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Is the BBC trying to shore up support for Israel’s assault on Gaza?

Pro-Israeli broadcasters are finding it ever harder to defend Israel in the face of the large-scale massacres and destruction in Gaza.

 But the BBC is determined to do its best, sacrificing all claims to impartiality and journalistic integrity in the process.

In addition to flooding its radio and television programs with Israeli spokespeople, while keeping Palestinian voices to a minimum, the BBC, as it did during Israel’s 2012 assault on Gaza, has taken to presenting pro-Israel commentators as independent.

BBC audiences are, therefore, given strong doses of pro-Israeli propaganda — being told that Hamas is using civilians as human shields, that Israel has shown nothing but restraint in the face of constant rocket attacks, that it is defending its citizens and so on — while under the impression that they are hearing neutral, independent comment.

These key Israeli messages are, of course, more likely to be believed by viewers and listeners if they think they are impartial observations, rather than the opinions of pro-Israeli spokespeople.

On 17 July, as part of its 10pm news broadcast, the BBC News Channel ran an interview with Davis Lewin, deputy director and head of policy and research at the Henry Jackson Society.

The Henry Jackson Society is a virulently pro-Israel think tank, described in 2012 by its founding member, Marko Attila Hoare, as “an abrasively right-wing forum with an anti-Muslim tinge, churning out polemical and superficial pieces by aspiring journalists and pundits that pander to a narrow readership of extreme Europhobic British Tories, hardline US Republicans and Israeli Likudniks.”

In a 2013 job advert for the position of its North American director, the society wrote it was looking for someone who could reach out to the “pro-Israel community.”

Lewin himself is the recipient of an “Israel research fellowship” — a one-year placement awarded to university graduates, under which they work for the Israeli government or an organization sympathetic to Israel (he is listed as an alumnus of the class of 2009/10).

On its website, the Israel Research Fellowship (IRF) organizations says recipients of the award are “mentored by senior executives in their placements and informed by specially designed conferences.”

It adds: “Israel research fellows, with their comprehensive knowledge of historical and intellectual trends, serve as articulate spokespeople for Israel. The IRF is a pro-Israel, apolitical, non-partisan enterprise that aims to serve in the best interests of the State of Israel.”

Damage already done

And yet, when he appeared on the BBC News Channel, Lewin was introduced by presenter Martine Croxall as simply: “Davis Lewin, who’s from the Henry Jackson Society, a foreign and defense policy think tank.”

Few people watching would have been aware of the nature of the Henry Jackson Society or of Lewin’s pro-Israel placement.

Speaking, it seemed to viewers, as a spokesperson for an independent think tank, Lewin had three minutes to push the pro-Israeli, anti-Hamas line, aided at times by Croxall’s interviewing, which included this question: “Hamas is regarded as a terrorist organization by not just Israel but other countries, too. What are Israel’s intentions towards Hamas? It has said this is a limited scope action. Why doesn’t it just try and get rid of Hamas altogether?”

Not surprisingly, the interview was quickly posted on YouTube by the Henry Jackson Society.

The Palestine Solidarity Campaign wrote to the BBC to remind it of its own editorial guidelines, which include this: “We should normally identify on-air and online sources of information and significant contributors, and provide their credentials, so that our audiences can judge their status.”

For once, the BBC was quick to write back, sending this by email: “We apologize for this and would like to assure you that the matter has been raised with the relevant editorial staff at the BBC News Channel, who have been reminded of the need to clearly describe the ideology of such organizations in our coverage.”

However, the damage had been done. And what good is a reminder to journalists who have a history of presenting pro-Israeli commentators as independent and face no censure for doing so?

In November 2012, as Israel pounded Gaza for eight days, BBC News 24 (as the BBC News Channel was known), used Jonathan Sacerdoti as a commentator four times in two days, presenting him each time as an independent expert.

Sacerdoti, however, was no impartial expert. He had worked as director of public affairs at the Zionist Federation and, in 2012, he was elected to the international division of the Board of Deputies of British Jews. The international division’s primary work is to promote Israel.

After eight months of challenge, the BBC finally admitted it had breached its editorial guidelines on accuracy and impartiality with its misrepresentation of Sacerdoti.

And then, as now, the BBC told the Palestine Solidarity Campaign it would remind its editorial staff of the need to correctly identify its contributors. That “reminder” apparently came to nothing.

Defending Israel’s attacks

Presenting pro-Israeli commentators as independent is not just limited to the BBC’s airwaves, but is also evident in its online output.

On 22 July, BBC Online uploaded a long feature headlined “Gaza: How Hamas tunnel network grew.”

With 700 Palestinians killed at that stage, with thousands injured, and around 300,000 internally displaced, this came across as a desperate attempt by the BBC to shore up justification for Israel’s ongoing massacres.

Reams of paragraphs are devoted to tunnels “booby-trapped with explosives” — and the effort needed by Israel to detect them. The impression given to the reader is that Israel is under a very real threat from the existence of these tunnels and the existence of the organization — Hamas — which built and operates them. The lie that Israel “withdrew” from Gaza in 2005 is also contained in the report.

The article is written, not by a BBC journalist, but by Dr. Eado Hecht, who is described by the BBC as “independent defense analyst and lecturer in military doctrine at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar Ilan University.”

But Hecht is not “independent,” as the BBC claims. He is in the pay of the Israeli army. Unknown to readers of the BBC Online article, Hecht also teaches at the Israeli military’s Command and General Staff College.

It’s not worth asking if a Palestinian in the pay of Hamas would ever be given space by the BBC to write a long feature about the threat to Palestinians of Israeli aggression. The answer is obvious.

But it is worth noting that the BBC has form in providing platforms to pro-Israelis to expound their views on Gaza.

In November 2012, as Israel’s onslaught on Gaza was drawing to an end, BBC Online ran a feature by Guglielmo Verdirame, a professor in international law at King’s College London.

The article was headlined “Gaza crisis: the legal position of Israel and Hamas.”

Verdirame used his BBC platform to defend Israel’s vicious, sustained attack on Gaza’s refugee population in “legal” terms.

To the reader, told only that Verdirame teaches at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London, this was an impartial viewpoint. But Verdirame had presented the same arguments three weeks earlier to a Zionist Federation event in London for Israel advocates. His pro-Israel credentials are impeccable, being involved as well with UK Lawyers for Israel, an organization whose aim is to sue those it regards as “enemies” of Israel.

Verdirame was put to use by G4S this year to co-author a paper defending the security firm’s involvement in the Israeli prisons where Palestinians are held and routinely tortured. That he should have been asked to write as an independent commentator by the publicly-funded BBC is disgraceful.

Impartiality goes out the window

There are numerous legal experts the BBC could call on who would pronounce Israel’s assault on Gaza a violation of international law. Forty-two of them signed a statement to that effect on 28 July, including Richard Falk, the former UN special rapporteur on human rights in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

But none of them is likely to be receiving a phone call from the BBC. Their messages don’t fit the broadcaster’s apparent agenda.

On 31 July, when the BBC’s flagship news program Today wanted to discuss whether Israel’s current assault on Gaza had a legal basis, it interviewed, not just one, but two, Israelis. And not a single Palestinian.

The first Israeli interviewed was Pnina Sharvit Baruch. Listeners were told she was the “former head of international law at the IDF [the Israeli military], now a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies [in Tel Aviv].”

What they weren’t told is that Sharvit Baruch was a colonel in the Israeli army, retiring after Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s attack on Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009. They were not told that, in that role, she legitimized strikes on civilians in Gaza during Cast Lead, including the attack on the graduation ceremony of new police officers, which resulted in 180 Palestinians being killed.

She was considered so extreme that, in 2009, staff at Tel Aviv University protested her appointment as a lecturer in law. She was not, however, considered too extreme for the BBC.

The day before she made her unchallenged appearance on Today, Sharvit Baruch was interviewed on the legalities of Israel’s attack by the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre (BICOM), which describes itself as being “dedicated to creating a more supportive environment for Israel in Britain.”

On Today she was joined by Yuri Dromi, introduced by presenter Sarah Montague as “director-general of the Jerusalem Press Club, but he used be a spokesman for the Israeli government in the Nineties.”

Sharvit Baruch and Dromi enjoyed nine minutes of gentle questioning by Montague. Her acceptance of everything they said and her failure to ask a single challenging or critical question was compounded by the absence of a Palestinian spokesperson who could have made that challenge instead and offered a different viewpoint.

It was an extraordinarily biased piece of pro-Israeli broadcasting, even by BBC standards. Montague’s questions seemed to be set up as deliberate cues for Sharvit Baruch and Dromi to set out the Israeli government’s key messages.

For example, she asked Sharvit Baruch, “Would you be advising the Israeli army that what they have done is legal?”

What answer did she seriously expect?

If the BBC wanted a genuinely impartial answer to this question, it could have invited a UN spokesperson onto Today to answer it. To ask it of a former Israeli army legal advisor who has greenlighted previous massacres seemed like a deliberate invitation to propaganda, not an attempt at serious journalism.

But serious journalism, and impartial journalism, seems to go out of the window at the BBC, at least when it comes to Palestine. Israeli spokespeople and supporters are given unchallenged platforms that are not offered to their Palestinian counterparts, they are presented as independent when they are not, they are allowed to speak without challenge, and with no Palestinian to oppose them.

The result is day after day of Israeli propaganda pushed down the throats of anyone who looks to the BBC for impartial reporting of the occupation.

Sarah Montague’s interview with Pnina Sharvit Baruch and Yuri Dromi can be heard here at 02:14:27 until the end of August.

Amena Saleem

Amena Saleem's picture

Amena Saleem is a journalist and activist, working closely with Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK. She has twice driven on convoys to Gaza with PSC.

More information on PSC’s solidarity work is available at www.palestinecampaign.org

Complaints to the BBC can be made at www.bbc.co.uk/complaints.


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December 2021
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