As the skies above Rio de Janeiro were illuminated by fireworks, and as the world watched them, explosions of a rather more macabre kind convulsed the Gaza Strip. Sunday was the sixth day of this Israeli bombardment of Gaza. Today is the tenth. So far, Operation Protective Edge [sic] has claimed the lives of 236 Palestinians, and no one can know how many more dozens of deaths will follow.
We are led to believe by much of the media that Israeli air strikes are justified, that they constitute a reasonable response to rockets fired by ‘militants’. But this myopic and tendentious narrative ignores the truth of the matter, namely that as an occupying power, Israel has no right to self-defence under international law. Nevertheless, in Britain, as in other places, such a narrative has found many a fetid nest; newspapers and broadcasters dispense, with few exceptions, the idea that Israel, by bombing Gaza, is acting in defence of her people.
The BBC is one such broadcaster. Pro-Israeli bias is by no means foreign to the Corporation, but its coverage of this bombardment has been particularly bad and merits special attention for two reasons. Firstly, the BBC is widely seen as a respectable purveyor of news. It purports to be a rare impartial voice amidst the ideological crossfire, a voice which can be relied upon to intone the bony facts and nothing more. This illusion must be smashed (and so too must the one which suggests, unbelievably, that lefties infest the institution). Secondly, the millions of ordinary Britons to whom these illusions appear are the very people who fund the BBC. It is incumbent on all newspapers and broadcasters to report fairly and accurately, but such a duty weighs more heavily where the organisation concerned is publicly owned and funded. In other words, the BBC is obliged to give the British public balanced coverage within a contextual framework and without bias.
Over the last week, in respect of the bombardment of Gaza, it is plain that that obligation has not been fulfilled. How can it be fulfilled, when the dissonant motif at the heart of every article, every report, is simply that wanton rocket fire is the ultimate cause of ‘escalation’ and that Israeli air strikes are justified replies to it? Such a motif was put in place immediately upon the commencement of Operation Protective Edge. Thus on July 8, an article on the BBC News website opened by suggesting matter-of-factly that this was a case of tit-for-tat, that the ‘dozens of rockets’ launched by Hamas marked the beginning of the crisis and together comprised an acceptable rationale for Israeli bombardment. What the article failed to mention is that Palestinian rockets are largely ineffectual; most of the very small number which make landfall end up hitting open ground. In neglecting to stress this asymmetry, the BBC legitimated not only the absurd idea that Israel is acting in self-defence, but also the hysterical sense of victimhood which Israelis feel and which is utterly divorced from the reality on the ground.
Nor, more importantly, did the article truly ask why the rockets were being launched at all. Thus there was no mention of the collective punishment—the terror—which the state of Israel visited upon Palestinians in early July, after Hamas was summarily blamed—without proof—for the deaths of three Israeli teens. And there was, of course, no mention of the brutal and illegal blockade, imposed by Israel, which has devastated the economy of Gaza, destroyed its infrastructure and denied its people the freedom and dignity to which they as human beings are entitled. In this article, then, the BBC practically legitimates the air strikes by ignoring the real causes of rocket fire and by settling instead on some narrow explanation proffered by an unnamed ‘Hamas spokesman’. If, as this spokesman claimed, rockets were launched by Hamas’s military wing merely in order to avenge the deaths of its fighters, then the firing of such rockets is not resistance but ‘terrorism’, and Israeli air strikes are therefore worthwhile. That is surely the thought process which the BBC is seeking to encourage, the consent which it is happening—by accident or design—to manufacture.
The article displays bias against the Palestinians in other ways. For example, it shows a pair of Israeli soldiers in repose atop an APC. They cut isolated figures; there is no suggestion in the photograph of the death and destruction which the Israeli army is apt to inflict upon the territories it helps to occupy. Meanwhile, further down the page, three times as many angry Arab fighters are shown arrayed in black and shouldering hefty guns. Plainly, somebody at the BBC made a decision to represent the Palestinians in this way. And plainly, only one perspective—that of the Israelis—is served by such a depiction.
And then, contained within the main body of the article, there are the mini-reports sent by journalists on either side of the border. Yolande Knell sent hers from Gaza, while James Reynolds sent a longer one from Sderot in southern Israel. During the course of Operation Protective Edge, this device, this juxtaposition, has come to be frequently used by the BBC, both in its broadcasts and on its website. It is presumably employed under the guise of balance, but is, of course, pernicious in the way it ignores the grave asymmetry of the situation. It accords as much or greater significance to the experience of Israelis, and thereby helps to maintain the nauseating illusion of equivalence which forms the bedrock of all BBC coverage on the matter.
In any case, this article very much set the tone for those which followed it. Later on in the same day, July 8, the BBC confirmed its loyalty to the Israeli narrative by reaffirming that Israel was bombing Gaza ‘in response’ to unprovoked rocket fire, the implications once again being that this is all a case of simple tit-for-tat, that Palestinians are the instigators, and that lethal air strikes are a necessary and proportionate means of self-defence. There was no mention of the causes of Gazan rocket fire, no mention of the blockade.
On July 10, Jonathan Marcus became the first BBC journalist to acknowledge in writing that this conflict is an ‘asymmetrical’ one. (Before rushing to praise Marcus for stating the obvious, one should be aware that, two days previously, he had euphemistically described Operation Cast Lead—nine dead Israelis, 1,417 dead Palestinians—as a ‘bitter three-week struggle’). His article, ‘What weapons are being used in the Israel-Gaza conflict?’ ought to have been called, ‘What weapons are being used by Palestinian militants?’: Marcus goes through the entire arsenal of Gazan rockets in some detail, but fails, outrageously, to name a solitary Israeli armament.
On July 11, in his article ‘What can Israel and Hamas gain?’, Kevin Connolly had the opportunity to mention the blockade of Gaza and the desire of Hamas to see it lifted. Needless to say, the opportunity was spurned. Absurdly, at the very start of the self-same article, Connolly solemnly called the situation a ‘war’. At the time, not a single Israeli had been killed. Later that day, in a piece entitled ‘Gaza-Israel conflict: ‘It’s not worth living”, the illusion of equivalence was further nourished, as four ordinary people—two Gazans and two Israelis—blamed the other side. On July 12, with 130 Palestinians dead, such an illusion was fed some more by the headline ‘Israel and Gaza trade fresh fire’.
Even by the fifth day of bombardment, then, the BBC would not grasp the fact that this (or indeed any other) ‘escalation’ in ‘tensions’ was ultimately brought about not by rocket fire, not by Hamas, but by Israel’s systematic seizure of Palestinian land and resources and by its systematic oppression of the Palestinian people.