Covering Israel-Palestine - The BBC's Double Standards
An Exchange With The BBC's Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen
The media reported last week that at least 22 people, including five Palestinian children, had been killed during Israeli 'incursions' into
The latest deaths followed the killing in early March of over 120 Palestinians under a massive Israeli assault on
One of last week's dead was a Reuters cameraman, a 23-year-old Palestinian, killed by a shell fired from an Israeli tank he was filming. Few details emerged of the other numerous victims of Israeli violence.
Media Lens emailed Jeremy Bowen, the BBC's
"In the BBC's recent reports about the violence in
"As you know, 22 people were killed, 5 of whom were children. Why are their names not provided by the BBC? Where are the further details that tell us something about them as individuals? Where are the interviews with their grieving families?
"If logistical problems make it difficult to do this, shouldn't you explain this clearly and prominently to your audience?
"Surely if 5 Israeli children had been killed, the BBC's news coverage would have been significantly different." (Email, April 17, 2008)
Bowen responded on the same day:
"You imply that we have double standards in marking the deaths of Palestinian and Israeli children. I can assure you that we do not.
"After twenty years of reporting wars I believe strongly that it is important to humanise the victims. But we cannot broadcast long roll calls of the dead. News is often about death. If we read out the name of everyone whose death we covered, we would have no room for anything else, including a proper explanation of how and why they died.
"Our coverage yesterday did that I thought excellently. Paul Wood's piece on the Ten O'Clock news was particularly strong, though the work of all the staff in our
"There were no interviews yesterday with grieving families because as the death of the Reuters cameraman showed, it was very dangerous to move around. They may well surface in the next few days. Very little video came out of
We replied the following day:
"Many thanks for responding. I appreciate your remark that 'it is important to humanise the victims.' Your response, however, tacitly acknowledges that you cannot do this so readily for Palestinian victims of deadly Israeli force.
"Justifiable concerns for the safety of BBC staff severely constrain timely and extensive coverage from the scene of Israeli attacks, or their aftermath. And so we hear too little from bystanders and grieving families, or Palestinian spokespeople. Compare and contrast with the headline BBC coverage of attacks on Israelis, such as the recent shooting at the Merkaz Herav Yeshiva in
"Five Palestinian children in
"Instead, the record shows that the BBC does a poor job of reflecting the huge disproportionality of killings, violence and force under
"The extent of relative media coverage to both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian 'conflict' does not have to reflect exactly these tragic statistics. Nor does the BBC viewer require endless reminders of the vast
We then quoted
"The emphasis here is on 'hot' live action and the immediacy of the report rather than any explanation of the underlying causes of the events. One BBC journalist who had reported on this conflict told us that his own editor had said to him that they did not want 'explainers' - as he put it: 'It's all bang bang stuff.' The driving force behind such news is to hold the attention of as many viewers as possible, but in practice, as we will see, it simply leaves very many people confused." (Philo and Berry, 'Bad News From Israel', Pluto Books, London, 2004, p. 102)
Israeli Perspective Routinely Highlighted
We invited Professor Philo to comment directly on our exchange with Jeremy Bowen; in particular, on Bowen's assertion that the BBC is even-handed in its coverage of Israeli and Palestinian victims. In response, Philo pointed to the findings of 'Bad News From Israel':
"[T]he focus on Israeli victims, both in terms of the quantity of coverage and the language used to describe them, led some viewers to believe wrongly that the Israelis had the most casualties and these beliefs were attributed directly to what they had seen on television." (Email, April 18, 2008)
In fact, as we saw above, there have been over four times as many Palestinian as Israeli deaths between September 2000 and March 2008. And the ratio is as high as nine when it comes to children's deaths. It is highly doubtful whether 'consumers' of corporate news media, the BBC included, are aware of this.
"This cannot be an acceptable situation for a publicly accountable broadcasting corporation that is committed to impartiality. Broadcasters cannot absolve themselves from the requirement for balance by accepting a status quo in which one side can ensure that it receives more favourable treatment by imposing restrictions on the other. The broadcasters really have to devote the necessary resources to make sure that both sides are properly represented." (Philo and Berry, op. cit., p. 137)
Their careful research concluded that news headlines "highlight Israeli statements, actions or perspectives." Palestinian views do appear in the media "but tend to be buried deep in the text of news bulletins. [...] it is hard to avoid the conclusion that one view of the conflict is being prioritised." (Ibid., p. 144)
Put more explicitly, it is "the Israeli perspective [which] is highlighted in terms of causes, motives and preferred outcomes." (Ibid., p. 166). Moreover, Philo and
Jonathan Cook, an independent journalist () whose honest and incisive reporting from
"It is a terrible irony that, precisely because
"When Bowen tells us that 'we cannot broadcast long roll calls of the dead', he's implicitly accepting a set of news priorities that mean the more Palestinians killed the less importance their deaths have to news organisations like his. Conversely, the fewer Israelis killed the more seriousness their deaths are accorded." (Email to Media Lens, April 21, 2008)
Israelis Are 'People Like Us'
We contacted Tim Llewellyn, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, for his view. He praised Jeremy Bowen's impact on the BBC's performance:
"My view of the BBC's Israel/Palestine coverage has changed a little, and mainly because Jeremy Bowen's presence on the ground and in
"Jeremy has some licence from the BBC, and its trillion on-line producers, managers and editors, because of his knowledge, authority and status, which he has built up as both a
Llewellyn, however, pointed to the deep constraints that preclude fair and balanced reporting:
"The problem [of bias] is not with him and cannot be dealt with within his aegis."
"Editors, producers, presenters, and their immediate bosses, live in the heated climate of
John Pilger is one journalist has been on the receiving end of such flak in his extensive reporting on
We sent Pilger our exchange with the BBC's
"Jeremy Bowen's quote is indefensible. One only has to read the acclaimed study, 'Bad News from
Pilger then recounted an example of the BBC's institutional bias that systematically suppresses uncomfortably honest perspectives:
"A few years ago, [Bowen] invited me to take part in a BBC special about war correspondents, and we spent an enjoyable hour or so 'in conversation'. Although it was clear that tales of derring-do would have been preferred, I raised the unwelcome subject that the BBC was an extension and voice of the established order in
Regular readers of our alerts will be familiar with the corporate media claim that lack of 'time' or 'space' somehow 'explains' the regular omission of honest reporting and critical analysis.
As a result of this undeclared media censorship, public understanding of the
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
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