BBC Radio 4 programme on UAVs lacks transparency and adherence to editorial guidelines

On October 6th BBC Radio 4 aired a half-hour programme titled “The Year of the Drone”. The programme was commissioned from Whistledown productions and was presented by Will Robson and produced by Harry Graham. It can be heard here for a limited period of time and its synopsis reads as follows.Drones R4

“Will Robson gets exclusive access to some of the British military’s most secretive, sophisticated and controversial drones, and talks to the men and women who operate them. He gets an insider perspective on what it means to fight a war remotely, and finds out how long distant combat affects those at the controls.

In a remote corner of west Wales, in a matt green shipping container, a group of engineers and military officials crowd around a high-tech bank of screens and joysticks. A monitor feeds them live aerial footage of the Carmarthenshire coastline. The image is crisp, they can make out dolphins swimming in the wake of a fishing trawler. They’re testing the limits of the British Army’s Watchkeeper surveillance drone, one of a new fleet of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) which have an £850m pound price tag.

The British military is a global leader in UAS technology, and Watchkeeper is just one element. As drones become ever more important to the way Britain fights its wars, the Government’s Select Defence Committee are demanding more transparency.

While the military have welcomed UAS as a way of reducing costs and casualties, not everyone is convinced. Critics say that drones could bring an age of airborne occupation and dispassionate warfare. They claim that when war can be fought without consequence to the aggressor, violence quickly becomes easier than diplomacy.

Will Robson explores the debate around one of this generation’s most divisive military technologies.”

Three minutes and forty-four seconds into the programme, listeners hear an unidentified female voice saying:

“The result is a lot of dead civilians and a lot of people unable to live in their own houses. It has brought safety to nobody.”

The identity of the unidentified speaker will not be a mystery to anyone who happened to be listening to Radio 4 on September 3rd: she is “Palestinian performance poet and human rights activist” (and now apparently also UAV expert) Rafeef Ziadah. At 06:45 Ziadah appears again – this time with an introduction.

Robson: “But that’s of little comfort for campaigners like Rafeef Ziadah of War on Want who believes that drones lead pilots into a state of dangerous disconnect.”

Ziadah: “It’s somebody sitting in an air-conditioned room miles away deciding who should die, who should live. There have already been many mistakes made and a lot of civilian casualties killed by drones. It really is not saving anyone.”

Robson: “Do you need to look your enemy in the eye before you kill them?”

Ziadah: “Does it make it easier to kill the enemy if you don’t look them in the eye? It’s the ability to wage war, to kill people and not feel anything about it or justify it because you are not there on the ground that is a very dangerous development. It was actually people within the militaries that said it’s better when people are not on the battleground. However, already there’s documentation of how drones pilots do get affected by what they’re doing, so I don’t think the psychological impacts are completely gone. We haven’t studied them enough.”

Listeners may by this time be wondering what the somewhat self-contradicting arguments of a campaigns officer for a charity which supposedly “fights poverty” are doing in a programme ostensibly dealing with the topic of unmanned aerial vehicles but – as is all too well known – War on Want long since departed from the agenda of fighting poverty and ventured into political campaigning. The connection between that and Ziadah’s appearance in this broadcast will soon become clear, but in the meantime it is notable – and of course entirely predictable – that Rafeef Ziadah has nothing to say about Palestinian terrorists who launch rockets at Israeli civilians from “miles away” without looking their intended victims “in the eye”. 

At 18:50 Robson introduces another contributor.

Robson: “Israel is also reported to be using armed drones over Gaza, although the Israel Defence Force has never confirmed or denied this. Chris Cole-Smith – formerly an officer in the Royal Regiment of Artillery – has carried out recent Amnesty International investigations on the ground in Gaza.”

Cole-Smith: “You know, the population are pretty much used to it now. They are a constant presence. Virtually every trip I’ve made into Gaza there has been the whine of drones overhead. They know they’re under constant surveillance. The population know very well that these drones have the capacity to kill people instantaneously and very accurately. Well, I’ve looked into the eyes of so many families of children who’ve been killed by the so-called state of the art weapons system which is just making far too many mistakes. One child was given a coin by his grandfather to go out and buy a new pen for his baby sister. Walking down the street he was struck by a drone missile. Now where’s the legitimacy in that?”

Robson: “You’ve obviously seen the effects of drones in conflict zones. Do you think the British public are as aware of the issues surrounding drones, or are there some misconceptions out there in the people you’ve talked to?”

Cole-Smith: “I do not think the British public are at the moment fully aware of how drones are being used in certain areas of the world and they certainly are not aware of the huge number of errors that is taking place in some of this targeting and needs to be made much more public.”

Robson: “The Israeli Embassy told us that as there was no detail on the alleged incidents they could not judge their veracity. But they did say that the IDF operates within international law while facing an enemy which operates from civilian areas.”

So in other words, Robson and producer Harry Graham thought it was perfectly acceptable to amplify Cole-Smith’s unproven third-hand anecdote whilst at the same time finding it completely unnecessary to clarify to listeners the fact that it is the numerous Islamist terrorist organisations operating in the Gaza Strip which are the target of Israeli surveillance – not the civilian population.

We will return to Mr Cole-Smith later, but in the meantime Robson continues with more amplification of Rafeef Ziadah’s real agenda at 20:24.

Robson: “Rafeef Ziadah from War on Want is concerned none the less.”

Ziadah: “Israel continues to rely deeply on drones. Not only that: they then export them to the rest of the world saying that they are field-tested. And currently the British government is importing this technology to produce a new drone called the Watchkeeper drone. This drone is based on a model that’s for Elbit Systems – Israel’s largest military company. It’s completely, completely wrong for the UK to be importing this technology.”

And at 26:13 Ziadah is heard again saying:

Ziadah: “So drones are a way to continue wars by remote control. This raises questions of accountability. When do we know how these wars are being launched? How they’re being stopped? The UK government is saying it’s going to leave Afghanistan, yet do we know that the drones programme – the drones flying over Afghanistan – is going to stop? There has been no indication of that.”

As regular readers well know, the BBC’s editorial guidelines on impartiality and accuracy (applicable to all BBC content, including commissioned items) state that contributors should be properly identified, with the section titled “Avoiding Misleading Audiences” including the following statement:

“We should normally identify on-air and online sources of information and significant contributors, and provide their credentials, so that our audiences can judge their status.”

So let’s take a look at some of the “credentials” of Will Robson’s interviewees which were not disclosed to listeners to this programme and yet, along with other facts, have bearing on its declared subject matter.

First of all, no mention is made of War on Want’s BBC-related funding via Comic Relief – a charity with no fewer than three BBC executives on its various boards.  Neither are listeners told about War on Want’s long-established record of anti-Israel campaigning and support for the anti-peace BDS movement. They are not even told of the very pertinent fact that War on Want has been running an anti-drone campaign for quite some time, with one of the main aims of that campaign being the promotion of a two-way military embargo on Israel.  

Had listeners been made aware of those very relevant facts, they would have been able to both comprehend Rafeef Ziadah’s motives for participating in this programme and place her contribution to it in its correct context. Notably, they were not informed of those factors and so the result is free BBC promotion for an organization which campaigns virulently against Israel on various fronts. 

It would also have been appropriate for audiences to be informed of the fact that War on Want is part of what is known as the ‘Drone Campaign Network’ and that another member of that group is an organization called ‘Drone Wars UK’ which is run by someone named Chris Cole: an extraordinarily similar name to that of the person appearing in this BBC programme. That Chris Cole is also ‘convener‘ or ‘coordinator‘ for the Drone Campaign Network. In addition, Cole is also a member of Pax Christi: an organization which does its own fair share of anti-Israel campaigning and promotion of BDS and is also a member of the ‘Drone Campaign Network’.

Coincidentally or not, this BBC commissioned programme was aired during the Drone Campaign Network’s “Drones Week of Action 2014” which includes events sponsored by Pax Christi and Friends of Sabeel UK, the publicity for which includes a link to Cole’s website. One of those events is a “vigil” at the Elbit Systems factory in Shenstone which has already been the target of previous actions by anti-Israel campaigners, supported – inter alia – by the ‘Drone Campaign Network’, Amnesty International and War on Want.

It is of course very revealing (and hardly coincidental) that the only “critics” of UAVs heard by listeners to this programme are those who also have an anti-Israel agenda, even though – as is noted in the programme – around a hundred countries manufacture drones. As is all too apparent, the claim made in the synopsis of this programme that it would “explore the debate” surrounding UAVs is actually nothing more than an opening for the context-free amplification of professional activists from organisations which employ the subject of UAVs as part of their political campaigns to delegitimise Israel. 

Update: 

We have been informed that the interviewee in this programme was Chris Cobb-Smith of Chiron Resources. Cobb-Smith has a history of co-operation with Amnesty International which includes the promotion of the notions that Israel illegally used white phosphorous in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead and carried out a ‘massacre’ in Jenin in 2002. He also worked as a ‘news safety advisor’ for the BBC between 1999 and 2005.  

BBC R4 promotes unchallenged anti-Israel propaganda and warped histories of Jerusalem

On September 3rd BBC Radio 4 aired an edition of a programme called ‘Agree to Differ’ which will be repeated on the evening of September 6th and is available here. The title of the edition is “Jerusalem” and the programme is presented by Matthew Taylor – today the chief executive of the RSA and formerly Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to Tony Blair during his premiership.R4 Agree to Differ

At the beginning of the programme Taylor informs listeners:

“…we’re going to give you a completely new way to understand a controversial issue and to decide where you stand.”

“We’re looking at a dispute that’s almost as old as civilization itself. We’re exploring the respective claims of Palestinians and Israelis over the city of Jerusalem.”

That historical illiteracy unfortunately continues throughout the programme with Taylor promoting a variety of bizarre and inaccurate interpretations of historic, political and legal issues as we will soon see. 

Taylor’s guests are Rabbi Barry Marcus of the Central Synagogue in London and Rafeef Ziadah who is introduced only as a “Palestinian performance poet and human rights activist”. Listeners are not informed that Ziadah is a leading anti-Israel campaigner whose day job at ‘War on Want’ is titled Senior Campaigns Officer (Militarism and Security)“. Neither are they informed that she is a prominent BDS activist who sits on the steering committee of PACBI and campaigns for the dismantling of the Jewish state. So much – once again – for the supposed BBC commitment to “summarizing the standpoint” of interviewees as part of its editorial guidelines on impartiality.

Rafeef Ziadah’s political propaganda – which Taylor fails to challenge throughout the entire 42 minute programme – begins early on with her introduction of herself.

“My family are refugees, originally from Haifa. They were forced out of Palestine in 1948 and ended up in Lebanon. My grandfather died in a refugee camp still holding the key to his home in Haifa and wanting to go back.”

History, however, shows that the Arabs who left Haifa in 1948 were not “forced out” at all.

“In early April [1948], an estimated 25,000 Arabs left the Haifa area following an offensive by the irregular forces led by Fawzi al­Qawukji, and rumors that Arab air forces would soon bomb the Jewish areas around Mt. Carmel. On April 23, the Haganah captured Haifa. A British police report from Haifa, dated April 26, explained that “every effort is being made by the Jews to persuade the Arab populace to stay and carry on with their normal lives, to get their shops and businesses open and to be assured that their lives and interests will be safe.” In fact, David Ben-Gurion had sent Golda Meir to Haifa to try to persuade the Arabs to stay, but she was unable to convince them because of their fear of being judged traitors to the Arab cause. By the end of the battle, more than 50,000 Palestinians had left.

‘Tens of thousands of Arab men, women and children fled toward the eastern outskirts of the city in cars, trucks, carts, and afoot in a desperate attempt to reach Arab territory until the Jews captured Rushmiya Bridge toward Samaria and Northern Palestine and cut them off. Thousands rushed every available craft, even rowboats, along the waterfront, to escape by sea toward Acre (New York Times, April 23, 1948).’

In Tiberias and Haifa, the Haganah issued orders that none of the Arabs’ possessions should be touched, and warned that anyone who violated the orders would be severely punished. Despite these efforts, all but about 5,000 or 6,000 Arabs evacuated Haifa, many leaving with the assistance of British military transports.

Syria’s UN delegate, Faris el-Khouri, interrupted the UN debate on Palestine to describe the seizure of Haifa as a “massacre” and said this action was “further evidence that the ‘Zionist program’ is to annihilate Arabs within the Jewish state if partition is effected.”

The following day, however, the British representative at the UN, Sir Alexander Cadogan, told the delegates that the fighting in Haifa had been provoked by the continuous attacks by Arabs against Jews a few days before and that reports of massacres and deportations were erroneous. The same day (April 23, 1948), Jamal Husseini, the chairman of the Palestine Higher Committee, told the UN Security Council that instead of accepting the Haganah’s truce offer, the Arabs “preferred to abandon their homes, their belongings, and everything they possessed in the world and leave the town.” “

The propagation of such historical inaccuracies continues throughout the broadcast, with the first question put by Taylor being as follows:

“Who has the greater attachment and entitlement to the city and for whom Jerusalem has the greater religious, cultural, historical, political importance.”

Initially unable to get a straight answer out of Ziadah regarding Palestinian history in Jerusalem and obviously unwilling throughout to curb her exploitation of any and every question posed to promote baseless political slogans such as “apartheid” and “ethnic cleansing”, Taylor eventually asks:

MT: “Rafeef, to what extent is your argument that there was a de facto Palestinian state before 1948, for example if you take that particular moment; the establishment of the State of Israel?”

RZ: “Historically in that part of the world even referring back to Roman times that area was referred to as Palestine. There is a Palestinian nation. I’m a Palestinian person. I know that within Israeli and Zionist mythology they say Palestinians don’t exist but the reality is Palestinians have always existed in that territory.”

Taylor then asks his other interviewee:

“Do you recognize, Barry, that in the rich history of Jerusalem there certainly was a time when it effectively was part of a Palestinian nation?”

Taylor then promotes his own remarkably unrealistic and embarrassingly anachronistic New Labour-style view:

“OK, now let me suggest a proposition that you might agree about and see whether you’re happy with this. Jerusalem is a city that experienced many, many different rulers, different peoples in charge; that we must respect different historical and religious claims, but that no one claim can ultimately trump the others.”

He further labours the point:

“There is a recognition from both of you […] for the diverse history of Jerusalem both politically and religiously. There is a commitment that you both have that this should be a city that respects those traditions.”

Of course anyone who is familiar with Jerusalem knows full well that since June 1967 all cultures and religions have free access to their places of worship and sites of cultural importance. Later on, Taylor promotes the following notion:

“Since Israel took control in 1967, around 400 Jewish families have moved there [the Jewish Quarter in the Old City] and in 1981 Israel’s High Court ruled that to maintain its character, non-Jews were not allowed to buy property there.”

Significantly, at no point does Taylor inform his listeners that in 1948 all Jewish residents of the Old City were expelled by the Jordanians and their property taken over. Although he does not specify the court case to which he refers, Taylor apparently alludes to the Burkan case in which Jordanian citizen Mohammed Said Burkan was refused residency in the Jewish Quarter because he did not meet the requirement of being an Israeli citizen who had served in the IDF or was exempt from service. The court’s main point (p138) was that the State of Israel had an interest in the restoration of the historic Jewish Quarter from which Jews had been expelled by the Jordanians and was therefore entitled to employ positive discrimination to encourage Jews to return to the Jewish Quarter.

As is all too often the case in BBC depiction of Israel, Taylor elects to mislead audiences by discounting any history before 1967, failing to note the San Remo declaration and the Mandate for Palestine. Listeners are at no point informed that the city of Jerusalem has had a Jewish majority population since the mid-nineteenth century and furthermore he fails to point out to listeners that Jordan’s 19-year occupation was not recognized by the international community.

MT: “Before the Six Day War in 1967 Jerusalem was divided into the east annexed by Jordan and the west controlled by Israel. Since the war, Israel has controlled the whole city and many Jewish settlements have been established on the eastern side. The international community deems the Israeli occupation to be illegal, but how important is international law based on the pre-1967 boundaries?”

Listeners are – as usual and in breach of BBC guidelines on impartiality – not informed of the existence of differing legal opinions and the inaccurate myth of “pre-1967 boundaries” which were in fact 1949 Armistice Lines with no legal standing is promoted.

Taylor devotes a significant part of his programme to the discussion of “international law” and Jerusalem but revealingly, at no point does he enlighten listeners by informing them to which clause of “international law” in which document he refers or what that supposed “law” actually says. Instead, the entire discussion is based on the unsubstantiated premise that somewhere there is a legal document which rules that Israeli control of parts of a city which was only ever divided by the belligerent actions of Jordan is illegal. But the really interesting part of this programme – and what appears to be its actual aim – is Taylor’s promotion of his own view of the ‘solution’ to the issue which – remarkably or not – dovetails with existing BBC policy.

MT: “Take the religious dimension out of it. What about the United Nations proposal after the Second World War that the Old City with its key religious sites be a corpus separatum that is basically an independent city-state governed by the international community. What’s your view on that?” […]

“Barry what do you think of that United Nations idea that the Old City be a kind of separate statelet under international supervision? You think that might help things?”

Of course Taylor is misrepresenting this issue from two points of view. Firstly, he inaccurately portrays the corpus separatum idea as relating to the Old City alone when in fact it related to a considerably larger area, including parts of the territory today governed by the Palestinian Authority. Taylor also neglects to inform listeners that the plan had a ten-year time limit.

Map UN Jerusalem 1947

Secondly, as has been noted here on previous occasions, that UN proposal formed part of the 1947 Partition Plan (resolution 181) which, as Rabbi Marcus points out in the programme, was rejected by the Arab side outright and has no legal binding whatsoever because its adoption was conditional on the agreement of both parties.  

The BBC, however, not only stubbornly refuses to recognize the fact that resolution 181 has no significance but also continues to implement an editorial policy of promoting it, as can be seen in some of its Editorial Standards Committee’s distinctly odd decisions.

“The [BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards] Committee noted that while there is no expectation that in a two-state solution West Jerusalem would become Palestinian territory, a UN resolution passed in 1947 has not been rescinded. It calls for the whole of Jerusalem to be an international city, a corpus separatum (similar to the Vatican City), and in that context, technically, West Jerusalem is not Israeli sovereign territory. “

Matthew Taylor appears to have taken it upon himself to promote this red herring too in a programme which – far from achieving its stated aim of giving audiences “a completely new way to understand a controversial issue” – can only contribute to their further confusion with its misrepresentation of history and “international law”, its unchallenged promotion of baseless political propaganda such as “ethnic cleansing” or “apartheid” and its advancement of a totally irrelevant ‘solution’ which was rejected almost 70 years ago by the same Arab nations who then invaded Israel – causing people such as Rafeef Ziadah’s grandfather to become refugees and dividing Jerusalem for the first and only time in its history.

Had Matthew Taylor chosen to accurately and impartially represent those events as they actually happened, he may actually have succeeded in bringing audiences a “new way” to understand the topic: one which is not based on anti-Israel political propaganda and his own redundant culturally specific beliefs.

 

Not funny: BBC supported ‘Comic Relief’ and the demonization of Israel

Comic Relief is a UK charity with which readers in Britain are no doubt familiar. The charity’s prominent supporters include the Sainsbury supermarket chain, British Telecom and the BBC and its main fundraising event is Red Nose Day – to be held this year on March 15th – with the BBC devoting much of its programming on that day to the event and running a telethon to collect donations. 

War on Want Christmas card

One of the charities which has enjoyed considerable funding from Comic Relief is War on Want which is heavily involved in anti-Israel activity, including the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.  War on Want’s president, Rodney Bickerstaffe, is – unsurprisingly –  also a patron of the Hamas supporting and enabling Palestine Solidarity Campaign. 

Just this last week, two of War on Want’s employees – including senior campaigns officer Rafeef Ziadah who is also a representative of the Palestinian BDS National Committee – took part in an Israel Apartheid Week event in London. Richard Millett was at the event and has written about it on his blog. 

“At last night’s event Ziadah called for a boycott of Tesco and Sainsbury’s due to their trade with Israel. She also unveiled War On Want’s new campaign for Britain to instigate a two-way arms ban against Israel; both selling arms to Israel and buying arms from Israel, which, she claimed, are “tested on Palestinian bodies and then used in Afghanistan.” “

“Ziadah finished by holding up “a rock from Haifa” which, she said, was as close to home as she could get as “a Palestinian refugee”. She said she hoped that herself, Eid, Kopty and Jarrar will all one day meet on Haifa’s beach without being oppressed by the “racist state of Israel”.”

Read the full account here.

As a publicly funded body committed to impartiality, it is imperative for the BBC to ensure that – via its partnership with Comic Relief – it is not associated with organisations such as War on Want which demonise Israel as part of a racist campaign to deny self-determination to one specific ethnic group.