Euphemism and inaccuracy in BBC News website Entebbe report

On March 27th the BBC News website published a report headlined “Entebbe pilot Michel Bacos who stayed with hostages dies” on its ‘Europe’ and ‘Middle East’ pages.

“Michel Bacos, the Air France captain hailed as a hero for refusing to abandon his passengers when Palestinian and German hijackers seized the plane in 1976, has died in France aged 95.”

Readers of the report were told that:

“After leaving Athens on 27 June 1976, the plane was seized by two Palestinians from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and two Germans from guerrilla group Revolutionary Cells. They forced Bacos and his crew to fly to Benghazi in Libya.

After refuelling it flew on to Entebbe where the hijackers were joined by at least three more Palestinian militants and Ugandan troops. Uganda’s leader, Idi Amin, was on the tarmac to welcome the hijackers. The hijackers demanded the release of 54 militants and a $5m ransom.” [emphasis added]

That euphemistic terminology has been seen in previous BBC reporting on Entebbe and as has been noted here in the past, among those so-called “militants” were of course convicted terrorists and criminals.

“Those whose release was demanded included 40 prisoners said to be held by Israel, among them Archbishop Hilarion Capuecci, serving a prison sentence imposed in December 1974 for arms smuggling [to Fatah], Mr Kozo Okamoto, the Japanese sentenced to life imprisonment after the 1972 Lod airport massacre, and Mrs Fatima Barnawi, serving a life sentence for placing a bomb [in a cinema] in 1967…”

The report went on:

“The passengers were eventually split up. The non-Israelis were flown to Paris while the 94 Israeli passengers were held hostage.

Alongside the hostages were the Air France crew of 12.”

However that portrayal of the “split up” of passengers is not accurate. As the BBC’s own Raffi Berg accurately reported in June 2016:

“On the third day, the hijackers began calling people’s names and ordering them into a second, smaller, squalid room.

It became clear they were separating the Israeli and non-Israeli Jewish passengers from the rest, immediately evoking the horrors of the Nazi selections in World War Two when Jews were picked out to be sent to their deaths.”

Forty-three years after the hijacking and Operation Yonatan, not only can the BBC still not get the details right but its 2007 conspiracy theory promoting article on that subject is still available online.

Iran’s Press TV claims army of pro-Israel propagandists occupy BBC

If you have managed to simultaneously draw fire from the Iranian regime’s Press TV, Ali Abunimah’s ‘Electronic Intifada’, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Hamas and David Icke, then some might say you were doing something right. 

A sensational headline at Press TV informs us that “An army of pro-Israeli propagandists occupy BBC“, with the same title being used by shape-shifting lizard aficionado David Icke. ‘Electronic Intifada’ goes with the slightly more subdued header “BBC editor urged colleagues to downplay Israel’s siege of Gaza” in an article written by the PSC’s Amena Saleem, as does Hamas’ ‘military wing’ on its website. Nureddin Sabir of ‘Redress‘ claims “BBC editor tells staff to be soft on Israel“. 

So why exactly are all of the above (and quite a few more) in such a tizzy? Well the former head of the BBC News website’s Middle East desk Tarik Kafala recently moved on to become head of the BBC Arabic Service (mabrouk!) and his replacement is Raffi Berg

Mr Berg has been working at the Middle East desk for some time and apparently during last November’s ‘Operation Pillar of Cloud’ he tried to ensure that his colleagues adhered to BBC standards of accuracy by writing the following e-mails:

“Please remember, Israel doesn’t maintain a blockade around Gaza. Egypt controls the southern border. Israel maintains a blockade around its borders with Gaza, as well as a naval blockade. It also controls Gaza’s airspace. We’ve mistakenly said “around Gaza” in a number of recent stories, which has generated complaints.”


“The way we have been wording our paragraph on when the fighting started is causing endless complaints. It’s the specific reference in time which is upsetting people. We have been saying: The conflict began last Wednesday when Israel killed a Hamas military leader, saying it wanted an end to rocket attacks from Gaza. More than 110 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed. To a lot of people, the conflict was already raging, and they interpret that as blaming or putting undue emphasis on Israel. Can we please use the following form of words which gets round that: Israel launched its offensive, which it says is aimed at ending rocket fire from Gaza, with the killing on Wednesday of a Hamas military leader. More than 110 Palestinians and three Israelis have been killed since then.”

Of course any objective observer would applaud Mr Berg’s efforts to promote accuracy and impartiality in BBC reporting. BBC Watch trusts that he will continue to do so in his new position and wishes him all the best. 

Limits to BBC interest in Middle East historical sites

In recent weeks the BBC has produced several reports with an archaeological theme. In February the Jerusalem Bureau’s Yolande Knell did two reports on the subject of Israeli excavations of Herodion and more recently Raffi Berg wrote an article about a specific handful of sites included in Israel’s ongoing heritage investment project. 

The common denominator between those three reports is not however- as may perhaps first seem – the wish to inform BBC audiences about Middle East archaeology and the preservation of historic sites, but the advancement of a specific political narrative. And as we see from the story below, BBC interest in Middle Eastern archaeological sites which cannot be used for such a purpose has its limitations.

The Gaza-based journalist Abeer Ayyoub recently wrote in Al Monitor about the bulldozing by Hamas of part of the 3,000 year-old Anthedon Harbour in Gaza – chosen by UNESCO to be a candidate for the status of ‘World Heritage Site’. 

“Earlier last month, amid overwhelming criticism from public figures and nongovernmental organizations, the military wing of the Islamic movement of Hamas, Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, bulldozed a part of the ancient Anthedon Harbor in northern Gaza along the Mediterranean Sea. The Brigades damaged the harbor in order to expand its military training zone, which was initially opened on the location in 2002…”

Hamas’ Deputy Minister for Tourism, Muhammad Khela, told Al Monitor:

“We can’t stand as an obstacle in the way of Palestinian resistance; we are all a part of a resistance project, yet we promise that the location will be limitedly used without harming it at all,”

Curiously, the BBC’s generously staffed Jerusalem Bureau has so far shown no interest whatsoever in reporting this story. So, whilst critical reports on Israeli projects to preserve important archaeological and historic sites are thick on the ground, the destruction of a prominent ancient archaeological treasure by a terrorist organization remains unreported. 

BBC promotion of PA narrative on Jewish heritage sites

The statement “history is written by the victors” is often attributed to Winston Churchill – although he may well have changed his mind about that had he lived to see some of the modern-day inversions and distortions of Middle East history which are becoming increasingly commonplace. 

We previously addressed here the subject of archaeological excavations in Area C when Yolande Knell conscripted herself to the Palestinian Authority’s publicity campaign on the subject of Herodion, but it is necessary to now revisit that subject  in light of an April 15th article by Raffi Berg entitled “Israel heritage plan exposes discord over West Bank history“. 

Berg heritage

First, the facts. In February 2010 the Government of Israel announced a much-needed long-term plan to invest in the conservation of hundreds of archaeological and heritage sites all over Israel.

“Today, we are due to approve a comprehensive plan, the largest ever, to strengthen the national heritage infrastructures of the State of Israel. We will do four things:

We will rehabilitate archaeological and Zionist heritage sites. We will build and enrich archives and museums. We are talking about approximately 150 sites.

We are due to invest almost NIS 400 million, with the assistance of 16 Government ministries. We will create two trails: An historical trail of archaeological sites from the Biblical, Second Temple and other eras in the history of the Land of Israel and a trail of the Israeli experience that joins the main sites which relate the history of a people’s return to its land.”

Among the sites and projects selected for investment, a handful are located in Area C which, according to the Oslo Accords signed willingly by the representatives of the Palestinian people, remains under Israeli control until the outcome of negotiations stipulates otherwise. Most of those sites are located in areas which according to any reasonable appraisal of the possible outcome of final status negotiations (if and when they ever come about) would remain under Israeli control. 

In his article about this comprehensive conservation project, Raffi Berg chose to ignore well over 90% of the projects, focusing only upon those considered ‘controversial’ by the Palestinian Authority and a politically motivated NGO. The core of Berg’s article bears eerie resemblance to a publication put out in June 2012 by that NGO – ‘Emek Shaveh’ – which was written by Yonatan (Yoni) Mizrachi.

Mizrachi is also featured extensively in Berg’s report, where his organization is given the brief anodyne description of being one which “opposes the “politicisation” of archaeology”.  Perusal of Mizrachi’s above-mentioned publication will quickly bring readers to the understanding that any opposition by ‘Emek Shaveh‘ to the “politicization” of archaeology is, to put it mildly, very selective. In fact, that NGO’s entire raison d’etre is to promote a particular political standpoint through the use of archaeology, as can be seen on its campaigning website and in its contributions to politically motivated campaigns on the subject of Jerusalem

Berg’s failure to accurately inform BBC audiences of the political motivations of ‘Emek Shaveh’ represents yet another in the growing collection of instances in which the BBC advances the agenda of a political NGO, thus compromising its own editorial guidelines on impartiality which clearly state: [emphasis added]

“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.”

Berg’s article also includes quotes from the PA Ministry of Tourism’s Hamdan Taha.

“The West Bank is an integral part of the history of Palestine,” says Hamdan Taha, director of the Palestinian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities. “Netanyahu’s heritage plan is an aggression against the cultural right of Palestinian people in their own state,” as the West Bank’s status is considered to be by many Palestinians.

Mr Taha says the Israeli government’s emphasis on the Jewish historical aspect of some sites is “an ideological misuse of archaeological evidence”.

“Jewish heritage in the West Bank – like Christian or Islamic – is part of Palestinian heritage and we reject categorically any ethnic division of culture.”

Raffi Berg chooses to ignore some of Mr Taha’s more colourful past statements on the subject of archaeology, including his belief that “archaeology can put Palestine on the map, literally and figuratively” and his concurrent and presumably not unrelated denial of Jewish history in Judea and Samaria which is often expressed in less than ministerial terms.

“In Shiloh the settlers pretended to have found the tabernacles,” he [Taha] proclaimed. “They can find the chicken bone my grandfather ate 50 years ago and say it was a young calf for ancient sacrifice.”

Whilst it is not made clear in the article whether or not Raffi Berg is also responsible for the interactive graphic featured under the heading “Israeli national heritage sites in the West Bank”, that graphic includes two historic sites which even the ‘Emek Shaveh’ document from June 2012 does not pretend are included in the project, although they were among the hundreds of additional sites originally proposed. Of the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron and Rachel’s Tomb, ‘Emek Shaveh’ states:

 “However, after reevaluation it was decided not to include the two sites on the list.”

Despite that, the BBC’s graphic inaccurately informs readers otherwise.

Rachel's Tomb

Cave of the Patriarchs

Whilst Berg’s article does nod to the required impartiality by including quotes from a resident of Shiloh, a representative of the Israeli Prime Minister’s Office and the head of the archaeology department of the Civil Administration, the very choice of subject matter and the presentation of heritage projects as having political motivations indicates that the intent of the article is to advance a specific political narrative, ironically by seemingly highlighting an opposing one and by promoting the idea of moral – and historic – equivalence. 

By lending oxygen to the long-existing Palestinian Authority campaign to distort history and deny Jewish connections to what objectively (whatever one’s opinions of the desired form a negotiated settlement to the conflict should take) cannot be seen as anything other than a geographical area steeped in Jewish heritage, Berg is severely compromising the BBC’s reputation for impartiality. 

BBC report: Israelis are not polite

Over the past few days the BBC News website has been promoting an April 12th article by Raffi Berg entitled “Getting behind Israeli ‘frankness’ “. The written report is featured on the Middle East page and in the Magazine section. An audio version was broadcast on the BBC World Service in the ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ programme – with the BBC iPlayer  synopsis of the programme describing Israelis as “rough and ready“.  A reader has informed us that the programme was also broadcast on NPR in the United States. 

Manner of speaking

Magazine 14 4

FooC Berg

The subjects of ‘politeness’ and ‘manners’ are, of course, entirely culture dependent – as this perplexed Israeli discovered when a fellow passenger stood on her foot at Manchester’s Victoria railway station and then proceeded to publicly berate her for not responding to his apology with one of her own. SONY DSC

So what do BBC Watch readers think about this item? Does it represent a light-hearted attempt to explain part of the Israeli culture or is it superficial – merely reinforcing and spreading existing stereotypes? Has Berg actually gone any way towards explaining to readers and listeners around the world why Israelis (like most other cultures) may have different perceptions of politeness and manners than the British, or is it in fact an example of cultural colonialism?

Tell us what you think in the comments below. 

BBC claims US kept in the dark on 2007 Syrian nuclear reactor strike

The BBC News website’s Middle East page of April 7th led with the not unexpected news that “Talks between world powers and Iran on its nuclear programme end without agreement”. One of the related articles presented together with that report is a purely speculative item entitled “Iran crisis: Would Israel launch an attack?” by Raffi Berg, which first appeared on March 20th among coverage of the Obama visit to Israel. 

hp 7 4

In a sidebox headed “Iraq and Syria attacks: The precedents?” we find the following statement:

“Israel did not inform the US in advance of its strike on Osirak, nor of its alleged bombing of the Syrian plant.”


The suggestion that the United States government was not aware of Israeli intentions regarding the Syrian nuclear reactor is of course at odds with the extensive account provided earlier this year in Commentary Magazine by former US National Security Council member Elliot Abrahams. According to that account, the US knew very well what was on the cards and hence the BBC’s statement is misleading and inaccurate. 

“Three days earlier, on July 13, President Bush had called Prime Minister Olmert from his desk in the Oval Office and explained his view. I have gone over this in great detail, Bush explained on the secure phone to the Israeli prime minister, looking at every possible scenario and its likely aftermath. We have looked at overt and covert options, and I have made a decision. We are not going to take the military path; we are instead going to the UN. Bush recounts in his memoir that he told Olmert, “I cannot justify an attack on a sovereign nation unless my intelligence agencies stand up and say it’s a weapons program” and that “I had decided on the diplomatic option backed by the threat of force.” We will announce this approach soon, Bush said on the secure line, and we will then launch a major diplomatic campaign, starting at the IAEA and then the UN Security Council. And of course a military option always remains available down the line.

I wondered how Olmert would react and believed I could predict his response: He would say, “Wait, give me some time to think about this, to consult my team, to reflect, and I will call you tomorrow.” I was quite wrong. He reacted immediately and forcefully. George, he said, this leaves me surprised and disappointed. And I cannot accept it. We told you from the first day, when Dagan came to Washington, and I’ve told you since then whenever we discussed it, that the reactor had to go away. Israel cannot live with a Syrian nuclear reactor; we will not accept it. It would change the entire region and our national security cannot accept it. You are telling me you will not act; so, we will act. The timing is another matter, and we will not do anything precipitous. […]

After that conversation, there was a nearly two-month gap, from July 13 to September 6. We now know the time was filled with Israeli military calculations—watching the weather and Syrian movements on the ground—with the aim of being sure that Israel could act before the reactor went “critical” or “hot.” We knew the Israelis would strike sooner or later. They acted, in the end, when a leak about the reactor’s existence was imminent and Syria might then have gotten notice that Israel knew of its existence. That would have given Assad time to put civilians or nuclear fuel near the site. The Israelis did not seek, nor did they get, a green or red light from us. Nor did they announce their timing in advance; they told us as they were blowing up the site. Olmert called the president on September 6 with the news.”

Read the rest of the account here.