It is accepted practice that journalists keep a certain distance when interviewing subjects for a news story. Listeners expect newscasters to remain neutral and unemotional. Not so, however, at the BBC. Interviewers for the British network regularly hector Israeli representatives while allowing Palestinian speakers to broadcast their messages unchallenged. And often BBC broadcasters use interviews as opportunities to air their own negative opinions about Israel’s policies.
This was the case recently with BBC World Service’s Julian Marshall who interviewed Israel’s Deputy Prime Minister and former Jerusalem mayor Ehud Olmert on September 14, 2003, about his statement that Israel would consider killing Arafat.
Marshall approached the interview like a teacher disciplining a wayward student who has misspoken. Citing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s deploring of Israel’s stated option of removing Arafat, he introduced the interview as follows:
BBC – MARSHALL: Have Mr. Powell’s words given Ehud Olmert any cause to reflect upon what he’d said?
OLMERT: No, I think that this is a question that must be considered. We didn’t talk in any definite terms about the timing, but this is an option which must be seriously considered. I think that it is widely recognized now that Yasir Arafat is personally responsible for the downfall of a more moderate government which was destined to campaign against terror. And because of this, it was brought down by Yasir Arafat. He was responsible for inspiring and encouraging the continued suicidal attacks against the State of Israel which started this time in both places–from Ramallah where he sits. He is the main obstacle for a serious new direction for the political process in the Middle East.
Marshall could not restrain his hostility in imputing broader, ulterior motives to the Israeli leader’s statement. The interviewer asked:
Are you trying to provoke the Palestinians, Mr. Olmert?
Not at all. Do you really seriously think an Israeli reaction after the repeated killings of so many innocent people is a provocation? Don’t you understand the impact of what is happening in our part of the world? Do you think that this is a game for us? Do you know that as mayor of the city of Jerusalem, I had to go to more than 50 sites of suicidal attacks in my city in the last 10 years seeing the pieces of bodies that were torn apart by people that were inspired and most times financed by Yasir Arafat?
Marshall came to Arafat’s defense, snidely challenging the Israeli:
BBC-MARSHALL: You only assume that –- that Mr. Arafat is the architect of all this terror.
OLMERT: No, I don’t assume that. What I say is established on very good evidence, on intelligence that we have.
BBC-MARSHALL: And killing Mr. Arafat would bring that terror to an end, would it?
OLMERT: What I said is that the elimination of Mr. Arafat is no different from the elimination of any other head of a terrorist gang. And I don’t know that there is any dispute in the Western world about the right to take such measures in order to stop terror. I think that this is precisely what other nations are doing, including Great Britain together with America in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan against the Taliban.
Marshall did not stop there. He continued to champion Yasir Arafat as a head of state while expressing contempt not only for the Israeli leader but for the Israeli state as well.
MARSHALL: Do you think it is appropriate though as the deputy Prime Minister of a country that considers itself to be one of the few if not the only democracies in the Middle East, you should be advocating the assassination, the killing of a man who is effectively a head of state?
OLMERT: There are three major errors which I am sure you’ve made innocently. Number one, we don’t consider ourselves to be a democracy. We are a democracy, no less than Great Britain. The second thing is that Yasir Arafat is not a head of state. There is no Palestinian state, he was not elected as a head of state, and he is considered by a large part of the Western world to be at terrorist. And that’s why the President of the United States and the American administration, for instance, decided that he is entirely irrelevant.
MARSHALL: But the European Union, a collection of Western democracies, do not hold that view of Mr. Arafat. They continue to have dealings with him.
OLMERT: They also didn’t hold this position probably about Saddam Hussein. Does it make Saddam Hussein any better a person? A more moral person? Any less of a murderer than he was? So there are sometimes disputes. The difference between you and us is that thank God for you, you don’t have to suffer from the consequences of what Arafat is doing and we have to bear the consequences of what he does in the streets of our cities. And if Yasir Arafat is responsible for it, he has to be held responsible for it.
MARSHALL: But if the Palestinians were to follow your logic and to look upon Ariel Sharon as an obstacle to peace, why shouldn’t they therefore go down that road of wanting to remove him?
OLMERT: Do you think that had they been able to, they wouldn’t have done it already? Do you think that they didn’t try to do it? Do you think that they didn’t send terrorist groups in order to try and perpetrate precisely this– against him, against myself, against others in the Israeli government? Did they not kill an Israeli cabinet minister?
There is no such sneering, sarcastic questioning of Palestinian leaders. On September 16, 2003, Marshall questioned Yasir Arafat’s security advisor, Jibril Rajoub about his conditional truce offer toward Israel. Rajoub never explained exactly how the Palestinian Authority, refusing to disarm or dismantle terrorist groups, would enforce a halt to violence by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al Aqsa Martyr’s Brigade — the very groups that carried out terrorist attacks during the previous truce. Marshall questioned Rajoub gently, allowing him to convey his message that Israel was to blame for the situation in the Middle East, and that the ceasefire was dependent only on Israel’s willingness to “reciprocate.”
BBC- MARSHALL: Despite the recent breakdown of th e hudna, or temporary cessation of hostilities declared by Palestinian militant groups, Mr. Arafat believes that a general ceasefire with Israel is still possible if Israel reciprocates. The proposal was made public by Mr. Arafat’s security advisor, Brigadier-General Jibril Rajoub.
RAJOUB: According to my own experience, I think that the only way, the right way is to have a ceasefire declared by the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government in which there will be mutual understanding and mutual listening. Reciprocity should be the principle of implementation of the ceasefire from both sides and toward both sides.
BBC – MARSHALL: But you are attaching a number of conditions to the ceasefire in terms of Israel.
RAJOUB: Ceasefire means ceasefire. It means that all kind of attacks from both sides should stop. Israelis cannot only ask the Palestinians to stop shooting on them. They keep on confiscating land, building settlements, keeping on the policy of assassination, closure and curfews. Everybody should know that those are the direct reasons for the tension and confrontation and reaction.
BBC – MARSHALL: But on your side, can you deliver a ceasefire? Can you get Hamas and Islamic Jihad to stop their attacks against Israel?
RAJOUB: We have the capabilities, we have the determination, we have the interest, we have the motivation. As soon as the Israelis accept a ceasefire, reciprocity from both sides, I am pretty sure that the Palestinian side will implement its part of such a package deal.
MARSHALL: Does this also have the support of the new, incoming Palestinian government, the new, incoming Palestinian Prime Minister?
RAJOUB: Listen, it will be the responsibility of the incoming cabinet to discuss, to follow-up, to negotiate, to talk with everybody in order to have a ceasefire. I’m pretty sure according to my own experience and according to the logic that this is the only way to assure security and to get out of this cycle of violence and the bloodshedding.[sic]
MARSHALL: Why this particular initiative and at this time? Is it because Yasir Arafat is threatened with expulsion, is threatened with possible assassination?
RAJOUB: Listen, this did not come as an initiative. It came through our understanding to the whole situation. ..For Yasir Arafat, everybody knows that Yasir Arafat is a fatalist and I don’t think that he is worried about his life or about anything else, because everybody should know that touching Yasir Arafat either by killing him or expelling him, it will lead to a catastrophe to the Israelis as to the Palestinians.
Listeners should demand that broadcasters maintain a neutral during all interviews. As long as BBC continues to allow its correspondents to express contempt for some of the people they interview, it cannot be considered a fair, objective or reliable news source.