This is the text of a talk I gave on Tuesday, November 10, in a London synagogue for UK Media Watch to discuss the BBC’s record of reporting from the Middle East in anticipation of Parliament’s Renewal of the BBC’s Charter.
How the BBC Has Poisoned the Global Public Sphere with its Own-Goal War Journalism
It’s always hard to know what to say when talking about the current situation without sounding alarmist, or, as Ben White claimed, sounding like a paranoid Eurabia conspiracy theorist. European elites have been in denial for so long and at such a cost… and trying to wake them up, such a thankless task. I take this large crowd, however, as a sign of an awakening, and address those of you who have come to the conclusion that our leaders – our politicians, our journalists, our pundits, our policy makers, our community leaders, don’t really know what they’re doing, especially when it comes to dealing with the waxing population of triumphalist Muslims in Europe. And in this widespread disorientation, these leaders have put the Jewish communities of Europe – England’s among them – in real peril.
Now no one in 2000, would have anticipated that in 15 years, the Prime Ministers of both France and England would openly express their fears that they might lose their Jews. Who, in those heady days of global civil society, would have imagined such a turn? When I spoke with Rabbi Sacks in 1997 about my fears of a returning anti-Semitism at the turn of the millennium, he, like almost everyone I spoke to back then, found it absurd. But even I didn’t imagine that it would take the form of European sovereign nations allowing – or not being able to stop – triumphalist Muslims from chasing out the Jews from their midst.
My remaining remarks will be addressed to two points:
How it happened
Why it happened
I will leave it to my fellow panelists to document the sad tale of journalistic malfeasance, and suggest where to go from here. My goal is to place this tale in a larger framework and understand how self-destructive it is for journalists to so behave.
How it happened: This is a tale of how a school of lethal journalists, who reported Palestinian war propaganda as news, turned out to be own-goal war journalists, and in doing so, contributed in the spread of a poisonous hatred of Jews (and other defiant infidels), that continues to gain momentum to the point that it has brought you all out to find out more about what’s going on.
You will hear much tonight about how awful the BBC’s coverage has been about Israel. And many of you will, completely appropriately, feel sorry for yourselves and your people, given how grossly unfair and unprofessional, the news media’s coverage of the conflict between the river and the sea. Tonight, I’d like to look at the larger pattern of this behavior.
From the outbreak of the Second Intifada in October 2000, Western journalists, the BBC in the lead, followed the following modus operandi, in case after case, with virtually no in-course corrections. One can characterize it in terms of a frame for the story, and a “best” practices in gathering information: Journalists, over the last 15 years at least, have consistently adopted as the frame for its news, the Israeli-Goliath/Oppressor vs. the Palestinian David/victim. Little good and much bad about Israel, little bad and as much sad about Palestine.
And to match this frame, journalists have adopted the following “best practices”: report Palestinian accounts of Israeli atrocities as credible news, minimize Israeli counter-claims, and when wrong, barely correct, but rather, move on to the next lethal narrative. The BBC’s enduring shame over their reporting from Jenin stands today at their site for all to see: one awful piece after another, and now, 13 years later, no corrections, no revisions, no lessons learned, no learning curve.
The result has been “lethal journalism,” that is to say, the passing on of belligerent war propaganda – lethal narratives about atrocious behavior designed to arouse hatred, disgust, and a desire for vengeance – as news. This lethal journalism has had an immense impact, far beyond the protagonists themselves, whose lives have been poisoned by the hatred it incites. It has repeatedly provoked Muslims in Europe, indeed everywhere this journalism dominates the mainstream media, to public displays of increasingly violent anger.
Were one to correlate three patterns, they would overlap dramatically over the last 15 years:
1) episodes of lethal journalism against Israel, most often coinciding with an IDF operation against Palestinian combatants attacking Israeli civilians from the midst of their own;
2) violent demonstrations in the streets of Europe; and
3) spikes in incidents of open hostility to European Jews.
What brings many of you here tonight is an increasing awareness that this trend represents not just an unpleasant phenomenon that, like the rain, we just have to learn to live with, but something genuinely threatening.
Why it happened?
Now some of us think this lethal journalism comes either from anti-Semitism or some kind of post-colonial ideology that identifies the Palestinians with the indigenous population and the Israelis as colonial invaders. And that may explain the more enthusiastic lethal practitioners, like Robert Fisk, whose response to the Muhammad al Durah story was to proclaim, “when I hear ‘caught in a crossfire’ I know Israelis have been targeting children again.” Perfect illustration of lethal journalism.
But that can’t explain the pack journalism, the near-unanimity of adherence to the Palestinian narrative by journalists from any outlet, even Fox News. And that general consensus may possibly be the single most important factor in Israel’s current isolation in world opinion. Indeed, most journalists deny both the ideological and the anti-semitic motivations, insisting they are being fair and balanced. And, in my experience, they really think that. As Melanie Phillips put it, they have no idea that they are violating journalistic principles and systematically misreporting.
So I propose a test, a compliance index. Compare what the news media says in their own voice, with what the Palestinians want them to say and you get a sense of the overlap between the two discourses. Then factor in the cases in which the Palestinian claims were wrong (Jenin, Al Fakhoura School, Shati Refugee camp), and yet the media still supported, even promoted, their claims. You come up with a compliance rating. No good reporter would want a compliance rating of more than 50, and in cases where Palestinians were wrong, of no higher than 10. So how can one explain scores in the 90s? I personally think there is a pervasive culture of intimidation, both from Palestinians and from journalistic colleagues who avoid unpleasantness by complying with their demands, and socialize the next generation.
Let me illustrate what I mean with an anecdote about compliance: On July 28, 2014, bombs hit both Shifa Hospital and the nearby refugee camp of Shati. The streets were filled with children celebrating a truce in honor of Eid al Fitr. Over 40 people injured, including 11 children dead. Hamas immediately blamed Israel, as did several journalists on the scene. Israel responded rapidly with radar trajectories showing the rockets came from Hamas. Subsequently, even Amnesty International had to agree that it was a Palestinian strike.
The BBC, however, repeatedly played the story as a “he-said, she-said”, without informing their followers about the IDF’s evidence. This, of course, greatly improved the plausibility of accusations against the IDF, especially among those who had no idea that Palestinian rockets were falling daily on Gaza, and who assumed Palestinians would not break a truce to protect their own religious holiday. Told Israel denied firing the rocket, the mother of a girl wounded by shrapnel responded to the BBC: “Then who fired it? I ran outside and found my daughters. If the Israelis didn’t do it, who did? Did my daughters launch the rocket?” The Beeb reporter duly avoided the obvious response to this poor woman: maybe Hamas did it? In running her interview and not mentioning the possibility of Hamas’ responsibility, he thoroughly reinforced the Palestinian narrative. And when the UN Human Rights Report came out, confirming the Palestinian source of the rockets, the BBC said nothing about it. Compliance rating in the 90s.
But, in one of the most eloquent tweets of the summer, came from Italian reporter Gabriel Barbati and concerned precisely this issue:
Out of #Gaza far from #Hamas retaliation: misfired rocket killed children yday in Shati. Witness: militants rushed and cleared debris.”
So the truth was obvious to any serious observer on the spot; in a serious journalistic environment, we would not have to wait for a report to hear the correct scenario, not in the words of Israelis – he said – but in their own voice. Note, Barbati had to leave Gaza and the danger of Hamas retaliation before he could say what he did. While there he did not dare say it. This is not a serious journalistic environment, it’s a seriously intimidated one.
Even the Foreign Press Office in Jerusalem found the situation in Gaza so outrageous that, for the first time in its long history of complaints against Israel, they condemned Palestinian intimidation. This led to the most revealing tweet of the summer, from NYT reporter Jodi Rudoren:
Every reporter I’ve met who was in Gaza during war says this Israeli/now FPA narrative of Hamas harassment is nonsense.
Note the contrast here with Barbati. Rudoren did not go to Gaza that summer; her tweet is written “far from Hamas retaliation.” And yet it complies fully with the code of silence demanded by the intimidators.
And, on one level, I believe Jodi’s remark: most of the folks she hangs with don’t experience harassment, not because it doesn’t exist, but because they so extensively comply with Palestinian demands, that there’s no need for violence, although that lurks uncomfortably in the background. When AP did not release tape of Palestinians celebrating 9-11 in Arab Jerusalem, it was because, in the words of the bureau chief, Dan Perry:
We are acting to assure the safety of our staff. The safety of our staff is paramount. At this point we believe there to be a serious threat to our staff if the video is released.
Intimidation suffices to assure compliance. To focus on such matters as Palestinians killing their own children, or preaching genocide against the Jews, would violate critical Palestinian demands, and accordingly not only does BBC comply by not reporting attacks like the one on the Fogel family – including the butchering of an infant – but also not reporting on genocidal incitement by Palestinian political and religious leaders.
The compliance of the news media with Palestinian demands effectively means that journalists practice a kind of own-goal war journalism, in which, unlike patriotic war journalism in which one passes on one’s own side’s war propaganda as news, they pass on their enemies’ propaganda as news. They of course don’t think they’re doing that. In their mind they’re cheering on the little guy. But of course to maintain that delusion they have to avoid all the information which, conveniently, Palestinian leadership don’t want them to talk about, like how the Palestinian street spontaneously erupted in joy at the news of 9-11.
This own-goal war journalism, which the BBC has led the journalistic profession in promoting for the last 15 years at least, has poisoned the West with misinformation, much to its own detriment. Like Hamas rocketeers who don’t seem to mind hitting their own people every once in a while, just in order to be able to hit Israel, BBC and much of the Western journalistic profession, shamefully compliant with Jihadi demands that they target Israel, have also hit their own societies in the process.
Jews complaining about BBC unfairness will not get very far, no matter how justified their complaints. If, however, the larger British and European population became aware of the damage that their “own-goal” war journalism is causing them (as well as causing their Jews), they might be more inclined to listen.
In closing let me say the following. To say that Britain and the rest of Europe are under attack by triumphalist Muslims who believe that their destiny is to rule over the world strikes many as alarmist, even conspiracy theory-minded. It’s enough to get one kicked off a parliamentary panel lest one embarrass the MP chairing it. But the inability to talk about it, actually makes it all the more likely. And with the persistence of own-goal journalism that systematically, if unintentionally, feeds the Jihadi forces, the resulting disorientation can be fatal. A friend of mine wrote me a letter from Morocco in 2003, when the French were proud to oppose the USA over Iraq. “The Moroccans think France is weak,” he said, “because they favor the enemies and attack their friends.” Own-goal journalism does precisely this: it favors the Jihadi enemy and attacks the Israeli friend.
There are those who say there is no future for Jews in Europe, and the large attendance today is testimony to the level of concern Jews feel. My advice is not to get out, nor to stay. But to make a conscious and active choice. If you stay, stay to fight, not to hide your head in the sand and hope it all passes over you. And know that if you stay, you fight not just for your own community, not just for Jews in Europe, but for the very fabric of civil society, to the very future of that wondrous experiment in equality and freedom, democratic polities. It’s not every generation that gets to defend a civilization. As distressing and demanding as that might seem, it is an enormous privilege. Embrace it. Be bold. Be Balaam’s Ass and open a mouth such that your riders’ eyes will be opened, and they will see the outstretched sword that hangs over their head, and they will cease to beat you for refusing to advance towards destruction.