BBC’s News Misjudgement

BBC’s World Service, whose English broadcasts reach an audience of 42 million worldwide and 3.5 million listeners in the US, claims to “set the standard for accurate and impartial journalism.” According to Chapter 2 of its Producers’ Guidelines: “Due impartiality lies at the heart of the BBC. It is a core value and no area of programming is exempt from it.”

There is, however, one notable “area” of exception. Reports about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are rarely if ever impartial.

Consider the following: On Friday, November 22, 2002, the day after a bloody suicide bombing in Jerusalem’s Kiryat Menachem which left 11 Israeli women and children dead and 50 wounded, BBC World Service’s NewsHour followed up–not with a report on the Israeli children who had just seen classmates blown apart on the way to school–but with an in-depth feature on Palestinian children fearful of the Israeli military response to terrorist actions.

The editorial news judgement that prompted airing this segment at such a time is revealing. After all, in the aftermath of such an attack, there were numerous angles to explore—updates on the Israeli victims and survivors: how those who remained hospitalized with critical injuries were faring; how one victim had survived the Holocaust and another had escaped a previous terrorist attack to die here; how a local supermarket, dairy company and city hotels had banded together to provide meals during the mourning period for the bereaved families because so many of them were impoverished.

Or BBC might have investigated Palestinian exhortations to even further terrorism — how thousands participated in Hamas rallies in Gaza to celebrate the attack, praise the bomber and call for more, and how the 22-year-old perpetrator’s father proclaimed to journalists that “our religion says we are proud of him until the day of resurrection. This is a challenge to the Zionist enemies.”

But none of these stories were reported.

Instead, NewsHour aired a lengthy report on the “devastating psychological effect on those [Palestinians] whose homes are occupied when Israeli forces roll in.” Correspondent Jeremy Cooke did not interview Israeli parents faced with sending their children off in the aftermath of a trip to school that had turned into a scene of mutilated bodies, bloody limbs and shredded textbooks, but rather interviewed Palestinians in Jenin who complained of homes temporarily requisitioned by Israeli troops and of children who are “mentally drained and bored,” suffering from “post-traumatic stress.”

Instead of hearing about the teams of psychologists sent into the schools of Israeli victims to help classmates deal with trauma and loss, listeners heard how “therapists funded by the United Nations are trying to heal the town’s [Jenin] mental scars” from Israeli incursions to root out terrorists.

BBC’s website carries a similar article entitled “Jenin’s traumatised children” by Stewart Hughes, but nothing about Jerusalem’s or Tel Aviv’s traumatised children.

That BBC routinely casts Israelis as aggressors responsible for Palestinian suffering rather than as victims of Palestinian brutality is hardly news. Palestinian terrorism is never labeled as such. It is covered only fleetingly and often with an attempt to explain and justify its motives. For example, NewsHour’s initial report of the terrorist bombing on November 21 focused as much on Palestinian justifications as on details of the attack itself, as if such an atrocity could possibly be justified in any way. Throughout the broadcast, Israeli speakers were counterbalanced by Palestinian spokesmen placing the ultimate blame for the suicide bombing on Israel and the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Listeners are right to question BBC’s motive in concealing Palestinian incitement, airbrushing Palestinian terrorism and minimizing Israeli anguish while at the same time magnifying Israeli military actions and Palestinian suffering. Why, for instance, does BBC continue to focus so much on Jenin, even after its earlier uncritical reporting of allegations of a massacre there proved to be such an embarassing blunder?

Public perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is shaped by what and how powerful media choose to report from the region. It is long past time that BBC be held accountable to its own ethical code of impartiality, accuracy and fairness.

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