Sunday, June 05, 2011

'more bad news from israel'

Book alleges BBC pro-Israel bias
Susannah Tarbush

The BBC has always prided itself on the supposed impartiality, accuracy and fairness of its output. As the British public service broadcaster, funded primarily through the license fee, it has a particular responsibility to abide by these principles. But its coverage of the Palestine-Israel issue has over the years led to challenges from both sides as regards impartiality.

Now the BBC is facing renewed allegations that its coverage of the Palestine-Israel issue is biased towards Israel. One reason for this is the publication by London publisher Pluto Press of the book “More Bad News from Israel” by Professor Greg Philo, Research Director of the Glasgow University Media Group, and Mike Berry, lecturer in the faculty of Arts, University of Nottingham.

The first part of this meaty book of nearly 400 pages explains the contested histories of the conflict. There are then detailed and systematic studies of media content and of audiences.

The authors write: “While the broadcast media give a clear account of the Israeli perspective on this conflict, many journalists and especially in the BBC find great difficulty in doing the same for the Palestinians.“

The book is an updated version of the authors’ 2004 book “Bad News from Israel” which analyzed media content and audience responses in the period from 2000 (when the second intifada began) to 2002. The updated book has new chapters on the 2008/09 Gaza war and on the Israeli attack of May 2010 on the Gaza flotilla, in which a number of activists were killed.

Philo and Berry maintain that it is in the area of reasons for the violence that the Israeli perspective has been allowed by broadcasters to achieve and sustain a prominence. “The Palestinian view is often simply absent and this has clear impacts on audience belief.”

The authors say they are not asking for journalists to favor one group or the other but only to give an accurate account of the perspectives of both sides. Other broadcasters such as Channel 4 News have apparently much less of a problem with this. ”So the question remains, why is some BBC news still so partial?” One factor is the pro-Israel lobby – including organizations such as the British Israel Communications and Research Centre (Bicom) – and the power of Israeli public relations.

There have been two launches of the book in London, the first at the School of Oriental Studies (SOAS), London University, addressed by Philo [pictured] and by the legendary campaigning Australian filmmaker and journalist John Pilger. Pilger’s latest film, “The war You Don’t See”, is critical of the ways in which the mainstream media reports on Afghanistan, Iraq , and the Israeli-Palestinian issue

The Palestinian scholar Dr Dina Matar, Lecturer in Arab Media and Political Communication at the SOAS Centre for Media and Film Studies, chaired the launch. She thought the way the media reports the Arab-Israeli conflict is “sometimes very biased” or “doesn’t report issues that need to be reported.”

For example, “one issue that really struck me very personally, as well as very sadly, was the lack of reporting of the protests on Nakba Day.” On that day, 15 May, Israeli soldiers killed more than 12 unarmed youngsters at the Syrian and Lebanese borders “who came with flags saying we just want to return to our country, without even posing any threat.”

The second London launch of the book was at Amnesty International’s Human Rights Action Centre. Appearing alongside Philo were former BBC journalist coveriing the Middle East, Tim Llewellyn, and the Gaza-born Palestinian editor-in-chief of Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper Abdel Bari Atwan . The launch was chaired by Victoria Brittain, former associate foreign editor of the Guardian newspaper.

The launch at Amnesty, organized by Middle East Monitor (MEMO) and the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC), went ahead despite a concerted campaign by pro-Israeli groups to get it cancelled.

At the SOAS launch Philo described how after the first book was published he was invited to address BBC news and current affairs editors on its contents. A number of BBC editors and journalists told him of the intense pressures they are under regarding coverage of Israel.

“It is not that BBC journalists do not know exactly what is happening in Israel, but they are working within an iron-clad system of what they understand can be said,” Philo said. One editor said he and his colleagues wait in fear of telephone call of complaint from the Israelis.

One very senior Middle East journalist and correspondent told him that in BBC coverage of the Palestinians “what is missing is the notion that here is an occupied people, a people who are trying to throw off a military occupation.”

Developments in broadcasting technology mean that devastating images of war and human carnage can be brought immediately to the home by TV or the internet. “The response of Israel was to develop the most sophisticated approach to international publicity and public relations that we have yet seen,” Philo said. A first move was to set up the National Information Directorate.

During the Gaza war the National Information Directorate made sure that everyone “spoke the same message with the same words”. The words can be found in the Israel Project’s Global Language Dictionary, compiled by Dr Frank Luntz, which helps official spokesmen and others “communicate effectively in support of Israel” by for example advising them on “words that work” and “words that do not work”. Philo says analysis has shown that recommended “words that work” were often exactly paralleled by the content of TV news.

It is not only the BBC’s news and current affairs broadcasts that are giving rise to current claims of a bias in favor of Israel. Its youth music content is also under scrutiny. There is the extraordinary case of the world “Palestine” being censored from a freestyle performance by rapper MiC Righteous [pictured R in picture below, with Charlie Sloth] in the program ‘Hip Hop Mix with Charlie Sloth’ on black music network BBC Radio 1Xtra.

As the video of the performance posted on the station’s website shows, when MiC Righteous raps “ I still have the same beliefs, I can scream Free Palestine” a shattered glass sound effect after the first syllable of “Palestine” obliterates the rest of the word. This censorship has triggered a furious reaction, including in comments on the radio website.

A letter published in the Guardian, signed by 18 prominent people, condemned “in the strongest possible terms” the BBC’s censorship of the word Palestine. “As artists, academics, lawyers and parliamentarians, we oppose this attack on the principle of free speech and on the freedom of artists to express political viewpoints through art.”

The BBC response is that “all BBC programs have a responsibility to be impartial when dealing with controversial subjects and an edit was made to the artist’s freestyle to ensure that impartiality was maintained.”

Activist Jody McIntyre in a blog for the Independent newspaper, asserted that the MiC Righteous controversy had “opened a can of worms the BBC cannot ignore for very much longer.” He pointed out that in another freestyle performance in the same Radio 1Xtra slot, the BBC had censored the words “Gaza Strip” from the performance of the rapper Bigz. In Charlie Sloth’s reposting of the Bigz performance on YouTube however the phrase has been restored, and commenters have thanked Sloth for this.

McIntyre comments that “the BBC’s seeming submission to the Zionist lobby has taken precedence over common sense. The BBC seems intent on completely eradicating any recognition of Palestine’s right to exist from their radio broadcasts, but their actions have had the opposite effect.”

No comments: