Take care over caution

In 2002 I made a series of films for the BBC on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the first episode of The Ugly War the crew followed commando units of the Israeli army making raids into Palestinian territory.

In the next I spoke to fighters of the al-Aqsa brigade in a bomb-making factory in Jenin. BBC guidelines allowed us to film members of officially recognised organisations but not to be party to preparations for suicide bombings. There was no attempt made at “internal balance”. The aim of the documentaries, together awarded “film of the year” by the UK’s Foreign Press Association, was to see life entirely through the eyes of each set of protagonists.

As I have watched and listened to the BBC’s coverage of the Gaza conflict over the past two weeks, it seems less likely than ever that the corporation would take the same risky approach again.

The latest escalation is the first real test of guidelines on the BBC’s reporting of the Middle East brought in after criticism of pro-Palestinian bias levelled at the corporation in 2005. In the past two weeks, the signs of caution have been more in evidence than before.

With some honourable exceptions (a post-holiday Jeremy Paxman and Newsnight), the questioning of Israeli spokespersons has been weak.

Compare, for example, Channel 4 News’s grilling of Mark Regev, the Israeli government’s chief spokesperson, on 8 January, with much of the BBC output. Alex Thomson asked Regev “in the name of humanity” to apologise for the refusal of the Israeli army to allow the International Committee of the Red Cross to get to “starving children”. Thomson put it to Regev that the Red Cross workers had to “walk one kilometre” to reach the scene. Regev stonewalled, but Thomson did not relent. It was good, objective, non-hedged questioning.

Compare that with various BBC outlets, including similar allegations put on The World at One on January 9 to another Israeli spokesperson, Yigal Palmor. Palmor was allowed to fob off the charges with relative ease in an interview with the usually rigorous Brian Hanrahan. These spokespeople, along with Major Avital Leibovich of the Israeli army, have been ever present on the news channel, but rarely have they been truly pressed.

Sometimes the problem can be put down to workload: rolling news anchors, by the nature of their work (one minute Israel, next Gordon Brown on his round-Britain tour, next English cricket), do not have time to prepare for interviews. In order to achieve balance, both sides are allowed to give their view. But then, in visual terms, a hospital overwhelmed with dying and injured children is given equivalence to the funeral of a single Israeli soldier.

In the most highly charged part of the world, the BBC has a special locus. A public service broadcaster financed by the licence fee, it regards its requirements to impartiality and accuracy as sacrosanct. Accused of a liberal bias by its detractors, it has found itself almost constantly in the firing line. Since a 2005 report into its Middle East coverage by an independent panel, by the then governors, the BBC has made changes.

Among the report’s many observations was that “our credibility is undermined by the careless use of words which carry emotional or value judgements”. And yet superimpose that approach to other theatres of conflict. Was such restraint used in the Russian bombardment of Georgia in August? For much of the time, one side was seen as the attacker, the other the embattled victim. Burma? Tibet?

Language, as any propagandist knows, is the most important tool. Hamas fighters are called “militants”.

That, I am told, is a halfway house between “terrorist” and more sympathetic labels such as “guerrillas”. The Israeli army is often referred to by its formal title, the Israel Defence Forces. The bombardment of Gaza has regularly been described as “the Israeli operation”. Such language denudes coverage of impact.

The reporters, led by the experienced Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, are operating in the most frustrating of environments. At the time of writing, they had still not been allowed inside Gaza. When it comes to Zimbabwe, each presenter’s cue into a reporter’s package invariably states: “The BBC is banned from reporting inside Zimbabwe, and so here is X from South Africa”. The refusal by the Israelis to allow correspondents access inside Gaza has been mentioned, but not as a matter of course and not as prominently.

Peter Horrocks, head of the multimedia newsroom at the BBC, rejects criticism that it has shown undue caution. “We have sought to explain the Israeli mindset, but in no way can we be seen to have held back from the effects of the military action,” he says.

He points to the work of Palestinian, Gaza-based producers, and to an interview with an angry Norwegian doctor inside a hospital last week as examples. But he acknowledges special care is taken when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict:

“There is an established contentiousness that might mean the language we use is more precise and that we measure it more carefully.”

Obviously, a three-minute package cannot go into detail, but there are issues that should be aired more thoroughly: during the six-month truce, to what extent did living conditions inside the Gaza Strip improve? How often, even in the West Bank, do Israeli soldiers mount raids?

Led by Regev, a charismatic, Australian-born spokesperson, Israel has amassed a formidable public relations operation. Following the failures of the Lebanon war it has created a National Information Directorate. The power of the message has long been at its strongest in the US, where academics and journalists know that criticism of Israel may harm their careers. It has become slicker in the UK too. There is nothing wrong with that. But it should be acknowledged to be much better funded and more professional than anything the Palestinians have mustered.

When I became editor of the New Statesman, I made clear my determination to alter the tone of the NS coverage of Israel after a cover in 2002 that showed a gold Star of David impaling a Union flag and the headline: “A kosher conspiracy?” My view was that careless use of symbols and language — words such as “holocaust” — provided an open goal to denounce legitimate critics of Israeli military excess as antisemitic.

But care should not correspond to caution. The school of thought that says Israel has nothing to reproach itself for, that Hamas is solely to blame and that anyone who thinks otherwise must be hostile to Israel is strong on the blogosphere. People are entitled to that view, but it should not lead to self-censorship by editors.

In 2005, I described the BBC as “broken, beaten, cowed” in a controversial article. I argued — on the basis of evidence from people inside the corporation – that the organisation was displaying an increasing reluctance to challenge authority. In this case, it was New Labour after the BBC had raised the white flag over the Hutton report. My article upset Mark Thompson, the director general. However, in the ensuing days I was contacted by many managers, editors and reporters saying their experiences bore out my argument, and expressing gratitude for putting the case.

The BBC is no longer broken or beaten. It carries strong journalism, allowing senior figures such as Nick Robinson on politics and Robert Peston on business to speak their minds. But I wonder whether – when confronted by governments, media and other organisations that wield real power over it — the BBC remains too cowed.

  • John Kampfner is chief executive of Index on Censorship – guardian.co.uk
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