Here we go again – another "serious escalation"
has begun in the Middle East, or so BBC World was telling audiences throughout
Sunday. So what prompted the BBC's judgment that the crisis was escalating once
You can be sure it had nothing to do with the more than 130 Lebanese dead after
five days of savage aerial bombardment from at least 2,000 sorties by Israeli
war planes that are making the country's south a disaster zone and turning
Beirut into a crumbling ghost town. Those dead, most civilians and many of them
women and children, hardly get a mention, their lives apparently empty of meaning
or significance in this confrontation.
Nor is it the Lebanese roads and bridges being pounded into dust, the petrol stations
and oil refineries going up in smoke, the phone networks and TV stations being
obliterated, the water and electricity supplies being cut off. The rapid transformation
of a modern vibrant country like Lebanon into the same category of open-air prison
as Gaza is not an escalation in the BBC's view.
No, the BBC proffered a first, hesitant "escalation" on Thursday night
when Hezbollah had the audacity to fire a handful of rockets at Haifa in response
to the growing Lebanese death toll. The worst damage the Katyushas inflicted was
one gouging a chunk of earth out of the hillside overlooking the port.
But the BBC felt confident to declare the escalation had turned "serious"
on Sunday when Hezbollah not only fired more rockets at Haifa but one killed a
group of eight railway workers in a station depot.
Now that Israeli civilians as well as Lebanese civilians are dying – even
if in far smaller numbers – the BBC's battalions of journalists in northern
Israel finally have something to report on.
So BBC World's broadcast at 9 a.m GMT (noon Israel/Lebanon time) hardly veered
out of Haifa or Jerusalem. After the presenter's headline declaration that the
Hezbollah strike on Haifa was a "serious escalation," the news segued
into a lengthy and sympathetic interview with an Israeli police spokesman in Haifa
by Wyre Davies; followed by another lazy interview, lasting the better part of
five minutes, with an Israeli government spokesman in Jerusalem; followed by Ben
Brown in Beirut interviewing a British holidaymaker about her night of horror
in her hotel.
And in those 15 minutes that was about as close as we got to hearing what the
Lebanese had been enduring from a night and morning of Israeli aerial strikes
on Beirut and the country's south. If there was any mention of the suffering
of Lebanese civilians – and doubtless the BBC will tell me there was – the reference
was so fleeting that I missed it. And if I missed it, then so did most BBC World
The true nature of the "serious escalation" was soon apparent –
or at least it was if one watched Arab TV channels. They showed an urban wasteland
of rubble and dust in the suburbs of Beirut and Tyre that was shockingly reminiscent
of New York in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
They cut intermittently to local hospitals filled with Lebanese children, their
faces a rash of bloody pockmarks from the spray of Israeli shrapnel. More terrible
images of children burnt and lying in pools of blood arrived in my e-mail inbox
from Lebanese bloggers.
But in the BBC's lexicon, escalation has nothing to do with the enormous destruction
Israel can unleash on Lebanon, only the occasional, smaller-scale blow Hezbollah
scores against Israel.
Switching from the Arab channels back to the BBC for their 11 a.m. broadcast in
the hope of finding the same images of devastation in Tyre and Beirut, I stumbled
on yet another timid interview with Israel's ubiquitous spokesman Mark Regev.
It was followed by two headlines: Nine dead in Israel after a "barrage"
of attacks on Haifa, and foreign governments prepare to evacuate their nationals
out of the region.
At noon, James Reynolds as good as gave the game away: the Hezbollah strike on
Haifa, he said, proved that the rockets are "no longer just an irritant."
Now it was clear why a "serious escalation" had begun: Israel was actually
being harmed by Hezbollah's rockets rather than just irritated. Until then the
harm had been mainly inflicted on Lebanese civilians, so no escalation was taking
As I regularly flicked to the BBC's coverage all afternoon, I found almost
no mention of those dead in Lebanon. They had become "non-beings," irrelevant
in the calculations not only of our world leaders but of our major broadcasters.
It wasn't till the 7 p.m. news that I saw meaningful images from Lebanon, as Gavin
Hewitt followed a fire crew trying to put out an enormous oil refinery blaze in
Tyre. Although we saw some of the suffering of the Lebanese population, the anchor
felt obliged to preface the scenes from Lebanon with the statement that they were
Israeli "retaliation" for the Haifa attack, even though Israel had been
launching such strikes for four days before the lethal rocket strike on Haifa.
In the same broadcast, an Israeli cabinet minister, Shaul Mofaz, was given air
time to make the claim that parts of the rockets that landed in Haifa were Syrian-made.
Allegations by the Lebanese president, Emile Lahoud, widely shown on Arab TV that
Israel had been using phosphorus incendiary bombs – illegal under international
law – received no coverage at all.
On the 8 p.m. news, one of the headlines was a menacing quote from Sheik Hassan
Nasrallah, the Hezbollah leader, that "Haifa is just the beginning."
Mike Wooldridge in the Jerusalem studio made great play of the quote, taken from
a broadcast Nasrallah had made several hours earlier.
The BBC may have lifted the sentence from the Israeli media because they missed
out the important conditional context inserted by Nasrallah – it was only
the "beginning" of what Hezbollah could do if Israel continued its attacks.
They could have found this out even from the Israeli media if they had taken the
care to look more closely: "As long as the enemy pursues its aggression without
limits and red lines, we will pursue the confrontation without limits and without
red lines," Nasrallah was quoted as saying by the daily Ha'aretz newspaper.
In other words, Nasrallah was warning that Hezbollah would give back as good as
it gets – a standard piece of rhetoric from a military leader in times of
The BBC is no worse than CNN, Sky and, of course, Fox News. It is possibly far
better, which is reason enough why we should be outraged that this is the best
international broadcast coverage we are likely to get of the conflict.
The reporting we are seeing from the BBC and the other broadcasters is racist;
there is no other word to describe it. The journalists' working assumption
is that Israeli lives are more precious, more valuable than Lebanese lives. A
few dead Israelis justify massive retaliation; many Lebanese dead barely merit
a mention. The subtext seems to be that all the Lebanese, even the tiny bleeding
children I see on Arab TV, are terrorists. It is just the way Arabs are.
That is why the capture of two Israeli soldiers is more newsworthy to our broadcasters
than the dozens of Lebanese civilians dying from the Israeli bombing runs that
have followed. The eight Israelis killed on Sunday are worth far more than the
130-plus Lebanese lives taken so far and the hundreds more we can expect to die
in the coming days.
There is no excuse for this asymmetry of coverage. BBC reporters are in Lebanon
just as they are in Israel. They can find spokespeople in Lebanon just as easily
as they can find them in Israel. They can show the far vaster scale of devastation
in Beirut as easily as the wreckage in Haifa. They can speak to the Lebanese casualties
just as easily as they can to those in Israel.
But they don't – and as a fellow journalist I have to ask myself why.
My previous criticisms of British reporters over their distorted coverage of Israel's
military assaults in Gaza a few weeks back appear to have struck a raw nerve.
Certainly they provoked a series of e-mails – some defensive, others angry
– from a few of the reporters I named. All tried to defend their own coverage,
unable to accept my criticisms because they are sure that they personally do not
take sides. They are not "campaigning" journalists after all, they are
"professionals" doing a job.
But the problem is not with them, it is with the job they have to do – and
the nature of the professionalism they so prize. I am sure the BBC's Wyre Davies
cares as much about Lebanese deaths as he does about Israeli ones. But he also
knows his career at the BBC demands that he not ask his bosses questions when
told to give valuable minutes of air time to an Israeli police spokesman who offers
us only platitudes.
Similarly, we see James Reynolds use his broadcast from Haifa at noon to show
emotive footage of him and his colleagues running for shelter as Israeli air raid
sirens go off, only to tell us that in fact no rockets landed in Haifa. That nonevent
was shown by the BBC every hour on the hour all afternoon and evening. Was it
more significant than the images of death we never saw taking place just over
the border? These images from Lebanon exist, because the Arab channels spent all
day showing them.
Matthew Price knows too that in the BBC's view it is his job as he stands in Haifa,
after we have repeatedly heard Israeli spokespeople giving their version of events,
to repeat their message, dropping even the quotes marks as he passionately tells
us how tough Israel must now be, how it must "retaliate" to protect
its citizens, how it must "punish" Hezbollah This is not journalism;
it's reporting as a propaganda arm of a foreign power.
Can we imagine Ben Brown doing the same from Beirut, standing in front of the
BBC cameras telling us how Hezbollah has no choice faced with Israel's military
onslaught but to start hitting Haifa harder, blowing up its oil refineries and
targeting civilian infrastructure to "pressure" Israel to negotiate?
Would the BBC bother to show prerecorded footage of Brown fleeing for his safety
in Beirut in what later turned out to be a false alarm? Of course not. Doubtless
Brown and his colleagues are forced to take cover on a regular basis for fear
of being hurt by Israeli air strikes, but his fear – or more precisely, the
fear of the Lebanese he stands alongside – is not part of the story for the
BBC. Only Israeli fears are newsworthy.
These reporters are working in a framework of news priorities laid down by faceless
news executives far away from the frontline who understand only too well the institutional
pressures on the BBC – and the institutional biases that are the result.
They know that the Israel lobby is too powerful and well resourced to take on
without suffering flak; that the charge of anti-Semitism might be terminally damaging
to the BBC's reputation; that the BBC is expected broadly to reflect the positions
of the British governmment if it wants an easy ride with its regulators; that
to remain credible it should not stray too far from the line of its mainly American
rivals, who have their own more intense domestic pressures to side with Israel.
This distortion of news priorities has real costs that can be measured in lives
– in the days and weeks to come, hundreds, possibly thousands, of lives in both
Israel and Lebanon. As long as Israel is portrayed by our major broadcasters as
the one under attack, its deaths alone as significant, then the slide to a regional
war – a war of choice being waged by the Israeli government and army – is likely
to become inevitable.
So to Jeremy Bowen, James Reynolds, Ben Brown, Wyre Davies, Matthew Price, and
all the other BBC journalists reporting from the frontline of the Middle East,
and the faceless news executives who sent them there, I say: you may be nice people
with the best of intentions, but shame on you.