Writing in the Independent last week, Robert Fisk commented on the BBC‘s refusal to broadcast an appeal for Gaza by the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC):
“The BBC's refusal to handle an advertisement for Palestinian aid was highly instructive. It was the BBC's ‘impartiality’ that might be called into question. In other words, the protection of an institution was more important than the lives of children.”
Even taken at face value, then, the BBC’s decision was monstrous. But the idea that it was primarily motivated by a commitment to impartiality makes little sense.
In 1999, the corporation allowed its own high profile newsreader, Jill Dando, to present a DEC appeal for Kosovo at the height of NATO’s 78-day bombing campaign against Serbia. This, also, was an ongoing and highly controversial conflict, one that involved fraudulent US-UK government and media claims of a Serbian “genocide” in Kosovo (claims which have since been quietly abandoned).
Shortly after broadcasting the appeal, with bombing still underway, the BBC reported:
“Millions of pounds of donations have been flooding in to help the Kosovo refugees after a national television appeal for funds.” (‘UK Millions pour in to Kosovo appeal,’ BBC online, April 6, 1999. See David Bracewell‘s excellent work on this in our forum)
This article linked to related reports on the conflict, which included comments from then prime minister Tony Blair:
"This will be a daily pounding until he [Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic] comes into line with the terms that Nato has laid down.”
The BBC apparently had no concerns that this might damage its alleged reputation for impartiality.
The BBC argument is also made absurd by its consistent and very obvious pro-Israeli bias. An early version of a January 28 BBC online article (since amended) commented:
"Israel has carried out an air attack in the Gaza Strip and launched an incursion with tanks and bulldozers across the border... The incursion follows a bomb attack which killed one Israeli soldier and wounded three near the Gaza border."
As usual, this presented the Israeli attack as a response to Palestinian violence. The BBC’s Middle East correspondent, Jeremy Bowen, told one Media Lens reader that this was reasonable since the killing of the Israeli soldier "is the most serious incident since the ceasefire because it is the first loss of life on either side since then.” (Media Lens message board, January 27, 2009)
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This was the standard view for anyone uninterested in the facts - most mainstream journalists. Alison Weir noted on Counterpunch:
“Virtually every media outlet reported this action as a major breach in the ceasefire that had begun on January 18th: CNN, AP, NPR, the New York Times, The Washington Post, Fox News, ABC, CBS, the Christian Science Monitor, the LA Times, the McClatchy Newspapers, etc, all pinned the resumption of violence on Palestinians.”
“There’s just one problem. Israeli forces had already violated the ceasefire at least seven times:
“Israeli forces killed a Palestinian farmer in Khuza'a east of Khan Yunis on Jan 18
“Israeli forces killed a Palestinian farmer east of Jabalia on Jan. 19
“Israeli naval gunboats shelled the Gaza coastline, causing damage to civilian structures
“Israeli troops shot and injured a child east of Gaza City on Jan 22
“Israeli gunboat fire injured 4-7 Palestinian fishermen on Jan 22
“Israeli shelling set a Palestinian house on fire on Jan 22
“Israeli tanks fired on the border town of Al Faraheen, causing damage to homes and farms on Jan 24.” (Weir, ‘Killing Palestinians Doesn't Count,’ Counterpunch, January 29, 2009)
Senior BBC journalists and managers like to claim that the high volume of complaints from both sides of the debate indicates that they are getting the balance about right. But complaints sent by pro-Israeli individuals and groups (fiercely active in Israel and the US) defending their own perceived interests do not have the same credibility as emails sent by people arguing that Palestinians should not be subordinated to those interests. Of course self-interest also promoted pro-Palestinian complaints. But of the 22,000 emails sent to the BBC in complaint, we received hundreds from individuals whose only concern was the protection of human life. The difference is real and matters.
The letters page of the latest issue of Ariel, the BBC's internal staff magazine, featured ten letters on the BBC's refusal to air the Gaza appeal: all were critical of the decision. Jonathan Renouf, a BBC series producer, commented courageously:
“There is a smell of fear about this decision – fear of controversy, fear of criticism, fear of repercussions. Perhaps this is the true fallout from the Hutton report, Queengate and Jonathan Ross; an organisation so mired in fear that it finds itself able to sacrifice aid to the victims of war for a principle that nobody (outside the BBC higher echelons) seems to believe was at stake.”
The title of the BBC‘s letters page was "In blocking Gaza appeal we are taking sides." As the Roman proverb tells us:
“The Senate is a beast, the senators are good men.”
The Impartiality Delusion
God and love aside, it seems to us that more nonsense has been written about “impartiality” than any other issue.
The legendary Guardian editor C.P. Scott righteously observed: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.” (Manchester Guardian, May 5, 1921)
But facts are 'not' sacred, pristine, untouchable. They are gathered by human beings on the basis of imperfect, worldly, often compromised motives. And anyway, to mention ‘this’ fact over ’that’ fact is already to express an opinion. To highlight ‘this’ fact over ‘that’ fact is to comment. Facts 'are' comment!
The media would have us believe that news reporting is an almost technical task. Journalists are presented as collecting ‘hard facts’ on the ground much as a geologist collects rocks for research. In reality, journalists report on a world controlled, and harmed, by the same powerful interests. The harm needs to be exposed; but the control makes it a simple matter to punish those who would do the exposing.
This is why journalistic truth-telling requires far more than mere professional competence. Success depends on quite rare human qualities: compassion, independence of thought; the willingness to disobey authority, to disregard the carrots of conformity (status, wealth, power).
An honest journalist is someone who instinctively reviles the notion that he should take his side (his corporation, his class, his country, his career interests) at the expense of others. She agonises about, feels wounded by, the thought that she might be subordinating someone else’s interests to her own. The honest journalist does not merely believe, but 'feels' that all happiness is of equal value, that all suffering is equal. He or she will be moved by the words of the Buddhist sage Shantideva:
"Mine and other’s pain - how are they different?
Simply, then, since pain is pain, I will dispel it.
What grounds have you for all your strong distinctions?” (Shantideva, The Way Of The Bodhisattva, Shambhala, 1997, p.124)
We, also, have written for the mainstream. And we have experienced the moments of moral crisis: ‘This needs to be said. But if I say it, I might not be invited back.’ A reassuring set of thoughts is always on hand: ‘I can do more good on the inside than on the outside - why take a chance? Nobody will notice. How much difference would it make anyway?’ We have thought exactly these thoughts even though we have faced utterly trivial temptations by mainstream standards. How willing would you be to risk alienating powerful groups allied to your proprietor, or parent company, if you were paid a six-figure salary to type out a few hundred words every week?
Nobody ever talks about these choices but everyone is aware of them, on some level, all the time. Everyone knows that there are things that you just do not say about the host newspaper, the owner, the editor, the advertisers, the government, the government’s allies. BBC journalists know what they should and should not say about Israel.
For some, these moments of crisis will barely reach awareness. They will be experienced as a vague sense of unease, easily ignored. Successful corporate journalists may wonder why anyone would even waste time on such nonsense. They know the barriers, the taboos (how else could they avoid them with such precision?), and they simply play by the rules. They may have convinced themselves that the ’rules’ are for the best in the long run anyway (because our society is fundamentally benevolent in an otherwise primitive and threatening world).
This all casts a different light on a question posed to us last month by MA student Steve Roberts of the Open University:
“Do you think that blogs and websites such as ‘medialens’, ‘Digg’ and ‘Twitter’ provide a viable alternative to ‘mainstream media news’?”
In our view, the question should be reversed: Do the mainstream media provide a viable alternative to non-corporate sources of news and commentary? The answer is they do not and never have.
Consider, for example, that it is an unwritten rule of corporate reporting that very ugly motives cannot be imputed to our government or its leading allies. They may err and blunder, but it is unthinkable that they would kill thousands, or millions, of people because it was in the best interests of elite power. It is unthinkable that they would deliberately kill the poor to terrorise other poor people to accept poverty. It is unthinkable that they would actively seek to promote violent conflicts because they have a monopoly on violence. It is unthinkable that they would seek to create enemies because doing so has multiple benefits in pacifying the domestic population, justifying arms budgets, and providing a rationale for attacking poor people overseas.
One might speculate as to why these possibilities are deemed beyond the pale of ‘respectable’, expressible views, given that journalism is supposed to be a coldly clinical, technical task. An underlying rationalisation (again, not openly discussed) assumes that the media should serve the status quo called “democracy”. Serving democracy, naturally, does not extend to ’undermining’ a government ‘freely’ elected by the British electorate. This is implicit in the whole notion of professional media ‘balance’. If it is the role of the media, to fairly represent the Labour, Tory and Liberal Democrat view of the world, why would it be the role of the media to suggest that these views are fraudulent, hiding much darker truths?
Bearing these comments in mind, the Israeli attack on Gaza that began on December 27, 2008 provides a good test for Steve Roberts‘ question. How did the mainstream and “alternative” media answer this simple question: Why did the Israeli army massacre hundreds of Palestinian civilians?
As we will see, hundreds of well-resourced journalists across the media failed to provide a credible explanation. We had to turn to a single article by a single author on an internet website to discover the answer.
Part 2 will follow shortly...
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