 27:20 presenter Lawrence Pollard told listeners:newsday-28-9-0806

“Now more on the death of the former Israeli president and prime minister Shimon Peres. He’s died aged 93. Tributes have come in from leaders around the world including former president Bill Clinton who signed the Oslo Accord [sic] with him; the first peace agreement with the Palestinians. Mr Peres, he said, was a genius with a big heart who used his gifts to imagine a future of reconciliation, not conflict. The warmth hasn’t been universal however. Let’s get a reaction from Ben White: a journalist who’s written extensively on Middle East affairs. He’s based in Cambridge and joins us now. We’ve heard many tributes to Shimon Peres – what’s your view? A giant figure? What’s his historical record?”

White: “Good morning. Thanks for having me on. I think there’s just a couple of points to make, for me, particularly this morning after his passing. Firstly the historical record shows that his image, particularly in the West, as a dove or perhaps as a hawk turned dove; that image is belied by the facts. So for example his military and political career; he was responsible for…he had a key role really in beginning Israel’s clandestine nuclear programme in the ’50s and ’60s. In the ’70s he also had an important role in beginning the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, including settlements built on privately owned Palestinian land that was expropriated. And in 1996, notoriously, he was prime minister during a particularly brutal Israeli operation in Lebanon that included the massacre at Qana. So there is the historical record which by and large is being omitted really…”

Pollard: “OK – that’s interesting because this narrative is, I think, in a lot of the obituaries; that he starts as a hawk and then moves towards a sort of reconsideration. I mean [laughs] we spoke to someone who knew him quite well [who] said ‘well, he came to see some errors of judgement’. Let’s talk about the settlements. He may well have been part of the government that began the settlements on what most people refer to as occupied land but the fact that he came to see that as a stumbling block to peace –it’s quite a great thing for a man to change his mind, isn’t it?”

White: “Yeah – OK. So actually that’s an important point because this idea of him changing actually helps us to take a critical look at how something like the Oslo Accords – presented as his greatest achievement – what they actually achieved and what Israel’s purpose was with them. To go back to the time, Itzhak Rabin – of course the assassinated prime minister, fellow Labour member with Shimon Peres – shortly before he was assassinated in 1995, so two years after the first Oslo Accords were signed, Rabin said to the Knesset that what Israel wanted through those peace agreements was – quote, unquote – a Palestinian entity that would be less than a state. And he made it very clear that Israel intended to keep Jerusalem as its united capital and that Israel would also in the long term annex and maintain key settlement blocs in the West Bank. Now this was the vision at the heart of Israel’s understanding of the Oslo Accords and of course, you know, it’s 20 – more than 20 years later – and we’ve seen just sort of continued encroachment and colonisation.”

Pollard: “You see what interests me is that a man who then becomes something as great as the president – I mean the highest office of state – he then writes articles – rather thoughtful articles – saying, you know, what our problem is that we are obsessed with land. And I say again, you know, a man who changes his mind in his own analysis of his own political record is a rare thing and I would have thought, something to mark and honour but you seem to disagree quite strongly. You don’t seem to give him credit for sort of changing his mind that way.”

White: “Well I think…a few years ago for example Shimon Peres described the Palestinians as – quote – self-victimising and, to me at least, that kind of language from a person with his track record; a person say, you know, who if he’d had a similar governmental role in other countries would be described as a war criminal…”

Pollard: “But he did – but to be fair to him – he did also strike a deal with the Palestinians. He didn’t impose the Oslo Accords on anyone. He signed it and won the peace process [sic – prize] with Yasser Arafat the much respected and much-loved Palestinian leader amongst Palestinians.”

White: “Absolutely – but at the time of the signing of the Oslo Accords many Palestinians were – and that number has only grown – highly critical of the framework that was being signed and of the sort of political process that was being entered into there. Remember of course that, you know, the Qana massacre for example, you know, more than a hundred civilians killed in Lebanon…”

Pollard: “After which he immediately lost the election, didn’t he?”

White: “Yes, and sort of shockingly of course. That military venture by Peres – and remember; this is ’96: this is sort of 3 years after his apparent sort of conversion to the cause of peace – that campaign was widely seen by people as a pre-election move. OK: so killing Lebanese civilians is a pre-election gesture even if it didn’t…even if it didn’t work. And I think the reason why I think it’s important to have these elements in our sort of…an examination of his life is that too often the victims of Israeli policies – primarily Palestinians but also people in the wider region – are forgotten when their leaders like Ariel Sharon a few years ago, Shimon Peres now, are eulogized – particularly by Western leaders.”

Pollard: “Ben – many thanks indeed. Ben White; journalist based in Cambridge. Ehm…interesting the point that he raises about the direction of the obituaries that we’ve been hearing in the past few hours since the death was announced.”

Anyone familiar with Ben White’s record – and the sole raison d’être behind his ‘journalism’ – would not be surprised in the least by his promotion of propaganda tropes such as “war criminal”, “illegal settlements” and “colonisation” or his false claims concerning a supposed “pre-election move” which erase from audience view both the Hizballah missile attacks against Israeli civilians which preceded Operation Grapes of Wrath or the post-Oslo surge in Palestinian terror attacks which were the real cause of Peres’ failure to win the 1996 election.

However, the vast majority of listeners to this programme around the world would of course have no idea of who Ben White is, no familiarity with his monochrome political agenda and no appreciation of the motives behind his appearance on this programme. And the trouble is that – in clear breach of BBC editorial guidelines – no effort was made by the ‘Newsday’ presenters to provide listeners with the relevant information concerning White’s “particular viewpoint” which would enable them to put his quoted Tweets or his long and cosy chat with Pollard into their appropriate context.

Related Articles:

Coverage of Shimon Peres’ death promotes the BBC’s political narrative

BBC radio marks Peres’ death with Palestinian propaganda – part one

BBC radio marks Peres’ death with Palestinian propaganda – part two