Monday, October 31, 2011

Journalism, propaganda and moral confusion (part two)

Melanie Phillips

As I noted earlier today in an update on my previous post, the BBC News website finally reported yesterday’s attacks on Israel at 04:10 this morning. Anyone going to the BBC website a little later, however, will have seen this item, last updated at 08:38 GMT:

‘Ten killed in Israel-Gaza attacks

An Israeli man has been killed by a rocket attack from Gaza after nine Palestinian militants were killed by Israeli air strikes on the south of the Gaza Strip. ‘ This was of course quite wrong. The Israeli was murdered in Ashkelon by rocket fire from Gaza following a sequence of events which started last Wednesday with a Grad rocket attack from Gaza on Ashdod. That was followed by an Israeli strike on Gaza targeted at the Islamic Jihad cell which Israel said had carried out Wednesday’s attack and which, it said, was preparing to fire more long-range rockets. That strike in turn was used as the excuse for the barrage of rockets from Gaza yesterday which killed the Israeli in Ashkelon.

So anyone clicking on the BBC News home page and just scanning the headlines there would have received the entirely false impression that the Israeli had been killed because the Palestinians were retaliating to aggressive Israeli attacks. Curiously, however, the full story accessed through this particular 04:10 link on the home page appeared to have been corrected at some previous stage, reading instead:

‘Israel-Gaza exchange rocket and air strikes killing 10

'An Israeli man has been killed by rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. Palestinian militants had vowed to retaliate after five militants were killed by an Israeli air strike on the south of the Gaza Strip. Another four Palestinians were killed in further Israeli air raids after the rocket attacks.’

Even so, only further down this story did the BBC report the Palestinian attack that had provoked the first Israeli strike:

‘The [Israeli] spokesman said that the first attack, about midday local time, specifically targeted a cell responsible for a long-range rocket attack on Wednesday, that exploded deep inside Israel. That attack had caused no casualties.’

At 0905 GMT, the website story was updated again to this:

‘Gaza-Israel ceasefire hopes after 10 killed.

‘There are hopes for a ceasefire between Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip and Israel after violence on Saturday. Egypt tried to broker an end to a day of retaliatory rocket and air attacks which killed nine Palestinian militants and an Israeli civilian in Ashkelon.’

In this version, Wednesday’s initial Grad attack is way down the story. Despite all the serial alternations, the overall and misleading impression from this coverage over the past 24 hours is therefore, at best, of ‘tit-for-tat’ violence and, at worst, of Israeli aggression. Either way, the truth of what actually happened has been obscured – and hostility and hatred towards Israel for seeking to defend itself against rocket attacks aimed at killing Israeli innocents will be ratcheted up yet further.

If ordinary people complain to the BBC about its Middle East coverage they seem to get nowhere. The doughty defender of Israel and the west, Dr Denis MacEoin, was horrified by an article published on the BBC website following the release of the kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for more than 1400 Palestinian terrorists in Israeli jails. The article, matched against one by the father of an Israeli girl murdered in a Palestinian terrorist attack, called the released Palestinian terrorists ‘heroes’. This provoked Dr MacEoin to write a complaint to the BBC. Here’s part of it:

‘I was aghast to read a viewpoint piece by Palestinian Nasser Ziad, ‘Released Palestinian prisoners are heroes’. Even in a free society, there must be limits to the kind of opinion presented, especially on an established website such as yours. The author argues that the Palestinian prisoners released as part of a deal for the release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit are heroes because of their struggle for the Palestinian cause. This is truly disgusting.

‘The prisoners included women like Wafa Biss and Ahlam Tamimi. Tamimi planned a suicide attack on the Sbarro restaurant in Jerusalem in 2001. 15 people including 8 children died in the bombing. When told she had killed 8, not 6 children, she smiled. Avraham Yitzhak Schijveschuurder was 4, his sister Hemda was 2. Since her release, Tamimi has spoken about waging jihad as before. She is not a heroine by any measure. Biss had been treated for severe burns in an Israeli hospital in January 2005 and returned in June using her out-patient pass to try to go to the same department that had saved her life, wearing an explosive belt, with instructions to kill as many children as possible. Since her release, she has spoken to Palestinian children, calling on them to grow up to become martyrs. She is utterly despicable by all civilized standards, and as far from being a heroine as I can imagine. Muhammad Wael Daghlas was sentenced to 15 life terms for co-planning the Sbarro massacre. He is thought too dangerous to return to the West Bank. A hero? By what warped standards can such a man be a hero to anyone?

‘These are only a few of the terrorists released by Israel. Ziad’s article describes the Israeli soldier Shalit as 'a legitimate target’. By what military standards may a soldier be kidnapped across his own border and subjected to over five years of solitary confinement, denied access by his family or the Red Cross.

‘You have published an article that turns all civilized standards on its head. Will you now publish a piece claiming that the London 7/7 bombers were heroes? That the Taliban who kill British soldiers and cause so much grief here are heroes? That murderers in the UK are heroes who deserve to be released? That kidnapping people is right? That those who executed the Omagh bombing in 1998 were fighting for a just cause, that we should build a memorial to them and give them medals?

‘You have gone too far this time. I can see no possible vindication for the publication of such a one-sided piece, which reads like a transcript from a Palestinian newspaper or a pro-terrorist opinion piece from The Guardian, which never plays by the rules. Fair argument about Palestinian aggression or Israeli responses would make a valid article, a piece that criticized violence, even if it promulgated a Palestinian position, would form part of dialogue, and I would not complain. But I am much minded of the repeated criticism that the BBC is biased against Israel. I have seen that bias played out too many times to doubt the broad accuracy of the criticism. But to publish a blatant piece that tries to exonerate mass murderers of their crimes is to pass well beyond the limits of civilized and legal discourse. Who will you choose to exonerate next? Adolf Hitler? Mu’ammar Qadhafi? Pol Pot?’

This was the reply Dr MacEoin received:

‘...The viewpoint that you complain about was a companion piece with this article by Ron Kehrmann. A woman convicted of involvement in the suicide bombing that killed Mr Kehrmann’s daughter was released as part of the prisoner swap. These two articles were intended to allow and Israeli and a Palestinian to explain in detail their views and feelings about the prisoner releases. Each article is highly opinionated, personal and partisan. They are both clearly labelled as “viewpoints”.

‘The article that you refer to outlines what Mr Ghoul [one of the released Palestinian prisoners] was convicted of. It attempts to explain how many Palestinians feel about the issue of prisoners in Israeli jails and about the acts of violence carried out by them against Israelis in Israel and the occupied territories. Such views are widely held by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, and therefore we feel that it is important to represent them as a means of explaining the importance of the events we are reporting on the news.

‘The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has multiple narratives and can be looked at in many ways. Military occupation and colonisation lasting many decades and the murderous attacks by Palestinians against Israeli civilians have left thousands dead and a far greater number of lives in ruins. Palestinians and Israelis have suffered greatly in this conflict. This is not to excuse any individual act of murder or violence. My point is that a piece explaining how a Palestinian feels about the prisoner releases, in this context and as a part of our wide range of coverage, is legitimate and revealing journalism.

‘I hope this goes some way to explaining why we commissioned and published this piece.

‘Best regards and thanks,

‘Tarik Kafala
Middle East editor
BBC News website’

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