Sunday, 25 January 2009

What the Beeb is worried about

Some fascinating hints about what lies behind the BBC Gaza appeal row are contained in an article in the Observer by former BBC Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn. The article isn't accepting comments, so I'll have to respond to it here.

Llewellyn's own position couldn't be clearer. He describes the decision not to air the appeal as an "extraordinary piece of institutional cowardice" which makes him and many still working for the corporation "incandescent with rage". He talks of the BBC's staff as "lions led by donkeys", and of BBC managers as trying to outdo the government "in grovelling to the United States and Israel". The decision represents a "pusillanimous obeisance to some imagined governmental threat". He sees it as a betrayal of the high standards of journalism upheld by such broadcasting legends as the late Charles Wheeler, whose memorial service he attended last week.

So clear is Llewellyn's wrath, indeed, that one begins to see why BBC bosses are fearing for their reputation:

How is the BBC's impartiality to be prejudiced by asking others to raise money for the victims of an act of war by a recognised state, an ally of Britain, using the most lethal armaments it can against a defenceless population? What sly little trigger went off in her head when Thomson questioned whether the aid would reach the right people? What right people? Hamas, the elected representatives of the Palestinian people? The hospitals and clinics run by private charities and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency? The mosques? The citizens of Gaza, persecuted beyond measure not only by their Israeli enemies but by the western powers who arm and sustain Israel and defy the democratic vote of the Palestinian people?

Indeed, how could the Beeb's impartiality possibly be compromised by taking sides? Yesterday, Tony Benn was invited onto the Today programme to denounce the BBC - and don't the Today boys just love demonstrating their fearlessness and independence by sticking it to their superiors? - and during the interview he read out the Appeal's phone number. "I expect that's why you've asked me on," he claimed. Ed Stourton denied it. But according to Llewellyn the programme "rightly" produced Benn "because they knew he would articulate what their bosses have failed to: reason and humanity."

Llewellyn clearly values impartiality less than campaigning journalism. He - and, to judge by his account, most of his former colleagues, "reporters of the calibre of Jeremy Bowen, David Lloyn, Lyse Doucet, experts in their field and brave people all" - wish to draw attention to what in their minds is a clear case of good versus evil. No plainer statement could be found of the deep pro-Palestinian, even pro-Hamas and lurking anti-Israeli feelings that are common currency within the organisation. In this, he echoes health minister and former BBC man Ben Bradshaw, who on Any Questions the other day seemed to forget, in his indignation, his responsibilities as a member of the government, instead lambasting the Israeli government for "bullying" the BBC - an allegation for which so far he has produced no evidence whatsoever, but which has already been noticed in the Arab world and may well cause both the BBC and Britain lasting damage.

There is a place for partial and committed reporting. But that place is emphatically not in a publicly funded monolith whose very name makes it a flag-carrier of the British national interest and which has to rely upon its international reputation for impartiality. Its status, and Britain's too, is put in jeopardy when it appears too much like the mouthpiece of a terrorist organisation, even when said organisation is, as Llewellyn proudly points out, "the elected representatives of the Palestinian people". I don't generally have much sympathy for BBC bosses, who can be mulishly conceited and impervious to reasonable criticism, as they demonstrated admirably over the Ross/Brand affair. But this insight into what they are up against makes their stand far more comprehensible.

Viewed in isolation, there is little cause to object to the appeal being broadcast - at least if sufficient safeguards can be put in place that the money raised doesn't go astray. (Which would be a pretty big if, even if the impartiality of some of the charities involved in the appeal were not in question). That is why the indignation is widespread. But where the BBC is involved nothing can be viewed in isolation. The very fact that BBC types can jump so easily to the bonkers conspiracy theory that the management has been leant on by the Israelis reveals how seriously impaired the corporation's impartiality has become. This isn't the first time a DEC request for an appeal has been turned down by the broadcasters. It is, however, the first time that the denial has become, itself, a major news story. The way in which the demos have been co-ordinated by the SWP/Islamist dominated Stop the War Coalition, with George Galloway leading the protest outside Broadcasting House, shows how humanitarian concern has in this case become dangerously politicised. But it also demonstrates the spluttering, incoherent rage to which the "liberal" Left is reduced when the BBC temporarily stops behaving like their mouthpiece.

The BBC bosses, I suspect, were influenced less by Israeli pressure (or even the prospect of such pressure) than by knowledge of how the appeal would reflect back on its own coverage. It was not to preserve the actuality of BBC impartiality on Gaza - because there is none - but rather to salvage the impression of impartiality that they felt compelled to take such a stand. There's more than a whiff of the corporation protesting too much. By taking a loud and unpopular stand on this issue, they will in future be able to produce it as evidence that their reporting is not anti-Israel. Even though, for arguably good reasons, it is.


Bishop Hill said...

No, there's another explanation.

therealalekid said...

I've never heard of the Balen report before, after looking it up most of the articles date back to 2007. However I have found this article more recently.

What it paints the image for me though is one where the BBC top brass are aware of the biases of the majority of their journalists. Indeed when the Heresiarch quotes Llewellyn an ex BBC figure his impartiality is clear to see.

what has happened now though is when the BBC top management made this difficult decision, most of their journalists have seemingly spat the dummy.

I think taking from the Damian Thompson link that perhaps the BBC have chosen the wrong issue to get tough on, however they didn't deserve this blowback.

Waltz said...

Oh the irony ...

BBC bosses really need to reconsider their recruiting practices. Using The Guardian as their primary avenue for advertising vacancies has self-evidently resulted in a level of political bias that is becoming quite absurd.

McDuff said...

" I don't generally have much sympathy for BBC bosses, who can be mulishly conceited and impervious to reasonable criticism, as they demonstrated admirably over the Ross/Brand affair. "

Wait... what?

You mean to say you looked at the obsequious grovelling before the Faux Outrage of tabloids who should just have been told to fuck off back to destroying society as the BBC being "impervious" to "reasonable criticism"? You thought the stuff coming from the Murdoch/Dacre wing of the press was reasonable? You thought Ross's suspension was just a simple shrugging off?

I say again, what?

As to the bias.... well, yes: "what?"

Pro-Gaza bias is to be found in such places as the In Gaza blog. I wouldn't call it pro-Hamas but it's pretty emphatic in its unhappiness at the situation. It also, well, I guess "reports" would be the right way to put it, on things like the continuing death toll after the 'cease fire'. That's bias. The BBC, to the best of my searching ability, hasn't even mentioned that. You'd have thought an organisation with an institutional Anti-Israel bias would have been all over that like white on rice, but apparently not.

Perhaps the unfortunate facts of the matter are that the facts, in this case, make Israel look like a bunch of cunts. You remember that Abu Ghraib made the USA look like a bunch of cunts (that is, if you don't think the whole invasion of Iraq in the first place did the job just fine)? I don't recall the accusations that you had to be Anti-American to report on those things. Similarly with Chechnya or more recently Georgia, people managed to say things like "you can't just bomb a whole city like that" without being accused of rampaging anti-Russism. And I'm sure if the whole Sri Lanka v the Tamils thing kicks back off to such an extent that the Sri Lankan government looks like a bunch of cunts nobody will be accused of being blindly Anti-Sri Lankan.

Unfortunately, you can put as much emphasis on "objectivity" as you want but that doesn't mean you'll be able to show both sides in an equal light. When one side is killing with a ratio of 100:1, when one side's overcrowded hospitals are seeing White Phosphorus burns roll through their doors and the other side has some off target rocket strikes and people gathering across the border to watch the fireworks, the basic economics of news gathering are going to show us a lot more Palestinian casualties than Israeli ones. That's because there were more Palestinan casualties than Israeli ones. Similarly, you'll see a lot more destroyed Palestinian homes, because there are more destroyed Palestinian homes. You'll see Israel blockading Palestine with no counter-reporting showing the blockade the Palestinians use to prevent Israelis getting food and medicine, because the Palestinians didn't do that. Sometimes, "objectivity" means showing one side kicking the shit out of the other because that's what actually happened.

I don't know what's difficult to get about that, you know. Yes yes, Hamas are bastards and terrorists, but aren't blockades normally acceptable pretexts for war? Wasn't there another sovereign nation in 1967 which started a six day war over a blockade? And wouldn't "militants" fighting a "war" normally be referred to as "soldiers"? Is it another sign of pro-Israel bias that nobody asks exactly what the Gaza strip is, what gives Israel the right to control 100%* of what enters and leaves a strip of land with a population of 1.5M people, why it has no right to "self defense" from the blockade?

I'm well aware of Hamas' position as Bad People, I'm just not convinced that not mentioning that before every journalistic account of dead ambulance drivers and babies with their legs amputated is necessarily damning proof of "Anti-Israeli bias".

*Yes, I know, Rafah. And If you think Egypt being the 2nd largest recipient of US Foreign Aid after Israel itself has absolutely no bearing on the decision of the Egyptian authorities to play ball on this then I'm sure that's because you're just an unbiased and objective observer who wouldn't dream about drawing conclusions, no matter how obvious.

The Heresiarch said...

I think there are two aspects that often get confused: objectivity and even-handedness. The BBC would seem to be of the view, at a corporate level, that the two are the same - which results in possibly misplaced judgements such as the appeal; though it'll be interesting to see if there's a similar demand for an appeal over events in Sri Lanka, which may well turn out to have taken more civilian lives. They are too much concerned with even-handedness - but that doesn't mean that they are objective.

Is it another sign of pro-Israel bias that nobody asks exactly what the Gaza strip is, what gives Israel the right to control 100%* of what enters and leaves a strip of land with a population of 1.5M people, why it has no right to "self defense" from the blockade?

You acknowledge that Egypt has a border with Gaza, I see, but then deem it irrelevant for other reasons. I think the role of Egypt in this business is very relevant indeed; the BBC's failure properly to explain or even recognise it is part of the problem with their coverage, which is too apt to see it as a simple struggle between two unevenly matched sides. It goes way beyond Egypt "playing ball" with the Americans - they have their own reasons for hating Hamas, and they are rather more cynical than Israel's.

I have elsewhere expressed my disapproval of Israeli heavy-handedness. But the fact is the BBC has chosen to present this story without any proper context. It isn't pro-Israel bias that means "nobody asks exactly what the Gaza strip is", or even anti-Israel bias. But I agree with you that it is the most important question.

McDuff said...

I very much doubt the Sri Lankan conflict will receive anything like the amount of coverage of this recent conflict no matter how many are killed, but then it's not a foreign policy flashpoint.

Egypt's role isn't irrelevant, but even given their independent reasons for hating Hamas the US-Israel-Egypt aid relationship is one of the least-reported but most relevant facts about the ongoing US Middle East "soft imperialism" project. It benefits Egypt to let Israel kick the shit out of them and take the blame for things they could ameliorate by opening Rafah, but there is no way you can claim that they are not also furthering Israeli-US interests by doing so.

There is also a significant difference between their actions and those of Israel. And given how much attention we paid to the Israeli side of things when the blockade was active but the missiles were infrequent (i.e. none whatsoever) it seems fair to point out that Israel are actually the ones blowing people up. That's not merely an academic point. One could argue that they are playing a smarter and more cynical game by helping to perpetuate suffering while not taking a tenth of the responsibility, but that really just shows what mugs the Israelis are being about the whole thing.

It isn't pro-Israel bias that means "nobody asks exactly what the Gaza strip is", or even anti-Israel bias. But I agree with you that it is the most important question.

While I'd part agree inasmuch as it need not be deliberate bias, it does not benefit Gaza to be in a state of imprisoned quasi-state limbo, but it does benefit Israel. Therefore the results of not asking such questions and of granting only one side of the conflict the "right to self defense" and saying that any armed or violent response on the part of the Gazans is necessarily terrorism are that Israel benefits, or at least that the short term goals of the current state government of Israel benefits. Indeed, in the long term it's hard to see how this does not cause immense amounts of harm to the nation and the people of Israel, but the people in charge of bulldozing houses don't appear to agree with me on this point, and it's always the current crop of maniacs you have to deal with, not the hypothetical ideal future government of sane people.

Similarly, I don't disagree that the coverage in all the mainstream news has been embarrassingly shallow, but I stand truly amazed that anybody could think there is anti-Israel bias in our media, even in the BBC.