BBC Radio 4 reinforces political narrative through drama

H/t: JK, J

The ability of BBC audiences to form “a global understanding of international issues” is of course shaped to a large extent by the standard of the corporation’s news and current affairs programmes – but not exclusively. 

An example of the reinforcement of stereotypical impressions and politically motivated narrative through context-free broadcasting was to be found in a radio play titled “The Brick” which was aired on BBC Radio 4’s “Afternoon Drama” programme on January 13th and is available for listening for a limited period of time here

R4 Afternoon Drama

The radio play’s synopsis reads as follows:

“Rasha Khory is a Palestinian woman on her way to Jerusalem to run some errands for her mother, but she also has her own secret mission, visceral to her sense of identity. All too swiftly Rasha finds herself thwarted, injured and discovering some unwelcome home truths about her beloved father. What choices will she make? A compelling portrait of Palestinian life by Selma Dabbagh.

Directed by Sarah Bradshaw”

Those familiar with the British anti-Israel activism scene will no doubt recognize the name of the Scottish-born author Selma Dabbagh due to, among other things, her participation in the BDS-supporting ‘Palestine Festival of Literature (or PalFest) and other campaigning events.

The producer and director of this radio play, Sarah Bradshaw, is also the Commissioner for International News Training at the BBC College of Journalism and more information on the circumstances behind the collaboration between the BBC and Dabbagh on this project is to be found on the same webpage.

“Have you ever had one of those days that make you want to scream out of sheer frustration?  Have you ever asked someone ‘if-you-wouldn’t-mind–possibly-just-helping-me-do-this-teeny-little-thing’ only to make matters worse?  If any of that sounds familiar, then Selma Dabbagh’s first radio play The Brick could strike a chord.

This piece is part of The Innovation Strand, an initiative that invites BBC staff from other broadcast disciplines into radio drama to broaden their experience and perhaps offer something slightly different to the Afternoon Drama slot.  Previous Innovation Strand plays have included docudrama, conceptual art and high comedy.

Having worked in the Middle East and enjoyed Selma’s first novel, we met up and got down to planning and preparing a few different plot lines.  With guidance and advice from the managerial team, we submitted an idea that passed.  When I mentioned to a colleague at the Arabic Service what I was doing, we started planning for a film crew to interview contributors and film the recording for their flagship Arts TV programme, ‘Afaq’ or Horizon.

The story is set in occupied Palestine where Rasha Khory (played by the brilliant Sirine Saba) is a young woman with 3 seemingly simple tasks to complete for her mother (Nina Wadia).  She must light a candle in church, deliver a bag of lemons and buy a plastic sheet.  However, Rasha has another, more visceral, secret mission: to retrieve one of her beloved father’s handmade bricks from the back garden of her former family home, inside the city wall of Jerusalem  with the help of an unsuspecting tourist (Anton Lesser).  Now this all might seems pretty simple, but if you’re Palestinian what should be a short taxi ride can sometimes take many hours.  Rasha finds herself negotiating permits, road blocks, children and checkpoints – and along the way she learns some shocking home truths about the late father she idolises.” [emphasis added]

The BBC Arabic programme mentioned above can be viewed here.

Most of the play takes place in Jerusalem (“occupied Palestine” according to the writer of the synopsis) and listeners familiar with the region will notice slips in authenticity which are presumably the result of the fact that its “British Palestinian writer” has limited knowledge of her subject matter. A reference to a “blue” fifty shekel note (they are purple) or the description of an Israeli soldier as “a seventeen year-old with bad skin” (conscription begins from the age of eighteen) are small examples. Much more problematic is the lack of any context or background to the subject of checkpoints which is a major theme of the play. Map checkpoints

No explanation is offered as to why those checkpoints are necessary. No mention is of course made of Palestinian terror. No information is provided with regard to the fact that the checkpoint named – Zeitoun- is open 24 hours a day and on average 1,200 people use it every day, with 4,545,854 crossings having been made in the first half of 2013 alone at that and other checkpoints.

Neither is any background given regarding the fact that the current situation on the ground whereby Palestinians who live in the PA-controlled Areas A & B require a permit to enter areas under Israeli rule, is a product of the Oslo Accords to which the Palestinian leadership willingly agreed. 

But of course Selma Dabbagh and Sarah Bradshaw had no intention of providing any such context to listeners because it would only have detracted from the impression of Palestinians as passive victims which they are trying to create in their audiences’ minds.

Accompanying the play on the same webpage is a link to an English-language version of the BBC Arabic programme on the making of the play. 

R4 Afternoon Drama 3

There, Selma Dabbagh tells viewers:

“And I was trying to make a parallel here between the way that the mother is being treated and the way that her character is being eroded and what’s happening to the situation for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.”


“It’s always a very delicate balancing act setting any kind of drama or fiction in a very political context because you don’t want to make it… you don’t want to sort of whitewash it out and pretend it’s not happening when it’s something people are talking about all the time. But at the same time you don’t want to create a piece of work which is polemical or giving a very – you know – speaking out through the drama on a political line, because we’re actually trying to show the humanity of the characters.”

From Selma Dabbagh one does not expect anything other than this kind of agitprop; she has, after all, built a career around producing literature with explicitly political messaging. What is notable is that a BBC employee responsible for the training of journalists found it appropriate to commission, produce and direct such an obviously political piece of drama – with public funding, of course.

At one point during the play the heroine tells an English tourist:

“You must look at other things – not just at what you think you will find: it is normally lying.”

Unfortunately, the BBC Radio 4 audiences listening to this radio play are not given the any such warning and the majority of them will not have the background knowledge to realize just how one-sided a narrative is being presented in this broadcast. 


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