BBC’s Bowen plays dumb to weave tangled web

The Monday May 6th 2013 edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme included a contribution from BBC Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen on the subject of the preceding weekend’s alleged Israeli air-strikes on targets in Syria.

Today R4 6 5


The recording can be heard here for a limited period of time, with the relevant section beginning from around 2:31:20.

Presenter Justin Webb opens the segment with the following introduction:

“Israel has not said publicly that it has attacked Syrian targets, but that is what has happened, twice in recent days. There seems to be no doubt about it and no real doubt about why either. In the short term at least, an effort to stop sophisticated Iranian-made weapons getting from Syria into the hands of Hizballah – the militants based in Lebanon. And perhaps a possible wider aim as well: to get President Obama involved. The risk, of course, is a wider war. A war that causes huge suffering but also destroys the fragile balances of power in the whole region.” 

So what do listeners learn from Webb’s introduction? They are informed that Israel’s alleged actions might well be an attempt to coerce the US in another Middle East war and that Israel is destabilising the entire Middle East. Does Webb have or provide any factual evidence for those very serious assertions? Of course not: this is mere speculation on his part, with no small amount of conspiracy theory-style mud-slinging thrown in.

Webb’s first guest is Jeremy Bowen who, inter alia, makes the following statements.

“And the Israelis are acting – they say – because of the need to stop weapons getting through to Hizballah – their rivals in err…their obdure enemies in Lebanon. But you know the thing about this war, this Syrian civil war, is that it’s always been a battle ground for wider regional struggles. You know one reason the Saudis and the Qataris are backing the rebels is to strengthen themselves against Iran, which backs Assad, and of course the Israelis have also got an eye on Iran and Hizballah and Assad because that triangle is err..self-styled axis of resistance against the Israelis themselves and you know you can go on about it too as well: the pressure on the US to get involved, an element of old-fashioned East-West rivalry: the US, UK and France backing the rebels, Russia and China supporting Assad and so on.”

Justin Webb continues to weave the web: 

“Um. Why though – I mean this is a sort of basic question, but an interesting one – these sophisticated weapons – we think these are missiles, aren’t they? Missiles: land to land missiles. Missiles that could be used from southern Lebanon into the heart of Israel if they were in the hands of Hizballah. But I mean given that Assad is fighting a pretty desperate war to stay in power – to stay alive indeed – it seems odd that he’d be passing any weapons to anyone.”

Bowen responds to Webb’s (pre-arranged?) cue:

“Yeah, strange, but I mean there’s speculation about this. Hizballah is increasingly said to be involved in the fighting in Syria. Hizballah very effective fighters in their dealings with the Israelis over the years. Perhaps he’s doing that as some kind of quid pro quo. Err…passing more weapons over to them. Perhaps he’s worried they might fall into rebel hands. Perhaps it’s part of a wider deal with the Iranians. I think nobody really knows. It is a bit strange as well because Hizballah is powerful in Lebanon and to…pretty much controls the airport. Now, [scoffing laugh] do they have to get weapons in through Syria if they could get them flown in direct from Iran, if that’s what they particularly wanted? And there’s been quite a bit of speculation in the Israeli press saying this is about a little bit more than moving weapons because it’s a big raid. It was a big raid in Damascus and the New York Times is reporting that ah..perhaps even hundreds of regime soldiers were killed in the raid.”

The BBC defined Jeremy Bowen’s job description as follows in 2006:

“Jeremy Bowen’s new role is, effectively, to take a bird’s eye view of developments in the Middle East, providing analysis that might make a complex story more comprehensive or comprehensible for the audience, without the constraints of acting as a daily news correspondent. His remit is not just to add an extra layer of analysis to our reporting, but also to find stories away from the main agenda.”

To be frank, Bowen’s so-called analysis – in this case as in many others – does anything but make the story more comprehensible to BBC audiences. His insistence upon muddying the waters by throwing into the equation his own baseless speculations (yes, the “Israeli press” – by which one presumes Bowen  means mainly the English language version of Ha’aretz – is capable of writing drivel too) regarding occult ulterior motives for the alleged air-strikes unnecessarily complicates and clutters the picture. 

But Jeremy Bowen is by no means stupid or dumb and has certainly been knocking around the Middle East for long enough to understand exactly what went on in Syria – and why – over the last weekend, so his pretence that “nobody really knows” why weapons are being transported to Hizballah is about as credible as a pantomime horse.  Bowen’s near conspiracy theory insinuation that the target of the air strikes might actually not be weapons consignments because, according to him, Hizballah “pretty much controls the airport” in Beirut, can only be either the result of jaw-dropping ignorance of the extensive documentation of years of arms smuggling from Iran to Hizballah – particularly via Syria – or a deliberate attempt to herd audiences into the pens of his pet conspiracy theories. Neither of those alternatives is befitting of the Middle East Editor of a major media organization which chalks reliability and trustworthiness on its banner.  

Those following Bowen on Twitter will have noticed a similar exercise carried out on May 5th

Bowen stupid question

Neither Haifa nor Tsfat (Safed), where the Iron Dome was deployed are of course “close to border with Syria”, but the main point behind this Tweet was obviously to introduce over 35,000 people reading it to the idea that the deployment of a missile defence system could be anything other than a precautionary move. In this case Bowen had to back down pretty rapidly as Twitter users took him to task. 

Teach ESL tweet

Bowen stupid question 2

And then the ‘back-up’ was produced:

Bowen stupid question 3

Only an organization with a monopoly grip on the licence fee payers’ wallets could pass off Bowen’s speculations on the ‘Today’ programme as analysis. Any Middle East analyst worthy of the title would have reminded listeners of Iran’s long history of financial and military support for its terror proxies Hizballah and Hamas and pointed out Syria’s long-standing involvement in the violation of UN SC resolution 1701 as far as arming Hizballah is concerned. A worthy analyst would then have explained to listeners that the alleged air-strikes should be seen in that context, rather than as having any direct connection to the civil war in Syria. 

Fortunately, the guest following Bowen on the ‘Today’ programme was Major General (ret.) Giora Eiland, who tried to balance Bowen’s insinuations and those made during the conversation by Justin Webb. Nevertheless, it is past time for senior BBC management to make it clear to their Middle East Editor that his remit of “find[ing] stories away from the main agenda” does not mean making them up.

However, Bowen’s performance was not the only attempt made on that particular programme to advance a specific agenda regarding the recent events in Syria. More on that tomorrow. 

 Related articles:  

Where did Jeremy Bowen learn the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict?

Ask Jeremy: Twitter Q&A gives insight into ME Editor’s approach

BBC’s Jeremy Bowen: “a deliberate escalation by Israel”

Jeremy Bowen: “The Israelis would have killed me too”


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