BBC World Service history show recycles one inaccuracy and adds more

As readers may recall, on June 5th listeners to the BBC World Service radio history programme ‘Witness’ heard that the Lebanese civil war began in June 1982 – and that Israel started it.

The day after that programme was aired BBC Watch submitted a complaint to the BBC on that issue but to date has received neither acknowledgement nor a response to the request to correct that obvious inaccuracy.

Moreover, on June 11th that same report by Simon Watts was recycled in its entirety (from 10:09 here) in another BBC World Service radio history programme – ‘The History Hour’ – where the item was described as being about “an assassination attempt that sparked Lebanon’s war”.

Once again, after Watts asked had the son of the former Israeli ambassador Shlomo Argov about the reaction in Israel to the attempted assassination of his father in London in June 1982 by a Palestinian faction and Gideon Argov had gone on to say “and then the war broke out”, listeners heard Simon Watts interject:

[14:55] Watts: “That war turned out to be the Lebanese civil war.”

As in the previous programme, listeners heard an archive recording of a news bulletin.

“Israel has launched air attacks against Palestinian targets in Lebanon in retaliation for the shooting of her ambassador in London. The Israeli air raids were aimed around the Lebanese capital Beirut. Targets included a Palestine Liberation Organisation training school. Several other buildings including this sports stadium were damaged. The PLO said at least 30 civilians were killed. Later, Palestinian guerillas are said to have carried out rocket attacks against the Jewish settlements in north Israel.” [emphasis added]

After which Watts told listeners that:

Watts: “It’s now known that the Israeli defence minister Ariel Sharon had been planning an assault on PLO targets in Lebanon for months. He later described the assassination attempt as the spark that lit the fuse.”

As was noted here previously, remarkably BBC audiences did not hear a single word about the additional – and highly relevant – background to those plans and Operation Peace for Galilee.

However listeners to ‘The History Hour’ did hear an addition to Watts’ report from an interviewee he was keen to present as “respected” and having “accolades”.

Watts: “So just how far did that shooting, that attempted assassination in London in 1982, mark a watershed moment for the Middle East? Well joining me now is Rami Khouri – professor at the American University in Beirut – who’s covered the region as a respected journalist for many decades. So from the Israeli perspective, was the attempt to kill Shlomo Argov the catalyst or the excuse for that move into Lebanon?”

Khouri: “It was certainly both but the evidence from historical reports by both Israelis and others is that the defence minister then – Ariel Sharon – had been planning for years probably to do a major attack on Lebanon and his aim was to get the PLO out of there, destroy the PLO’s facilities, get the Syrians out of Lebanon and force a peace treaty with the Christian-led government that the Israelis hoped to install in Lebanon and the assassination attempt was basically the excuse that gave the government the ability to say go ahead with this.”

Once again BBC World Service audiences were not informed why Sharon would have needed plans to “get the PLO out” of Lebanon. They were told nothing of the fact that the PLO had thousands of terrorists – including foreign mercenaries – based in Lebanon at the time and that Palestinian terrorists had committed hundreds of attacks against Israeli civilians in which 29 Israelis had been murdered and over 300 wounded in the eleven months before June 1982 alone.

Watts: “So Lebanon was a tinder box anyway which was ready to blow.”

Despite earlier having told listeners himself that the Lebanese civil war began in June 1982, Watts did not appear to notice that American-born Rami G Khouri contradicted his claim – or that he whitewashed Palestinian terror attacks such as those in Ma’alot and Misgav Am by describing them as “clashes”.

Khouri: “Lebanon had been experiencing internal civil war for some years and the civil war in Lebanon coincided with the continuing Arab-Israeli conflict between Zionism and Arabism and that was just the latest episode at that moment. But there was also a continuous legacy of a decade or two at least of clashes between the Israelis and Palestinian groups, Syrian groups, other Leftist nationalist groups in Lebanon who were against Israel and this fighting had been going on for years and years but this incident happened in the midst of an intense war that was getting worse, not better.”

Watts: “But from ’82 onwards things ratcheted up. As we heard in the piece just now, Gideon says that his father…eh…would not have been pleased by what the war did to Israel’s image abroad. So how would you characterise what it did to Israel’s image?”

Listeners next heard Khouri misrepresent the circumstances of the founding of Hizballah while using the term ‘Palestine’ contrary to BBC guidelines and seeming to claim that Lebanon is “part of Palestine”.

Khouri: “Really 1982 was a pivotal year. You had the birth of Hizballah in Lebanon to fight the Israeli occupation and the birth of Hamas in Palestine. So unilateral Israeli military action in any part of Palestine has tended to generate a reaction that has made conditions for Israelis worse in security terms.”

Watts: “And from your point of view, the move by Israel into Lebanon in ’82 – what were your memories of what happened and how has it affected your life?”

Listeners then heard a monologue which went completely unchallenged by Watts despite its blatantly partisan and often inaccurate portrayal of the first Lebanon war.

Khouri: “Well there was a very powerful moment. I had left Lebanon just before that in the late ’70s when I was in Lebanon working as a journalist. When the war broke out it became very dangerous so I moved to Jordan and I followed there events of course intensely with day-to-day news reports. And I remember at one point feeling so bad, so weak, so repulsed by the fact that the Israelis and others – sometimes it was the Syrians, sometimes it was some Lebanese forces, different people – but mostly the Israelis attacking helpless Palestinians in most cases and then various massacres like the Sabra and Shatila one that happened later in 1982. And then at one point I remember driving home from the newspaper late at night saying I can’t just sit here and see my fellow Palestinians being massacred like this. I’m not a fighter but maybe I can go there and write press releases or do what I do which is writing and journalism. And so there was a sense that I wanted to figure out how can I help and this is what every Palestinian in the world feels. And of course this is what most Jews in the world have felt over the years about their vulnerability around the world.”

Israeli forces of course fought armed Palestinian terrorist militias in southern Lebanon – not “helpless Palestinians”. While Khouri carefully avoided stating directly that Israel was responsible for Sabra and Shatila, he certainly steered listeners in that inaccurate direction.

Khouri continued – deliberately failing to distinguish between the armed Palestinian terrorists expelled from Jordan in 1970/71 and from Lebanon in 1982 and the ordinary Palestinians who were not “driven out” of either country. In Khouri’s one-sided narrative there is of course no place for the thousands of Israelis murdered by Palestinian terrorists and no mention of Hizballah’s endless violations of UN resolutions.

Khouri: “But there was a sense that the Palestinians in 1982 had a pivotal moment because they had previously been driven out of Jordan and now they were being driven out of Lebanon and their political situation was increasingly vulnerable and weak. So the feelings since 1982 continue I think with every Palestinian and with many Israelis – as we heard from Gideon Argov. You know there is a decent side to Israeli sentiment that we understand but there’s also a bloody side that has killed thousands of Palestinians and we saw the bloody side affirmed in 1982 in a very dramatic way but also in a way that I think we have to register as a failure. It did not bring peace to Galilee because what happened was Hizballah came out of this and Hizballah is the only force in the Arab world that has twice forced Israel to accept a ceasefire at the UN and end military fighting. So the ironies I think are plenty for everybody to consider.”

Watts: “That’s the writer and academic Rami Khouri who, among other accolades, is a fellow of Harvard’s Kennedy School.”

Despite this extended version of Watts’ report including ‘Israeli’ and ‘Palestinian’ points of view, it by no means gave BBC audiences a balanced account. While Gideon Argov was asked primarily about the attack on his father’s life, Rami Khoury was given free rein to promote inaccuracies and falsehoods to enhance his partisan narrative. That would have been bad enough in any BBC show but in one that purports to provide audiences with “historical reporting” it is obviously unacceptable.

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BBC WS history programme fails to disclose interviewee’s anti-Israel activism

The September 15th edition of the BBC World Service radio history programme ‘Witness’ was titled “Sabra and Shatila – A Massacre in Lebanon“.

“A doctor working in Sabra and Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon recalls the massacre there in September 1982. Over the course of three days, Lebanese Christian militiamen killed and raped hundreds of the Palestinian inhabitants of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut in revenge for the assassination of their leader, Lebanese president elect, Bashir Gemayel. Dr Swee Ang treated the wounded in the basement of the only hospital in the camp; she tells Louise Hidalgo her story.”

The interviewee’s background is described to listeners by Hidalgo as follows:

“Dr Swee Ang was working in the hospital in Sabra and Shatila during those days.”

And:

“Dr Swee Ang is an orthopedic surgeon originally from Singapore who moved to Britain in 1977.”

A significant proportion of the programme relates to Israel rather than to the Lebanese Christian militia that actually carried out the massacre in Sabra and Shatila with Hidalgo referring to the findings of the Kahan Commission and providing some rather sketchy background to the first Lebanon War and her interviewee adding other statements.

“I grew up a very staunch fundamentalist Christian and I’ve always been supporting Israel. In 1982 […] I saw on television aerial bombardment of Beirut in Lebanon and I just couldn’t square it with my religious upbringing…”

“My understanding of the situation – because I was brought up with a lot of friends who are pro-Israel – was that the PLO was the cause of all the trouble.”

“Tanks were coming northwards into Beirut city and a contingent came for Sabra and Shatila. So by nightfall the shelling became so close and we knew that we were surrounded by Israeli tanks.”

At the end of the programme listeners are told that:

“After Sabra and Shatila she and her husband set up a medical charity for the people of the camp.”

That charity is called ‘Medical Aid for Palestinians’ (MAP) and – far from being a neutral “medical” charity – its politicised anti-Israel bias is notorious.  Dr Swee Ang herself is frequently seen at anti-Israel events such as ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ and in 2014 she co-authored a highly politicised open letter promoting unsubstantiated allegations and accusing Israel of ‘massacring’ Palestinians that was published in the Lancet.

None of that information was made available to listeners to this programme despite the fact that BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality state:

“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.”

Given the programme’s focus on Israel, full disclosure of its sole interviewee’s political activism in line with BBC editorial guidelines was obviously necessary.

More narrative-driven ‘history’ from the BBC World Service

The August 8th edition of the BBC World Service radio history programme ‘Witness‘ is titled “The Murder of Naji al-Ali” and it is described as follows in its synopsis:

“The acclaimed Palestinian cartoonist was gunned down in London in 1987. His attackers have never been identified. Naji al-Ali’s cartoons were famous across the Middle East. Through his images he criticized Israeli and US policy in the region, but unlike many, he also lambasted Arab despotic regimes and the leadership of the PLO. His signature character was called Handala – a poor Palestinian refugee child with spiky hair, who would always appear, facing away with his hands clasped behind his back, watching the events depicted in the cartoon. Alex Last has been speaking to his son, Khalid, about his father’s life and death.”

Despite that synopsis, listeners actually hear very little about the substance of Ali’s criticism of Arab regimes and the Palestinian leadership and even less about how that may have been connected to his murder. They do however hear promotion of the familiar context-free narrative of displaced Palestinians with no responsibility for or connection to the events that resulted in their displacement.

Erasing the essential words ‘British Mandate’ from his use of the term Palestine, presenter Alex Last introduces his guest:

Last: “Some fifty years earlier Naji al Ali was born in a village in Galilee in 1936 in what was then Palestine. Khalid al Ali is Naji’s eldest son.”

 Ali: “The village had Muslims, Christians and Jews and they’re all playing together and sharing things together, I mean, in the village square, so he had a happy life, a normal life.”

The 1931 census shows that the village concerned – al Shajara in the sub-district of Tiberias – had at the time 584 residents: 556 Muslims and 28 Christians – but no Jews. A similar demographic make-up appears in the 1945 census. In contrast to the idyllic impression created by Ali, the villagers of al Shajara frequently attacked their Jewish neighbours in the moshava Sejera (known today as Ilaniya) during the ‘Arab Revolt‘ that began in 1936.

Listeners then hear Last say:

Last: “But in 1948, following the creation of the State of Israel and in the fighting that ensued, at least three-quarters of a million Palestinian Arabs either fled or were driven from their homes. Naji, his family and the other Palestinian Arabs in their village were among them. They became refugees. Naji ended up in a refugee camp in southern Lebanon. It was an experience that would define him.”

Contrary to the impression given by Last, the fighting did not break out after and because of “the creation of the State of Israel” but had begun well before that event took place following Arab rejection of the Partition Plan in November 1947. Listeners are not informed of the all important context of the infiltration of the Arab League’s ‘Arab Liberation Army’ into the Galilee in early January of 1948 and the series of attacks it launched against Jewish communities in the region, including the moshava Sejera. The fighting in Naji al Ali’s village of al Shajara actually took place on May 6th 1948 – eight days before Israel declared independence.

The narrative of passive victims with no responsibility for the conflict that saw them displaced is then further promoted by Ali.

Ali: “Being used to your surroundings, being part of the family, the wider villages, this overnight ended completely and that was a great shock. And suddenly [they] became refugees in a tent. There’s no income. They lost their land. They’ve lost their businesses. No end of [in] sight in a way. It was imprinted on them. I mean my father, his main agenda is Palestine. For him, till the last day of his life he wanted to go back to his village, he wanted to go back to Palestine. It’s very straightforward, it’s very simple. He could not see why not.”

A similarly context-free representation comes at 05:05 when Last tells listeners:

Last: “In 1982 Naji was in Beirut during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and the massacres at Sabra and Shatila refugee camps; events which, says Khalid, had a profound effect on his father.”

Audiences are not informed that – despite the impression they may very well have received from Last’s portrayal – the Sabra and Shatila massacres were carried out by a Lebanese Christian militia.

The programme ‘Witness’ purports to provide BBC World Service audiences with “the story of our times told by the people who were there”. All too often, however, we see that when the story relates to Israel, narrative takes priority over history.

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BBC commissioning editor ‘explains’ his claim of ‘half-covered-up atrocities’ in Israel

h/t A

Earlier this month we noted a passage in an article which appeared in the Observer and was written by the commissioning editor of the BBC 4 documentary series ‘Storyville’, Nick Fraser. In that article Fraser wrote: 

Think of other half-covered-up atrocities – in Bosnia, Rwanda, South Africa, Israel, any place you like with secrets – and imagine similar films had been made. Consider your response – and now consider whether such goings-on in Indonesia are not acceptable merely because the place is so far away, and so little known or talked about that the cruelty of such an act can pass uncriticised.” [emphasis added]

Thanks to a reader who wrote to Nick Fraser regarding his decision to broadcast the film ‘5 Broken Cameras’, some insight has now been gained into exactly which “half-covered-up atrocities” Fraser was thinking of when he wrote those words. Here is a part of his reply as it was received:

“First, I intend no slur in relation to Israel by referring to half-reported atrocities – you will notice that among those I noted in my piece was the British collusion in the Bengali famines, which was the work of British officials. The half-failure to acknowledge events is alas quite common – democracies are not immune to this trendency [sic]. Most Israelis would agree with me that the story of the massacre at Sabra and Chatila – not the work of Israeli soldiers – falls in this category. So, too, do the events that occurred in Lod in the war that occurred at the time of the founding of Israel – and the New Yorker excerpted an account from a book recently published.”

So, whilst Fraser is clearly aware that the Sabra and Shatila massacres were “not the work of Israeli soldiers”, he nevertheless did not see fit to include Lebanon on his list. He also elects to ignore the fact that Israel (unlike Lebanon) initiated a commission of inquiry into the events at Sabra & Shatila: a fact which clearly negates Fraser’s claim of a “half-failure to acknowledge events”.

But most revealing is Fraser’s citation of “the events that occurred in Lod” which, from his reference to the New Yorker, we can conclude he learned about from Ari Shavit’s book “My Promised Land: The Triumph and Tragedy of Israel” because the chapter of that book relating to Lod was indeed reproduced in that magazine in October last year.

However, Fraser does not seem to have sought out any additional information on the battle which took place in Lod (Lydda) in 1948 from other sources and he appears to have adopted Ari Shavit’s narrative as accurate despite the fact that – as noted in this review of Shavit’s book:

“The section on Lydda focuses on another nameless IDF “brigade commander.” The source notes claim these are composite characters, but it harms the narrative and makes it read like historical fiction.”

Other issues concerning Shavit’s book in general and his portrayal of the events in Lod in particular have been raised by Allan Gerson and Professor Ruth Wisse. Our colleague at CAMERA, Alex Safian, took the time to fill in the parts of the story not told by Ari Shavit – and hence presumably unknown to Nick Fraser.

“In Shavit’s very deceptive and even contradictory recounting, Israeli soldiers led by a certain Lt. Col. Moshe Dayan, and armed with:

a giant armored vehicle mounted with a cannon, menacing half-tracks, and machine-gun-equipped jeeps

joined other Israeli forces attacking Lydda (and its neighbor Ramle) during Israel’s War of Independence. Led by Dayan’s marauding forces the Israelis took control of “key positions” in the town, but the next day fighting flared again, and:

in thirty minutes, two hundred and fifty Palestinians were killed. Zionism had carried out a massacre in the city of Lydda.

Is this really what happened? Well let’s start with the matter of the “giant armored vehicle,” a phrase which could only stun anyone the least bit familiar with Israeli military history. It was actually just a lightly armored scout car – with regular inflated rubber tires – standing about seven feet high and just six feet wide. Here’s a picture of the actual vehicle, at the Israeli Armored Corps Museum at Latrun:

"Giant" Armored Vehicle

Read about the rest of Ari Shavit’s numerous – and more grave – distortions and omissions in this article.

Clearly, Fraser’s promotion of the notion of “half-covered-up atrocities” in Israel is based on the wobbly foundations of a half-covered-up story which he obviously did not bother to research fully before putting into the public domain, but which fits in with his already existing narrative. Rather like the commissioning process for ‘5 Broken Cameras’, it seems.

In the same reply Nick Fraser wrote:

“As for your observations about FIVE BROKEN CAMERAS, the film-makers would dispute them. The film appears to us to be an honest account of some aspects of the Israeli occupation. It doesn’t pretend to be other than what it is – a partial account from one side. And, importantly, one of the film-makers is an Israeli, and thge [sic] film has been widely shown in Israel. STORYVILLE, the series in which the film was shown, exists to show provocative, interesting films. Having read all accounts of the film – in Israel and elsewhere – we felt it was appropriate to show FIVE BROKEN CAMERAS.”

Fraser continued:

“We are showing THE GATEKEEPERS, another excellent Israeil [sic] film, later this year.”

What a surprise.

Jeremy Bowen promotes Sabra & Shatila lies on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Broadcasting House’

The January 12th edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Broadcasting House’, hosted by Paddy O’Connell and available here, includes (from around 28:00) a contribution by the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen on the subject of Ariel Sharon who had died the previous day.

Broadcasting House 12 1

O’Connell introduces the item thus:

“The convoy with Ariel Sharon’s coffin has in fact just arrived at the Israeli parliament – the Knesset – where his body is now being moved to a podium. Israelis will be able to pass by to pay their last respects. The funeral of Areil Sharon takes place tomorrow in his family farm close to Gaza as we’ve been hearing in the news. World leaders will attend a ceremony although President Obama is not going; his vice president will represent the USA.”

Before informing listeners of any Israeli reactions to the news of Sharon’s death, O’Connell – in line with much of the rest of the BBC’s coverage of the subject – then finds it necessary to tell them what the Palestinians think of the death of somebody else’s former prime minister. 

“Palestinians see Ariel Sharon as a criminal and have condemned his record. As for Israelis, they will have their chance to pay their respects as his body lies in state in Jerusalem. Well I’ve discussed this with the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen.

Bowen begins:

“Now he hasn’t been a political factor of course in eight years. Israelis are very good at absorbing shocks and they did that in 2006 when he had his stroke and went into a coma. But he’s a very symbolic character as far as Israelis are concerned. He goes right back to their independence war in 1948; he fought in that and was wounded. Shimon Peres the former prime minister, now the president, who was a politician right back in 1948 himself, gave this tribute.”

Listeners then hear a recording of Shimon Peres speaking in English, after which O’Connell says:

“It’s notable when you look at the tributes that have come in – if you compare this to what happened when Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, when Yasser Arafat paid tribute and himself went to a commemoration for the assassinated prime minister – this is not the case at all this time round.”

Bowen: “Yeah. Rabin was seen as a tough guy, a military commander who had – from the Palestinians’ point of view – certainly from Arafat’s point of view – who had changed. Ariel Sharon – as far as the Palestinians were concerned – was never going to change. 1982 Sharon as Defence Minister presided over an invasion of Lebanon. During the siege of Beirut there was a terrible massacre of Palestinians in a refugee camp. Hundreds dead – maybe thousands dead. Now they were killed by Lebanese Christian militiamen who were in alliance at the time with the Israelis and there was an official inquiry into all this afterwards in Israel itself. That commission of inquiry found that Sharon was personally responsible and he was forced to resign as Minister of Defence.” [emphasis added]

Bowen’s account – and his implication that Sharon was found to be responsible for the massacres themselves – is of course not accurate. The Kahan Commission in fact found that Sharon (and others) bore indirect personal responsibility for not anticipating the possibility of Phalangist violence.

“On 7 February 1983 the Kahan Commission published its recommendations: Report of the Commission of Inquiry into the Events at the Refugee Camps in Beirut. The report attributed direct responsibility for the massacre to the Phalangists. However, the commission determined that indirect personal responsibility fell on several Israeli office holders. It stated that: “in our view, everyone who had anything to do with events in Lebanon should have felt apprehension about a massacre in the camps, if armed Phalangist forces were to be moved into them without the IDF exercising concrete and effective supervision and scrutiny of them “.”

Not content with misleading listeners on the findings of the Kahan Commission, Bowen goes on to present a recording which he has clearly selected in order to advance the impression he wishes to create. 

Bowen: “From the Palestinian point of view it made the man [Sharon] absolutely beyond the pale as far as they were concerned. And they are still very angry about what happened there. There are memorials there to the people who died and one of the survivors of the massacre – a man called Mohammed Srour spoke about that and he said that he wished Mr Sharon had been punished for his actions.”

Listeners then hear a recording of Mohammed Srour speaking in Arabic, with a BBC translation overlaid.

Srour: “Sharon has passed away but we didn’t wish him to die in such a way. I am one of the victims whose parents died in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. I was hoping he would be killed by the hand of a Palestinian child or a Palestinian woman because when he entered Sabra and Shatila and carried out the massacre, he killed the children and the women.”

Of course Sharon did not enter Sabra and Shatila and did not carry out the massacre, but  neither Bowen nor O’Connell make any subsequent effort throughout the whole of the rest of the item to correct the misleading impression created by the interviewee Jeremy Bowen deliberately chose to showcase.

Notably, given Bowen’s introduction to the interview with Srour, we can apparently conclude that the latter’s call for the murder of Ariel Sharon “by the hand of a Palestinian child or a Palestinian woman” is what Bowen regards as ‘punishment’. 

The BBC’s coverage of Ariel Sharon’s death has included considerable quantities of misleading, inaccurate and defamatory statements by assorted interviewees. The BBC cannot, however, hide behind the claim that these are not the words of its own employees as all BBC produced content is subject to its editorial guidelines.   

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