How is Britain’s BBC covering the current conflict between Israel and Hamas? Speaking on the BBC’s flagship radio evening news program, “The World Tonight”, this Monday evening, Lord Williams, formerly the United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Special Coordinator for both Lebanon and the Middle East, began an interview by congratulating the BBC on what he called “war reporting of the highest standards.”
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His tribute may astonish many Israelis, not least disillusioned British immigrants to Israel. But it may also have astonished listeners and viewers in the UK. On another popular BBC radio programme, “Feedback”, which provides a platform for public comment, listeners are said to have complained in equal numbers that BBC coverage was biased either towards Israel or towards the Palestinians.
In response to such contradictory criticism, BBC executives stereotypically say that if they are being criticized from both sides, they must be getting the balance just about right. On this occasion the “Feedback” host, Roger Bolton, stepped back from this glib reply and tried to explore the alternative possibility that the BBC was getting it badly wrong, but this tack was instantly dismissed by his studio guest, the World Editor of BBC News, Andrew Roy.
Roy admitted that covering Gaza was difficult because reporters are at physical risk; but he went on to argue that the BBC was adept at navigating pressure by lobbyists on both sides to adapt its reporting to their liking. He also claimed that its authority came from its being one of the few international broadcasters with a permanent presence in Gaza and having a website to provide further context.
What Roy would not address, however, was Bolton’s suggestion that unlike reporters working in Israel, those in Gaza are hampered by lack of access and by the dangers, not so much to BBC staff, but to potential interviewees, of being targeted if they talk openly. Roy would only acknowledge the danger of working “under bombardment”, giving the impression that the threat to honest journalism came only from Israeli rockets, not from Hamas enforcers.
It was not clear whether Roy refused to acknowledge the impossibility of carrying out normal investigative journalism under Hamas because he—personally or corporately—cannot see it, or because the BBC dare not tell the truth for fear of losing its ringside seat at one of the world’s worst trouble spots.
What did emerge from the interview is the unintended damage caused by the BBC’s ostensible policy of even-handedness. Because it cannot be seen as editorialising, the BBC bends over backwards to maintain a policy of “show-don’t-tell”. Thus, the only truths about Gaza that BBC reporters can convey are those that a camera can point at. Never has a BBC reporter broken a story from Gaza, interviewed a Hamas commander about splits in the ranks, examined the Palestinian justice and detention system, exposed the climate of fear that Gazans are subject to, shown missile stockpiling or residential defensive positions, or challenged the brainwashing of children in schools.
Nor, in spite of changing conditions in Egypt and Syria, has any BBC reporter discussed with Hamas officials the growing fragility and unpopularity of their regime. They cannot. Challenge to Israel, however, is a given.
Instead, the BBC sticks to its formulas: In the case of Operation Protective Edge, extreme wide shots of smoke plumes rising above bombed buildings, wide shots of crowds inspecting rubble or hurrying their children away or shaking their fists, mid-shots of weeping families, close-ups of children in bandages. Over the top floats the reporter’s voice track, mournful and elegaic, but mute about what on the Palestinian side has brought about these tragic events.
There are, however, occasional cracks where light gets through. In a later interview in the same edition of Monday’s “The World Tonight” on the BBC, the former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan Colonel Richard Kemp did what BBC reporters are not free to do, and distinguished between the legitimacy of IDF actions and the illegitimacy of Hamas.
In the face of almost universal criticism of Israel for supposed war crimes, Kemp made clear that the laws of armed conflict do not permit military forces to embed their weapon systems and fighters inside the civilian population, and that if they do then their enemies are permitted under international law to carry out attacks.
“In every case I’ve observed or been briefed on, Israel has carried out an attack against a legitimate military objective,” Kemp said.
Kemp’s observations, which continued with an explanation of how Israel assesses threats, authorizes attacks and warns civilians (not once but in some cases three times in advance if the message has not got through), cannot be made by BBC staff working in Gaza—nor by any news organisation normally dedicated to telling the truth.
For once in the history of the press, we seem to be at a point where it may be safer for journalism not to operate inside danger zones where reporting is necessarily compromised (and where that compromise cannot be acknowledged) but from neutral zones where reporters can speak openly.
Stephen Games is a designer and cultural critic in London, formerly with the BBC, The Guardian and The Independent.