BBC Radio 4 programme on UAVs lacks transparency and adherence to editorial guidelines

On October 6th BBC Radio 4 aired a half-hour programme titled “The Year of the Drone”. The programme was commissioned from Whistledown productions and was presented by Will Robson and produced by Harry Graham. It can be heard here for a limited period of time and its synopsis reads as follows.Drones R4

“Will Robson gets exclusive access to some of the British military’s most secretive, sophisticated and controversial drones, and talks to the men and women who operate them. He gets an insider perspective on what it means to fight a war remotely, and finds out how long distant combat affects those at the controls.

In a remote corner of west Wales, in a matt green shipping container, a group of engineers and military officials crowd around a high-tech bank of screens and joysticks. A monitor feeds them live aerial footage of the Carmarthenshire coastline. The image is crisp, they can make out dolphins swimming in the wake of a fishing trawler. They’re testing the limits of the British Army’s Watchkeeper surveillance drone, one of a new fleet of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) which have an £850m pound price tag.

The British military is a global leader in UAS technology, and Watchkeeper is just one element. As drones become ever more important to the way Britain fights its wars, the Government’s Select Defence Committee are demanding more transparency.

While the military have welcomed UAS as a way of reducing costs and casualties, not everyone is convinced. Critics say that drones could bring an age of airborne occupation and dispassionate warfare. They claim that when war can be fought without consequence to the aggressor, violence quickly becomes easier than diplomacy.

Will Robson explores the debate around one of this generation’s most divisive military technologies.”

Three minutes and forty-four seconds into the programme, listeners hear an unidentified female voice saying:

“The result is a lot of dead civilians and a lot of people unable to live in their own houses. It has brought safety to nobody.”

The identity of the unidentified speaker will not be a mystery to anyone who happened to be listening to Radio 4 on September 3rd: she is “Palestinian performance poet and human rights activist” (and now apparently also UAV expert) Rafeef Ziadah. At 06:45 Ziadah appears again – this time with an introduction.

Robson: “But that’s of little comfort for campaigners like Rafeef Ziadah of War on Want who believes that drones lead pilots into a state of dangerous disconnect.”

Ziadah: “It’s somebody sitting in an air-conditioned room miles away deciding who should die, who should live. There have already been many mistakes made and a lot of civilian casualties killed by drones. It really is not saving anyone.”

Robson: “Do you need to look your enemy in the eye before you kill them?”

Ziadah: “Does it make it easier to kill the enemy if you don’t look them in the eye? It’s the ability to wage war, to kill people and not feel anything about it or justify it because you are not there on the ground that is a very dangerous development. It was actually people within the militaries that said it’s better when people are not on the battleground. However, already there’s documentation of how drones pilots do get affected by what they’re doing, so I don’t think the psychological impacts are completely gone. We haven’t studied them enough.”

Listeners may by this time be wondering what the somewhat self-contradicting arguments of a campaigns officer for a charity which supposedly “fights poverty” are doing in a programme ostensibly dealing with the topic of unmanned aerial vehicles but – as is all too well known – War on Want long since departed from the agenda of fighting poverty and ventured into political campaigning. The connection between that and Ziadah’s appearance in this broadcast will soon become clear, but in the meantime it is notable – and of course entirely predictable – that Rafeef Ziadah has nothing to say about Palestinian terrorists who launch rockets at Israeli civilians from “miles away” without looking their intended victims “in the eye”. 

At 18:50 Robson introduces another contributor.

Robson: “Israel is also reported to be using armed drones over Gaza, although the Israel Defence Force has never confirmed or denied this. Chris Cole-Smith – formerly an officer in the Royal Regiment of Artillery – has carried out recent Amnesty International investigations on the ground in Gaza.”

Cole-Smith: “You know, the population are pretty much used to it now. They are a constant presence. Virtually every trip I’ve made into Gaza there has been the whine of drones overhead. They know they’re under constant surveillance. The population know very well that these drones have the capacity to kill people instantaneously and very accurately. Well, I’ve looked into the eyes of so many families of children who’ve been killed by the so-called state of the art weapons system which is just making far too many mistakes. One child was given a coin by his grandfather to go out and buy a new pen for his baby sister. Walking down the street he was struck by a drone missile. Now where’s the legitimacy in that?”

Robson: “You’ve obviously seen the effects of drones in conflict zones. Do you think the British public are as aware of the issues surrounding drones, or are there some misconceptions out there in the people you’ve talked to?”

Cole-Smith: “I do not think the British public are at the moment fully aware of how drones are being used in certain areas of the world and they certainly are not aware of the huge number of errors that is taking place in some of this targeting and needs to be made much more public.”

Robson: “The Israeli Embassy told us that as there was no detail on the alleged incidents they could not judge their veracity. But they did say that the IDF operates within international law while facing an enemy which operates from civilian areas.”

So in other words, Robson and producer Harry Graham thought it was perfectly acceptable to amplify Cole-Smith’s unproven third-hand anecdote whilst at the same time finding it completely unnecessary to clarify to listeners the fact that it is the numerous Islamist terrorist organisations operating in the Gaza Strip which are the target of Israeli surveillance – not the civilian population.

We will return to Mr Cole-Smith later, but in the meantime Robson continues with more amplification of Rafeef Ziadah’s real agenda at 20:24.

Robson: “Rafeef Ziadah from War on Want is concerned none the less.”

Ziadah: “Israel continues to rely deeply on drones. Not only that: they then export them to the rest of the world saying that they are field-tested. And currently the British government is importing this technology to produce a new drone called the Watchkeeper drone. This drone is based on a model that’s for Elbit Systems – Israel’s largest military company. It’s completely, completely wrong for the UK to be importing this technology.”

And at 26:13 Ziadah is heard again saying:

Ziadah: “So drones are a way to continue wars by remote control. This raises questions of accountability. When do we know how these wars are being launched? How they’re being stopped? The UK government is saying it’s going to leave Afghanistan, yet do we know that the drones programme – the drones flying over Afghanistan – is going to stop? There has been no indication of that.”

As regular readers well know, the BBC’s editorial guidelines on impartiality and accuracy (applicable to all BBC content, including commissioned items) state that contributors should be properly identified, with the section titled “Avoiding Misleading Audiences” including the following statement:

“We should normally identify on-air and online sources of information and significant contributors, and provide their credentials, so that our audiences can judge their status.”

So let’s take a look at some of the “credentials” of Will Robson’s interviewees which were not disclosed to listeners to this programme and yet, along with other facts, have bearing on its declared subject matter.

First of all, no mention is made of War on Want’s BBC-related funding via Comic Relief – a charity with no fewer than three BBC executives on its various boards.  Neither are listeners told about War on Want’s long-established record of anti-Israel campaigning and support for the anti-peace BDS movement. They are not even told of the very pertinent fact that War on Want has been running an anti-drone campaign for quite some time, with one of the main aims of that campaign being the promotion of a two-way military embargo on Israel.  

Had listeners been made aware of those very relevant facts, they would have been able to both comprehend Rafeef Ziadah’s motives for participating in this programme and place her contribution to it in its correct context. Notably, they were not informed of those factors and so the result is free BBC promotion for an organization which campaigns virulently against Israel on various fronts. 

It would also have been appropriate for audiences to be informed of the fact that War on Want is part of what is known as the ‘Drone Campaign Network’ and that another member of that group is an organization called ‘Drone Wars UK’ which is run by someone named Chris Cole: an extraordinarily similar name to that of the person appearing in this BBC programme. That Chris Cole is also ‘convener‘ or ‘coordinator‘ for the Drone Campaign Network. In addition, Cole is also a member of Pax Christi: an organization which does its own fair share of anti-Israel campaigning and promotion of BDS and is also a member of the ‘Drone Campaign Network’.

Coincidentally or not, this BBC commissioned programme was aired during the Drone Campaign Network’s “Drones Week of Action 2014” which includes events sponsored by Pax Christi and Friends of Sabeel UK, the publicity for which includes a link to Cole’s website. One of those events is a “vigil” at the Elbit Systems factory in Shenstone which has already been the target of previous actions by anti-Israel campaigners, supported – inter alia – by the ‘Drone Campaign Network’, Amnesty International and War on Want.

It is of course very revealing (and hardly coincidental) that the only “critics” of UAVs heard by listeners to this programme are those who also have an anti-Israel agenda, even though – as is noted in the programme – around a hundred countries manufacture drones. As is all too apparent, the claim made in the synopsis of this programme that it would “explore the debate” surrounding UAVs is actually nothing more than an opening for the context-free amplification of professional activists from organisations which employ the subject of UAVs as part of their political campaigns to delegitimise Israel. 


We have been informed that the interviewee in this programme was Chris Cobb-Smith of Chiron Resources. Cobb-Smith has a history of co-operation with Amnesty International which includes the promotion of the notions that Israel illegally used white phosphorous in the Gaza Strip during Operation Cast Lead and carried out a ‘massacre’ in Jenin in 2002. He also worked as a ‘news safety advisor’ for the BBC between 1999 and 2005.  

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