BBC’s credibility took a nose dive in July 2003 in a spiraling controversy involving Prime Minister Tony Blair’s government. The network had relied on a single unidentified, uncorroborated source for a critical report accusing Blair’s communications director of distorting the contents of an intelligence dossier to justify the British war on Iraq.
After Dr. David Kelly, a former UN weapons inspector, committed suicide, BBC News Director Richard Sambrook admitted Kelly was the source. Yet contrary to BBC, Kelly was not involved in intelligence matters and before his death had denied making the extreme statements attributed to him by the network. Debate soon shifted to questions about BBC misrepresenting Kelly’s statements to promote its own anti-war agenda. Such conduct comes as no surprise to those who follow BBC’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Examples of BBC’s partisan reporting and indifference to journalistic guidelines abound, not only in the network’s radio news reports, but in its television programming, Web site articles and World Service broadcasts.
A highly distorted BBC documentary, seen locally March 17, 2003 in the UK on BBC Two and globally on its World Channel two months later, was entitled “Israel’s Secret Weapon.” The film excoriated Israel for its alleged nuclear, chemical and biological weapons and the supposed attempts to hide them. Replete with factual errors and innuendo—accusing the Israeli army of using poison gas against Palestinian civilians and comparing Israel to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq—the program elicited swift response.
It prompted Israel’s government to take the unusual measure of severing contacts with the BBC by refusing interviews and the routine assistance provided to foreign journalists. BBC decision-makers, however, true to form refused any accountability for the shoddy work. News Director Richard Sambrook said only that he “regret[ted] that the Israelis felt the need to take this action but [he stood] behind the veracity of the film.…”
Concern about BBC dereliction has prompted UK lawyer Trevor Asserson to found BBCWatch.com to monitor BBC’s local UK radio broadcasts for compliance with legal obligations to provide impartial and accurate reporting. To date, Asserson has also produced three reports covering 2001, 2002 and 2003 detailing the network’s bias in reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
BBC World Service news reports—heard on many public radio stations around the United States, distributed by Public Radio International (PRI) and sponsored by Capital Group Companies and Merck—evince the same anti-Israel bias endemic to BBC’s Web site, local broadcasts and television programming. Palestinian terrorism is glossed over, rationalized, minimized or completely disregarded while Israeli anti-terrorist actions are treated as the primary, underlying source of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Thus follow-up stories of Palestinian terrorist attacks rarely if ever focus on the Israeli victims. Instead, reports and interviews tend to concentrate on Palestinian suffering due to Israel’s defensive measures.
From May 17-19, nine Israeli civilians were killed and over 100 wounded in four separate Palestinian terrorist attacks. When a fifth suicide bomber was intercepted by police in northern Jerusalem, he detonated his bomb, killing only himself.
Gadi Levy and his pregnant wife Dina were the first killed by a Hamas suicide bomber in Hebron on May 17; Olga Brenner, Yitzhak Moyal, Nelly Perov, Marina Tsahivershvili, Shimon Ustinsky, Roni Yisraeli, and Ghalab Tawil were slain and twenty others wounded by a Hamas suicide bomber on Egged Bus. #6 in Jerusalem on May 18; three Israeli soldiers were lightly wounded when a Hamas suicide bomber on a bicycle detonated his explosives and killed himself next to a military jeep in the southern Gaza Strip on May 19. Later that day, Kiryl Shremko, Hassan Ismail Tawatha, and Avi Zerihan, were murdered and about 70 people wounded in a joint Islamic Jihad/Al-Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade suicide bombing at a shopping mall in Afula. These attacks targeted innocent Israeli civilians–old and young, Arab and Jew–going about their day-to-day business, innocent victims with whom BBC’s World Service listeners could have easily identified and sympathized.
What did listeners hear? A May 19 morning broadcast, after the first four suicide attacks but before the Afula mall bombing, included only one in-depth feature from the region—examining the effect on Palestinians of Israel’s latest closure of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.The story presented interviews with an UNRWA spokesman who condemned Israel’s actions as a contravention of the Oslo Accords (but made no such comment about Palestinian terrorism) and Palestinian activist Mustafa Barghouti who denounced the closure as “collective punishment.” The segment was introduced as follows:
Israel has put the shutters up again, following a series of suicide bombings the latest being a Palestinian on a bicycle in the Gaza Strip. A general closure of the West Bank and Gaza has been imposed. That means virtually all movement into Israel from the Palestinian territories has been stopped. Palestinians naturally are incensed. And so is the United Nations. (World Service News, Morning Report, May 19, 2003)
Rantissi Assassination Attempt
In the week following the Aqaba summit between US, Palestinian, Israeli and Jordanian leaders, listeners heard multiple reports about Israel’s unsuccessful attempt to kill senior Hamas leader Abdel Aziz Rantisi who was, according to the IDF, not only responsible for directing the policy of Hamas terrorist attacks and for encouraging and inciting the Palestinian population to continue attacks, but who was personally involved in executing attacks, including one in which four Israeli soldiers were killed in the Gaza Strip just two days earlier.
Unlike the usual, peremptory coverage of Palestinian attacks on Israelis, World Service reporting on the Rantissi attack was extensive. Listeners heard repeatedly about Bush’s “stern rebuke” of Israel, discussion about whether or not the attempted killing was “legal,”and numerous, editorial comments by BBC interviewers. In an interview with Israeli Foreign Ministry representative, BBC’s Owen Bennet Jones demonstrated his acceptance of the terrorist group leader’s words and chastised Israel:
He[Rantisis] said Hamas was considering changing its targeting policy and would not target Israeli civilians. After this attack [he is] now vowing revenge. You’ve just missed a chance, haven’t you? (World Service News, June 10, 2003)
There was, of course, no credible evidence that Hamas was in the process of instituting a significant shift away from its decades of targeting civilians.
When, on the following day, a Hamas terrorist dressed as an Orthodox Jew mounted an Egged bus during rush hour in downtown Jerusalem and detonated a massive explosive laced with metal fragments to kill 17 innocent Israeli civilians and wound over 100, World Service’s Judy Swallow presented the attack as &# 147;predictable,” “tit-for-tat violence.” An account of the gruesome bombing was balanced by a description of Israel’s subsequent anti-terrorist attacks in Gaza, described as “a swift and depressingly familiar” response.
Despite the fact that Hamas had refused to accept a ceasefire in Aqaba, that in the intervening time Israeli security forces had received 55 warnings (almost half by Hamas) of planned terrorist attacks, that they had already apprehended 10 potential suicide bombers, and that 18 terrorist attacks had been attempted or successfully carried out (claiming seven Israeli lives), Swallow nevertheless suggested that Israel bore responsibility for the most recent Hamas bombing as a result of its targeting of Rantisi. Responding to Israeli Foreign Ministry Spokesman Gideon Meir’s insistence that this attack could not possibly have been a response to the Israeli attempt on Rantisi’s life because of the time factor, she contended:
Nevertheless the deal at Aqaba was that targeted assassinations would stop in return for a Hamas ceasefire. Do you not see that they could have called off this attack if it was indeed their fault or their responsibility? Have you kept your side of the bargaiin? (World Service News, June 11, 2003)
Swallow was dogged in blaming Israel even after it was pointed out that Hamas had never accepted a ceasefire at Aqaba. She argued:
But Mr. Bush himself said that the sort of attack you carried out on Mr. Rantissi was undermining the ability of the new Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to try to reign them in. You know that that’s the way it works–that there has to be some sort of offer to Hamas so that Mahmoud Abbas has something to offer them. (World Service News, June 11, 2003)
Of course, this is wrong. According to the peace plan proposed by the U.S., Russia, United Nations and European Union, known as the “Road Map,” Abbas was to call for “an immediate and unconditional ceasefire to end armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere” [emphasis added].
Facts apparently do not get in the way of BBC’s unabashed hostility towards Israel and partisanship toward even groups such as Hamas.
The “Road Map,” is predicated on the Palestinian leadership “acting decisively against terror.” Yet BBC’s Judy Swallow has disregarded this cornerstone of the plan, portraying it instead as an unreasonable Israeli demand. She declared:
Hamas is a much stronger power than Mahmoud Abbas, so when the Israelis say Abbas must reign in Hamas, it’s like saying the tail must wag the dog.(World Service News, June 11, 2003)
Unlike the Road Map’s requirement for the Palestinians to dismantle terrorist groups, there is no such requirement of Israel to release Palestinian prisoners. Yet Israel has agreed to do so as a goodwill gesture. BBC however reports otherwise.
The morning and afternoon BBC World Service News broadcasts on July 8, 2003 contained no mention of a suicide bombing by a Palestinian terrorist the night before that had killed a 65-year-old Israeli grandmother and wounded three of her grandchildren. Yet both reports included the following observation about the immediate threat to peace in the Middle East:
The Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas has called off a meeting scheduled for Wednesday with his Israeli counterpart, Ariel Sharon. The immediate issue threatening to throw the peace plan off track is the release of about 6000 Palestinian prisoners. The Israelis have agreed to free several hundred of them but correspondents say that is not enough to satisfy the Palestinian militants who made the issue a condition of their ceasefire. (World Service News, July 8, 2003)
According to the BBC, apparently all Palestinian demands must be met and terrorist groups must be appeased, no matter the cost in Israeli lives. Terrorist attacks are routinely ignored or cast as a consequence of Israel’s anti-terrorist actions. And Israel is inevitably blamed for any failure to advance the peace process.
The American public need not accept the British news organization’s advocacy journalism and biased agenda. Consumers of BBC World Service reports do have recourse. They can urge their local public radio stations not to carry BBC World Service reports and put pressure on PRI and its sponsors to find an alternate, more objective source of news reports.