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Opinion

Challenging the BBC on Israel

Finally, people are pushing back publicly against the outlet’s lethal distortions.

A closeup of the BBC News website. Credit: Anton Garin/Shutterstock.
A closeup of the BBC News website. Credit: Anton Garin/Shutterstock.
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips
Melanie Phillips, a British journalist, broadcaster and author, writes a weekly column for JNS. Currently a columnist for The Times of London, her personal and political memoir, Guardian Angel, has been published by Bombardier, which also published her first novel, The Legacy, in 2018. To access her work, go to: melaniephillips.substack.com.

For decades, the Western media has acted as a malevolent echo chamber for the demonization of Israel. Channeling Palestinian Arab propaganda as if it were fact, the media has twisted the Western mind, inciting it to hate Israel and give Israel’s Palestinian Arab persecutors a free pass.  The impact of this cannot be exaggerated.

Of all media outlets, the BBC is the most important, because it serves as the global standard of fairness, objectivity and accuracy.

At least, that’s the BBC’s historic reputation. In Britain, conservatives regularly criticize it for its leftist bias. Arguably, however, the BBC’s coverage of Israel has caused the most lethal harm.

Over the years, the BBC has broadcast and disseminated through its influential website Palestinian Arab distortions and lies, including incendiary and emotive footage that is sometimes no more than “Pallywood” fiction. It fails to report most attacks on Israelis while, at the same time, unforgivably presenting Israeli military actions to stop these attacks as if Israel were the aggressor and the Palestinians its hapless victims.

There is no other country, cause or people that the BBC misrepresents so obsessively. The outlet’s egregious bias has been painstakingly charted by media watchdogs such as CAMERA UK.

Until very recently, however, the BBC could ignore such criticisms because of the general public silence of both Britain’s Jewish community leaders and Israeli politicians about its routine distortions.

This has recently begun to change. Knesset member Ohad Tal, chairman of the Knesset’s Public Enterprises Committee, has waded in. In a letter to the BBC’s director-general Tim Davie, Tal accused the corporation of “inadvertently fanning terrorism” by parroting false claims used by Palestinian Arab terrorist groups to justify their attacks.

Pointing out that such groups regularly claim that their murders of Israeli civilians are a justified response to Israel’s “crimes of the occupation,” Tal listed 11 instances of similar claims broadcast by the BBC since last November alone—sometimes two in a single day.

This incessant messaging that Jewish “settlements” in Judea and Samaria are illegal appears so often in BBC items, said Tal, because the BBC’s guidance for its journalists states: “When writing a story about settlements, BBC journalists can aim, where relevant, to include context to the effect that ‘all settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.’ ”

Yet at the same time, the BBC’s guidelines assert, “We should not use the term ‘terrorist’ without attribution, using words instead such as ‘insurgent’ and ‘militant.’ ”

If “settlements” are consistently presented as illegal, argued Tal, then terrorism should certainly be presented as illegal. Pointing to various authorities that have said the “settlements” are legal, including the U.S. government, Tal suggested that the BBC should say in the future: “Many international lawyers argue that settlements are illegal. However, this is disputed by other international lawyers as well as by Israel and the United States.”

The reply Tal received from Jonathan Munro, the deputy CEO and director of journalism at BBC News, was illuminating. On the issue of “illegal settlements,” Munro wrote: “It is fair to say that there are some lawyers who hold different views, and some of them are eminent. … But the fact is that the U.N. believes that settlements have no legal validity and obstruct the peace process (e.g., Security Council Resolution 446, 22 March 1979).”

U.N. resolutions, said Munro, are an “additional source of international law.” Yet he failed to acknowledge that the U.N. resolutions that have attacked Israel and claimed the “settlements” are illegal, along with the International Court of Justice’s 2004 “advisory opinion,” are not binding.

Munro continued, “The position held by the majority international community outweighs the views of any individual lawyer. … Many governments also hold that Israeli settlements contravene the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states that ‘The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.’ ”

This is also a misunderstanding. The Geneva Conventions only apply to sovereign territory. They do not apply to the Israeli “settlements” because neither the Palestinian Arabs nor the Jordanians—who illegally occupied the disputed territories of Judea and Samaria between 1948 and 1967—had sovereignty over those areas.

Munro further asserted that the primary goal of the Geneva Conventions was “to protect local populations and to ensure that their territory’s demographic and cultural character would remain intact until its status was finally determined.”

Wrong again. The primary goal of the Conventions’ “transfer” clause is to protect the population of a sovereign region against enslavement, forced labor or extermination. It prohibits transfer and forced movement. The Israeli “settlements” are entirely voluntary.

Munro said that the BBC acknowledges the disputed nature of all this and claimed it “regularly carries Israel’s position” on the “settlements.” But the BBC does not do so. As noted above, it merely holds, “All settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.”

On the issue of the BBC’s chronic inability to speak the word “terrorism,” Munro claimed that “‘terrorism’ means different things to different people.” The result is the BBC’s refusal to use this word to describe attacks on Israelis. Munro’s position on the apparent ambiguities of “illegal” settlements and “terrorism” is therefore inconsistent.

Munro further claimed that the “settlements” are predicated on “the supposed rights” of Jewish people to settle the land. But there’s nothing “supposed” about these rights. In the 1920s, the international community enshrined the Jewish people’s right to settle the whole of Israel, the “West Bank” and Gaza as a treaty obligation that was eventually included in the U.N. Charter.

Munro’s ignorance is lamentable. The demonization of Israel, however, is centered in the universities and the BBC faithfully parrots such cultural elites. There is also the U.K. Foreign Office, which continues to maintain the fiction that Israel is engaged in an “illegal occupation.”

The harm done by the BBC to the security of Israel is incalculable. With some notable exceptions, its overall narrative about the Jewish state, which it pumps out month after month, inescapably foments hatred. As Tal wrote, this helps incite acts of terror against Israelis and attacks on Jews in Britain.

The BBC is staffed by people who take their obligations under the BBC’s charter to be objective, impartial, balanced and fair very seriously. The frightening thing is that they cannot see that their treatment of Israel breaks all those obligations. Sealed inside a liberal echo chamber, the BBC is a closed thought system.

In recent months, however, after some particularly egregious coverage of a Jewish issue, there has finally been some pushback.

The media watchdog Ofcom ruled that the BBC made a serious editorial misjudgment when it falsely suggested that a group of Jewish students who were subjected to an antisemitic attack on a bus in London had abused their Muslim attackers.

Following the attack and the BBC’s defamatory coverage of it, The Jewish Chronicle campaigned for an inquiry into the BBC’s coverage of Israel and antisemitism. The inquiry was set up at the end of last year and is comprised of members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Last November, The Jewish Chronicle reported that the BBC had apologized for years of “unacceptable” handling of complaints about anti-Israel bias at BBC Arabic, which activists said represented a “disdainful” attitude towards Jewish concerns.

The only way of breaking through the BBC’s closed thought system is for people with standing in the public square to hold it very publicly to account. Unfortunately, the U.K. Jewish community’s leadership always prefers to make representations behind the scenes. This ensures that the BBC can safely ignore its complaints.

But now this may be changing, as others in the Jewish community declare that they are no longer prepared to tolerate the BBC’s dangerous misreporting. Tal’s initiative is therefore very welcome. At present, however, he is a lone Israeli voice. Other Israeli politicians should follow his example and hold the BBC’s feet to the fire.

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