BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’ presenter vilifies Israeli soldiers – part two

In part one of this post we looked at a ‘Hardtalk’ interview with a representative of the political NGO ‘Breaking the Silence’ that was aired on the BBC World News TV channel on February 15th (available in the UK here) as well as on BBC World Service radio on February 16th.

From the start of the programme presenter Stephen Sackur refrained from sticking to asking questions, instead indulging his own political pronunciations. However, BBC audiences next heard the following mini-monologue from Sackur. [emphasis in bold added, emphasis in italics in the original]

Sackur: “Yeah and I want to come back to the politics of this in some detail but just to stick for now with testimony, because ‘Breaking the Silence’ is all about gathering together the voices of soldiers – former soldiers – who are no longer prepared to be silent about what they have seen. I just want you to be very clear with me about some of the other behaviours because you’ve talked about the day-to-day dull routines of the occupation but the other behaviours like for example testimony about looting, stealing, Israeli soldiers stealing from inside Palestinian homes. Other testimony about deliberate acts of violence, striking youths, striking people in their own homes, beating them. Also firing rubber bullets, transgressing the limits that are supposed to be imposed on the firing of those bullets and undoing the packaging so they do more damage. All of these aren’t just about the occupation. They suggest to me an army that has within it significant numbers of soldiers who want to do bad things.”

Gvaryahu: “I mean you could choose to look at it like that.  I think it’s more complex.”

Sackur: “But isn’t it important to be honest that there are Israeli soldiers, if this testimony is true – many say it’s not – but if it’s true there are people in the IDF doing very bad things.”

Those four words – “many say it’s not” – were Sackur’s only allusion throughout the whole programme to the fact that many of the frequently anonymous testimonies published by ‘Breaking the Silence’, including Gvaryahu’s own, have been disputed by fellow soldiers and disproven by investigative journalists. Sackur also failed to inform audiences that the IDF Military Attorney General examines all allegations of improper conduct by soldiers and conducts a criminal investigation where necessary – but that ‘Breaking the Silence’ refuses to cooperate with such investigations.

Similarly, Sackur’s sole vague allusion to Palestinian terrorism throughout the whole programme came in the following question:

Sackur: “Can you afford the luxury of this delicate conscience of yours when there is – whatever you say – there is a struggle; a struggle which involves violence on both sides between Israel and the Palestinians?”

When – in response to a question from Sackur about “threats” – Gvaryahu cited “an individual who was caught with about 20 gallons of gasoline trying to burn down our offices”, Sackur did not clarify to BBC audiences that the individual concerned was not in fact “caught trying to burn down” the ‘Breaking the Silence’ office but was indicted for intent to commit arson.

Despite providing a platform for Gvaryahu’s claim of a “smear campaign led from the highest echelons of the Israeli government” against his organisation, significantly, at no point in this interview did Sackur bother to ask Gvaryahu about the highly relevant topic of the considerable amounts of foreign funding accepted by ‘Breaking the Silence’ or the agenda behind that funding.

There is of course nothing remotely novel about the BBC providing a friendly platform for the amplification of politically motivated messaging from ‘Breaking the Silence’ – it has been doing so at least since 2009. It is however interesting to see once again that despite the existence of BBC editorial guidelines stating that “minority views should not necessarily be given equal weight to the prevailing consensus”, the corporation’s generous promotion of this political NGO – that was accurately classified in this interview by Stephen Sackur as “a fringe” and “an extreme” which influences “only a very tiny minority” – continues.

No less remarkable was Stephen Sackur’s own departure from editorial guidelines stating that “our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters” in his lengthy promotion of the notion of “soldiers who want to do bad things” and his repeated amateur diagnosis of Israel’s moral health.

Related Articles:

BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’ presenter vilifies Israeli soldiers – part one

The context of the BBC’s promotion of ‘Breaking the Silence’

Investigative report highlights BBC’s NGO impartiality fail

 

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BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’ presenter vilifies Israeli soldiers – part one

In the past we have documented several cases in which the BBC has amplified the messaging of what it labels an “Israeli activist group” or a “human rights” group but failed to comply with its own editorial guidelines on impartiality by informing audiences of the agenda and ideology that lies behind the political NGO ‘Breaking the Silence’.

BBC editorial guidelines flouted in promotion of ‘Breaking the Silence’ booklet

Another breach of editorial guidelines in yet more BBC promotion of ‘Breaking the Silence’

BBC’s ME Editor gives unchallenged amplification to Palestinian defamation

What the BBC World Service edited out of a ‘Boston Calling’ report

BBC News portrays political NGOs as ‘human rights activists’

Last July, during a ‘Hardtalk‘ interview with Israel’s former minister of defence, BBC presenter Stephen Sackur used allegations made by that political NGO to advance the notion of moral failures in Israeli society.

“I’m trying to dig to something deeper about the morals, the values, the cohesion of an Israeli society that has always prided itself on having the very best of humane values. And I’m putting it to you, if you listen to Israeli soldiers who have served the occupation like Yehuda Shaul of ‘Breaking the Silence’ – a group that is now opposed to the occupation of former IDF soldiers – he says this is the moral consequence of prolonged occupation of the Palestinian people; that is, the corruption of young Israelis who serve that occupation.”

Sackur returned to that theme in another ‘Hardtalk’ interview which was aired on the BBC World News TV channel on February 15th (available in the UK here) as well as on BBC World Service radio on February 16th. The programme was also made available as a podcast.

“The Israeli Defence Force sees itself as an institution that binds the nation together. Most young Israelis serve in its ranks after leaving school. It claims to combine defence of the state with a sense of moral purpose. Avner Gvaryahu served in the IDF but he sees an institution in denial – corroded and corrupted by the military occupation of Palestinian communities over a fifty year span. Avner Gvaryahu and like-minded soldiers turned dissidents say they are breaking the silence. Are they patriots or traitors?”

In his introduction, Stephen Sackur told audiences that Israelis ‘enroll’ for military service rather than being conscripted. [emphasis in bold added, emphasis in italics in the original]

Sackur: “My guest today is a young man whose experiences as a soldier changed his life in ways that have severely tested his ties to family, community and nation. Avner Gvaryahu was brought up in a suburb of Tel Aviv; an ordinary Israeli in an Orthodox household who, like pretty much all young Israelis, enrolled for military service after leaving school. He served as a sergeant in a unit of paratroopers deployed in the northern West Bank. He was part of Israel’s five decade-long military occupation. What he did and saw on active duty deeply disturbed him. After leaving the army Gvaryahu shared his feelings about the occupation and its corrosive impact on the Israeli army with other former soldiers. They formed a group – ‘Breaking the Silence’ – which gave voice to the troubled consciences of soldiers who recounted stories of harassment, intimidation and violence. It was time, they said, for Israel to confront the corrosive reality of the occupation and end it. The Israeli government reacted with fury. The dissident soldiers have been called traitors, puppets of anti-Israel interests, even aiders and abeters of terrorism. Avner Gvaryahu broke his silence but has it made any difference?”

Sackur’s framing of the story is of course patently obvious in that introduction – and it continued with more promotion of Sackur’s basic – but unquestioned – premise of Israeli wrongdoing.

Sackur: “I think it’s fair to say the IDF is probably the most sacrosanct institution in all of Israel. Was it hard for you to cross a line, to break the taboo and speak out against what the IDF is doing?”

Sackur: “Are you saying that the very act of going into the house of an innocent Palestinian family to you was, and is, totally unacceptable and corrosive and doing serious damage to the sort of moral values of Israel’s army and indeed the nation-state? Or are you saying that that’s just the tip of an iceberg of behavior, much of which is worse than that?

After Gvaryahu had cited “the flying checkpoint or entering houses for searching or checkpoints or making our presence felt” as additional examples of what he described as “instilling fear into the Palestinian population”, Sackur moved from asking questions to making pronunciations.

Sackur: “It’s the imposition of a basic power dynamic, the message being we are in control, we’re in charge of you and your lives and we, in essence, can do what we want.”

While mirroring Gvaryahu’s messaging – with which he clearly sympathises – Sackur made no effort to introduce audiences to the history and context of ‘the occupation’. Neither did he bother to remind them – or his guest – of the pertinent fact that when Israel withdrew all its forces and civilians from the Gaza Strip in 2005, Palestinian terrorism did not come to an end.

Sackur: “… what you’re outlining as your critique of what is happening in Israel and that the IDF, as the agent of occupation, is doing, is essentially political. I mean you’re saying, if I understand you correctly, that the very act and policy of occupation is corroding Israel’s values and must end. But the truth is time after time the Israeli public votes in elections for parties which sustain and believe in that occupation.”

Gvaryahu: “That’s true but when you look at this democracy, it’s basically a democracy that is controlling and ruling millions of people that don’t have a right or a say in that democracy. So between the river and the sea we have about 13 million people where half of them do not go and elect anyone. So a big part of our mission – and that’s where we spend as ‘Breaking the Silence’ the vast majority of our energy and our time – is speaking to our fellow citizens all across Israel.”

Sackur made no effort to challenge that latter claim from Gvaryahu by asking him why his organisation has been conducting foreign speaking tours since shortly after its founding or why 40% of its activities in Israel are with non-Israelis.

Sackur also did not bother to point out to BBC audiences that Gvaryahu’s claim that Palestinians “do not go and elect anyone” is misleading because the vast majority of them have lived under Palestinian Authority or Hamas rule for over two decades and have the right to vote in PA elections which have nothing to do with Israel at all. He did, however, go on to promote at length his own ideas about Israeli soldiers – as we shall see in part two of this post.

Related Articles:

The context of the BBC’s promotion of ‘Breaking the Silence’

Investigative report highlights BBC’s NGO impartiality fail

Another breach of editorial guidelines in yet more BBC promotion of ‘Breaking the Silence’

On May 5th the BBC continued its previous day’s promotion of the booklet of anonymous claims published by the political NGO ‘Breaking the Silence’ with an additional item on the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ – available here from 36:28.Newshour 5 5 BtS

Once again, BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality were completely ignored, with no effort made to inform listeners of the group’s pre-existing “particular viewpoint”, “standpoint” or “ideology”. Presenter James Menendez introduced the segment as follows: [emphasis added]

“Now if you were listening to Newshour yesterday you’ll have heard our coverage from Israel about a report by a human rights group called ‘Breaking the Silence’ into the way some Israeli soldiers say they were instructed to behave during last year’s war against Hamas in Gaza. The group gathered the testimonies of more than sixty former and serving soldiers and what they said appears to contradict the government’s insistence that everything was done to avoid killing civilians. Well today we have a response from the Israeli government – we’ll play you that interview in a moment. First though, here’s some of that testimony from a soldier in an armoured brigade who served in the central Gaza Strip – distorted to protect his identity as well as voiced-over in English.”

Throughout his interview with Israeli spokesman Mark Regev, Menendez adopted the role of advocate for the approach of the group he had failed to accurately describe to his listeners and displayed little understanding of the process of investigation of military incidents either in Israel or in other countries.

As Matti Friedman recently wrote on Facebook:

“Professional journalists looking at this report, and at similar reports, should be asking (but aren’t, of course): Compared to what? IDF open-fire regulations are lax – compared to what? Civilian casualty rates are high – compared to what? Compared to the U.S. in Fallujah? The British in Northern Ireland? The Canadians in Helmand Province? “Lax” and “high” are relative terms. If Israel is being compared to other countries in similar situations, we need to know what the comparison is. Otherwise, beyond the details of individual instances the broad criticism is meaningless. […]

Today, like B’Tselem and others, it’s [Breaking the Silence] a group funded in large part by European money which serves mainly to provide international reporters with the lurid examples of Israeli malfeasance that they crave.”

In three reports spread over two days of coverage the BBC has variously described ‘Breaking the Silence’ as an “activist group”, an “advocacy group” and a “human rights group” whilst promoting its claims. Clearly the BBC’s failure to inform its audiences of the very relevant context of the political motivations behind its story’s source means that what BBC audiences have been reading and hearing is activism rather than journalism.

 

BBC editorial guidelines flouted in promotion of ‘Breaking the Silence’ booklet

It is an issue which has been raised here on many occasions in the past, but on May 4th the BBC once again demonstrated that its commitment to the obligation laid down in its editorial guidelines to “clearly describe the ideology” of organisations from which stories are sourced and/or to which interviewees are linked is not only selective and blatantly lacking in consistency, but also appears to be influenced by political considerations.

As readers are no doubt already aware, the BBC’s editorial guidelines on impartiality state in section 4.4.14:

“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.”

In 2013 the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit reaffirmed “the importance of clearly summarising the standpoint of any interviewee where it is relevant and not immediately clear from their position or the title of their organization”.

According to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Amena Saleem, the statement below appeared in a 2014 email from the BBC in response to a PSC complaint to the effect that the organization to which an interviewee on BBC News belongs was not adequately described to viewers as stipulated in the BBC’s editorial guidelines.

“We apologize for this and would like to assure you that the matter has been raised with the relevant editorial staff at the BBC News Channel, who have been reminded of the need to clearly describe the ideology of such organizations in our coverage.”

How then did the BBC News website describe the foreign funded Israeli NGO ‘Breaking the Silence’ – described by Amos Harel in Ha’aretz in 2009 as an organization which “has a clear political agenda, and can no longer be classed as a human rights organization” – when it published an article on May 4th titled “Israeli military ‘fired indiscriminately’ in Gaza” which is based entirely on a report put out by that NGO on the same day?BtS written

An Israeli activist group has accused the military of employing a “policy of indiscriminate fire” that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians during last year’s Gaza war.” [emphasis added]

Breaking the Silence, a group of serving and ex-soldiers, said its report contained interviews with more than 60 unnamed active duty and reserve Israel Defense Forces (IDF) personnel who took part in Operation Protective Edge.” [emphasis added]

Clearly those anodyne descriptions do nothing to inform BBC audiences of the political motivations and agenda behind the “viewpoint” and “ideology” which underlie this latest addition to ‘Breaking the Silence’ campaigning on the subject of last summer’s conflict between Hamas and Israel.

Similarly, listeners to the May 4th edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ (from 00:45 here) heard presenter Tim Franks introduce his ‘Breaking the Silence’ interviewee Avichai Stoller thus:BtS audio

“Today, an Israeli activist group has accused the military of using a policy of indiscriminate fire which caused the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians. Indeed the group – which is called ‘Breaking the Silence’ – says that the rules of military engagement for the seven week war were – in its words – the most permissive it had seen.” [emphasis added]

Obviously that introduction – like Frank’s closing description of the organization as an “Israeli advocacy group” – fails to clarify to audiences the political aims behind ‘Breaking the Silence’ and notably Tim Franks made no effort to challenge Stoller with regard to his claim that “we are not subcontractors of anybody” despite the group’s considerable foreign funding.

Another interesting aspect to the BBC’s multi-platform promotion of the claims made by ‘Breaking the Silence’ is the fact that its booklet of testimonies was published on the same day that the two above BBC reports appeared and yet as of the morning of May 4th, the booklet was only available in Hebrew. Despite that fact, the BBC managed to produce a written report in English within a matter of hours and to arrange World Service radio interviews not only with Stoller but also with the ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and with the IDF spokesman with similarly impressive alacrity.

No less remarkable was Tim Franks’ promotion of the notion of ‘war crimes’ on two occasions during the twelve-minute segment. Franks asked Stoller:

“If you’re imputing that war crimes were committed – and it sounds as if you are – isn’t that the province of the International Criminal Court?”

He later asked Bensouda:

“In terms of the allegations that have been made today, how far would they constitute war crimes if they could be substantiated?”

The BBC’s clear flouting of its own editorial guidelines on impartiality by failing to inform audiences of the underlying “ideology” of the group which supplied the source material for these two reports – as well as for further opportunistic BBC promotion of the notion that Israel committed ‘war crimes’ during the summer 2014 conflict – is yet another example of the way in which political motivations repeatedly trump editorial standards in the BBC’s coverage of Israel.

Related Articles:

Guardian amplifies Breaking the Silence’s baseless allegation of Israeli racism (UK Media Watch)

Breaking the Silence and the British Media (CAMERA)

Promoted and quoted: the BBC’s preferred NGO contributors in 2014