Thursday, 22 January 2004

Why the BBC Ducks the Palestinian Story

by Tim Llewellyn, former BBC correspondent

Watching a peculiarly crass, inaccurate and condescending programme about the endangered historical sites of "Israel" — that is to say, the Israeli-occupied Palestinian Territories — on BBC2 in early June 2003, (1) I determined to try to work out, as a former BBC Middle East correspondent, why the Corporation has in the past two and a half years been failing to report fairly the most central and lasting reason for the troubles of the region: the Palestinians' struggle for freedom.

The approach of the programme — made by Arts rather than News and Current Affairs — reflected the general run of BBC domestic coverage of the issue: the strained effort at "balance"; the failure to question the circumstances of the beleaguered historical sites (why are they beleaguered?); the acceptance of the "equivalence" of the two peoples fighting over this territory, the indigenous population and an occupying army; the assumption on which the whole programme was built: that in the then looming Anglo-American invasion of Iraq these historical and holy places might be damaged by missiles fired from Iraq. Perhaps BBC Arts was not aware before their team arrived that many ancient Arab monuments had already been besieged, shelled, violated, ransacked, bulldozed, and in many cases closed to their worshippers and their inheritors by Israel's occupying army.

A week earlier, in a BBC News documentary about the wall that Israel is building between the Israelis and the Palestinians (2) — much of it encroaching on occupied Palestinian land, destroying houses and olive groves and dividing families — it was again felt necessary to leaven the images of Arab suffering with the "balance" of how awkward the wall would be for a handful of illegal Jewish settlers. To explain this, a sympathetic Irish woman settler told that side of the story in the vivid English of her people.

It was not that the BBC did not tell the Palestinian story graphically and shockingly — but that "the other side" of the story had to be told as well, diluting the central and violent issue of The Wall and all it symbolises of Israel's fears, greed and brutal dismissal of its Arab neighbours.

Since the beginning of the Aqsa Uprising, or Second Intifada, in September 2000 there have been countless examples throughout the BBC's news broadcasts, discussion programmes, features, documentaries and even online of this muddying of the clear waters of the Israel-Palestine crisis. Elsewhere in this book academics and analysts such as Greg Philo give a scientific, actuarial account of this carelessness with the public broadcaster's duty. Without the room to print my long litany of the BBC's sins of omission and commission, I can best highlight my findings this way: Channel 4 News at 7pm is the only mainstream television news/current affairs bulletin that has tried consistently to do justice to this story, which sits at the centre of world affairs and the west's political engagement overseas.

Where Carlton TV has shown John Pilger's graphic Palestine is Still the Issue (3) and Channel 4 Sandra Jordan's death-defying story of the International Solidarity Movement (4) the BBC has made no effort to tell us truly — as did these two documentaries — how this occupation demeans and degrades people: not just the killing and the destruction, but the humiliation, the attempt to crush the human spirit and remove the identity; not just the bullet in the brain and the tank through the door, but the faeces Israel's soldiers rub on the plundered ministry walls, the trashed kindergarten; the barriers to a people's work, prayers and hopes.

In the news reporting of the domestic BBC TV bulletins, "balance", the BBC's crudely applied device for avoiding trouble, means that Israel's lethal modern army is one force, the Palestinians, with their rifles and home-made bombs, the other "force": two sides equally strong and culpable in a difficult dispute, it is implied, that could easily be sorted out if extremists on both sides would see reason and the leaders do as instructed by Washington.

In London, respectful BBC presenters talk calmly to articulate Israeli politicians, spokesmen and apologists in suits in studios; from Palestine comes the bad-quality, broken voice on a dusty wire from some wreckage of a town. It is true that BBC teams risk their lives in the midst of the violence, but soon they are back in their Jewish Jerusalem studios, finding the balance for their pieces, so that the rolling tragedy of occupation can somehow be ameliorated by the difficulties inside Israel.

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