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BBC Bombast – Propaganda, Complaints And Black Holes of Silence

On the BBC television news, the pulsing theme tune sets the tone: the world is a serious place and we, the BBC, are here to give it to you straight. The computer-animated intro, featuring the Earth encompassed by transmitted signals, together with the high-tech news studio, proclaims impeccable credentials. The newscaster – Huw Edwards, Fiona Bruce, perhaps Emily Maitlis or Nick Owen – looks directly into the camera with the requisite degree of gravitas. The message is clear: ‘You can trust us. We have no agenda. This is the BBC. This is The News.’

The dramatic packaging allows propaganda to slip through in digestible chunks. And it is a diet that, like the soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, promotes mass adherence to state ideology. We are fed myths that our governments are essentially well-intentioned; that powerful investors, banks and corporations promote ‘free trade’ and ‘open markets’ while providing responsibly for society’s wants and needs; that prevailing state-corporate policies and practices constitute human ‘progress’; and that, in any case, no serious or credible alternatives exist.

Anyone can spot the propaganda with a modicum of vigilance while watching the news.

For example, take the BBC News at Ten report on June 19 about the deaths of nine Libyans, including two babies, killed in a Nato air raid. The Nato killings were presented in the headlines as what the Libyan government ‘says’ happened. In his piece, Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen repeated the party line: ‘Nato’s mandate is to protect civilians.’

Three days later, Bowen reported the brutal consequences of yet another Nato air attack, with fifteen dead including at least three children and two women.

Over footage of the bombed house, Bowen said:

‘It [Nato] says close monitoring showed it was a command centre. The family say it was their home.’

Then Bowen continued with the following astonishing remarks:

‘Was a decision taken that killing civilians here would save others elsewhere?’


‘The deaths here raise the moral question at the heart of the Nato mission in Libya. Its mandate is to protect civilians. So is it ever justifiable to kill them?’

Imagine a BBC correspondent asking of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban: ‘Was a decision taken that killing civilians here would save lives elsewhere?’ It simply would not happen.

When Bowen was challenged by a Media Lens reader, the BBC editor replied:

‘It’s always worth pondering moral issues.’ (June 23, 2011)

But the moral ‘pondering’ is from the perspective of one side only: the one armed with the most powerful, state-of-the-art weaponry invading yet another country that is opposing Western interests. The BBC News audience is clearly expected to identify with Nato. After all, these are ‘our’ forces out there ‘protecting civilians’. But not only that, we are asked to assume that there is a moral basis to Nato’s killing. Again, just try to imagine the same ‘pondering’ by a BBC correspondent from the perspective of officially-decreed enemies.


Britain Is ‘In Love With Obama’

It is not only when death is being inflicted by Western firepower that the BBC can be expected to conform to state doctrine. It applies most definitely to events of state pomp and ceremony: royal weddings, Trooping the Colour, Armed Forces Day, anniversaries of D-Day, and on and on. Indeed, the BBC distinguishes itself by setting its ‘patriotism’ volume control to eleven on such occasions.

Reporting on President Obama’s state visit to the UK, BBC political editor Nick Robinson gushed happily on the News at Ten:

‘There was never any doubt that Britain was in love with Obama.’ (May 25, 2011)

Robinson was seemingly unaware of the slippery step where ‘balanced’ journalism tips over into hagiography.

In fact, many in this country believe that Obama shares ultimate responsibility for numerous war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. We asked Robinson:

‘What gives you the right to sweep aside this section of the British public?’ (Email, May 26, 2011)

He responded:

‘The opinion polls back up my suggestion that Britain – or, at least, a sizeable majority of opinion – is enthusiastic about President Obama.’ (Email, May 26, 2011)

We answered:

‘The recent ComRes/ITV News poll suggests 40% of the British public disagree, or haven’t made up their minds, about Obama being “a good president”. That’s hardly “love”, to quote you.

‘54% agree or don’t know that he’s “lived up to expectations”. Is that “love”?

‘Only 34% think he’s “doing a good job of managing the situation in Afghanistan.” And the same low figure, 34%, on his handling of the Middle East.

‘None of this justifies your gushing assertion:

‘ “There was never any doubt that Britain was in love with Obama.”

‘Perhaps some Britons are indeed “in love with Obama”. This isn’t surprising given that you, and much of the rest of the national media, have swooned over Obama from Day 1. That’s not reporting; it’s propaganda.’ (Email, May 26, 2011)

To give Robinson credit, he did at least respond one more time:

‘Noted!’ (Email, May 26, 2011)

However, his reporting and analysis are unchanged. The BBC’s Nick Robinson remains a reliable channel for the mix of official propaganda and platitude that passes for political comment.


Propaganda Merchants R Us

Or consider BBC News presenter Emily Maitlis reading out a headline about Yemen:

‘We’ll be looking at the West’s fear [that] a power vacuum could lead to more instability in the country.’ (News at Ten, June 5, 2011)

That was the propaganda version of reporting.

The straight version is that the ‘fear’ shared by Western leaders and corporations is that they will lose control, influence, profits and access to resources. ‘Stability’ is when such conditions are secure. Hence the endless Western military ‘interventions’ in resource-rich regions of the planet. (Seehere on Yemen).

On Newsnight, the BBC’s flagship news discussion programme, Jeremy Paxman can be relied upon to adhere to an establishment-friendly framework, while snarling in a way that appears challenging:

‘It’s the overwhelming duty of government, of course, to protect the people. But how do we make ourselves safe from those who loathe, more or less, everything this country stands for?’ (Newsnight, BBC2, June 6, 2011; our emphasis)

That’s right. It’s ‘our’ love of democracy, freedom and human rights that people around the world hate so much; not ‘our’ foreign policies that so regularly see ‘unpeople’ being blown up, maimed, widowed, orphaned and turned into refugees in deference to ‘our’ corporate and strategic interests.

This is the kind of accuracy and impartiality that the BBC constantly strives to broadcast.

Not to be outdone, the agenda-setting Today programme on BBC Radio 4 does its bit, too. So it asks penetrating questions such as:

‘After years reminding its critics that it is the only democracy [sic] in the Middle East surrounded by Arab autocracies, how would Israel cope if the rest of the region suddenly became democratic?’ (Kevin Connolly,‘Israel’s “cold peace” with Egypt’, May 30, 2011)

BBC correspondent Kevin Connolly reported ‘from Israel on their ambiguous feelings about the Arab Spring.’

To the soothing backdrop of gentle splashing noises, Connolly spoke of how you can sail out into the Red Sea ‘and see how precariously Israel sits between two of its Arab neighbours – Jordan on one shore and Egypt on the other’.

Does this picture sound familiar? Yes, it’s the Zionist propaganda image of plucky little Israel squeezed between dangerous Arab regimes. That set the tone for the piece, with one Palestinian voice briefly included so that the BBC could tick the box marked ‘balance’.

Connolly concluded:

‘There are those in Israel who believe the creative thing to do at this moment of turbulence is to push harder for peace with the Palestinians. It’s much likelier that Israel, always cautious in these matters, will simply become more cautious still.’

The listener needs to swallow the pill that Israel is forever ‘cautious’. Not at all a dangerous, expansionary, nuclear-armed state.

BBC presenter Sarah Montague is a serial offender on the Today programme. In an interview with Tony Blair, who was promoting the paperback publication of his self-aggrandising book ‘My Journey’, she asked:

‘And when the Israeli [Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu says that the Palestinian Authority needs to choose between peace with Israel and peace with Hamas, what do you say to him?’ (June 9, 2011)

For attentive listeners, the biased presumption was clear: the core issue is that the Palestinians must first renounce violence. Not the cruel imposers of the Gaza siege; not the brutal forces of illegal military occupation, unmentioned in the interview; not the Israelis. The implication of Blair’s response, unchallenged by Montague, was that Israel only responds to Palestinian violence.

This was further evidence of the systematic bias in BBC News demonstrated so powerfully by Greg Philo and Mike Berry in their recent book, More Bad News From Israel. Montague did not respond to our email challenging her Blair interview, even after a gentle nudge two weeks later.


Boaden Broadcasts Bombast

‘In each decade, from its inception to the present day, the BBC bears the scars of its entanglements with those in power.’

Those were the remarkable opening words delivered in a grandiose speech by the BBC’s news director Helen Boaden recently. (Value of Journalism Speech given at The BBC College of Journalism and POLIS international conference, June 10, 2011.)

In support of her claim, Boaden cited several examples including prime minister Anthony Eden’s accusation during the Suez crisis in the 1950s of the BBC ‘giving comfort to the enemy.’

And, in the 1990s, ‘[the BBC’s] John Simpson found himself under attack for his supposedly “biased reports” about the impact of NATO bombing on Belgrade.’

There was much that Boaden missed in her partial history of the BBC’s ‘entanglements with those in power’, as we will see below.

‘It is the journalists’ job to hold power to account’, she continued, ‘to shine light in dark places.’

This is indeed what journalists keep telling themselves. Without a hint of irony, Boaden continued to wax lyrical:

‘To hold power to account – we have to tell the truth as we see it, to the people who need it, independent of government and commercial interests.

‘But we must do so freely and fairly, and in a genuine spirit of inquiry.

‘And if you ask the questions of those in power – you must be prepared to answer them – and to acknowledge your own mistakes.’

Readers may well scratch their heads at this proclaimed BBC willingness to answer questions and acknowledge mistakes. Because the BBC’s own record, documented in ten years of media alerts, displays the very opposite. Boaden tries to pre-empt the public howls of laughter and derision:

‘It’s just a fact of life that e-mails mean that, these days, viewers can complain – or even praise us, perhaps! – more easily than they could in the past.

‘It is hard to strike a balance between allowing all-comers to complain and making the process unduly restrictive.

‘It means the system can be preyed on by interest groups, or individuals with an obsessive interest, or those with the time and resources to pursue an agenda of their own.

‘Sometimes, when people complain about a lack of impartiality, they are simply trying to impose their version of the truth on us.

‘It can be difficult for us, or unpleasant.’

Long-time readers may recall that Boaden was so scrupulous about accountability that she changed her email address to evade questions and complaints. Even the former BBC chairman Lord Grade described his experience of complaining to the BBC as ‘grisly’ due to a system he said was‘absolutely hopeless’. What hope for the rest of us mere mortals?

As individuals with ‘an obsessive interest’ in truthful news reporting, and with the ‘time and resources’ to pursue this demented ‘agenda’, we challenged Boaden as follows (the full version of our email is archived here):

You said that: ‘Our ratings for trust, impartiality and independence have […]  continued to rise over the last three years.’

But you do not provide any figures to back this up. Could you possibly point to the relevant references, please?

You also said that:

‘In each decade, from its inception to the present day, the BBC bears the scars of its entanglements with those in power.’

However, what followed was as a rather selective and debatable list.

Here is some of what you missed:

The BBC was founded by Lord Reith in 1922 and immediately used as a propaganda weapon for the Baldwin government during the General Strike, when it was known by workers as the “British Falsehood Corporation”. During the strike, no representative of organised labour was allowed to be heard on the BBC. Ramsay McDonald, the leader of the opposition, was also banned.

In their highly respected study of the British media, Power Without Responsibility, James Curran and Jean Seaton wrote of ‘the continuous and insidious dependence of the Corporation [the BBC] on the government’. (Routledge, 4th edition, 1991, p.144)

John Pilger has reported:

‘Journalists with a reputation for independence were refused BBC posts because they were not considered “safe”.’ (John Pilger, Hidden Agendas, Vintage, 1998, p.496)

In 2003, a Cardiff University report found that the BBC ‘displayed the most “pro-war” agenda of any broadcaster’ on the Iraq invasion. Over the three weeks of the initial conflict, 11% of the sources quoted by the BBC were of coalition government or military origin, the highest proportion of all the main television broadcasters. The BBC was less likely than Sky, ITV or Channel 4 News to use independent sources, who also tended to be the most sceptical. The BBC also placed least emphasis on Iraqi casualties, which were mentioned in 22% of its stories about the Iraqi people, and it was least likely to report on Iraqi opposition to the invasion.

On the eve of the invasion of Iraq, Andrew Bergin, the press officer for the Stop The War Coalition, told Media Lens:

‘Representatives of the coalition have been invited to appear on every TV channel except the BBC. The BBC have taken a conscious decision to actively exclude Stop the War Coalition people from their programmes, even though everyone knows we are central to organising the massive anti-war movement…’ (Email to Media Lens, March 14, 2003)

In a speech at New York’s Columbia University, John Pilger commented:

‘We now know that the BBC and other British media were used by MI6, the secret intelligence service. In what was called “Operation Mass Appeal”, MI6 agents planted stories about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction – such as weapons hidden in his palaces and in secret underground bunkers. All these stories were fake.’ (John Pilger, ‘The real first casualty of war,’ New Statesman, April 24, 2006)

In truth, the BBC’s relationship with the establishment was accurately summarised long ago, in a single diary entry made by Lord Reith:

‘They know they can trust us not to be really impartial.’

I hope you will respond, please.

(Email, June 13, 2011)

Almost inevitably, the reply was a standard brush-off, sent by someone in the BBC Press Office:

‘As I am sure you will appreciate, Helen receives a very large volume of correspondence so it is not always possible for her to correspond with individuals directly.’ (June 16, 2011)

Chancing our luck, we emailed back:

‘Helen Boaden said:

‘“Our ratings for trust, impartiality and independence have […]  continued to rise over the last three years.”

‘Could you possibly point me to the relevant surveys, please? Are they available online?’

The Press Office response was friendly enough:

‘hi – here you go

‘Our scores for trust and impartiality have improved over last three years

1. BBC is independent and impartial – 52% to 56%

2. BBC News is independent – 60% to 64%

3. BBC News is trustworthy – 64% to 67%’

(email, June 24, 2011)

There were no references, no sources.

We tried one more time:

‘Much appreciated – but can you point me to the surveys in full, please? There are no doubt details of how, where and when they were conducted and so on.

‘These details must surely be publicly available in a report?’ (email, June 24, 2011)

The response?

‘It’s internal research – the reports aren’t published.’ (email, June 24, 2011)

This was truly lamentable. The public is supposed to take on trust the research that the publicly-funded BBC undertakes to prove its supposed independence, impartiality and – trustworthiness!

But the bigger picture is worse. The BBC regularly churns out a diet of pre-digested pabulum that props up power. As Aldous Huxley wrote, these doses of soma dished out to the people construct ‘a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds.’ The consequences for humanity of media propaganda have proven calamitous and – as the world slides ever-further into the abyss of catastrophic climate change – could yet be terminal.



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Bad News From The BBC – Part 1: ‘Replete With Imbalance And Distortion’

Bad News From The BBC – Part 1: ‘Replete With Imbalance And Distortion’


One of the main headlines on the BBC news homepage earlier this month read, ‘Violence erupts at Israel borders’. Israeli soldiers had shot dead at least 12 protesters and injured dozens more. BBC ‘impartiality’ decreed that the brutal killings were presented almost as an act of nature, a volcanic eruption that simply happened.

Clicking on the link did at least bring up a more accurate headline: ‘Israeli forces open fire at Palestinian protesters’. But the brutality was sanitised, with no details of the many victims. The Israeli viewpoint was prominent with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying that he ‘hoped’ that ‘calm and quiet will quickly return, but let nobody be mistaken, we are determined to defend our borders and sovereignty’.

Somehow a ‘neutral’ BBC perspective dictated that the lead image illustrating the story was of young Palestinian men throwing rocks in ‘clashes’ with fully armed soldiers from the Israeli Defence Forces.

The Palestinians had been taking part in annual protests on Nakba (‘Catastrophe’) day which, as the BBC put it, ‘marks the moment when 100,000s of Palestinians lost their homes’ on the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Again, the BBC’s sanitised version of ‘lost their homes’ buries awkward history, as though homes had simply been repossessed when families fell behind on their mortgage payments. In reality, more than half of Palestine’s native population, close to 800,000 people, had been uprooted and 531 village destroyed (Ilan Pappe, ‘The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine’, Oneworld, 2006).

After complaints from us, and perhaps realising the newspeak was just too much to swallow, the BBC tweaked the sentence the following day to read:

‘Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were forced out of their homes in fighting after its creation.’

BBC Middle East correspondent Jim Muir was quick to implicate foreign powers in the latest annual Nakba protests, asking the leading question: ‘Palestinian protests: Arab spring or foreign manipulation?’ and pointing his finger at Syria and Iran. True to type, the BBC journalist’s ‘analysis’ was not a million miles distant from the message being broadcast from Tel Aviv. Jonathan Cook, an independent journalist based in Nazareth, notes:

‘With characteristic obtuseness, Israel’s leaders identified Iranian “fingerprints” on the day’s events – as though Palestinians lacked enough grievances of their own to stage protests.’ (Jonathan Cook, ‘On an old anniversary, a new sense that change is possible’, The National, 17 May, 2011)

The BBC’s famed ‘balance’ should mean that, in the wake of Muir’s piece, we see a BBC article about US ‘foreign manipulation’ of Syria and Iran, and indeed the whole Middle East. Presumably the balancing piece is in the pipeline.

As with the most effective propaganda published by the Soviet newspaper Pravda, there may be something in what Muir says. But the required journalistic emphasis, as ever, is on the misdeeds ‘our’ officially sanctioned state enemies may be committing, not on the crimes of our own government.

BBC And ITV Bias Exposed

Professional journalists reporting from the Middle East ought to be discomfited by the publication of More Bad News From Israel, an updated study by Greg Philo and Mike Berry of the Glasgow University Media Group (Pluto Press, 2011; first edition published as Bad News From Israel in 2004).

The book examines media coverage of the conflict in Israel and Palestine, and the impact of this reporting on public opinion. In the largest study of its kind ever undertaken, the authors illustrate major biases in the way Palestinians and Israelis are represented in the media, including how casualties, and the motives and rationale of the different parties involved, are depicted. In follow-up interviews with viewers and listeners, the book also reveals the extraordinary differences in levels of public knowledge and understanding of the conflict. It is significant that gaps in public understanding often reflect the propaganda generated by Israel and its supporters in the West. Indeed, the book exposes the ‘success of the Israelis in establishing key elements of their perspective and the effect of these being relayed uncritically in media accounts’.

In a powerful new chapter, Philo and Berry present an in-depth analysis of BBC and ITV news coverage of the 2008-2009 Israeli attack on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. On 27 December 2008, Israel launched a massive series of assaults on the densely-populated strip of land with F-16 fighter jets, Apache helicopters and unmanned drones. Attacks with tanks and ground troops followed. 22 days later, the total number of Palestinian dead was estimated by B’Tselem, the Israeli human rights group, as 1,389. The death toll included 318 children. Ten Israeli soldiers were also killed, four of them in ‘friendly fire’ incidents. During the attacks, Israeli forces repeatedly bombed schools, medical centres, hospitals, ambulances, UN buildings, power plants, sewage plants, roads, bridges and civilian homes.

In the aftermath of the attacks, the UN sponsored a fact-funding study chaired by a South African judge, Richard Goldstone. The Goldstone report, along with others by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the League of Arab States, included accounts of the killings of civilians by Israel Defence Forces in a cold, calculated and deliberate manner. Goldstone subsequently issued a supposed partial ‘retraction’, apparently following intense Israeli pressure. But he did not withdraw the report and his co-authors stood by their work. (Peter Hart, ‘Is There Really a Goldstone “Retraction”?‘, FAIR, April 5, 2011)

The researchers recorded, transcribed and analysed over 4000 lines of broadcast news text from both the BBC and ITV (it is not stated explicitly, but one assumes these 4000 lines were shared approximately equally between the two broadcasters).

‘The most striking feature of the news texts’, write Philo and Berry, ‘is the dominance of the Israeli perspective, in relation to the causes of the conflict.’

Specifically, they note that the Israeli themes of ‘ending the rockets’ (fired from Gaza by Hamas into Israel), the ‘need for [Israel’s] security’ and to ‘stop the smuggling of weapons’ (by Hamas into Gaza) received a total of 316.5 lines of text from the BBC. Other Israeli propaganda messages, such as the need to ‘hit Hamas’ and that ‘Hamas and terrorists are to blame’, received 62 lines on BBC News. The total for Israeli explanatory statements on the BBC was 421.25. This compared with a much lower total for Hamas/Palestinian explanations of just 126.25. In ITV News coverage, there were over 302 lines relating to Israeli explanatory statements but just 78 for Hamas/Palestinian.

But even these 126.25 BBC and 78 ITV lines of ‘explanations’ of the Palestinian perspective lacked substance: ‘the bulk of the Palestinian accounts do not explain their case beyond saying that they will resist.’ What was almost non-existent were crucial facts about ‘how the continuing existence of the blockade affects the rationale for Palestinian action and how they see their struggle against Israel and its continuing military occupation.’

For the Palestinians, then, the military occupation of their lands and the crushing blockade of Gaza are utterly central to the ‘conflict’. But on BBC News there were just 14.25 lines referring to the occupation and only 10.5 on the ending of the siege/blockade. ITV News had 12.25 lines on ending the siege/blockade and a single line about the occupation. The bias is glaring.

Instead of adequately explaining the Palestinian viewpoint, BBC and ITV news heavily reflected Israeli propaganda:

‘The dominant explanation for the attack [Operation Cast Lead] was that it was to stop the firing of rockets by Hamas. The offer that Hamas was said to have made, to halt this in exchange for lifting the blockade (which Israel had rejected), was almost completely absent from the coverage.’

In short, news coverage of the brutal assault was skewed by the Israeli perspective, perpetuating ‘a one-sided view of the causes of the conflict by highlighting the issue of the rockets without reporting the Hamas offer’, and by burying rational views on the purpose of the attack: namely the Israeli desire to inflict collective punishment on the Palestinian people. (See our earlier media alerts: ‘An Eye For An Eyelash: The Gaza Massacre’, and ‘The BBC, Impartiality, And The Hidden Logic Of Massacre’)

In classic academic understatement, Philo and Berry conclude:

‘It is difficult in the face of this to see how the BBC can sustain a claim to be offering balanced reporting.’

Based on their equally poor performance, the same would surely apply to ITV.

Tim Llewellyn, a former BBC Middle East correspondent, backs up Philo and Berry’s careful analysis, arguing that BBC coverage of Israel and Palestine ‘is replete with imbalance and distortion’. He points to his ex-employer’s ‘continuing inability to describe in a just and contextualised way the conflict between military occupier and militarily occupied. There is no attempt to properly convey cause and effect, to report the misery, violence and pillage that demean and deny freedom to the Palestinians and provoke their (limited) actions.’ (‘BBC is “confusing cause and effect” in its Israeli coverage’, Guardian, May 23, 2011)

Llewellyn also rightly castigated the ‘labyrinthine’ official complaints procedure that means members of the public have to battle with an ‘army of lawyers and layers of bureaucracy’ that ‘the BBC now deploys to see off all but the most assiduous.’

He continued:

‘Editors and producers rarely respond individually to complaints and, if they do, do so with question-raising answers and self-justification.’

An experience which we and many of our readers can confirm!

Llewellyn sums up:

‘The BBC, like a well-kicked hound, does not in its post-Hutton malaise wish to antagonise politicians. It goes with reporting that’s as low-profile as possible on this most sensitive of issues. It lives in horror of being accused of anti-semitism, Israel’s ultimate smear. Reporters and editors know they have to pitch the Israel story in a certain manner to get it on the air – in effect, self-censorship.’

The Guardian allowed the BBC to provide a response to Llewellyn’s article. This ended with a sly comment:

‘Although Tim Llewellyn was indeed a BBC correspondent some years ago, we note that he subsequently was active for a period with the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU).’

Perhaps the BBC should end its Newsnight programmes with a similar warning:

‘Although Jeremy Paxman is an anchor for the BBC flagship news programme, Newsnight, we note that he has also been actively involved with the British-American Project for some years.’

Something similar happened to John Pilger in 2002, when he was allowed to defend his film, ‘Palestine is Still the Issue’, in the Guardian opinion pages. Unbeknownst to Pilger, Stephen Pollard, a Zionist and later editor of the Jewish Chronicle, was to be given the same space to mount an ill-founded attack on the piece in the paper the following day. Pilger’s film was later praised for its accuracy and integrity following an enquiry by the ITC.

A Stony Silence

We emailed David Mannion, editor-in-chief of ITV News, and Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East editor, for their views. Neither replied. We did not have much luck either with Jon Williams, the BBC’s world news editor. No great surprise given that, earlier this year, Williams blocked Media Lens even from following him on Twitter (as did Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian).

When one of our readers asked Williams why he had blocked us, he replied: ‘That’s what happens when people send you abusive tweets’. In fact, the sole Tweet we had sent him was this one, asking for his thoughts on observations made by journalists Jonathan Cook and Tim Llewellyn on Israel-Palestine news coverage.

We have always made it clear that we abhor abuse directed at journalists (or anyone else). We asked Williams via Twitter and email which ‘abusive’ messages he had in mind, saying that we would happily apologise if we had caused offence. He did not respond.

We did, however, get a reply from BBC Middle East correspondent Jim Muir – a nice example of the ‘It’s-not-my-job’ response we have seen so often over the years:

‘I’m afraid I don’t have a “response” as I’m not a spokesman for anything other than myself. Nor, frankly, do I have time to study and evaluate the BBC’s output; that’s not my job, and it’s rarely part of my input as I spend most of my time on primary sources. My own reporting is rarely on the Palestinian/Israeli issue as such; sometimes on its ramifications but I am normally engaged on Iraq and more recently Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Lebanon. I’m sure you’ve been in touch with BBC editorial management in London, and equally sure that you will get a response from them.’ (Email, May 16, 2011)

In an attempt to encourage Muir to assert his human right to freedom of speech, we emailed him back the same day:

‘Many thanks for your email.

‘”I’m not a spokesman for anything other than myself.”

‘Speaking for yourself then, what’s your own impression of BBC news coverage of the wider Middle East – how fair and balanced is it? Surely you have a view?

‘Feel free to offer your thoughts in confidence without named attribution.’

Muir did not reply.



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BBC is ‘confusing cause and effect’ in its Israeli coverage

British broadcasters’ coverage of the Arab awakening over recent months has been brave and honest. These are difficult and dangerous stories. But the BBC – and in this article I am going to concentrate on the BBC, because it is the broadcaster we are taxed to enable and sets worldwide standards of fairness – and its teams have made every effort to report with balance and application.

However, the BBC coverage of Israel and Palestine, where another state continually kills and oppresses Arabs, is replete with imbalance and distortion.

I covered the Middle East for the BBC from the mid-1970s to the early 1990s, and am aggrieved by my ex-employer’s continuing inability to describe in a just and contextualised way the conflict between military occupier and militarily occupied. There is no attempt to properly convey cause and effect, to report the misery, violence and pillage that demean and deny freedom to the Palestinians and provoke their (limited) actions.

Greg Philo and Mike Berry, in their book More Bad News from Israel, prove by textual analysis and follow-up interviews with viewers and listeners that I am right – and so are an increasing number of people who are becoming aware that the BBC sells them short on Israel. Philo and Berry’s book, an updated edition of Bad News From Israel (2004), examines coverage of the Israeli blitz on Gaza, analysing BBC TV and ITV early evening bulletins between its beginning on 27 December 2008, and the ceasefire on 17 January 2009.

Siege and blockade

They find that the Israeli explanation of why it went to war on a mainly defenceless Gazan population is the one broadly accepted by the BBC. It was a “response” to Palestinian rockets. The Palestinian case, that the Israelis violated a ceasefire that had held for nearly five months in November 2008, and that the Gazans had endured many years of intensifying siege and blockade, which had reduced them to stagnation and penury, was rarely put, if at all. “The story was unpacked,” the authors write, “in the manner of the Israeli view.”

In the bulletins they examined, the BBC gave 421.5 lines of text to Israeli explanations of why they attacked Gaza: the “need for security”, “enemy rockets”, “to stop the smuggling of weapons”. The BBC devoted 14.25 lines to references to the Israeli military occupation of the Palestinian territories and 10.5 lines to the blockade. The BBC repeatedly stressed the word [Israeli] “retaliation”, and also implied that police stations bombed by the Israelis were military targets, describing other casualties as “civilian”. It described these civilian installations as “targets”. Newspapers such as the Guardian did point out the distinction.

“The offer that Hamas was said to have made, to halt this exchange [rockets v shells and air strikes] … was almost completely absent from the coverage,” say the authors. They cite a BBC reporter saying: “Israel feels itself surrounded by enemies, with reason.” They add: “We have not found a commentary noting that ‘Palestinians feel themselves to be subject to a brutal military occupation, with reason.’ Israel’s official view is given as fact, they say, but the Palestinian view, on the rare occasions it is found at all, is not. Israelis “state”, Palestinians “claim”.

When the BBC and ITV did start reporting the horrific civilian casualties in Gaza and the use of phosphorus, Israeli spokespersons were immediately on hand to deny, explain or obfuscate. The Palestinians, especially Hamas, were rarely able to answer allegations. The Palestinians in situ usually lacked the resources or opportunity to make their case. The many articulate Palestinians in London available to help were rarely called on, whereas, as one BBC insider said, “the Israeli ambassador was practically camped at TV Centre”.

More than two years on, the BBC continues to confuse cause and effect – Israeli attacks are always reported as retaliation to Palestinian violence or rockets, and the idea that Palestinian rockets, however ineffective, are armed resistance to Israel’s hammering from land, sea and air is rarely broadcast. The daily indignities and brutalities of the siege and the occupation and the shelling and shooting of civilians are virtually absent from BBC consciousness unless an attack on Israel sparks interest.

Headline news

Philo and Berry quote the BBC correspondent Paul Adams, a Middle East expert: what is missing from the coverage, he says, is the view that the Palestinians are engaged in a war of national liberation, trying to throw off an occupying force. Any Israeli casualty is headline news, shown in high quality images. BBC teams are based in West Jerusalem, de facto Israeli territory, and are on hand. Arab casualties may be shown in reports of a funeral, usually agency film, the victim anonymous. The Israelis, it seems, are for the BBC “people like us”. The Arabs are “the other”.

Philo and Berry go on to interview viewers and listeners, all in higher education. They find that these focus groups were largely unaware of the Israeli occupation, often believing the Palestinians are the occupiers. Few knew that Hamas had been democratically elected in January 2006. “I had the impression they were a terrorist group from watching the BBC,” said one respondent. In most cases, the assumption was that Palestinian rockets brought the invasion onto their own people’s heads.

To complain means the official complaints procedure and dealing with the army of lawyers and layers of bureaucracy the BBC now deploys to see off all but the most assiduous. Editors and producers rarely respond individually to complaints and, if they do, do so with question-raising answers and self-justification.

For example, the BBC consistently describes illegal Israeli settlements as “held to be illegal”. But they are illegal. Even the Foreign Office says so. The BBC always adds “Israel disputes this.” Well it would, wouldn’t it? Why these caveats? Why this reporting of a shout of denial from the convicted prisoner in the dock?

More than a month after I made an official complaint about this I have had no reply or acknowledgement. People who complained about Panorama’s travesty of a documentary on the deaths caused when Israeli commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara, part of the Gaza aid flotilla, had to go through an obstacle course of form-filling and stonewalling.

The BBC Trust found the programme guilty on some counts but said it had not breached BBC guidelines of accuracy and impartiality. Why negotiate all this to end up with such contortionist, self-serving judgments?

Final arbiter

The BBC is on the defensive: the castle wall is the labyrinthine complaints procedure. It must be time for an independent body like Ofcom to be the final arbiter on BBC journalism, not the BBC itself. The BBC Trust, the highest court of appeal in these matters, is now chaired by Lord Patten, who has told us all how closely he intends to work with the director general, Mark Thompson: judge and potential defendant.

Why is BBC reporting like this? The book addresses this in Chapter 4. In my view, the rot set in during 2001, after 9/11. Israel and its friends were quick to capitalise on “terror” and “Arabs” and massively enhanced their propaganda effort here, gaining access to BBC staff at all levels. BBC managers and editors do not like being shouted at, and they are soft toys when someone makes a loud and apparently convincing case. The Palestinians have no such machinery. As one BBC producer says in More Bad News: “We all fear the phone call from the Israeli embassy.”

The BBC’s main Middle East bureau in west Jerusalem is liable to Israeli pressure, and it is in Israel that the BBC perspective on the regional conflict is formed.

Editorially, Israeli spokesmen are easily available and producers love that. As Peter Oborne pointed out on Channel 4 in late 2009, each of our three main political parties is amenable to the “Friends of Israel” lobby. Our coalition leadership duo have both pledged themselves publicly to Israel. So did Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

The BBC, like a well-kicked hound, does not in its post-Hutton malaise wish to antagonise politicians. It goes with reporting that’s as low-profile as possible on this most sensitive of issues. It lives in horror of being accused of anti-semitism, Israel’s ultimate smear. Reporters and editors know they have to pitch the Israel story in a certain manner to get it on the air – in effect, self-censorship.

Perhaps the most overwhelming distortion of the BBC in its coverage of Israel and Palestine is what I term “spurious equivalence”: that the Palestinians and Israelis are two equal sides “at war” over “disputed” territory and may the best man win. Or, come on chaps, shouldn’t reason prevail? The BBC knows that the Palestinians are a people fighting for independence, but its coverage does not tell it like it is.

In 2006, an independent panel appointed by the BBC governors assessed impartiality in coverage of the Israel-Palestine conflict. Their review came after many complaints and the first edition of this book, which examined in similar form the BBC’s distorted reporting of the Al-Aqsa (second) intifada and the subsequent Israeli bombardments and invasion of the cities of the West Bank.

The commission confirmed many of the Philo/Berry criticisms: “BBC output does not consistently give a full and fair account of the conflict. In some ways the picture is incomplete and, in that sense, misleading.”

Five years on, it remains so, and the BBC has put the commission’s report under “File and Forget”.

Tim Llewellyn was BBC Middle East correspondent from 1976-80 and 1987-92. More Bad News from Israel, by Greg Philo and Mike Berry, is published in paperback by Pluto Press at £15

BBC response to Tim Llewellyn’s story

BBC News endeavours to report on all matters in the Middle East – as elsewhere – impartially, objectively and accurately.

We have extensive editorial guidelines which all reporters and producers are required to observe.

In a highly charged political atmosphere any impartial and accountable broadcaster will rightly find itself under scrutiny by all shades of opinion.

In the Middle East debate there are organised, motivated and effective lobby groups on both sides of the argument.

We listen to their concerns and act on them where we think they are justified, but in doing so we bear in mind that our audiences expect us to remain independent of political pressure.

Although Tim Llewellyn was indeed a BBC correspondent some years ago, we note that he subsequently was active for a period with the Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU).


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Good Grief! Aunty is at it again.

This time for editing out the word … wait for it ….“PALESTINE”… at 03:00 during rapper Mic Righteous’ performance on the April 30th broadcast of Charlie Sloth’s Hip-Hop Mix, a programme on BBC Radio 1Xtra.

This was the BBC’s response:

“Charlie Sloth’s Hip-Hop Mix is predominantly a music based programme and decisions as to which tracks and artists get featured are based on artistic merit.”

“All BBC programmes have a responsibility to be impartial when dealing with controversial subjects however, and an edit was made in this instance to ensure that impartiality was not compromised.”

As one BBC licence payer commented:

“Isn’t it obnoxiously obvious that the BBC became partial when they banned the word PALESTINE? I could draw a comparison with a certain apartheid state, but won’t.”


Many people are still reeling from the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) Gaza Appeal fiasco where the BBC refused to telecast an appeal from the DEC citing their “commitment to impartiality” while over 1,400 Palestinian men, women and children were killed by the Israeli Occupation Army and large parts of Gaza was laid waste during Operation Cast Lead.

That was the last straw for some who said they no longer will pay their BBC licence fee. Many declared that they were going to donate it – currently £145.50 a year – straight to the DEC.

And then there was the BBC’s Death in the Med Panorama programme about the Mavi Marmara that sailed beyond the seas … and we all had to stomach aunties offering, even though we knew it was going to make us sick.

And now this.

Oh Really!


By Natasha & Bruce


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Brothers in arms: the BBC and Tony Blair

The idea that the BBC is impartial or “left-wing” is absurd, says John Pilger. Look at how it supports the government’s war policies and venerates the “saviour of Iraq”, Tony Blair.

Britain is said to be approaching its Berlusconi moment. That is to say, if Rupert Murdoch wins control of Sky, he will command half the television and newspaper market and threaten what is known as public service broadcasting.

Although the alarm is ringing, it is unlikely that any government will stop him while his court is packed with politicians of all parties.

The problem with this and other Murdoch scares is that, while one cannot doubt their gravity, they deflect from an unrecognised and more insidious threat. For all his power, Murdoch’s media are not respectable. Take the current colonial wars.

In the United States, Murdoch’s Fox Television is almost cartoon-like in its warmongering. It is the august New York Times, “the greatest newspaper in the world”, and others such as the once-celebrated Washington Post, that have given respectability to the lies and moral contortions of the “war on terror”, now recast as “perpetual war”.

In Britain, the Observer performed this task in making respectable Tony Blair’s deceptions over Iraq. More importantly, so did the BBC, whose reputation is its power. In spite of one maverick reporter’s attempt to expose the so-called dodgy dossier, the BBC took Blair’s sophistry at face value. This was made clear in studies by Cardiff University and the German-based Media Tenor. The BBC’s coverage, said the Cardiff study, was overwhelmingly “sympathetic to the government’s case”. According to Media Tenor, a mere 2 per cent of BBC news in the build-up to the invasion permitted anti-war voices to be heard.


Coded message

So when the BBC director general, Mark Thompson, used the recent Edinburgh International Television Festival to attack Murdoch, his hypocrisy was like a presence. Thompson is the embodiment of a taxpayer-funded managerial elite, for whom political reaction has come to dominate public service. He has even laid into his own corporation, Murdoch-style, as “massively left-wing”. He was referring to the era of his 1960s predecessor Hugh Greene, who allowed artistic and journalistic freedom to flower at the BBC.

Thompson is the opposite of Greene; and his aspersion on the past is in keeping with the BBC’s modern corporate role, reflected in the rewards demanded by those at the top. Thompson was paid £834,000 last year out of public funds and his 50 senior executives earn more than the prime minister, along with enriched journalists such as Jeremy Paxman and Fiona Bruce.

Murdoch and the BBC share this corporatism. Tony Blair, for example, was their quintessential politician. Before his election in 1997, he and his wife were flown first-class by Murdoch to Hayman Island in Queensland, where he stood at the News Corp lectern and, in effect, pledged an obedient Labour administration. His coded message on media cross-ownership and deregulation was that a way would be found for Murdoch to achieve the supremacy that now beckons.

Blair was embraced by the new BBC corporate class, which regards itself as meritorious and non-ideological – the natural leaders in a managerial Britain in which class is unspoken. Few did more to enunciate Blair’s “vision” than Andrew Marr, then a leading newspaper journalist and today the BBC’s ubiquitous voice of middle-class Britain. Just as Murdoch’s Sun declared in 1995 that it shared the rising Blair’s “high moral values”, so Marr, writing in the Observer in 1999, lauded the new prime minister’s “substantial moral courage” and the “clear distinction in his mind between prudently protecting his power base and rashly using his power for high moral purposes”. What impressed Marr was Blair’s “utter lack of cynicism” – along with his bombing of Yugoslavia, which would “save lives”.


No laughing matter

By March 2003, Marr was the BBC’s political editor. Standing in Downing Street on the night of the “shock and awe” assault on Iraq, he rejoiced at the vindication of Blair who, he said, had promised “to take Baghdad without a bloodbath, and that in the end the Iraqis would be celebrating. And on both of those points he has been proved conclusively right.” As a result, Marr said, “tonight he stands as a larger man”. In fact, the criminal conquest of Iraq smashed a society, killing up to a million people, driving four million from their homes, contaminating cities such as Fallujah with cancer-causing poisons and leaving a majority of young children malnourished in a country once described by Unicef as a “model”.

So it was entirely appropriate that Blair, in hawking his self-serving book, should select Marr for his “exclusive TV interview” on the BBC. The headline across the Observer‘s review of the interview read: “Look who’s having the last laugh.” Beneath this was a picture of a beaming Blair sharing a laugh with Marr.

The interview produced not a single challenge that stopped Blair in his precocious, mendacious tracks. He was allowed to say: “Absolutely clearly and unequivocally, the reason for toppling [Saddam Hussein] was his breach of resolutions over WMD, right?” No, wrong. A wealth of evidence, not least the infamous Downing Street memo, makes clear that Blair secretly colluded with George W Bush to attack Iraq. This was not mentioned. At no point did Marr say to him, “You failed to persuade the UN Security Council to go along with the invasion. You and Bush went alone. Most of the world was outraged. Weren’t you aware that you were about to commit a monumental war crime?”

Instead, Blair used the convivial encounter to deceive, yet again, even to promote an attack on Iran, an outrage. Murdoch’s Fox would have differed in style only. The British public deserves better.


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How BBC news sells all UK wars as good intentions

By Martin Johnson
Tamplins Entire
25 April 2011

There is simply no amount of arming and bombing and invading by Britain that BBC news cannot explain away as well meant.

April saw another condemnation of the BBC’s legendary political bias, this time by its veteran broadcaster Michael Buerk.

“What the BBC regards as normal and abnormal, what is moderate or extreme, where the centre of gravity of an issue lies, are conditioned by the common set of assumptions held by the people who work for it.”

No surprise Buerk was identifying left-wing bias at the corporation. But the sentence works just as well for those of us who see things the other way round.

Here’s one common assumption that grounds every BBC news report: Whatever actions Britain takes in the world, they are always morally well intentioned. Mistaken or badly executed, possibly, but never done in bad faith. This rule goes without saying, and any journalist who questions it is putting their job on the line. Jeremy Paxman, no less, recently had his knuckles rapped on this issue: Clearly it is fine to claim that the Iraq catastrophe was born of faulty intelligence, but biased to suggest that it was born of lies. Evidence doesn’t enter into it.

Such affrays are of course rare. For all the bashing his right ear has endured, I cannot recall an instance in John Simpson’s forty years of ‘heroic’ reporting where he has questioned the moral basis of Britain’s actions in the world. He may criticise methods, or hint that some acts are foolhardy, but he never questions motives.

This might be because Britain’s intentions in the world really are consistently noble. But note that many non-BBC journalists don’t agree. Tariq Ali and Robert Fisk are perfectly happy to address what they see as the cynicism underlying British foreign policy. Likewise, large sections of the general public are confident that Britain’s role in the world is often immoral and self-serving rather than benevolent.

The robotic BBC response of course is that the corporation must avoid bias. Fisk and Ali are deeply political beings and so not suitable for a strictly apolitical organisation like BBC news. But this claim just exposes its own lie. What could be more political than the root assumption that one’s own country is incapable of moral deviancy? What could be more biased than ruling out the possibility of cynicism on the part of one player before judging the game?

Moreover, if questioning the moral stance of players is a sign of unforgivable bias then why is it acceptable when those players are official enemies? BBC journalists and editors have no trouble questioning the sincerity of Assad or Saddam or Gaddafi. It’s perfectly okay to attribute cynicism to their actions.

Robotic response number two: Some leaders are clearly evil tyrants. The above have gassed or shot or beaten “their own people” so there’s no judgement involved, just the statement of fact. Again this only betrays the lie. The governments of Yemen and Bahrain are currently employing such tactics in their attempts to cling to power. However as client states of the West, to question their morality would risk the accusation of bias. Much safer to focus on Libya and Syria.

Moreover, to suggest the west had acted immorally by furnishing these regimes with the arms they are now using to beat and shoot “their own people” would constitute biased reporting. An ‘unbiased’ BBC journalist would need to pan out a little, factor-in the West’s moral crusade against Islamic extremism, its efforts to protect the Israel-Palestine ‘peace process’.

Deeply hypocritical stuff, but at least it does clarify the true meaning of ‘bias’ in BBC parlance. Bias has nothing to do with favouring one player over another, it is about straying from the officially sanctioned picture, questioning the official bias.

Although more subtle, these are the same techniques employed by Pravda. While it is permissible to portray our leaders as more ambiguous characters than it was with comrade Stalin, the moral motives of the motherland remain beyond question. Like Pravda, BBC news works to constantly recalibrate public opinion, drag it back to blind faith in our nation’s good intent, regardless of the evidence before our eyes. There is simply no amount of arming and bombing and invading that BBC news cannot explain away as well meant.

In consequence, the next arms deal or air strike or ground invasion becomes easier to sell to the public. The BBC’s daily inoculations against the virus of national self-criticism are a key means of keeping the public on board. It is this reinforced sense of national righteousness that lies behind the cry of, “Well what should we do!? Just stand back while he murders his own people!?” which many a well-meaning citizen is heard to holler during the run-up to the latest NATO bombing or invasion of one place or another. The idea that what Britain is already doing might be the problem is off the radar, a core impossibility.


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