For many years I have vigorously avoided joining the babbling throng of internet commentators, perceiving their musings to be well-intentioned but unhelpful. Yet, I have been drawn up to such heights of fury by the recent events in Israel — and the BBC coverage of these events — that my vow of silence demands to be broken, if only to release my anger. I assert that, against the morass of partisan bickering, I have something genuinely new to add. But I probably haven’t. Perhaps I’m just another opinionated individual, shouting into the dark.
The source of my madness is not the actions of the Israeli military, or of Hamas, but is the outstandingly poor quality of journalism offered on the conflict by the BBC, particularly on its flagship platform, the 6 o’clock news. Comically, it has been lambasted by supporters from both sides for being biased in favour of the other.
Surely this shows that the BBC is being unbiased? I disagree. Rather, the BBC coverage is erratically preferential, switching its slant depending on the issue but always exhibiting favouritism nonetheless: this is not impartiality. As a general rule, the BBC is pro-Palestinian when describing events on the ground — “everyone loves an underdog,” http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/21/gaza-crisis-hamas-killed-friend-need-kill — but pro-Israeli when framing the conflict as a whole.
The actions of Hamas are indeed downplayed, such as the number (over 100) of their rockets which have fallen on Gaza itself; Howard Jacobson persuasively argues (http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/commentators/howard-jacobson/howard-jacobson-letrsquos-see-the-criticism-of-israel-for-what-it-really-is-1624827.html) that firing rockets without knowing where they will land shows a greater disregard for civilian life than even the vast civilian collateral incurred by a military campaign. [I don’t entirely agree, but I think that it is certainly at least as bad]. On the other hand, the BBC allows us to forget that Israel took control of its current borders by force, in the wars of 1967 and 1948 (expanding on the already supremely generous UN Partition Plan of 1947), and to forget about its 65 years of provocative bellicosity. The inconvenient reality that Hamas, however badly they are treating the Palestinians, are their elected representatives is also blatantly ignored.
This is the worst possible state of journalistic affairs. It’s even worse than an outrageously one-sided vision, which can at least be kept at arms length and viewed in a detached manner as ‘one version of the story’. As it is, in five minutes on BBC1 we are tossed between extremes of emotion, the linguistic register chosen to shock, amidst an intellectual desert devoid of cogent discussion — all under the pretence of a fair unbiased analysis. The world’s premier news organisation my foot.
Reporters on the 6 o’clock news are also painfully poor at revealing their sources. Where is he getting his detailed knowledge of the military maneuvers from that day’s fighting, which, even if he is on the ground in the Gaza strip, he couldn’t witness all at first hand? I hope not from Israeli government press releases, which have a history of being at best economical with the truth, and at worst outright falsifications: a string of such cases in the first 20 years of Israel’s history were discovered by revisionist Jewish historians, when previously secret documents became available later in the 20th century. Even if all the information given in the report were collected firsthand by the reporter himself, a pipe-dream, he would still exercise editorial judgement. How is he choosing which people to interview, and which interviews to use in his final report?
[A few years ago there was an entertaining miniseries on the BBC, one episode of which involved Sir Ranulph Fiennes and Sir Robin Knox-Johnston following John Simpson around Afghanistan as he compiled a report. He had a thesis about the current situation for the civilian population, and found interview subjects who corroborated it. Those who espoused the opposing view were cut from the report. Simpson argued that, although these views existed, they didn’t represent the general view of most Afghans; he may have been right, or he may have been wrong, but nonetheless his personal judgement defined the colour of the report.]
These questions might have perfectly satisfactory answers, but I don’t know that they do. I fear that they don’t. Indeed, the BBC’s aim seems to be for sensationalism and manufactured shock, in lieu of level-headed analytic reporting, eschewing any debate of the underlying issues.
I can’t help calling to mind the Melian dialogue, from Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, which is archetypal for the manner of discussion that is so conspicuously absent from the BBC’s discourse. The strong Athenian naval force threatened to destroy the people of Melos, a small island wishing to remain neutral despite Spartan connections. The destruction could only be avoided if the islanders paid homage and tributes to Athens. Understandably they refused, and what followed — at least in Thucydides’ stylised account — was a long subtle philosophical debate between the Athenian envoys and the islanders, pondering whether Athens had the moral right to follow through on its threat. The Athenian argument — that, “the strong do what they can, and the weak suffer what they must,” and that justice only exists between equally matched powers — proved victorious, unsurprisingly. But at least there was a debate: the BBC, had they been there, would have just reported the subsequent bloodshed. The military mismatch which gave birth to the Melian dialogue bears an eerie similarity to the mismatch in Palestine, and Thucydides’ translated words should be being invoked and re-examined everywhere, not least by the BBC. But of course, they are not.
There are comparisons too with our own military history, both recent and past, which beg to be investigated in the mainstream media. How different is Israel’s campaign in Gaza to Britain’s campaign in Afghanistan? Both vast military actions against a less well-armed resistance/terrorist movement, intending to neuter the threat of terrorism, causing vast civilian casualties in the process. Very similar. But in Israel and Palestine the extreme factions of both nations genuinely want to see the total annihilation of the other, civilians and all — this was not the case in Afghanistan. There are other issues too: the blockade, territory, race. So perhaps they are different. Discuss.
Maybe Israel is deliberately targeting civilians. Casting an introspective eye over our previous dealings with our own local insurgents, the Scots, how different is the massacre at Glen Coe — a civilian hit intended to deter the militants — to analogous Israeli actions? Has the international community decided that these things are no longer acceptable? Isn’t that a bit rich from long established countries such as England, who profited from such tactics back when they were ‘allowed’? Discuss.
And then there are the issues of territory and race. Does Israel have a right to exist? If so, should it exist? Given that it exists, what can be done to ensure peace? Is the very notion of a Jewish state a racist one? Is the very notion of a Palestinian state a racist one? Discuss, discuss, discuss!
I find it difficult to envisage the philosophical gymnastics required to interpret the phrase ‘chosen people’ in a way that is not in some way racist. But such an argument no doubt exists, and maybe it’s very convincing. Dear BBC, show me an Israeli explaining this argument; show me a Palestinian disagreeing. I know people are dying, and I wish they weren’t, but filling the airwaves with daily reports of the continuing bloodshed does not make the population better informed. They know people are dying; tell them something they don’t know.
As a national institution of great influence, both here and abroad, the BBC has a responsibility to engender the virtues of critical thinking and analytic debate in its viewers. By renouncing these virtues itself, in favour of sensationalism and shock, it has let us all down. There are legions of anti-Israeli protesters voicing their rage at the inappropriateness of the scale of the Israeli military response; I’m inclined to agree with them, but we must accept that in holding this view we commit ourselves to disagreeing with the Athenian argument wherever it presents itself, lest we be woefully inconsistent. I hope everyone marching against Israel this week also marched against the Allied forces’ actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, or at least expressed a vague disquiet. No doubt many did, but I suspect that many would not see any contradiction in labeling the Israeli war machine evil and ours just, Palestinian deaths murders and Afghan deaths unfortunate. The BBC’s malady is infectious.