Bowen on Sharon: what did BBC audiences learn?

We previously noted on these pages that, on January 12th in an item concerning the death of Ariel Sharon which was aired on the Bowen filmed 11 1 aBBC Radio 4 programme ‘Broadcasting House’, the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen inaccurately represented the findings of the Kahan Commission on Sabra and Shatila and inserted into his report a recording of an interviewee from Lebanon making the false claim that Sharon had both entered the camps and carried out the massacre. 

With Jeremy Bowen’s post having been created in 2005 as one of several BBC responses to criticism of its Middle East coverage which led to the commissioning of the unpublished Balen Report, it is worth taking a look at some of his additional broadcasts throughout the three days in which the BBC covered the death of Ariel Sharon and examining whether or not his role does in fact contribute to more accurate and impartial coverage of a major event and whether it actually provides “analysis that might make a complex story more comprehensive or comprehensible for the audience” as the BBC claims

On January 11th – within hours of Sharon’s death – two filmed reports by Bowen – which were also aired on BBC television news programmes – appeared on the BBC News website. In the earlier of those two reports, which Bowen Bowen filmed 11 1 bliberally garnishes with words such as ‘butcher’, ‘villain’, ‘killer’ and ‘criminal’, supposedly whilst reflecting the opinions of others, he again misrepresents the Kahan Commission findings and misleads audiences by inaccurately stating that the second Intifada was the result of Sharon’s September 2000 visit to Temple Mount.

“As he pushed to become leader of the Israeli Right in 2000, he made a highly publicized, heavily guarded visit to the Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem, providing the spark for the second Palestinian uprising.”

In the second report viewers were informed by Bowen that:

“…and of course from the Palestinian perspective he is seen absolutely without any shadow of doubt as a butcher with lakes of blood on his hands…”

That description also found its way to the BBC News website’s live page.

Live page Sharon Bowen comments

On January 12th, as Ariel Sharon lay in state, a further two reports by Jeremy Bowen were aired on BBC television news and appeared on the BBC News website, with the first headlined “Ariel Sharon death: Israelis pay respects at parliament“. Despite that title, it Bowen 12 1 atook just forty-five seconds of the report before Bowen was once again promoting more paraphrased Palestinian opinions of Sharon in his own highly charged and hyperbolic words.

“But Palestinians especially are not shedding tears for Ariel Sharon. They say he spent his life shedding their blood and taking land they want for a state for Jewish settlements.”

Bowen closes that report:

“It’s a sign though of his place in modern Middle Eastern history that there are still so many people here in Israel who venerate him and so many – especially Palestinians – who get very angry about what he did.”

The second report of that day is an interview by Bowen with Ehud Olmert in which he again uses the ‘butcher’ description.

“Now what about those episodes which Sharon’s name is also associated with abroad? Sabra and Shatila, the killings in the camp, the subsequent inquiry, personal responsibility that he took for that – he had to resign – and the other things as well; the raids into Gaza and the West Bank in the 1950s which mean that Palestinians of course looked on him very differently and saw him as a butcher with blood on his hands.” Bowen 12 1 b

His next question is:

“Now what about the fact that those episodes in Mr Sharon’s political career – many people believe – brought Israel into disrepute around the world, were a black mark on its record?”

Viewers are of course not informed who or how many are “many people”, but it is notable that Bowen uses the opportunity to advance the concept of the massacre of Palestinian Arabs by Lebanese Arabs (of course one of many carried out around that time in Lebanon by numerous parties including Palestinians) as a “black mark” on Israel’s record rather than on that of the people who perpetrated it.

On January 13th a fifth filmed report by Bowen appeared on BBC television news programmes and on the BBC News website. Titled “Ariel Sharon funeral: Tributes paid at memorial service“, that report too soon moves from reporting events to political commentary. 

At 1:26 into the two minute and forty second-long report, viewers see footage of the Old City of Jerusalem with Bowen saying:

“Ariel Sharon owned a house in the Old City of Jerusalem where most of the residents are Palestinians. For many years he led the drive to settle Jews in the occupied territories. Jewish settlers who live here in the Muslim Quarter have armed security guards.”

It is difficult to imagine three more context-free sentences. Bowen fails to inform viewers that Jews – some of whom had lived there for generations – were expelled from the Old City by the Jordanians in 1948 and hence he is able to describe those living there nowBowen 13 1 as “settlers”. He also neglects to mention that, despite being situated in the Muslim Quarter, the Wittenberg House in which Sharon indeed bought an apartment in the 1980s (and sold some years later) is named after Moshe Wittenberg who bought what was once a hotel from its former Christian owners roughly one hundred years before that. And of course Bowen provides no explanation as to why Jews living in the Old City might be in need of “armed security guards”, but at least this time he has actually got the name of one of the quarters of Jerusalem right. 

Bowen then interviews Mustafa Barghouti (who also featured widely in other BBC coverage of Sharon’s death with assorted unchallenged defamations and conspiracy theories), describing him as “a prominent Palestinian who believes in non-violent resistance to Israel”. Readers will no doubt however be aware of Barghouti’s participation in the riots in Qalandiya during the ‘Global March to Jerusalem’ agitprop of March 2012 and his periodic appearance at the weekly violent riots in Bil’in. Unchallenged by Bowen, Barghouti says:

“He [Sharon] thought he can deal with Palestinians and Arabs and the rest of the world only through force. What Israel needs is a different kind of political generation: people who understand that they themselves will not be free as Israelis from the system of apartheid and occupation unless we the Palestinians are free.”

Bowen ends that report by saying:

“Many Palestinians and some human rights campaigners think he [Sharon] should have been put on trial as a war criminal but he goes to his grave mourned by Israelis who felt safer when he was around.”

So what have BBC audiences gained from watching these five reports by Jeremy Bowen spread over three days? They have been misled with regard to the findings of the Kahan Commission and the cause of the second Intifada. They have been presented with numerous examples of Bowen’s interpretations of what Palestinians think of Sharon, together with the views of selected interviewees, and they have repeatedly been exposed to Bowen’s use of hyperbolic language such as “butcher”, “villain”, “killer”, “criminal”, “war criminal”, “apartheid”, “lakes of blood on his hands” and “shedding their blood”.

Beyond the fact that much of this coverage cannot be said to meet BBC Editorial Guidelines of accuracy and impartiality, its overtly political nature means that, above all, in no way can it be said to meet Bowen’s job description of providing “analysis that might make a complex story more comprehensive or comprehensible for the audience”. Given that Jeremy Bowen is not just one individual reporter, but the person in charge of setting the overall tone of the BBC’s Middle East reporting, his performance in this instance must raise questions as to the efficacy of the post of Middle East editor in producing accurate and impartial coverage of Israel. 

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