23 April 2013 — The Electronic Intifada
Israel’s occupation is airbrushed from the BBC’s coverage.
The American poet T.S. Eliot wrote that “April is the cruelest month.” The phrase springs to mind in April 2013, the month that a new director-general took up his post at the BBC and, within two weeks, had installed a line-up of hardline Zionists at the top of the world’s largest publicly-funded news organization.
Tony Hall, whose role as director-general commenced on 2 April, is a former BBC director of news and can boast a total of nearly 30 years working at the corporation. As such, he is well-versed in the BBC’s values — he knows what the BBC wants.
Soon after his own appointment, Hall named James Harding as the BBC’s new director of news and current affairs. Until December, Harding was editor of The Times, an avowedly right-wing, pro-Israeli paper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News International group.
In 2011, Harding spoke at a media event organized by The Jewish Chronicle, telling his audience: “I am pro-Israel. I believe in the State of Israel. I would have had a real problem if I had been coming to a paper [The Times] with a history of being anti-Israel. And, of course, Rupert Murdoch is pro-Israel.”
The strongly Zionist Jewish Chronicle reprinted those words with glee as news of Harding’s BBC appointment broke. And it also took the opportunity to remind its readers that, during the Israeli massacre in Gaza in late 2008 and early 2009, when more than 1,400 Palestinians were slaughtered, Harding wrote a Times editorial titled, “In defense of Israel” (“Signs of The Times at JCC,” 14 April 2011).
Now bringing his pro-Israel biases into the top ranks of the BBC, Harding will be in charge of its flagship news and current affairs programs including Today, Newsnight, Panorama and Question Time. He will also be responsible for daily news bulletins on the BBC’s main television channels and radio stations.
According to the Guardian, Harding now holds “arguably the most important editorial job in Britain” (“James Harding: ex-Times editor could become the story at the BBC,” 16 April 2013).
The news of his appointment to the £340,000 ($518,000) per year post comes just a fortnight after the former Labour Party minister James Purnell took up his new position at the BBC as director of strategy and digital.
Purnell, who was one of Hall’s first appointments, served for two years while in Parliament as chairman of the Westminster lobby group Labour Friends of Israel. Hugely influential, Labour Friends of Israel has drawn support from senior figures within the party, including the former prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Unsurprisingly, Purnell subscribes to the Zionist view, often taken in BBC news reporting, that Israel can do no wrong. Rather than as an aggressive occupier, Purnell portrays Israel as a victim of hostile, terrorist Arab neighbors. In a letter to Prospect magazine in 2004, Purnell wrote of the comparison made by campaigners between Israel and apartheid-era South Africa, saying: “I find it hard to reconcile that image to the reality on the ground. Israel is a democracy, suffering terrorist attacks, surrounded by countries that don’t recognize its existence, the victim of well-funded terrorist organizations that preach anti-Semitic hate” (“Judt on anti-Semitism,” 13 December 2004).
Israel, with more than 60 laws discriminating against its Palestinian citizens in all areas of life, including political and civil rights, can hardly be called a democracy if a democracy is a state for all its people. And two of its closest geographical neighbors, Jordan and Egypt, have long-standing peace treaties with Israel, something which would scarcely be possible if they didn’t recognize its existence.
However, Purnell’s fact-free, propagandized view of Israel will not be out of place at the BBC. The irony of course is that, under the terms of its Royal Charter, the BBC is meant to be committed to impartiality in its broadcasting.
That it is not can be evidenced in Hall’s third appointment — the promotion of former Today editor Ceri Thomas to the post of BBC head of programming. In his last full year as editor of Today, Thomas presided over a program that interviewed a senior Israeli politician or ambassador on average once every two months. Interviewees included Danny Ayalon, then Israel’s deputy foreign minister, and Tzipi Livni, an architect of the 2008-‘09 Gaza massacre.
During the same period, not a single Palestinian leader or spokesperson was accorded a similar honor. There was no serious recognition, under Thomas’ reign at Today, of the Palestinian viewpoint.
Thomas may well have felt that a Palestinian viewpoint was unnecessary on Today — widely seen in British media circles as the morning program which sets the news agenda for the rest of the day. After all, Palestine itself did not register in any of the aforementioned interviews, which were conducted by the BBC’s heavyweight journalists, including James Naughtie and John Humphrys.
Every single interview focused on a BBC obsession, embodied in Harding and Purnell, and practiced by Thomas at Today, of the “threat” to Israel from its Arab neighbors and Iran. There was no grilling of any interviewee on Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land, its violence against Palestinian civilians, or its arsenal of nuclear weapons which threaten the whole of the Middle East.
After each interview, the UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign wrote to the Today program to ask why Israel’s ongoing occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, in the face of international condemnation, had been airbrushed from the conversation.
Each time, this reply was received: “It simply wouldn’t be possible to discuss the complexities of the Middle East conflict during such a brief interview.”
So, over the course of six interviews in 12 months, each one about five or six minutes long, the Today program under Thomas couldn’t find a moment to bring up the Israeli occupation with the Israeli top brass it was interviewing. All of that airtime was needed to discuss not Israel’s aggression, but its own perceived victimhood.
One other moment from that year, 2011, stands out. On 23 March, Israel had carried out air and tank bombardments on Gaza, killing eight Palestinians, including two children and their grandfather. This was followed late at night by two rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel, which resulted in no injuries or deaths.
The next morning’s news bulletins on the Today program reported on the rockets which had hit Israel, but there was absolutely no mention of the death and destruction wreaked on Gaza by Israeli forces.
As “journalism,” it was beyond disgraceful. However, the presentation of some facts and the complete omission of others which resulted in the portrayal of Israel as a country under attack, while trying to live peacefully, was entirely consistent with BBC news reporting.
The BBC’s response to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign when questioned on why it hadn’t felt the deaths of eight Palestinians — two of them children — newsworthy, while giving coverage to non-fatal rocket attacks which took place in the same time period, was this: “Choosing the stories to include in our bulletins; the order in which they appear and the length of time devoted to them is a subjective matter and one which we know not every viewer and listener will feel we get right every time.”
This, then, is the history that Thomas brings with him to his new role as head of programming. Harding and Purnell carry with them their dedicated commitment to the Zionist cause. What hope now for Palestine at the BBC? April is indeed a cruel month.
Amena Saleem is active with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK and keeps a close eye on the media’s coverage of Palestine as part of her brief. She has twice driven on convoys to Gaza for PSC. More information on the PSC is available at www.palestinecampaign.org.