When a Thai kibbutz worker was killed in Israel by a rocket launched from Gaza last week, BBC News online gave the incident headline coverage flagged up on its home page. (BBC news online, ‘Rocket fire from Gaza kills man in southern Israel’, 23:42 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010)
By contrast, the killing of two Palestinian teenagers, Mohammad Qadus and Osaid Qadus, by Israeli soldiers on Saturday was buried at the end of a short news report on UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon's Middle East visit. Even worse, the BBC’s footnote simply echoed Israeli propaganda that “no live bullets were fired, only tear gas and rubber bullets”, despite ample evidence to the contrary. (BBC news online, ‘UN chief says Gaza suffering under Israeli blockade’, 11:26 GMT, Sunday, 21 March 2010)
Yesterday morning, we joined with a number of media activists in sending complaints to the BBC. We emailed Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen. We asked Bowen why BBC News so often channels the Israeli version of events without proper scrutiny. We pointed out that, in contrast to the BBC, other news media had given the tragic killings of Mohammad Qadus and Osaid Qadus significant prominence, while also providing strong evidence that directly contradicted Israeli claims. For example, the Palestinian Ma'an news agency reported that the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem had obtained an X-ray of Osaid Qadus's body that refuted the Israeli army's assertion that “no live bullets were fired”. B‘Tselem commented:
"Rubber-coated steel bullets will not enter and exit the body in that way. It's very clear these injuries would not have been caused by any kind of crowd-control measure. The army's explanation is simply impossible and not consistent with the evidence." (Ma’an news agency, ‘Army explanation “simply impossible”’, 22 March, 2010)
Likewise, the Guardian challenged Israeli claims on the use of live ammunition, reporting that "a hospital x-ray of Osaid Qadus, seen by the Guardian, showed a bullet lodged in his brain." The Guardian added:
"Ahmed Hamad, a doctor at the hospital who treated the two, said the x-ray showed a 'classic, pure metallic bullet'. He said both boys had injuries with small entry wounds." (Rory McCarthy, ‘Palestinians shot dead by Israeli troops near Nablus. Two teenagers killed day after boys, 15 and 17, shot in village’, guardian.co.uk, Sunday 21 March 2010 14.22 GMT)
The Independent was also able to verify that a conventional bullet was "lodged in the brain of Osaid Qadus". (Donald Macintyre, ‘Two more Palestinian youths shot dead by Israelis in bloody weekend. X-rays show deaths were caused by conventional bullets but military claim only rubber rounds were fired’, Independent, 22 March 2010)
We concluded our challenge to Bowen:
“Why, by contrast, has the BBC provided an echo chamber for Israeli propaganda on the army killings of these two Palestinian boys? Why were their deaths buried at the end of a report on Ban Ki-Moon's visit? Why not give headline coverage, as you did when rocket fire from Gaza killed a man in Israel?”
We have not yet received a response.
Postscript: A Belated Note of Scepticism
Several hours after media activists emailed the BBC, an online news report finally appeared on the BBC website casting doubt on the official Israeli version of events. (‘B'tselem says live bullets may have killed Palestinians’, 18:42 GMT, March 22, 2010).
Perhaps the BBC would anyway have returned to the story, but we suspect that the complaints pricked consciences and at the very least helped accelerate the response (BBC personnel have admitted as much to us in the past). What, in any case, did the broadcaster now report?
The new BBC article stated that B’Tselem is “calling for an investigation into the deaths of two Palestinians it suspects were killed by live fire, contrary to military claims.” The report then generously afforded Israel some wiggle room:
“On Saturday, the Israeli military said live fire had not been used.
“On Monday, spokeswoman Avital Liebowich told the BBC that had been the conclusion of an initial investigation, and maintained that the army ‘did not give any orders to use live fire’.
“She said a ‘debriefing’ was taking place at brigade level regarding the incident.”
The article was, as far as we could see, not flagged up from the BBC news home page - in stark contrast to last week’s report of the kibbutz worker killed in Gaza.
This latest report also carefully stepped back from the BBC’s initial echoing of Israeli propaganda on the deaths of two more Palestinian youths killed on Sunday; namely, that “the Israel army said soldiers shot dead two Palestinians who tried to stab a soldier at a checkpoint in the West Bank.” (BBC news online, ‘UN chief says Gaza suffering under Israeli blockade’, 11:26 GMT, Sunday, 21 March 2010)
In the latest approved version, published yesterday evening, the BBC again worked hard to accommodate the shifting Israeli version of events:
“The military initially said the Palestinians had tried to stab a soldier. Later reports said they had attacked security forces with pitchforks and an axe.
“On Monday Ms Liebowich said the two Palestinians were carrying a container filled with rocks and a medical syringe, and possibly also pitchforks.
“‘The soldiers understood they were about to get hurt and opened fire to save themselves,’ she said.
“But a local Palestinians [sic] told the BBC the two men were arrested before they were killed, on the basis of a phone call a village elder says he received from the military saying they were being held, before later hearing that they had been shot dead.”
It is clear that this is a real test for BBC News - while it much prefers to echo the Israeli perspective, the facts must somehow be accommodated.
Serious questions remain, then, about the BBC’s professed commitment to fair and impartial reporting. Why did the broadcaster’s initial reporting present the Israeli view at face value? Why was it so slow to present evidence to the contrary? And why does it continue to give so little prominence to the deaths of Palestinian youths at the hands of Israeli soldiers?
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. If you do write to journalists, we strongly urge you to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Jeremy Bowen, BBC Middle East editor
Steve Herrmann, BBC online news editor
Mark Thompson, BBC director general
Helen Boaden, BBC news director
Please send a copy to the Chair of the BBC Trust which is responsible for ensuring that the BBC upholds its obligations to the public:
Michael Lyons Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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