BBC Editor Sets Tone for Biased Reporting

BBC’s coverage of the Middle East has an underlying text: Israel is at the root of all the region’s conflicts. This biased perspective, exhibited in much of BBC’s reporting, is institutional. Editors not only set the tone, but guide the staff in conveying this viewpoint.

Take, for example, Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen’s end-of-year recap of the events of 2006. His message, delivered overtly in a “background article” on the BBC Web site (“A Year of Mid-East Disappointment“) and slightly more subtly in a Dec. 27 World Service news report aired in the United States, was that Israel—aided and abetted by the U.S.—is “the mother lode of conflict in the Middle East,”and that the Israeli-Arab conflict is at the core of all Middle East strife.

“The most dangerous long-term problem is that it is harder and harder to see how a properly sovereign Palestinian state could be established alongside Israel,” Bowen editorializes. Misreporting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s statements about future West Bank withdrawals, Bowen writes:

But when Ehud Olmert talks about a Palestinian state, he means one that will not include most of the settlements for Jews that Israel has set up in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in violation of international law since 1967.

In actuality, Olmert has repeatedly and clearly put forth his policy plan to dismantle most West Bank settlements and consolidate their inhabitants into three settlements near the Green Line—Ariel, Maale Adumim, and Gush Etzion. For example, in a March 28, 2006 Op-Ed in Israel’s largest daily Yediot Aharonot, Olmert wrote that he planned to uproot most Israeli settlements and “make sure that no Jewish settlements will be left on the other side of the fence.”

Moreover, Bowen’s pronouncement on Israel’s alleged legal violation has been contradicted by internationally renowned scholars on jurisprudence and international law. For example, the late Professor Julius Stone—recognized globally as one of the premier legal theorists who served as Challis Professor of Jurisprudence and International Law at the University of Sydney for 30 years, and as Distinguished Professor of Jurisprudence and International Law at the University of California—maintained that the effort to designate Israeli settlements as illegal was a “subversion. . . of basic international law principles.” Among the 27 books he authored was Israel and Palestine: An Assault on the Law of Nations which dealt with the legal aspects of the Arab-Israeli conflict. In it, Stone set forth the central principles of international law upon which Israel’s right to settle the West Bank is based and discussed the inapplicability of Article 49(6) of the Fourth Geneva Convention—the source cited by those who claim Israeli population of the territories is illegal—to the case of Israeli settlement.

Stone drew upon the writings of Professor Stephen Schwebel, former judge on the Hague’s International Court of Justice (1981-2000), who distinguished between territory acquired in an “aggressive conquest” (such as Japanese conquests during the 1930s and Nazi conquests during World War II) and territory taken in a war of self-defense (for example, Israel’s capture of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in 1967 war). He also distinguished between the taking of territory that is legally held by a nation (such as the Japanese occupation of Chinese territory and the Nazi Germany occupation of France, Holland, Belgium and other European lands) as opposed to the taking of territory illegally held. The latter applies to the West Bank and Gaza, which were not considered the legal territories of any High Contracting Party when Israel won control of them. Regarding Israel’s acquisition of territories in the 1967 war, Schwebel wrote:

Where the prior holder of territory had seized that territory unlawfully, the state which subsequently takes that territory in the lawful exercise of self-defense has, against that prior holder, better title. (“What Weight to Conquest,” American Journal of International Law, 64 (1970))

Nevertheless, Bowen blames the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, not on Palestinian violence, but on what he falsely alleges are illegal Israeli settlements. Conveying his disapproval of Israel and imposing his own interpretation of Israeli and Palestinian motives, he writes:

Israel continues to pour concrete and blast roads through the rocky hills and valleys of the parts of the occupied territories that it wants to incorporate permanently into an enlarged Jewish homeland…


..If the settlements stay against the will of the Palestinian people, along with the security perimeters and access roads and military patrols that go with them, it is hard to see how there can be anything like peace.

The Palestinians, by contrast, receive little criticism. Palestinian violence against Israel—the near-daily launching of Kassam rockets into Israel, the smuggling of weapons into Gaza from Egypt, the kidnapping of a Jewish soldier inside Israel by Palestinians who had infiltrated the Gaza/Israel border—is either minimized or completely ignored. Bowen’s World Service report buries a brief reference to the kidnapping in a description of what he calls a “summer of violence”:

First Palestinians tunneled out of Gaza and captured an Israeli soldier. Israel started a series of big offensives against the Palestinians.

And Bowen’s Web site article makes a single reference to “crude” Palestinian rockets aimed at Israel:

The IDF could not stop crude rockets being launched in Israel from Gaza.

Bowen excuses Palestinian internecine violence and blames it on the Israeli “occupation” and the cutoff of international funds. On World Service News Hour, he intones:

During the years in which Fatah had recognized Israel, the money [withheld by Israel and the West since Hamas came to power and refused to recognize Israel] had done a great deal to calm the stresses caused by the occupation. Without it, the strains within Palestinian society rose to unbearable levels. By the end of the year, they were close to civil war.

According to the BBC editor, Israel lies not only at the root of Palestinian factional fighting, but at the root of Lebanese civil strife as well. He writes:

Further north, the outlook in Lebanon is deeply unsettled. The war with Israel last summer has been the catalyst for severe internal convulsions.

Hezbollah, designated by the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Israel, Australia, and the Netherlands as a terrorist organization, illegally dragged Lebanon into an unwanted war by bombarding Israeli towns and villages with rockets as its fighters staged a cross-border raid, killing and kidnapping Israeli soldiers on Israeli sovereign territory. Hezbollah continues to orchestrate violent protests and strikes in an attempt to topple the Siniora government. But Bowen whitewashes Hezbollah’s role as aggressor and agitator, essentially downplaying and mitigating its responsibility for Lebanon’s internal convulsions. Bowen describes Hezbollah merely as “the Lebanese military and political movement” which “captured two Israeli soldiers in a cross-border raid” and whose “military prowess” was turned by leader Hassan Nasrallah “into political power at home” making “a dispute inside Lebanon into a big crisis over whether it faced West, as Prime Minister Siniora wanted, or East, towards Hizaballah’s allies in Damascus and Teheran.”

Bowen sums up his World Service report with a quote by Jordan’s King Abdullah suggesting that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is at the core of Middle East conflict:

We are juggling with the strong potential of three civil wars in the region, whether it’s the Palestinians, or Lebanon or in Iraq. And we do want to concentrate ourselves on the core issues which we believe are the Palestinians and the Palestinian peace process…

This biased and condemnatory approach to reporting on the Arab-Israeli conflict is underscored in Bowen’s briefing of BBC staff via an internal memo leaked to and publicized by British journalist Stephen Pollard. The BBC Middle East editor’s world view—that Israel is to blame for all Middle East ills—comes across loud and clear. According to Bowen, the big story of 2007 will be the “fragmenting” of Palestinian society due to “the death of hope, caused by a cocktail of Israel’s military activities, land expropriation and settlement building—and the financial sanctions imposed on the Hamas led government…”

Unsurprisingly, Bowen makes no mention of Arab anti-Israel violence or the potential dangers to the Jewish state. In fact, his only hint of previous violence against Israel comes as a suggestion of Palestinian heroism and valor:

Palestinian society, which used to draw strength from resistance, is now fragmenting. (Emphasis added.)

According to the news corporation’s Web site, BBC created the role of Middle East editor in the summer of 2005 in order to “to enhance our audience’s understanding of the Middle East; and to provide extra commentary, focus and analysis to an increasingly complex area of the world.”

Instead of enhancing understanding, BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bown overtly partisan approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict enhances BBC’s global image as an unreliable and unobjective news source.

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