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The BBC discovers ‘terrorism,’ briefly

Tom Gross- Tuesday 12th Jul 2005

When it happens on your own doorstep, in very familiar settings like the London “Tube” or on a traditional red double-decker bus, right alongside the site of a building where Charles Dickens once lived, terrorism seems very different than it does when innocent people are murdered elsewhere.

Britain’s first bus bombing took place barely half a mile from the BBC’s central London headquarters, and for a day or so after last Thursday’s multiple bomb attacks, the BBC, the influential leftist daily the Guardian, and even the British-based global news agency Reuters, all seemed to suddenly discover the words “terrorism” and “terrorist.” In Saturday’s Guardian, for example, one or other of these words appeared on each of the first eleven pages.

In marked contrast to BBC reports about bombs on public transport in Israel – bombs which in some cases were even worse than those in London, since some were specifically aimed at children, and most were packed with nails, screws, glass and specially-sharpened metal shards in order to maximize injuries - terms like “guerrilla,” “militant,” “activist” or “fighter” were suddenly nowhere to be seen.

Nor – again in contrast to their coverage of Israel – did BBC correspondents, on either their domestic or international services, provide sympathetic accounts of the likely perpetrators, or explain to viewers that we must “understand” their “grievances”. Instead they did what an objective news organization should do: just report on the attacks, and their atrocious nature, and on the sufferings of the victims.

The world’s premier broadcast network appeared to throw away its own ridiculous “BBC Producer’s Guidelines”. BBC online reports, for example, had headlines such as “Terror of passengers stuck on tube” and “London Rocked by Terror Attacks.”

BBC executives had previously insisted that for the sake of what they call “even-handedness” terrorists should not be called terrorists. Their Guidelines state: “The word ‘terrorist’ itself can be a barrier to understanding... We should try to avoid the term, while we report the facts as we know them.”

But the hope of many of the British taxpayers forced to fund the BBC that it had finally come to its senses and would henceforth call terror by its proper name, turned out to be short-lived. By Friday, the BBC’s world service was slowly reverting to its old habits, both on air and on line. (Its domestic news broadcasts have for the time being continued using the word “terrorist.”)

Presumably hoping that no one would notice, the BBC subtly and retroactively altered its initial texts about the bombs on both it British and international websites. Unfortunately for the BBC, however, previous versions of its webpages remained easily accessible to all on Google, and enterprising British bloggers, long-fed up with the BBC’s bias, recorded the changes.

“Harry’s Place” noted, for example, that on Thursday evening a BBC News webpage headlined “Bus man may have seen terrorist,” began “A bus passenger says he may have seen one of those responsible for the terrorist bomb attacks in London. Richard Jones, from Binfield, had got a bus just before it was blown up...”

But on Friday at 10.14 am GMT, that webpage was suddenly changed. The headline now reads “Passenger believes he saw bomber”, and the text begins “A bus passenger says he may have seen one of those responsible for the bomb attacks in London. Richard Jones, from Binfield, had got a bus just before it was blown up...”

Early on Friday morning another BBC webpage, headlined “Testing the underground mood,” spoke of “the worst terrorist atrocity Britain has seen.” But at 12.08 GMT, while the rest of the article was left untouched, those words were replaced by “the worst peacetime bomb attacks Britain has seen.”

There are other examples of similar censorship occurring at the BBC. Stalin himself could hardly have done a better job of overseeing its award-winning website.

In its round-up of world reactions, BBC online was also quick to highlight the views of conspiracy theorists. The very first article listed by the BBC started by quoting Iranian cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani saying Israel was behind the London attacks, followed by a commentary on Iranian state radio explicitly blaming the Mossad.

With its unprecedented worldwide news reach (its radio service alone, broadcasting in 43 languages, attracts over 150 million listeners), BBC coverage is important in formulating worldwide public opinion.

But even more influential – and in respect to the London terror attacks, far more irresponsible – was the Associated Press (AP).

The AP played into the hands of anti-Semites by irresponsibly running a bogus “Israel advance warning” story on its international newswire shortly after the London attacks. Although the story has since been retracted by the AP, the damage has been done. As was the case after 9/11, a thousand “Israel knew”-style conspiracy theories have already been spawned on extreme rightist and leftist websites worldwide.

The AP story headlined “Netanyahu Changed Plans Due to Warning,” written by Amy Teibel of the AP Jerusalem bureau, and alleging that Benjamin Netanyahu, who was in London for an economic conference, was tipped off “minutes before Thursday’s explosions,” was put out by the AP on their worldwide news wires at 11.14 am GMT (7.14 am EST) on Thursday.

Fox News ran the AP story on air at 7:50 am New York time. AP’s story also appeared on the websites of over 100 credible news outlets in the US, Canada, Ireland, India and elsewhere. More disturbingly it appeared on Al Jazeera and other Middle East media.

How could any serious editor or reporter not see that this was “black propaganda” and a replay of the post-9/11 libels? And how could the AP Jerusalem Bureau Chief not have checked before running it?

But despite the various shortcomings in the coverage of the London bombs, there was also much resolute and sensible commentary, not just from the right and center but from some on the left too.

While the usual suspects, such as the notorious Robert Fisk of the Independent (who was singled out as a journalist one could admire in Osama bin Laden’s video message last October), immediately blamed Tony Blair and George Bush for bringing the bombs upon London, most commentators saw the atrocities for what they were.

“Face up to the truth,” wrote Nick Cohen, a leading columnist for The Observer, the Sunday sister paper of The Guardian. Addressing what he called “my world of liberal London,” Cohen said “We all know who was to blame for Thursday’s murders... and it wasn’t Bush and Blair.”

(The writer is former Jerusalem correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph.)



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