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Can the BBC Operate Responsibly?

Daniel Seaman - Director of the Israel Government Press Office- Tuesday 15th Jul 2003

Media reaction to Israel's decision to reevaluate its relationship with the BBC has tended to ignore the reasons why it was taken.

While the decision's merits can be argued, any evaluation of Israel's grievances should be based on whether the BBC adheres to universal standards of journalistic ethics. In short: Does BBC coverage of Israel meet the tests of integrity, impartiality, honesty and accuracy?

Recycling malicious falsehoods that have been documented and independently disproved is a clear measure of lack of integrity.

Months after a UN investigation concluded there was no evidence of a massacre in Jenin, BBC anchors and the BBC web site still implied doubt as to what really happened. In a recent program allegations were again raised about Israel's use of a "mysterious" gas in Gaza, ignoring the fact that medical experts refuted this hoax over two years ago.

Adopting the narrative and terminology of one of the sides to a conflict is not impartiality. The BBC goes out of its way to state that the Temple Mount is called "Haram al-Sharif" by the Arabs, implying an Arab claim to the site. This in itself is not a problem - except that the same consideration is not extended to Israel. The West Bank is never "known by the Jews as Judea and Samaria."

The BBC goes so far as to accommodate the Hizbullah terror organization when it describes the UN-recognized Israeli border with Lebanon as "disputed." Similarly, Israeli settlements are "illegal" and the territories "occupied" rather than disputed.

Undermining the credibility of sources by implying doubt, by questioning and conditioning is disingenuous, especially when it is applied to only one side of an issue. Israeli sources reported by the BBC almost always "allege," while Palestinians "report." When hard evidence is presented by Israel, such as the photo of an infant Palestinian dressed as a homicide bomber, its authenticity is questioned. Yet Palestinians leveling the most ludicrous of accusations against Israel are quoted verbatim.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is often assigned a militant adjective such as "extreme right-wing" or "former general," something that is almost never done when describing a Palestinian leader.

Those working in television are keenly aware that how something is said or what is shown can be much more important in creating and solidifying an image than actual content. In this respect the Israeli position repeatedly suffers in the BBC's treatment of regional stories, a fact readily demonstrated by any objective analysis of its videotape archives. The use of camera angles, hidden cameras, cinematographic techniques of insinuation and innuendo, intonation - even rhetorical questions - can create a sinister, even diabolical image of an interviewee, cast doubt on his point of view and raise unofficial concern about his character and intention.

Beyond that, Israel's position has repeatedly suffered through the focus on only those points that support a particular view. Contrary information is omitted in a manner that can only be regarded as knowing and deliberate.

SUCH TREATMENT of highly complex Middle East issues does not represent "legitimate criticism." It is not an objective attempt to expose the truth, but defamation aimed at creating prejudice. This kind of reporting does not require an official Israeli response; it demands a legal defense. To discuss or debate such baseless accusations only lends them credibility.

In the past, defamation of Israel was neatly packaged in the claim of holding Israel to a "higher standard." Such pretense has now evolved into "creative journalism," in which all means are justified in order to depict Israel as a sinister society, one whose arrogance and total disregard for international law is the real menace to world peace and stability.

Thus the BBC can draw a moral equivalence between the premeditated murder of innocent men, women and children in Israel by Palestinians and their supporters and Israel's justifiable actions of self-defense.

Criticizing Israel's policies is the BBC's prerogative. However, an accumulation of grievances over a number of years leads us to believe that the BBC has crossed the line from valid criticism into vilification and demonization of the State of Israel, to such an extent as borders on delegitimization of the nation itself. A direct cause of incitement, such treatment reinforces acts of anti-Semitism and violence against Israelis and Jews worldwide.

The BBC can continue to operate freely in Israel. Israel is an open democracy embracing freedom of the press. But only at such time that the corporation acknowledges its responsibility to provide its viewers and listeners with an honest, balanced and factual account of events in the Middle East will the government of Israel restore cordial cooperation.

The writer is director of the Israel Government Press Office.



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