Media-watch column critiques BBC article: Boris Johnson cancels West Bank events amid Israeli boycott.
For a news organisation that considers itself a cut above the rest when it comes to impartiality, the BBC does not always manage it perfectly (BBC 2015a). Case in point: its report (BBC 2015) on the consequences of Boris Johnson’s comments about the BDS (2015) movement.
Mr. Johnson had said that the champions of a boycott against Israel are corduroy-wearing, lefty academics who have no real influence on British policies (BBC 2015, Dearden 2015, Quinn 2015). He made the comments at the start of his three-day trade mission to Israel and Palestinian territories (Quinn 2015). As a result, several Palestinian organisations that had scheduled meetings with him, withdrew their invitations amidst security concerns (BBC 2015, Dearden 2015).
The BDS movement practices Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions against Israel – all of which the Conservative MP criticised (BBC 2015, BDS 2015). It intends to exert pressure on Israel to abide by international law and end the occupation and colonisation of Palestinian land, end alleged discrimination against its Arab-Palestinian citizens, and allow Palestinian refugees to return to their Palestinian homes (BDS 2015).
The BBC (2015) news report is rich with news values. It reports an “event” featuring Boris Johnson who is a “power elite” (Harcup and O’Neill 2001, Galtung and Ruge 1965). The story is “relevant” and “meaningful” to a British audience since it is about the Mayor of London (Harcup and O’Neill 2001, Galtung and Ruge 1965). It is a “follow-up” story that reports the result of “controversial” comments that made news previously (Quinn 2015, Harcup and O’Neill 2001, Galtung and Ruge 1965).
It is “bad news” since his meetings were cancelled and there was a perceived threat to this security (Harcup and O’Neill 2001, Galtung and Ruge 1965). His comments leading to an uproar on Palestinian social media and withdrawal of invitations, is probably “surprising” and “unexpected” (Harcup and O’Neill 2001, Galtung and Ruge 1965). Thus, the article ticks many of the boxes that decide what makes a story newsworthy.
Despite that, the article (BBC 2015) is not without its problems. For starters, the report is mostly a single-sourced one, quoting and interviewing a lone Boris Johnson. On its website (BBC 2015a), it says that impartiality “means reflecting a breadth and diversity of opinion and ensuring the BBC gives due weight to the many and diverse areas of argument.”
To be fair however, the Palestinian Authority lacks a proper public relations mechanism (Philo and Berry 2011). Palestinian spokespeople have been reported to be boorish and incoherent (Philo and Berry 2011). Scoping out Palestinian voices can be expensive and dangerous, with journalists allegedly experiencing intimidation and violence sanctioned by the Israeli government (Philo and Berry 2011).
Hence, when Mr. Johnson says that the Palestinian Authority Prime Minister opposes a boycott against Israel, there is no confirmation of that from Rami Hamdallah himself (BBC 2015).
Moreover, the Conservative MP is a ‘primary definer’ who sets the agenda of the story by the virtue of his powerful position and specialised access to political information (Hall et al 2000). Government sources are deemed credible as they are recognisable figures of status and prestige (Herman and Chomsky 2002). An official’s statements are usually recognised as a fact by journalists, and not merely a claim (Herman and Chomsky 2002).
Nonetheless, in the videos accompanying the article (BBC 2015), BBC journalists are seen questioning and contradicting Mr. Johnson and his authority. In the first video, journalists ask him if his “flippant,” “throwaway” remark “damaged the whole trip” (BBC 2015). In the second one, a journalist suggests that he may be regretting his comments, and that he perhaps “learned a valuable lesson” (BBC 2015).
Thus, the media acts as the ‘secondary definer’ of news by reconstructing the definitions of the primary definer (Hall et al 2000). Through this, the journalists also fulfill the BBC (2015a) guideline of “testing both the strengths and weaknesses of any argument.”
One of the problems in the coverage of Israel-Palestine issues, is the problem of context (Philo and Berry 2011). Journalists often fail to provide adequate historical and immediate context to stories of unrest in the region (Philo and Berry 2011, Barkho 2008). This happens because of several reasons: There is a large historical background to the conflict; each fact of the conflict is usually disputed, with the Palestinians saying one thing and the Israelis another; all of this cannot be adequately covered due to time and space constraints in a news report (Philo and Berry 2011).
Yet, the BBC (2015) report manages to include the basics. It mentions that the Israeli occupation is illegal under international law, which again is disputed by Israel. Thus, it somewhat provides both sides of the story. Yes, it could have included more hyperlinks to provide better context and make optimal use of the online platform. But there isn’t enough conclusive evidence to suggest that links improve audience understanding of news stories (Eveland et al 2004, p. 103).
What is striking however, is that it mentions there are 500,000 Jews living in the settlements, and does not mention the six million Palestinians displaced by the occupation (BBC 2015, Asser 2010). The numbers are not hard to find, and in fact, are laid out and explained in a 2010 BBC article on Palestinian refugees (Asser 2010).
What information is and isn’t included in stories about the Israel-Palestine region can hardly be considered accidental. Following the BBC Governor’s Independent Panel report (2006) on impartiality in covering the conflict, the organisation introduced a guide to terms and facts for journalists reporting on the region (Barkho 2008). Such a glossary was unprecedented in the BBC’s history (Barkho 2008).
Yet, despite these measures, the news service follows patterns that undermine Palestinian casualties (Barkho 2008, Philo and Berry 2011). As a result, news audiences do not fully understand how the Israeli occupation affects the lives of Palestinians (Philo and Berry 2011).
A factor contributing to this is ‘flak’ (Philo and Berry 2011). ‘Flak’ refers to the negative response or backlash a news outlet may receive for its statements or programs (Herman and Chomsky 2002). It can take many different forms (Herman and Chomsky 2002).
For instance, BBC’s 2003 documentary “Israel’s Secret Weapon” was condemned as equivalent of “worst of Nazi propaganda” by the Israeli government (Deans 2003). The latter then threatened to exclude BBC journalists from press briefings and deny them interviews (Deans 2003). This was a response to the documentary portraying alleged violation of international law by Israel (Deans 2003).
Pro-Israel groups organise letter-writing campaigns to protest against articles and programmes they disagree with (Philo and Berry 2011). This has vastly expanded with the advent of email (Philo and Berry 2011). Such campaigns target individual journalists and provide supporters with ready-written letters of complaints to send out (Philo and Berry 2011).
Then there’s the influence of lobby groups like the Conservative Friends of Israel (Philo and Berry 2011). Around eighty percent of Conservative MPs were members of CFI in 2009 (Dispatches 2009). The group invites senior journalists to the House of Commons for lunches (Philo and Berry 2011). Such affairs can reportedly be deeply uncomfortable for those belonging to news organisations that are perceived as anti-Israel (Philo and Berry 2011).
Hence, due to multiple pressures and problems the BBC article (2015) did not turn out to be fully impartial. However, impartiality itself is a tricky concept. The news piece cannot be condemned as completely partial either, since it mentions the Israeli, Palestinian and boycott groups’ sides of the story to varying degrees. It includes some historical context, contradicts Boris Johnson, and abides by news values.
That again does not excuse the clear scope for improvement that exists in the report. Investment of resources to reflect a wider range of voices, and confidence to mention actual suffering of Palestinians, would have brought the article up to par with the journalistic values preached by the BBC.
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Quinn, B. 2015. Boris Johnson dismisses academics’ boycott of Israel while on trade trip [Online]. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/09/boris-johnson-dismisses-academics-boycott-of-israel-while-on-trade-trip [Accessed: 27th November 2015].