The BBC and the Quiet Ethnic Cleansing of Palestinians (Excerpts)

From the archive (legacy material)

Paul de Rooij | | February 12, 2004

At present, ethnic cleansing of Palestinians is ongoing and systematic, yet it is difficult to find any reference to this crime against humanity in most news media. The issue is not so much slanted coverage as scant or selective coverage of the misery Israel is inflicting on the Palestinians. Although the BBC has a reputation for fair and balanced reporting, when it comes to Israel-Palestine a different standard seems to be applied, as even gross violations of human rights are not reported.
We have recently witnessed some cases of disjunction between the reality and the reportage generated by the main news media. For instance, the war in former Yugoslavia was portrayed as one of a Serbian ogre attacking innocent victims. Alas, reality diverged from this typecasting by the main networks, including the BBC. The latter rarely mentioned uncomfortable facts, and its reportage usually supported the official version of events – it remained propaganda-compliant.
Similarly, the BBC portrayed the war against Iraq in a way that paralleled Anglo-American policy. Although some revelations appeared through the cracks questioning the rationale behind the war, on the whole, the BBC’s output did not challenge the official stance on this war. It integrated into the embedded system without a peep from its journalists.
The BBC’s coverage actually supports Anglo-American policies by what it chooses to omit from its main news broadcasts. There is virtually no mention of the war in Colombia, or the attempts to destabilize Venezuela; if events in such countries are at odds with official policy, the BBC avoids them. The BBC marches mostly in lockstep with Anglo-American policy.
The situation with BBC’s Israel-Palestine coverage is similar to the previous examples; there is a disjunction between what is happening on the ground and the BBC’s coverage. If anything, the situation is more galling because of the long history of ethnic cleansing, the chronic mass human rights violations, and a recent accelerated land grab, entailing a new wave of ethnic cleansing. Given that the UK has been deeply involved in this sordid situation historically, by enabling mass Jewish migration into Palestine, it is curious how distorted and context-less the news presented by the BBC today are. Just like the official Anglo-American policy, Israel is treated as an official ally, and Palestinians as the “accepted enemy”.
If a propaganda organ sought to portray an “official ally” in better light, then one would expect some of the following bias and tendency in its coverage [coverage feature followed by Propaganda-compliant version]:
1. Portrayal of aggression
If an accepted ally is the aggressor, portray them as acting in self-defense or responding to violence. Never indicate that they may be the aggressor. The victims’ violence is always unreasonable, criminal, or terrorism.
2. Coverage of Negative aspects (e.g., killings)
The coverage of the violent acts of an accepted ally will be a fraction of what is happening on the ground. In contrast, the official enemy’s violence is covered fully. The ally’s victims of violence are covered showing emotional scenes; the enemy’s fatalities are just “facts” if mentioned at all.
3. Uncomfortable facts and key incidents, e.g., murders, acts of violence.
The official ally’s egregious attacks, or the spate of mass violence are barely mentioned, and then without looking at the consequences. Use exculpatory language like: “the attack was not a massacre” or statements minimizing the scale of purported atrocities.
4. Coverage of Positive aspects
If the official ally’s society does something that is considered positive, then highlight it. Positive aspects of the official enemy’s society are ignored.
5. Context
There is always an explanation for the official ally’s actions. Explanation for official enemy’s actions doesn’t incorporate the relevant recent history.
6. Mediation vs. relating own story or explanation
Official enemy’s spokespersons are given leeway to explain their version of events. The official enemy’s version of events is mediated, and their voice is rarely heard.
7. Interpretation by expert journalist
Although the propaganda organ may have experts in the area, they seldom venture to offer an interpretation. Their reportage is presented as: the official ally says “x”, and official enemy say “y”. Journalists tend to explain away negative aspects and allow the ally to put forth their version of events.
8. Specifics/generality
Use generalities when they help bury specific actions, and refer to specifics when it is necessary to hide wider trends. When an admission is made of a specific incident, then mention it without reference to the general pattern.
9. Mutually exclusive accounts
Refer to aspects of the ally’s society, but present them unrelated to the enemy’s reality. The implication is that the official ally doesn’t have anything to do with the enemy’s plight.
10. Words
Use official ally-centric words to describe actions or conditions, e.g., don’t use “illegal”, but use “disputed” or “controversial”.
11. Characterization of the leadership
The ally’s leaders are presented as centrist, reasonable, “man of peace”, accountable to parliament. The official enemy’s leaders are demonized; “is he relevant?”, or corrupt.
12. Portrayal of government
Accepted ally’s gov’t is portrayed as a democracy; the official enemy’s as corrupt, inept, and “they must reform”.
13. Portrayal of protagonists
Portray leadership or settlers in a family setting, smiling and playing with the kids. Portray the official enemy protagonists as hooded “militants” and suicide bombers – no family scenes.
14. Querying the US or UK gov’t officials about actions of the official ally.
US and UK are portrayed as not responsible for the official ally’s actions. When it comes to the official enemy, then clear indications are given that something will be done and pressure exerted.
Of course, this matrix would apply to any propaganda-compliant medium. However, the remainder of this article shows that much of the BBC’s output is consistent with the indicated matrix of actions and emphasis in its reportage. The BBC’s news from this area is mostly Israeli-centric, and it must be emphasized that the BBC’s bias is evident primarily in terms of omission.
Language is also a battleground; Israelis deem the usage of words very important as their constant prodding of journalists on this issue attests. This topic has been dealt with extensively elsewher, but some common word usage by the BBC merits comment. Here are some key words used by the BBC (alphabetical order):
Often used cliché indicating that the Israeli and Palestinians “sides” are roughly equal.
Euphemism for illegal or criminal. The BBC often refers to the “controversial barrier” or “controversial settlements”. Since both the wall and settlements are illegal and criminal, the use of “controversial” is a means of neutering language and one’s appreciation of the wall/settlement. The BBC can’t possibly suggest that actions could be illegal, or consult legal experts who could confirm this fact.
Ethnic Cleansing
Terminology used by the BBC only in the case of former-Yugoslavia or when “official enemies” are involved. This terminology is deemed crude when it is an “accepted ally” expelling the population. NB: The same “ally” engaged in a wave of ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians in 1948.
“Fled” is a euphemism for expulsion. “Eighteen per cent of Israel’s population is Arab. They are the descendents of the Palestinians who remained in the country during the first Arab Israeli war of 1948 — others fled.”(Richard Miron, BBC Online, Feb. 6, 04). Palestinians were ethnically cleansed and not allowed to return, their villages and cities destroyed.
BBC recently referred to Qalqilya as a “hotspot” – perhaps thereby enabling viewers to “understand” why the city of 40,000 has been transformed into a giant prison. Settlements where racist and violent settlers live like Kiryat Arba, Kafr Darom, Shilo, Itamar or Immanuel are never called hotspots.
Jewish democracy or state
Any ethno-centric democracy (even a Jewish one) is an oxymoron, but even so, the BBC uses this term. Given that Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin comprise 20% of the population then it is similarly odd to use “Jewish state”. One doesn’t label the US as a “white state” or a “Christian state”, so a different standard seems to apply.
Israeli-centric term used to describe the Palestinian resistance. Even when the IOF kills unarmed civilians the people involved are referred to as militants. A young boy was killed near a fence and was justified because he could be a “lookout for militants”.
Pitched battles with militants; clashes
When the Israeli army, one of the most powerful in the world, enters the refugee camps in Gaza with tanks and helicopters, the BBC deems fit to describe the resulting slaughter as “pitched battles with militants.” The Palestinian resistance has no tanks or any sophisticated weaponry.
Road Map
Indication that the Israelis are willing to continue negotiating, e.g., “Sharon stated that he will fully abide by the road map” (Dec. 18, 03). However, if the road map is dead then why continue referring to it or not challenge any such statements? When recently questioned about the apparent death of the road map and why he continued to use the term, the BBC’s Jon Leyne stated: “It is not up to me to decide if it is dead.” It is for such insights that the BBC hires expert journalists!
Security barrier
The BBC has settled on the “barrier” term because the grotesque wall currently being built has fence sections. However, its favorite descriptor is “security”. This prejudges the rationale behind the wall and fully sides with the Israeli-centric interpretation of it. Some months ago, the qualifier was “separation”, but that elicited nasty comparisons with apartheid, and was dropped forthwith.
Security zone
When Israel invaded Lebanon in the 1980s it justified the occupation of South Lebanon in terms of requiring a “security zone”. Recently Israeli troops were driven from the area, and invariably the BBC still refers to Southern Lebanon as a “former security zone”.
Strategic Value
Illegally conquered and occupied land, but its continued occupation or annexation is always due to “their strategic value”. The BBC usually uses this description automatically when referring to the Golan Heights.
Targeted killings
A death squad assassinations. When a “wanted” person is killed, the BBC will state that this is part of Israel’s “targeted assassinations” policy. Never mind that most of the time civilians are also killed and it contravenes international humanitarian law.
When it comes to the places bombed by the Israelis, then these are described in inert terms, e.g., targets. The BBC doesn’t need to visit the victims living in such targets. The word “target” also doesn’t convey the image that people have been killed or villages bombed.
Although the defining element of the wall being constructed by Israel are the wall segments in and around large population centers, the BBC attempts to stress the fact that there are also “fence” sections, thus it justifies using neutral sounding words like “barrier”. When there is an article about the wall in BBC Online or on TV, then the usual image shown is a “fence”. West Bank Palestinians despair, “can’t they see this is a 750+km wall costing more than US$4bn?”
Any time Palestinians have been killed, an Israeli spokesperson is quoted as saying that they were “wanted”. Never mind if the person was or wasn’t armed or active in the resistance, the labeling of the victim is never challenged by the BBC, neither is the justification for the killing. Similarly, thousands of Palestinians are held in prisons without charges, trial, and with undefined prison terms. These people are also “wanted”, but do not merit coverage.
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