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September 06, 2002

Report on BBC Coverage of the Matsav has a excellent report by a couple of British solicitors analyzing how BBC coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has violated its legal charter and subjects the network to legal action in Britain, although they don't suggest a remedy.

The authors analyze BBC use of language, presentation of context, balance, and distortion/omission of facts. Their Fisking of the disparate treatment of Sharon and Arafat is devastating:

There is a marked disparity in the treatment of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the BBC website – profile section.

I Ariel Sharon- Prime Minister of Israel

Sharon is treated with undisguised hostility. Vitriolic comment is passed off as fact or as unattributed quotation. Examples include:

“Ariel Sharon has a thick skin and is proud of it.”

An unattributed comment of this sort is out of place in a factual profile.

“He does not care who loves or hates him.”

This is an implausible statement about a democratically elected politician, who includes his principle political opponents in his Cabinet and who was voted to power on the basis of a huge swing in popular opinion.

“[His] one aim in life… is to ensure total security for Israel on his terms.”

This comment is inconsistent with Sharon’s publicly stated aim to comply with the Oslo accords, which contain terms negotiated by people at the opposite end of the political spectrum to himself. The tone suggests that the security of Israel is an ignoble aim. In fact it is a foundation stone of UN Resolution 242.

“That means keeping maximum land and political rights for the Jewish state and giving the very minimum of both to the Palestinians.”

The Oslo accords, to which Sharon is publicly committed, provide a framework for granting significant areas of land, and effective virtual sovereignty to Palestinians.

“Cynics say Mr. Sharon knew the visit [to the Al-Aqsa mosque] would trigger violence and gambled on the Israeli public turning to a tough leader like him who would know how to handle it firmly.”

This unattributed comment suggests that Sharon is happy to sacrifice human lives for his own political ends.

“But once again, Mr. Sharon is not interested in what cynics or anyone might say.”

This is an implausible statement about a democratically elected politician, who includes his principle political opponents in his Cabinet, and who was voted to power on the basis of a huge swing in popular opinion.

“Ariel Sharon’s mission – his enemies call it a dangerous obsession – is to fight for Israel’s security, believing all the while that the end justifies the means.”

This unattributed comment implies that Sharon uses unbridled violence. In fact, he operates under the glare of considerable international press presence, is answerable to an electorate, shares his Cabinet with his political opponents, and is subject to a rule of law which has in the past stripped him of office. It is implausible to suggest that he believes that any means are available to him.

II Yasser Arafat – Chairman of the Palestinian Authority

Arafat is treated as a noble, dignified and courageous statesman:

“Mr Arafat has carried on his shoulders the burden of that struggle [for statehood]”

<>Note the language of heroism and selfless devotion to public duty

“…his pathological refusal to share power or delegate responsibility has taken a toll on his health and is weakening popular support”

Arafat has ruled in a dictatorial manner, employing many separate police forces, and carrying out “torture of detainees, arbitrary arrest, prolonged arbitrary detention…executions after grossly unfair trials [and failing] to bring to justice those responsible for vigilante killings.”[18] This is all painted as a mild character defect, which it appears, has troubled Arafat more than anyone else, by affecting his health and popularity. Yet even here the expression used is crafted principally to confirm that he remains popular notwithstanding his character defect.

“Arafat is, without question, the Palestinian’s greatest asset”

More heroic language, and a comment of doubtful accuracy.

“But when the peace process failed to live up to expectations, more and more Palestinians lost patience with his mercurial and dictatorial style of leadership”

Rather than criticise Arafat’s dictatorship, it is painted mildly as a character defect, with a hint that it is anyway only the result of the failure of the peace process, which could perhaps be blamed on Israel.

“…a natural publicist and a workaholic…”

Arafat described as hardworking, with natural leadership talents.

“an obsessive desire to be leader of the pack and to get his way. The end always justified the means”

Note the contrast of the expression “the end always justifies the means.” With Sharon it is used to suggest that any degree of violence against Palestinians can be justified. With Arafat it is used only to suggest that he will do what he can against his co-Palestinian political colleagues to attain his position as their leader.

“…to his credit, he did more than anyone else to put the Palestinian’s cause on the world agenda”

Another expression of heroic leadership and achievement.

“Led by Arafat, the PLO…committ[ed] …acts of violence”

This is one of the few references to violence. The word ‘terror’ is avoided, and the words used distance Arafat from direct involvement. Arafat’s close involvement in encouraging and organising terrorist attacks, is effectively overlooked.

“When backs were against the wall … Arafat never lacked for personal courage”

Further words of heroic leadership qualities, evoking sympathy for the underdog.

“Arafat had no choice but to make peace with Israel from a position of weakness”

Words evoking sympathy for the underdog, and appearing to excuse the making of peace as a form of ‘selling out’ to some greater cause.

“There was little that Arafat could do but accept whatever he was offered”

Words evoking pity for the underdog.

“[if] Arafat die[s] before achieving his life long goals… he will die a broken man”

Words evoking pity and heroism, suggesting that Arafat will even sacrifice his life for the noble cause for which he fights.

“Arafat is a brilliant leader but a hopeless organiser and negotiator”

Note the unambiguous words of praise. Note also the way his dictatorial and brutal rule is summarised, and impliedly excused, by describing it as due to an almost quaint ‘hopeless[ness]” at organising.

They conclude

The BBC does not report on the Middle East with “due accuracy “ or “impartiality”, as required by the License Agreement.

Breaches of the Guidelines which we have detected include:

Incorrect use of language

Unbalanced reporting

Inappropriate selection of material

Distortion and omission of facts.

We understand that the Israeli Palestinian Conflict is an emotive topic, and that it is difficult to avoid taking sides. Most broadcasters and other media may and do take sides. The BBC may not.

The BBC is funded by public money. Partly because of this, it has accepted a duty on itself to cover politically controversial issues in an impartial way. The persistent failure to treat the Middle East in an impartial way constitutes a breach of the trust which Licence payers have placed in the BBC.

Given the huge influence of the BBC on attitudes around the world, we believe that any bias by the BBC could have far reaching effects.

If the BBC is to adhere to the lofty ideals which it has set itself, and to which it is legally bound, it must strive to report on the Middle East in an impartial and accurate manner.

This is great stuff and, written in March 2002, pre-dates Operation Protective Shield and the alleged massacre in Jenin. Imagine what an updated version could say. I found the report through, which I highly recommend for regular Fisking of the BBC.

Now, let's get started on NPR!