The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
The BBC and the Quiet Ethnic Cleansing of Palestinians


Paul de Rooij • 14 February 2004

At present, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is ongoing and systematic, yet it is difficult to find any reference to this crime against humanity in most news media. The issue is not so much slanted coverage as scant or selective coverage of the misery Israel is inflicting on the Palestinians. Although the BBC has a reputation for fair and balanced reporting, when it comes to Israel-Palestine a different standard seems to be applied, as even gross violations of human rights are not reported.

1. There are precedents

We have recently witnessed some cases of disjunction between the reality and the reportage generated by the main news media. For instance, the war in former Yugoslavia was portrayed as one of a Serbian ogre attacking innocent victims. Alas, reality diverged from this typecasting by the main networks, including the BBC [1]. The latter rarely mentioned uncomfortable facts, and its reportage usually supported the official version of events – it remained propaganda-compliant [2].

Similarly, the BBC portrayed the war against Iraq in a way that paralleled Anglo-American policy. Although some revelations appeared through the cracks questioning the rationale behind the war, on the whole, the BBC’s output did not challenge the official stance on this war [3]. It integrated into the embedded system without a peep from its journalists.

The BBC’s coverage actually supports Anglo-American policies by what it chooses to omit from its main news broadcasts. There is virtually no mention of the war in Colombia, or the attempts to destabilize Venezuela; if events in such countries are at odds with official policy, the BBC avoids them. The BBC marches mostly in lockstep with Anglo-American policy.

The situation with BBC’s Israel-Palestine coverage is similar to the previous examples; there is a disjunction between what is happening on the ground and the BBC’s coverage. If anything, the situation is more galling because of the long history of ethnic cleansing, the chronic mass human rights violations, and a recent accelerated land grab, entailing a new wave of ethnic cleansing. Given that the UK has been deeply involved in this sordid situation historically, by enabling mass Jewish migration into Palestine, it is curious how distorted and context-less the news presented by the BBC today are. Just like the official Anglo-American policy, Israel is treated as an official ally, and Palestinians as the “accepted enemy”.

2. Mostly scant, but also slant

If a propaganda organ sought to portray an “official ally” in better light, then one would expect some of the following bias and tendency in its coverage (see table below).

Coverage feature Propaganda-compliant version
Portrayal of aggression If an accepted ally is the aggressor, portray them as acting in self-defense or responding to violence. Never indicate that they may be the aggressor. The victims’ violence is always unreasonable, criminal, or terrorism.
Coverage of Negative aspects (e.g., killings) The coverage of the violent acts of an accepted ally will be a fraction of what is happening on the ground. In contrast, the official enemy’s violence is covered fully. The ally’s victims of violence are covered showing emotional scenes; the enemy’s fatalities are just “facts” if mentioned at all.
Uncomfortable facts and key incidents, e.g., murders, acts of violence. The official ally’s egregious attacks, or the spate of mass violence are barely mentioned, and then without looking at the consequences. Use exculpatory language like: “the attack was not a massacre” or statements minimizing the scale of purported atrocities.
Coverage of Positive aspects If the official ally’s society does something that is considered positive, then highlight it. Positive aspects of the official enemy’s society are ignored.
Context There is always an explanation for the official ally’s actions. Explanation for official enemy’s actions doesn’t incorporate the relevant recent history.
Mediation vs. relating own story or explanation Official enemy’s spokespersons are given leeway to explain their version of events. The official enemy’s version of events is mediated, and their voice is rarely heard.
Interpretation by expert journalist Although the propaganda organ may have experts in the area, they seldom venture to offer an interpretation. Their reportage is presented as: the official ally says “x”, and official enemy say “y”. Journalists tend to explain away negative aspects and allow the ally to put forth their version of events.
Specifics/generality Use generalities when they help bury specific actions, and refer to specifics when it is necessary to hide wider trends. When an admission is made of a specific incident, then mention it without reference to the general pattern.
Mutually exclusive accounts Refer to aspects of the ally’s society, but present them unrelated to the enemy’s reality. The implication is that the official ally doesn’t have anything to do with the enemy’s plight.
Words Use official ally-centric words to describe actions or conditions, e.g., don’t use “illegal”, but use “disputed” or “controversial”.
Characterization of the leadership The ally’s leaders are presented as centrist, reasonable, “man of peace”, accountable to parliament. The official enemy’s leaders are demonized; “is he relevant?”, or corrupt.
Portrayal of government Accepted ally’s gov’t is portrayed as a democracy; the official enemy’s as corrupt, inept, and “they must reform”.
Portrayal of protagonists Portray leadership or settlers in a family setting, smiling and playing with the kids. Portray the official enemy protagonists as hooded “militants” and suicide bombers – no family scenes.
Querying the US or UK gov’t officials about actions of the official ally. US and UK are portrayed as not responsible for the official ally’s actions. When it comes to the official enemy, then clear indications are given that something will be done and pressure exerted.

Of course, this matrix would apply to any propaganda-compliant medium. However, the remainder of this article shows that much of the BBC’s output is consistent with the indicated matrix of actions and emphasis in its reportage. The BBC’s news from this area is mostly Israeli-centric, and it must be emphasized that the BBC’s bias is evident primarily in terms of omission.

3. Establishing an important fact

The ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is reality today, and it is a systematic Israeli policy. This is what Dr. Mustafa Barghouti, a human rights advocate, had to say about the events in Gaza [4]:

There can be no doubt that Israeli policy in Rafah amounts to a process of ethnic cleansing, and, as has been so often the case throughout history, a humanitarian catastrophe is being allowed to continue unimpeded.

The grotesque land grab wall being built in the West Bank entails a massive ethnic cleansing operation. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians and up to 38% of the West Bank population are being thrown off their land, their means of livelihood put off limits, or their access essential services cut [5]. Villages have already been cleansed, e.g., Abu Farda [6], in the “seam area” West of the wall. Even on the Palestinian side of the wall, villages such as Yanoun or Numan are constantly intimidated or ravaged by settlers or the Israeli army violence, forcing their evacuation [7]. Furthermore, thousands of homes have been demolished making tens thousands of Palestinians refugees yet again – just in the Rafah area in Gaza an estimated 16,000 Palestinians have been rendered homeless (in the middle of winter). In Gaza, areas near the “border” or the settlements have been confiscated, again forcing many off the land [8]. The list of outrageous IOF (Israeli Occupation Forces) actions that rob Palestinians of their homes, villages and heritage is very long. A good way to describe Israeli policy today is one of slow ethnic cleansing.

Israelis have coined a euphemism for ethnic cleansing, calling it “transfer”. Most of the members of the current cabinet openly advocate ethnic cleansing, and in the case of Sharon, Olmert, Effi Eitam and Benni Elon, they have first hand experience in implementing it [9]. The topic of transfer is openly discussed and most Israelis accept a variant of this “policy” [10].

Demonstration of racist Israelis, Jerusalem 1989.

Counter-demonstrators protesting against the “Women In Black”, Jerusalem, 1989. The calls for “transfer” are overt – they are calling for ethnic cleansing.
Photo ©2004 Paul de Rooij.

Israeli scholars confirm the fact that ethnic cleansing is taking place. Prof. Jeff Halper recently talked about “quiet ethnic cleansing”. And Prof. Adi Ophir said [11]:

“To a certain extent, transfer is here as well. […] But under the conditions of Israeli control in the territories today, transfer is being carried out slowly by the ministry of the interior, by the civilian authority, at airports and border crossings, by sophisticated means such as forms, certificates and denial of certificates, and by less sophisticated means such as the destruction of thousands of homes, and checkpoints, and closures, and sieges, that are making the lives of the Palestinians intolerable and leading many of them to try to emigrate in order to survive. Even if the number of new refugees is small for now, the apparatus that can increase their number overnight, is already working.”

If ethnic cleansing is evident to human rights advocates, Israeli academics, and human rights organizations, then it is pertinent to ask why the BBC hasn’t mentioned it at all. A search through BBC Online reveals no reference to “ethnic cleansing” of Palestinians. The term “ethnic cleansing” seems to be the exclusive preserve of the former-Yugoslavia. It seems that the BBC finds it difficult to use a term coined to demonize the Serbians in the current context [12]. Although “ethnic cleansing” is a recent propaganda term, its meaning is now well understood, i.e., expulsion of a native population from their homes, villages and land.

A November 2003 UN conference confirmed that the situation for the Palestinians is desperate and has reached crisis proportions [13]. Its proceedings note that: “a UN committee monitoring human rights abuses of Palestinians [for the last 35 years] has concluded that the situation in the Israeli-occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank was the worst ever last year.” This situation is chronic, and indeed, mass abuses of human rights have been going on for decades. It is obvious that the BBC coverage of the region is not proportional to the severity of the situation, and it doesn’t focus on the victims of this catastrophe.

4. Examples of propaganda-compliant news items.
4a. This is not journalism, it is apologia.

Few articles display the BBC’s bias better than Chris Morris’s “Lost hope in Mid-East conflict”. Although not the worst example, it displays the full panoply of the apologist’s toolkit [14]. Morris ignores key contextual information, delves into specifics instead of looking at the wider context, and offers a clear example of apologia.

Morris reports on the case of a pregnant woman held up at a gate by Israeli soldiers, impeded from reaching the ambulance, and forced to give birth next to the gate where she miscarried her twins. But Morris doesn’t tell us that there have been many other cases where women have been forced to deliver at checkpoints resulting in dozens of miscarriages. When it suits the propagandist, the relevant context is ignored.

Equally curious is the fact that Morris only refers to a mysterious “gate” without mentioning the wall that is being built straight through the West Bank village of Deir Balut – where the incident Morris describes took place. One would almost think that the gate stood on its own next to the village, but the key context, the wall, is not mentioned; not even one of the euphemisms (barrier, fence) is used. However, from the account of an Israeli peace activist, Dan Shohet, one would think that the wall being built would be difficult to miss [15]:

“The Wall will circle the village from three directions, will separate it from its lands and from the road to the south (the road to the east was blocked three years ago, and was never opened again). The inhabitants will be pushed into a crowded enclave, a ghetto, together with a few nearby villages — surrounded by walls, fences, road blocks, army and settlements.”

Eight houses of the village, most of the arable land and the chief water source will fall on the “wrong side” of the wall, and effectively the village will be eliminated. But Morris mentions none of this.

However, what is astonishing is the way in which Morris discusses the soldiers who barred the pregnant woman from reaching the ambulance. Under the heading “What would you have done?” Morris states:

“Change the perspective in this story and what do you see? Conscript soldiers wary of attack at a checkpoint surrounded by darkness. What would you have done, really? Would common humanity have won through? Would you have taken the risk? Or would you have played it safe, fearful of a trap? Who knows? There are no easy answers. I’d like to think the soldiers on that checkpoint, on that cold winter night, didn’t want two new-born babies to die. But die they did, and Israel is damaged and devalued by tragic tales such as this. All the talking has led nowhere. And so it goes on — another week in the Middle East.”

Judith Brown from Exeter University had the right riposte: “… it was not a question of ’what would you do’ if you were in the position of the conscript soldier. It should be a question of ’why did he not uphold the international law […]’, as he was obliged to do as a soldier of the occupying power” [16].

Several photos accompanying the article summarize the thrust of the piece:

Caption: “You can’t blame soldiers for being jumpy at checkpoints.” This amounts to bald-faced apologia.
Caption: “Most roads are blocked to Palestinians.” Morris sees no reason to explain why this is the case – no references to the wall or the checkpoints.

Morris throws in this conclusion: “Never mind whose fault it is — all the talk, all the well-meaning mediation will come to nought [sic]. I think now that there is a real possibility that this will simply drag on and on.” The only thing that the text doesn’t capture is Morris’s sigh after the last sentence. Nothing we can do about this, and we can’t apportion blame. The plight of the Palestinians is portrayed as a fact of nature.

4b. Terror Tourists.

In Dec. 2003, the BBC reached a new low point with the broadcast of “Terror Tourists” – a scurrilous propaganda piece directed by Tim Tate [17]. The film deals with an “anti-terrorist training camp” in a settlement near Hebron catering primarily for Americans who may be feeling a bit insecure after 9-11. The camera crew follows the “terror tourists” through their course, which includes an armed trip through Al Khalil (known as Hebron to Israelis), a Palestinian city of 150,000. The army often places the city under lock-down curfew so that the occupants of neighboring settlements can go about “in peace”. It is on such forays that the “tourists” are taken. Or as Tim Tate stated: the organizers “have deliberately constructed the course to protect the Terror Tourists from ever meeting a single real-life Palestinian.”

Overall, it is remarkable that such a documentary ever appeared on the BBC. This is what Sharif Nashashibi, the Director of Arab Media Watch, had to say about it: “By any standards it was the most one-sided, inaccurate, offensive documentary I have ever seen” [18].

Nashashibi also complained to the BBC about the use of the term “disputed territories” throughout the program, and the reply is worth reading:

…you make a number of points about the status of the West Bank. There are a number of different views over the legality of the occupation itself, and the actions of both the Israeli government and the Jewish settlers in the area. The British government does not regard the occupation itself as illegal (official policy detailed in the Foreign Office’s website), nor does the present US administration. Clearly the Israeli government takes one view, its neighbours another. I think in these circumstances it is not unreasonable to use the word “disputed”.
—Fraser Steel, BBC Head of Programme Complaints [emphasis in original.]

There you have it: the BBC marching in lockstep with Israel, US, and UK governments. No ifs or buts.

4c. Hectoring within narrow confines.

Kirsty Wark is an interviewer on the main extended BBC news program, Newsnight. Invariably she seeks to hector the interviewees so that their statements remain within the narrow confines of her script; in general, most BBC interviews are conducted this way. Wark often puts words into an interviewee’s mouth or coerces them to the point where the interview doesn’t make much sense or the interviewees sit back abjectly, unable to express their own views. Her bias regarding Israel-Palestine is evident; her script here is to discuss “Palestinian violence” and “Israeli moderation”.

In an interview with Diana Buttu (a PLO legal advisor) and Daniel Taub (an Israeli spokesman), Wark steered the interview into a discussion of “Palestinian violence”, and every time Buttu attempted to add some context she was interrupted [19]. Wark constantly harked back to the question of Palestinian violence without allowing the cause of such violence to be discussed. Furthermore, Wark stated: “Ariel Sharon says that in a matter of months if there is no progress he then will go for a disengagement plan – and there will be separation. Now, if that indeed happens and if separation appears in a way to work, then who will care about Middle East again?” Wark seemed to take it upon herself to emphasize Sharon’s message, and one wonders why an interviewer would say that. And then the warning to the Palestinians that they may be ignored is not only an Israeli-centric question, but also a Likudnik one. Overall, Wark forced the interview into a single topic and treated the interviewee in a hostile fashion interrupting all of her answers.

The second part of the interview allowed Daniel Taub to rattle off his points without any interruption. Taub took the moral high ground, constantly harped on the terrorism theme, and stated that Israelis sought a negotiated peaceful outcome. Ms. Wark didn’t challenge any of Taub’s answers, and the interview ended cordially. This is considered a “balanced” interview on the BBC, i.e., Palestinians always have to face off with an Israeli within a narrow topic, usually violence or “reform”; Israelis do not necessarily face a Palestinian for rebuttal. The reception of the Palestinian speaker is invariably hostile, and Israelis are greeted with smiles and treated cordially.

4d. The “self-hating” Palestinian

One could easily obtain a series of outrageous statements from the village idiot, and, of course, such statements would not constitute news. When it comes to Israel, then no problem, any dubious story that conveys an ideological message is fair game. One of the BBC’s correspondents in Jerusalem, Raffi Berg, reported on a “self-hating” Palestinian, Walid Shoebat, who sometimes wears a kippa and utters nonsense such as “I am a Zionist” [20]. In the article Walid Shoebat is quoted as saying that: (1) Palestinians hate Jews, and (2) “… Then I started thinking, really the Jews didn’t do us any harm but we hated them…”. So, this is a nice means to suggest that Palestinians are anti-Semites and that Israelis never did anything horrible against Palestinians. These two key features of the article appear as inline highlighted quotations. The fact that Shoebat broadcast from a settler radio station near Ramallah, or that he has stated and done some ridiculous things should have disqualified this as an article for any reputable organization – not the case with the BBC.

4e. Oh, his emotions…

A BBC journalist riding a bus in Jerusalem and discussing his anxiety in doing so is considered news [21]. Martin Asser’s “Diary: Jerusalems bus roulette” is self-referential, discusses “his feelings”, and thus doesn’t constitute news. Of course, there are no articles on the BBC commenting on what it feels like when a Palestinian family is about to lose their home – such accounts are not of interest to Asser.

4f. The Siege… from an Israeli perspective

The BBC broadcast “The Siege of Bethlehem” in June 2002 by its premier news documentary program, Correspondent. It is a “fly on the wall” style film where the camera follows Israeli soldiers attempting to end the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This is what a former BBC correspondent had to say about it:

…An Israeli TV team gained access to the army negotiators at the siege of the Church of the Nativity, and the BBC ran the film without caveat, context, explanation or the necessary distancing that an insider project of this nature demands. The Palestinians in the film were under-represented and inarticulate. The general effect was to suggest that Israeli soldiers were doing everything they could to make life easier for terrorists inside the church.
— Tim Llewellyn, “False Witness”, The Guardian, Jan. 16, 2003

The documentary didn’t show any Israeli violence, and at the same time, Palestinians were portrayed as “terrorists”. This was a singularly biased documentary.

The film producer stated at a public meeting that the BBC operated a “canvas balance” policy. That is, the BBC would broadcast a “pro-Israeli” item as long as somewhere in its output there was an offsetting “pro-Palestinian” item, and he stated that his film had been approved on this basis. When the producer was asked to confirm this statement he refused, and referred this author to the BBC editors who in turn lacked the courtesy to answer my queries. Assuming for a moment that the “canvas balance” policy were in effect, it is evident to any analyst of the BBC’s output that there are pro-Israeli news items appearing on prime time, but one is hard pressed to find any “pro-Palestinian” items or even pieces which investigate the reality of Palestinian life under occupation.

4g. Account from the terrier…

James Reynolds is one of the batch of young inexperienced BBC reporters in Israel; they are also known as the snippeteers, i.e., they specialize in the 1.45 minute news snippets. Reynolds stands out for his terrier-like eagerness to read out the latest press release his Israeli handlers have given him. His piece, “Israel wants Washington to add Syria to its to do list,” stands apart from the BBC’s propaganda pieces because of the sentimental violin music played in the background. Anyone’s propaganda alarm bells should go off when viewing such a report; the music accompanied the following statement [22]:

“Enemies for more than half a century. Their fight set amidst the snows of the Golan Heights, the coldest corner of the Arab Israeli conflict. There have been many attempts in recent years to make peace between Israel and Syria. So far these efforts have failed…”

The remaining account is cliché-ridden, and it was scripted in an entirely Israeli-centric fashion. Reynolds saw no need to explain why land conquered in a war of aggression is illegal and any claims to it illegitimate. Also, if it is Israel occupying Syrian land, then it may be worth explaining why Israel wants Syria included on “Washington’s hit list”.

5. Inanities, banalities and absurdities

Banal and absurd stories play a role in alienating viewers and put them off from critically understanding the news [23]. The question now is if there is a higher incidence of such stories when an issue is “controversial” and it pertains to an “accepted ally”.

If a possible aim were to distract or put off viewers from following the situation in Israel-Palestine, then one would expect to find a dosage of items qualifying as inanities, banalities and absurdities. Sure enough, there are quite a few, and here are some examples [24]. One finds stories like a rabbi offering prayers for Orthodox cyber crawlers who may unexpectedly have entered a porn website [25]. There are stories of an Eskimo and an AIDS infected young man joining the IOF [26]. The latter are absurd stories considering that the IOF is engaging in some nasty business every day. An analogy may clarify the objection: one would rightly ridicule a story discussing how the US Army dealt with flatulence in its tanks in Iraq – it is a trivial issue compared to the occupation it is enforcing. However, Barbara Plett, the BBC writer of the AIDS story, stated: “Frankly, given the devastation AIDS has wrought throughout the world and the discrimination faced by AIDS sufferers, including within Israel, do you honestly think this phenomenon is a trivial issue?” In this author’s opinion, this is a trivial aspect of the IOF today and it hardly highlights key issues about AIDS, and for this reason this article amounts to a trivial story.

All told, these inane or trivial stories have all to do with deflecting attention from uncomfortable aspects of an official ally. And the BBC loves this type of stories because they are so cheap and easy to produce.

6. Horror, horror!

As soon as a “suicide bombing” occurs, it is immediately broadcast on the BBC. The insufferable correspondent Orla Guerin often appears at the scene of the latest bombing giving an account full of pathos. The only thing that is missing is that she would pick up one body part or another.

Soon after the Jan. 29th attack on a bus in Jerusalem regular programming was interrupted to show the scene of the attack. The curious aspect of these reports is the amount of emphasis such a foreign story is given – it is almost treated like a local story. In contrast, the week before this incident several Palestinians were killed, many houses were demolished, and yet nowhere is Guerin to be found to relate what is happening to them. The BBC coverage of carnage is lopsided, and usually ignores the much greater Palestinian death toll.

The Israeli government is also acutely aware that images of the bus bombings are important for its propaganda campaign. It recently made available footage showing gory scenes after a bombing [27]. Of course, similar scenes after an Israeli air strike on Gaza are not shown on the BBC – maybe it is difficult to reach such a location, and the Israeli minders may disapprove. In essence, the coverage reinforces the image of Israelis as victims, and it demonizes the Palestinians.

House demolition at the Aida refugee camp, Bethlehem Jan. 31, 2004

Waiting for Orla. House demolition in the Aida refugee camp near Bethlehem on Jan. 31, 2004. Several houses in the neighborhood were also damaged in the explosion.
Photo: Musa AlShaer, © 2004.

There is a full list of the “suicide bombings” on BBC Online [28], but nowhere does one find a similar list of the atrocities committed against Palestinians. So much for the BBC’s “balance”.

7. Such a nice guy…

Ariel Sharon has blood on his hands and would best be brought in front of a war crimes tribunal. However, there are very few references to his criminal past in the BBC. His photo usually has him smiling or looking portly and statesmanlike. His “profile” has a few references to his sordid deeds, but not in terms that state that war crimes were committed [29]. Of course, if the BBC considered him an official enemy then we would have been offered a very different treatment, e.g., witness the demonization of Miloševic. It is obvious from the BBC output that Sharon is treated as an official ally, and all references to his bloody deeds are mostly expunged or exculpated.

Sharon smiling

Does this photo portray Sharon in a way that reflects his criminal deeds? BBC Online, Jan. 18, 04.

8. Where is the wall?

BBC reportage invariably refers to the “security barrier”, and emphasizes the fact that it has fence sections, and thus justifies its use of the term “barrier”. The descriptor “security” is an Israeli-centric term that has all to do with prejudging its purpose. What is also curious is the lack of coverage of such a massive structure being built with the use of about 500 bulldozers and an estimated cost of US$4bn. The length of the wall is more than 750km, but it is constantly increasing. It is one of the largest construction projects in the world today, and it certainly is Israel’s largest ever. If so, it is odd that the wall barely features in BBC coverage, and when mentioned there is no reference to the misery it is causing. A camera crew only needs to go to Abu Dis, next to Jerusalem, to determine the implications of this construction. A village is being split in two in an arbitrary fashion, and here it is clear that the wall has nothing to do with security.

The wall thru the middle of Abu Dis, Jan 2004

Hard to miss. Abu Dis wall Jan. 31, 2004.
Photo: Musa AlShaer, © 2004.

Finally, one of the most grotesque manifestations of the wall is the encirclement of Qalqilya by an 8m tall wall leaving only a small exit for a town of 40,000 people. This gate is only open at odd hours of the day, so the whole city is only able to move at the whim of the Israeli soldiers operating the gate. The town has been transformed into a giant prison. Israelis are acutely aware that this is a very embarrassing image, and thus require journalists to obtain permits to visit the town. The BBC duly seems to accept such restrictions and will not even film this from the Israeli side of the wall. Alternatively, satellite images are available that also could show what is happening here. In BBC reports, there are text references to Qalqilya and the wall, but the BBC has not broadcast images that would make the point more forcefully.

9. The portrayal of settlers and settlements

A search through BBC Online reveals an interesting portrayal of the settlers. They are usually shown with their children, and often smiling. The settlers are never portrayed as violent armed thugs, although this is the reality confronted by Palestinians. Settlements are “neighborhoods” perhaps in “disputed” territories. If the settlers have gone a bit over the top in terms of violence, then the settlements where they come from become “controversial”. When Palestinians attack the settlers – who incidentally are usually armed – then the violence is portrayed as terrorism, and the settlers are allowed to state as much when interviewed. Settler spokesmen will always harp on the same theme: Palestinian “terror”. However, the BBC seldom seeks to query what settlers have done to Palestinians by asking the latter directly about this.

10. Portrayal of the checkpoints

It is instructive to examine the BBC’s “Guide to a West Bank Checkpoint” by Martin Asser [30]. It portrays a checkpoint on the “border” because there are “Israeli” and “Palestinian” sides. Never mind that the grand majority of the checkpoints are entirely within Palestinian territory – there are even “flying checkpoints” set up at the whim of local IOF officers. Furthermore, it portrays the checkpoints as something resembling airport check-in areas, even with medical facilities! Perhaps Asser could have inquired why so many women are forced to deliver their babies next to the checkpoints instead of in these “medical” areas, or let alone get on the ambulance on the other side of the checkpoint. The humiliation, degradation and the abusive behavior of the IOF soldiers is not part of the picture. Again, this is a palliated version of a reality that entails far more misery and violence. Asser is a journalist best known for missing the obvious, but never mind, he is continues to produce his “analysis” columns for BBC Online.

BBC graphic of a palliated checkpoint

If only checkpoints were so… BBC Online, Aug. 8, 2003.

11. Explanation for the BBC bias

It is important to attempt to explain why the coverage of Israel-Palestine is biased. There are several reasons, but as outsiders one can only point to the dynamics of the “corporation” and the successful Israeli pressure.

11a. Backdoor privatization

There is much pressure to privatize the BBC and to enable Murdoch or pliant media to become dominant in the UK. Politically it is not possible to disband this public broadcaster, and therefore underhand means have been applied to undermine its independence. The key manifestation of this is the fact that much of the BBC’s production is being spun off to third parties. Astute BBC journalists saw the writing on the wall and have set up their own production companies. These companies know that most TV programs produced to given specifications, and possibly with the gentle assistance of the old boy network, will be bought by the BBC. There will be an added bonus if the production can also be sold to the American networks, but these in turn will demand certain editorial restrictions [31]. The result is “market driven” programming produced subject to the bias preferred by these external producers. The “Terror Tourists” falls in this category, i.e., a production company owned by former BBC journalists produced a slanted program directed by someone with a dubious reputation. (This also raises questions about journalists currently employed by the BBC who also own such companies). The days when veteran and expert BBC correspondents produce top-notch news programs, let alone documentaries, are numbered – the market imperatives are driving these people out of the BBC.

The implications for the coverage of Israel-Palestine are also stark. Taking advantage of the backdoor privatization is at least one Israeli company producing programs for the BBC. “The Siege of the Church of the Nativity” was produced by Israelis, a fact that isn’t publicized or deemed objectionable by BBC editors. It also implies that any well-funded production company could generate programs with their desired slant, and in all likelihood, the BBC would buy such programs.

11b. Self-induced market pressures

Successive managing directors have sought to transform the BBC into a market-driven company. Market imperatives such as viewer numbers, market share, etc., are driving the corporation today. The implications are obvious: a dumbing-down of programming and an emphasis on entertainment. Of course, a serious overview of the Israel-Palestine issue “will not sell,” and the justifications for what amounts to censorship are entirely provided in marketing jargon.

Thanks to this recasting of the BBC there are pressures to sell its output to the huge English-speaking markets around the world. This requires mass distribution via satellite or cable companies. These companies also exert editorial control over the programs, and even threaten media giants like CNN/TimeWarner. If the Israel-Palestine tune is not to the liking of these companies, then lucrative markets may disappear. Again, because of its current market-driven strategy the BBC has become vulnerable to this type of pressure.

11c. Israeli pressure

Two years ago, the BBC agreed to use Israeli-produced video footage, and it uses this without labeling its provenance. As soon as such arrangements are accepted, the next step is to pressure news groups to close their offices in the Occupied Territories, or to curtail visits to these areas. Once one arrangement is in place and the argument won, the remaining steps are relatively easy to implement. The consequence is evident: most correspondents are based in West Jerusalem, and the Ramallah bureaus are slowly closing down.

Last year, when Sharon visited London the Israelis made it clear to the BBC that they didn’t appreciate its coverage. On several occasions BBC journalists were discouraged/barred from appearing at Israeli press conferences, and travel in the Occupied Territories was hampered. As an outsider one doesn’t know the details, but the resolution of this conflict was curious. All the veteran BBC journalists in the area were pulled out – ostensibly, because their contracts had expired and they didn’t want to renew them [32]. In their place came a contingent of young inexperienced snippeteers, or journalists willing to produce cliché-ridden reportage, e.g., Chris Morris. It also seems that the remaining journalists now act under closer scrutiny of the Israeli press liaison (a.k.a., minders) – we know this because the minders sometimes appear in the video footage!

Israeli minders are assigned to assist the correspondents; they are smooth PR-people who speak the same language as the correspondent [33]. A discussion with an Israeli press liaison revealed that they aim to establish a very friendly relationship with journalists, and seek to become the primary source of information. At the same time, any journalist seeking to distance themselves from their minders will be hampered or even harassed. Most requests to the minder yield ample information; the journalist could easily reconfigure these materials into a story, and then spend time at the bar instead of in a dusty refugee camp.

11d. Coy journalists

There are several Israeli nationals reporting from Jerusalem for the BBC, and there are no Palestinian journalists with similar responsibilities – these are just “stringers”. It is curious that if one asks the Israeli journalists working for the BBC if they are Israeli citizens, then one obtains evasive answers – NB: it is only a question about citizenship! Even after exchanging some emails with several BBC Jerusalem correspondents, it was not possible to obtain a confirmation of their nationality. It would seem that there would be issues of objectivity and balance when hiring such journalists to write on Israel and Palestinian issues. The journalist’s citizenship yields relevant contextual information to interpret their reportage [34]. It is also curious that Israeli journalists are allowed to write on Palestinian issues, and here certainly there is a case for knowing the writer’s background and nationality. There are ethical issues of sending an Israeli national to report on Palestinian issues; that is, a member of the oppressor nation is sent to interview the oppressed. Would the BBC send a Palestinian national to report on Israeli affairs? Hardly, and that is another reason why there is a problem with its current batch of “journalists” in the region. (NB: During the Yugoslav wars, the BBC did not hire Serbian nationals to report on what is happening in Bosnia.)

12. Language use

Language is also a battleground; Israelis deem the usage of words very important as their constant prodding of journalists on this issue attests. This topic has been dealt with extensively elsewhere [35], but some common word usage by the BBC merits comment. Here are some key words used by the BBC (alphabetical order):

BBC used terms Translation
Conflict Often used cliché indicating that the Israeli and Palestinians “sides” are roughly equal.
Controversial Euphemism for illegal or criminal. The BBC often refers to the “controversial barrier” or “controversial settlements”. Since both the wall and settlements are illegal and criminal, the use of “controversial” is a means of neutering language and one’s appreciation of the wall/settlement. The BBC can’t possibly suggest that actions could be illegal, or consult legal experts who could confirm this fact.
Ethnic Cleansing Terminology used by the BBC only in the case of former-Yugoslavia or when “official enemies” are involved. This terminology is deemed crude when it is an “accepted ally” expelling the population. NB: The same “ally” engaged in a wave of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948.
Fled “Fled” is a euphemism for expulsion.

“Eighteen per cent of Israel’s population is Arab. They are the descendents of the Palestinians who remained in the country during the first Arab Israeli war of 1948 — others fled.”
—Richard Miron, BBC Online, Feb. 6, 04.

Palestinians were ethnically cleansed and not allowed to return, their villages and cities destroyed.
Hotspots The BBC recently referred to Qalqilya as a “hotspot” – perhaps thereby enabling viewers to “understand” why the city of 40,000 has been transformed into a giant prison. Settlements where racist and violent settlers live like Kiryat Arba, Kafr Darom, Shilo, Itamar or Immanuel are never called hotspots.
Jewish democracy or state Any ethno-centric democracy (even a Jewish one) is an oxymoron, but even so, the BBC uses this term. Given that Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin comprise 20% of the population then it is similarly odd to use “Jewish state”. One doesn’t label the US as a “white state” or a “Christian state”, so a different standard seems to apply.
Militants Israeli-centric term used to describe the Palestinian resistance. Even when the IOF kills unarmed civilians the people involved are referred to as militants. A young boy was killed near a fence and was justified because he could be a “lookout for militants”.
Pitched battles with militants; clashes When the Israeli army, one of the most powerful in the world, enters the refugee camps in Gaza with tanks and helicopters, the BBC deems fit to describe the resulting slaughter as “pitched battles with militants.” The Palestinian resistance has no tanks or any sophisticated weaponry.
Road Map Indication that the Israelis are willing to continue negotiating, e.g., “Sharon stated that he will fully abide by the road map” (Dec. 18, 03). However, if the road map is dead then why continue referring to it or not challenge any such statements?
When recently questioned about the apparent death of the road map and why he continued to use the term, the BBC’s Jon Leyne stated: “It is not up to me to decide if it is dead.” It is for such insights that the BBC hires expert journalists!
Security barrier The BBC has settled on the “barrier” term because the grotesque wall currently being built has fence sections. However, its favorite descriptor is “security”. This prejudges the rationale behind the wall and fully sides with the Israeli-centric interpretation of it. Some months ago, the qualifier was “separation”, but that elicited nasty comparisons with apartheid, and was dropped forthwith.
Security zone When Israel invaded Lebanon in the 1980s it justified the occupation of South Lebanon in terms of requiring a “security zone”. Recently Israeli troops were driven from the area, and invariably the BBC still refers to Southern Lebanon as a “former security zone”.
Strategic Value Illegally conquered and occupied land, but its continued occupation or annexation is always due to “their strategic value”. The BBC usually uses this description automatically when referring to the Golan Heights.
Targeted killings A death squad assassinations. When a “wanted” person is killed, the BBC will state that this is part of Israel’s “targeted assassinations” policy. Never mind that most of the time civilians are also killed and it contravenes international humanitarian law.
Targets When it comes to the places bombed by the Israelis, then these are described in inert terms, e.g., targets. The BBC doesn’t need to visit the victims living in such targets. The word “target” also doesn’t convey the image that people have been killed or villages bombed.
Wall/barrier/fence Although the defining element of the wall being constructed by Israel are the wall segments in and around large population centers, the BBC attempts to stress the fact that there are also “fence” sections, thus it justifies using neutral sounding words like “barrier”. When there is an article about the wall in BBC Online or on TV, then the usual image shown is a “fence”. West Bank Palestinians despair, “can’t they see this is a 750+km wall costing more than US$4bn?”
Wanted Any time Palestinians have been killed, an Israeli spokesperson is quoted as saying that they were “wanted”. Never mind if the person was or wasn’t armed or active in the resistance, the labeling of the victim is never challenged by the BBC, neither is the justification for the killing. Similarly, thousands of Palestinians are held in prisons without charges, trial, and with undefined prison terms. These people are also “wanted”, but do not merit coverage.

13. Ethical doldrums

If the media doesn’t cover the situation in Israel-Palestine, the pressure for world governments to act, especially the US or the UK, fades, and we enter what are known as “periods of calm”. It doesn’t mean that the killing has stopped or that the relentless drive to cause mass misery has halted, it just means that it doesn’t appear in the “Western” media [36]. The only thing that stimulates interest by the main news networks is the onset of “violence.” It seems that only when a bomb explodes in Jerusalem that BBC journalists will show up making all the right clucking noises about the event.

So, here is the fundamental quandary for the Palestinians. If they do indeed stop the violent aspects of their resistance, the media spotlight will simply disappear, and concurrently the drive for the “international community” to do anything about their plight will fade. So in order to spark international attention, it seems Palestinians have to engage in violence, when they are labeled as terrorists. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t.

By contrast, Israeli violence, often aimed at upsetting a declared truce, is not covered commensurately — there is virtually no on-the-scene type of reporting of the victims of this terror, and therefore there is no mounting pressure on Israel for it to mend its truculent ways. In other words, when the Israelis bomb or engage in other nasty actions it doesn’t carry the commensurate public relations cost.

The ethical questions for the media thus pertain to the vicissitudes of their coverage, and the implication that the news media is partially responsible for violence. To avoid this situation the media needs to cover both Israeli and Palestinian societies, and then not only cover the elements that are deemed useful by the Israeli propagandist, e.g., Palestinian violence. Fair reporting that induces positive action requires in depth coverage of the implications of Israeli policy, e.g., the ethnic cleansing, the land grab implied by the wall, the 60 to 70% Palestinian unemployment, the tens of thousands of maimed victims, and so on.

The core of the problem is that some media have adopted a non-critical stance vis-à-vis state power, or worse, actually march in lockstep with it (although “embedded” is a trendier term). So, when a state adopts a dubious ethical position, the media producing propaganda-compliant reportage will be similarly implicated. If the media were to adopt a more independent role then there would be fewer overhanging ethical issues.

Where was the Beeb while…

Some Americans prefer the BBC’s reportage claiming it is more balanced. This appreciation has more to do with the execrable state of American broadcasting than with the quality of the BBC’s output. It is odd to find Americans listening to the BBC to obtain alternative news, as it is clear that the emphasis of BBC reportage is virtually identical to most American media. Some will also quote the BBC non-critically, and this has to do with its reputation for high journalistic standards. However, this reputation is no longer merited when it comes to reporting on Israel-Palestine, the Middle East in general, and areas considered “controversial”.

Today the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is ongoing, and Israeli policy is causing much misery and suffering. Jeff Halper, the Israeli peace activist, has called this “quiet ethnic cleansing.” The reason it is quiet has all to do with the fact that the major media barely mention what is going on. The BBC even refuses to acknowledge that systematic Israeli policies are now in place to drive the Palestinians off the land; it also doesn’t countenance the use of the term “ethnic cleansing”. The BBC’s fateful embrace with the stance of various states implies that there is major disjunction between events on the ground and the emphasis of its reportage. For this very reason it bears some responsibility for what is happening to the Palestinians today.

Paul de Rooij is a writer living in London, and can be reached at (all attachments will be automatically deleted.) ©2004.

Further Reading:

  1. Diana Johnstone’s Fools’ Crusade, PlutoPress 2002, is a very important book highlighting the parallel message found in the media and that portrayed by the various governments involved in the intervention in the former Yugoslavia. Media and government propagandists marched in lockstep. Michael Parenti’s To Kill A Nation: The Attack on Yugoslavia, Verso Books, 2002, presents a similar story.
  2. Facts like these were usually not mentioned:
    • It was the Serbians who bore the brunt of the ethnic cleansing; the US even provided military advisors to assist in this process.
    • The Croatian, Bosnian-Muslim, and Albanian-Kosovars represented some of the most reactionary political movements. In the case of Croatia, a movement based on the resurrected the 1940s Ustashe fascist party, a party with a genocidal history. The Bosnian-Muslims sought to set up an Islamic state from the start.
    • The Bosnian Muslims most probably targeted their own population in Sarajevo for propaganda purposes. Ditto the Albanian-Kosovars.
  3. Tell Me Lies, David Miller (ed.), PlutoPress 2004, contains an excellent collection of articles analyzing the reporting of the US-Iraq war.
  4. Mustafa Barghouti, Hell walking on earth,” Al Ahram, Feb. 5-11, No. 676.
  5. B’tselem, an Israeli human rights organization, estimates that 875,600 will be harmed by the construction of the wall. 16% of the West Bank land is falling under direct Israeli control due to the wall. Also, James Brooks provides a good overview of the effect of the wall here: We Didn’t Know, Will be No Excuse: Israel’s New War Machine Opens the Abyss, CounterPunch, Nov. 10, 2003,
  6. A Day in the North, PENGON, Jan. 4, 2004. This is an important document.
  7. Furthermore, many Israelis from the extreme Kach movement to “centrist” Israelis, bay for the implementation of “transfer” — there is nothing secret about it. Please note that several villages have already been cleansed or have been affected in such a way that Palestinians will live under miserable conditions, e.g., Yanoun, Akrabeh.
  8. Israel orders land seizures in Gaza. There are many other such examples.
  9. Olmert implemented several bureaucratic rules that led to the dispossession of Palestinians in Jerusalem. For example, building permits, confiscation of identity cards, outright confiscation of land, unwillingness to abide by the law when it came to Palestinian rights, etc. The Tourism minister, Benni Elon, participated personally in evicting a Palestinian family, see Like Thieves in the Night.
  10. Neve Gordon, “The Only Democracy in the Middle East? Most Israelis Don’t Believe It (or Support It)”, CounterPunch, Feb. 3, 04. Gordon states: “More than half of the Jews in Israel (53%) state that they are against full equality for the Arabs; 77 percent say there should be a Jewish majority on crucial political decisions; less than a third (31%) support having Arab political parties in the government; and the majority (57%) think that the Arabs should be encouraged to emigrate.” The latter is what they refer to as “transfer”.
  11. Adi Ophir, Genocide Hides Behind Expulsion: A Response to Benny Morris, CounterPunch, Jan. 16, 2004.
  12. This fact was confirmed by Malcolm Balen, the BBC senior editorial adviser to BBC News. His main role is to review the BBC’s Middle East output.
  13. Thalif Deen, Israeli Abuses the Worst in 35 Years — U.N. Report, CommonDreams, November 6, 2003.
  14. Chris Morris, Lost hope in Mid-East conflict, BBC Online, January 19, 2004,
  15. Dan Shohet, “Protest camp in Deir Balut village”, electronicIntifada, Dec. 26, 2003
  16. A reply by Judith Brown.
  17. “Terror Tourists” was broadcast on Dec. 7, 2003 on a prime hour-long timeslot. There is an overview of the film by the director here.
  18. Sharif Nashashibi’s reaction, Dec. 9, 03, Arab Media Watch.
  19. Transcript of the Dec. 18, 2003 BBC Newsnight program.
  20. Raffi Berg, Palestinian militant turned peacemaker, BBC Online, Jan. 26, 2004. To see Shoebat’s other ridiculous statements, e.g., “I am a Zionist”, see here.
  21. Martin Asser, Diary: Jerusalems bus roulette, BBC Online, August 29, 2003.
  22. James Reynold, Israel wants Washington to add Syria to its to do list, BBC_Online video.
  23. For a longer discussion of this topic see: David Edwards, Logical Media Lunacy, MediaLens, January 12, 2004.
  24. To justify this statement, we have tabulated the entire output of BBC Online during the second intifada and classified articles by the type of bias demonstrated. From this research we can conclude that there is an increase in the trivial or absurd stories.
  25. Rabbi issues internet sex prayer, BBC Online, Jan. 21, 2004.
  26. Raffi Berg, Israel’s first Eskimo soldier, BBC Online, Dec. 4, 2003. And Barbara Plett, Israeli army confronts Aids taboo, BBC Online, Nov. 23, 2003.
  27. Justin Huggler, Israel releases harrowing film of suicide bomb victims,The Independent, Jan 31, 2004.
  28. Tarik Kafala, Analysis: Palestinian suicide attacks, BBC Online, Dec. 25, 2003. This is an in-depth discussion of Palestinian “suicide bombing”, yet there is no similar report on violence perpetrated against Palestinians.
  29. See for example: Profile: Ariel Sharon, BBC Online, Jan. 21, 2004.
  30. Martin Asser, Guide to a West Bank Checkpoint, BBC Online, Aug. 8, 2003.
  31. In the past, the film director had the final say in the content and editing of a film. No more, most TV-film productions have constant interference by the producer who also have a final say in the editing and content. TV film directors state that they felt as if the editor was constantly looking over their shoulder. Worse yet, some companies work with a committee of producers – and each can overrule the director.
  32. Tim Llewellyn, “Why the BBC Ducks the Palestinian Story”, in Tell me lies (ed. David Miller), Pluto Press 2004, p. 227.
  33. One veteran correspondent noted that the “minder” assigned to him spoke English with his own accent, and he attempted to establish friendly relations by talking about the latest baseball scores of his home team. Another journalist stated that it was evident that all his articles had been scrutinized by his minder, and quibbled with him on the terminology used.
  34. Israel is the only country where nationality and citizenship are not the same. Thus even a people of Palestinian origin are Israeli citizens, but of “Arab” nationality. A recent Jewish arrival to Israel can be bestowed the Israeli citizenship and a “Jewish nationality”. Here issues of nationality and citizenship are tricky.
  35. Paul de Rooij, A Glossary of Occupation, CounterPunch, Sept. 12, 2002.
  36. Ali Abunimah, 117 Palestinians killed, hundreds injured during media’s “relative calm”, ElectronicIntifada, Dec. 26, 2003.






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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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Index: Current Articles

14 February 2004


Other Articles From This Issue:


GFA in the Toilet
Brian Mór


No Retreat
Glen Phillips


Terrorism and Democratic Society

Anthony McIntyre


SEA: The SWP and the Partition of Ireland
Paul Mallon


The "Free Trade" History Eraser: Honduras, Maquilas and Popular Protest in Latin America
Toni Solo


On A Street in America
Annie Higgins


The BBC and the Quiet Ethnic Cleansing of Palestinians
Paul de Rooij


4 February 2004


Language Belongs to All the People
Sean Flemin


Back to the Future? Prison Moves: From Segregation to Transportation
Fionnbarra Ó Dochartaigh


Evil Gets What Evil Gives

Anthony McIntyre




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