Tim Franks on BBC WS Newshour: ‘you make Israel sound like a normal country’

Last week two coalition governments in Western states collapsed over budget issues, bringing about early elections in both countries.

Here is the BBC News website’s coverage of the collapse of the Swedish coalition government after less than three months: “Sweden heads for polls after Lofven’s parliament defeat“.

Here is the BBC News website’s coverage of the collapse of the Israeli coalition government after twenty-one months:

Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu seeks early general election” December 2nd

Israel PM Netanyahu seeks early general election” December 2nd

Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu seeks early general election” December 3rd

Israel early election date set as Knesset votes on dissolution” December 3rd

What next for politics in Israel as government falls?” December 3rd

There is, of course, nothing very surprising about the inflated amount of coverage relating to Israel, as we have seen before.

The topic was also covered in the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ on December 2nd (from 10:49 here) and in both editions of the same programme on December 3rd. With the BBC having got it very wrong the last time Israel went to the polls – see for example here and here – it is interesting to examine whether anything has been learned from that past experience.Newshour 3 12 elections

The earlier edition of ‘Newshour’ on December 3rd – presented by Razia Iqbal and available from 00:00:30 here – found Tim Franks in Jerusalem and he opened his report thus:

“Razia: small nation in Western Asia to hold fresh elections after government fails to agree over housing policy. What on earth, you might ask, has propelled the announcement of a general election in Israel to the top of the Newshour running order? Well; because it’s Israel. And although the disagreements in the coalition cabinet were partly about social policy, this vote could set the direction for the future of Jerusalem, of Israel, of the conflict with the Palestinians.”

In other words, despite the fact that the background to the next elections in Israel is primarily made up of domestic issues of little or no interest to the outside world, the BBC is going to frame the story according to its own agenda, which of course places ‘the conflict’ at the centre of attention. That theme continued in Franks’ first interview with Israeli journalist Tal Schneider who, in her response to his question about why the elections had come about, says:

“There is, you know, really bad sentiment coming out from the crowds, specifically on economic issues. Whereas, you know, the cost of living here is very expensive and there is a huge housing crisis going on for years, so…and we don’t see end of sight. So actually the specific bill that, you know, they’re fighting on – the VAT zero bill, what we call it – was supposed to solve the real estate issue – the housing problem.”

To that, Franks replies:

“You make Israel sound like a normal country when you’re talking about economic problems, about value added tax, housing and so forth. But of course the reason the outside world is so interested in Israel is because of the wider issues with the conflict, with the Palestinians and so forth.”

The conversation then turns to the direction in which Franks has steered it with him closing that part of the item thus:

“Tal Schneider on the possibility – according to the opinion polls, far from the probability – that Binyamin Netanyahu might not return to office.”

Franks then interviews Yael German of the Yesh Atid party, again steering the conversation towards what he wants to talk about rather than allowing BBC audiences to hear about the actual issues behind this election.

Franks: “You’ve talked about the difficulties in terms of the budget and other social issues. Out there, the reason people care about these elections is because of the conflict. What can Yesh Atid offer?…”.

His response to German’s answer to that question is:

Franks: “Isn’t the electorate moving to the right away from that vision?”

The item then moves back to Razia Iqbal who says:

“It’s interesting to hear people talking about the anti-Bibi sentiment. Is this a big risk by Benjamin Netanyahu or a calculated one?”

Franks: “It’s always a calculated risk with Binyamin Netanyahu. He’s one of the great political operators in Israeli political history. It is a risk for him though because, although he is way out in front when he comes to the opinion polls, with both ‘who do you think would make the best next prime minister’ and in terms of support for his party, that support does seem to be on a downward slope as far as approval ratings for him are concerned. But look around the rest of the political constellation: very fractured picture as normal in Israel. And really there is no other person who you would say is a sort of…is of his stature. Whatever you feel about him, he does seem to be the big beast and he is also the great survivor.”

So, the bottom line of this item is as follows:

  1. Even though the collapse of Israel’s coalition government is due to domestic economic and social issues, the BBC is not going to waste its time informing audiences about the details of that because it has convinced itself – correctly or not – that “the outside world” is more interested in having the story framed in terms of “the conflict” and “the Palestinians”.
  2. The BBC is already one again promoting the theme of the Israeli electorate “moving to the right” – even though its use of the same framing in the last elections was proven grossly mistaken – and to support that theme, presents a picture of opinion polls as showing an inevitable Likud/Netanyahu victory.

In the later version of ‘Newshour’ on December 3rd (available from 00:30:00 here), Franks again promoted the same themes in his introduction to interviews with three Israelis.

“The question is whether Binyamin Netanyau has pulled off another political master stroke in a long history of power and survival by paving the way for a new, strong coalition of right-wing and religious parties or whether the Israeli public will – contrary to the opinion polls – swing leftwards in enough numbers to raise the possibility of a centre and left-wing government grouping.”

He asks journalist Einav Silverman:

“…do you think people will increasingly – with sort of no great horizon for any process when it comes to the conflict with the Palestinians – that people are actually gonna start behaving a bit more like every other country – every other Western country – and concentrate on economic issues, social issues and that sort of thing when it comes to deciding who to vote for?”

seker Ch 2 PM
Channel 2 poll

Whilst audiences were not told which opinion polls Tim Franks has been reading, it is of course very obvious that if the BBC continues to ignore the domestic issues behind this election in favour of its well-trodden “Israeli-Palestinian conflict” route, it is going to once again overlook some very significant factors on the developing political map.

One of those factors is Moshe Kahalon: a former Likud minister who retired from politics before the last elections and now appears set to make a come-back with a party which – despite having yet to produce a manifesto or even be named – is, according to Channel 10’s opinion poll, likely to receive more votes than Yesh Atid. Another potentially important factor – especially considering that the Likud party primaries have not yet taken place – is the possible return to politics of former minister Gidon Sa’ar, with a Channel 2 poll indicating that both he and Kahalon may present a serious challenge to Netanyahu as prime minister. The possibility of agreements between existing parties – for example a scenario in which Tsipi Livni’s ‘HaTnua’ would link up with another party – could also have a dramatic effect on the results of the March 2015 elections.

Channel 10 poll
Channel 10 poll

Significantly, the issue which the BBC seeks to promote as central to the upcoming elections – the “conflict” – is, also according to a Channel 2 poll, the main issue for only 13% of the Israeli electorate, with the cost of living being the prime factor cited by voters (38%) as influencing their choice of party, followed by national security (26%) and social gaps (14%).

seker Ch 2 sibot

After the 2013 elections we asked here ‘why did the BBC get it so wrong?’ and the answers to that question included the following observations:

“Collective perceptions of Israel and Israelis – perhaps coupled with over-confidence in their own expertise – meant that BBC reporters did not even try to find out which issues were important to the Israeli electorate: instead they produced material which supported their own preconceived ideas […]. In addition, a marked lack of understanding of the inapplicability of their own Eurocentric interpretations of terms such as Left and Right or “nationalist” to the Israeli political scene was very evident – especially in relation to the subject of traditional support from specific socio-economic groups for certain parties. […]

Most blatantly obvious is the fact that the BBC’s insistence upon framing this election almost exclusively in terms of the potential effect of its results on ‘the peace process’ reflects its own institutional attitude towards that subject, both in terms of its perceived importance and in terms of the curious notion that only what Israel does has any effect upon that process’ chances.” 

If the coverage so far is anything to go by, it does not look as though BBC reporting on the 2015 Israeli elections is going to be of any greater value to international audiences seeking to enhance their understanding of Israeli politics. If that is to change, clearly an initial first step must be for the BBC to internalize the fact that Israel is “a normal country” in which people are allowed to worry about their mortgages and supermarket bills, even if Tim Franks thinks that in doing so, they lack “great horizon”. 


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