On August 8th the BBC News website published an article in the ‘Features & Analysis’ section of its Middle East page written by the head of statistics for BBC News, Anthony Reuben, and titled “Caution needed with Gaza casualty figures“.
Many readers are probably asking themselves what took so long. After all, the BBC had maintained an across the board policy on all its platforms of blindly quoting casualty figures provided by Hamas and/or assorted political NGOs for a whole month before the appearance of this article and the horse definitely long since bolted before this ‘closing the stable door’ article appeared. However, Reuben’s report does make some valid points.
“Nonetheless, if the Israeli attacks have been “indiscriminate”, as the UN Human Rights Council says, it is hard to work out why they have killed so many more civilian men than women.” […]
“In conclusion, we do not yet know for sure how many of the dead in Gaza are civilians and how many were fighters. […] But it does mean that some of the conclusions being drawn from them may be premature.”
Unfortunately, the article also fails to adequately address many other crucial points.
One assumes that a fairly basic requirement of statistical analysis is that figures analysed must be accurate; after all, there is no value in carrying out analysis of faulty data. Reuben writes:
“In the Gaza conflict, most news organisations have been quoting from the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), which leads a group of humanitarian organisations known as the Protection Cluster.”
He goes on to provide a link to UN OCHA’s report of August 6th but apparently has failed to recognize the fact that – as was reported here on July 13th – those “humanitarian organisations” which provide UN OCHA’s data are in fact NGOs with a political agenda which includes – as was reported here on July 18th – a campaign of lawfare against Israel with a vested interest in the inflation of civilian casualty numbers. The very fact that a UN body works with such NGOs and amplifies and enables their agenda should be a matter of interest to discerning journalists. It isn’t, of course.
Neither does Reuben appear to make the connection between the already partisan stance taken by the office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights which – even before the hostilities have ended and the picture has become clear, has repeatedly voiced evidence-free accusations of ‘war crimes’ – and its adoption and amplification of figures promoted by political NGOs.
Reuben cites and links to the recent New York Times report on the topic of casualty figures, but fails to note that article’s inadequacies. Likewise he fails to bring to audience attention relevant issues recently noted here such as summary executions carried out by Hamas, the use of human shields, casualties from shortfall missiles and Hamas’ use of child soldiers. The ITIC has to date analysed some 450 names from the casualty lists provided by the Hamas run Gaza health ministry and their findings can be seen here and here.
Despite its shortcomings, Anthony Reuben’s article is of course a welcome – if very tardy – step in the right direction as far as the BBC is concerned. It would of course be appropriate for such information to be made available to BBC television and radio audiences in addition to website users and for a link to this article to be standard insertion into all written BBC reports citing casualty figures.
However, also on the morning August 8th, the BBC News website’s Middle East page published another article titled “Gaza conflict: The hundreds who lost their lives“.
Remarkably, that article is devoted entirely to largely graphical representation of the same UN OCHA statistics which the other article states must be treated with caution and it egregiously erases all mention of the crucial context of attacks by terrorists on Israeli forces operating in the Gaza Strip.
“Many took refuge in shelters run by the United Nations, including schools. However, these UN schools also came under fire, including in North Gaza, Jabaliya and Rafah.”
The article also includes some glaring inaccuracies with regard to Israeli casualties.
“Meanwhile, two Israeli civilians died in Haifa and near the Erez border crossing into northern Gaza; and a Thai farm worker was killed in Ashkelon.”
In fact, the locations of casualties in Israel from missile fire by terrorists in the Gaza Strip are as follows:
Jul 15, 2014 – Dror Hanin, 37, of Beit Aryeh was killed near the Erez Crossing after suffering a direct hit from a mortar fired by terrorists in the Gaza Strip, while delivering food to soldiers there.
Jul 19, 2014 – Ouda Lafi al-Waj, 32, was killed and three members of his family were injured, when a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip struck a small Bedouin settlement near Dimona.
Jul 23, 2014 – Narakorn Kittiyangkul, 36, from Nan’s Pua district in Thailand was killed by a mortar fired from Gaza while working in a greenhouse in one of the Israeli communities in the Ashkelon Coast Regional Council.
Dimona is nowhere near Haifa and the Ashkelon Coast Regional Council (Hof Ashkelon) is not the city of Ashkelon.
One 70 year-old lady did die in Haifa when she collapsed due to a heart attack whilst trying to reach the safety of an air-raid shelter during a missile attack on July 12th and an American tourist in Jerusalem also died in similar circumstances. With the BBC having heavily promoted the view that rioting in Jerusalem and Judea & Samaria was a reaction to Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip, one might perhaps have expected to see the 29 year-old victim of the August 4th terror attack in Jerusalem, Avraham Walles, included on the BBC’s Israeli casualty list.
The BBC has throughout the last month frequently told audiences that Israeli casualty figures are “nothing remotely like the losses on the Palestinian side“. It would therefore not have appeared to be too difficult a task to at least report them accurately, especially as – unlike the situation on the Palestinian side – the precise information is freely available in the public domain.
The importance of casualty figures in the Gaza Strip is not just one of statistical accuracy regarding civilian and combatant deaths; it is relevant because the figures presented are used as ammunition in the lawfare campaign which complements Hamas’ armed campaign and as a means of influencing public opinion worldwide. For that reason it is vital for the BBC to present its audiences not only with numbers but – if they are truly to be able to understand this particular international issue – with factual information on the methods and political motives of the organisations gathering the statistics and insight into the ways those figures have been presented and used to frame a specific view of this conflict – including, of course, by the BBC itself.