On December 9th the BBC News website published an article titled “Amnesty: Israeli strikes on Gaza buildings ‘war crimes’” on its Middle East page. Ninety-one of the article’s 535 words are devoted to BBC produced background information. Of the remaining 444 words, two hundred and eighty-three are repetition or paraphrasing of Amnesty International’s claims and one hundred and sixty-one represent Israel’s response to the report.
Whilst the article uncritically repeats the various claims made by Amnesty International – including that of “collective punishment” – it does not inform BBC audiences of the dubious methodology used in the report’s compilation. Neither are readers informed that the report was written without AI having access to information regarding the military value of the sites beyond the hearsay its unnamed researchers gleaned from members of the public in the Gaza Strip and cherry-picked quotes from media reports.
In its background information, the article informs readers that:
“The 50-day conflict in Gaza between Israel and militant groups led by Hamas left at least 2,189 Palestinians dead, including more than 1,486 civilians, according to the UN, and 11,000 injured. On the Israeli side, 67 soldiers and six civilians were killed, with scores more wounded.”
Let’s look at that oddly phrased claim more closely. The BBC tells its audiences that “at least” 2,189 Palestinians died, of whom “more than” 1,486 (a very precise number) were civilians. But how many more? If the BBC is sure that “more than” the 1,486 were civilians, why can it not tell audiences exactly how many of the casualties were civilians and how many were combatants? Of course what these quoted numbers also mean is that the BBC is informing audiences that at the very most, 703 of the casualties were not civilians. In other words, a maximum 32% of the casualties were, according to the BBC, combatants.
As we know, the BBC has been uncritically quoting Hamas and UN supplied casualty figures (for details on how the UN arrives at those figures, see here) from the beginning of the summer conflict itself and ever since. However, nearly four months after the conflict came to an end we have still not seen evidence of any effort by the BBC to independently confirm the figures it repeatedly promotes.
The ITIC has to date examined approximately 54% of the names of casualties provided by Palestinian sources. Its research so far indicates that some 52% of those casualties were terrorist operatives and 48% civilians. That is obviously a very different picture than the one presented by the figures the BBC chooses to quote and yet, at no point has the BBC adhered to its own impartiality guidelines by informing audiences of the existence of the ITIC’s research.
As regular readers will be aware, this is far from the first time that the BBC has provided uncritical amplification of reports or statements from political NGOs in general and Amnesty International in particular. Examples of BBC promotion of Amnesty material relating to Israel during the past year alone can be seen here, here, here, here and here.
“These attacks need to be independently and impartially investigated, as do all serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law alleged to have been committed during the conflict. Amnesty International’s view is that no official body capable of conducting such investigations currently exists in Israel. It is therefore all the more important that the Commission of Inquiry set up by the United Nations Human Rights Council in July 2014 is allowed to conduct its investigations without hindrance.”
In other words, this report is part of the lawfare campaign initiated just days after the start of the summer conflict by Amnesty International and additional political NGOs (several of which have also been extensively promoted by the BBC). And once more, that campaign is getting uncritical BBC wind in its sails.
One cannot but be reminded of the words of Matti Friedman in his recent article on the topic of foreign media coverage of Israel.
“The best insight into one of the key phenomena at play here comes not from a local reporter but from the journalist and author Philip Gourevitch. In Rwanda and elsewhere in Africa, Gourevitch wrote in 2010, he was struck by the ethical gray zone of ties between reporters and NGOs. “Too often the press represents humanitarians with unquestioning admiration,” he observed in The New Yorker. “Why not seek to keep them honest? Why should our coverage of them look so much like their own self-representation in fund-raising appeals? Why should we (as many photojournalists and print reporters do) work for humanitarian agencies between journalism jobs, helping them with their official reports and institutional appeals, in a way that we would never consider doing for corporations, political parties, or government agencies?”
This confusion is very much present in Israel and the Palestinian territories, where foreign activists are a notable feature of the landscape, and where international NGOs and numerous arms of the United Nations are among the most powerful players, wielding billions of dollars and employing many thousands of foreign and local employees. […]
In my time in the press corps, I learned that our relationship with these groups was not journalistic. My colleagues and I did not, that is, seek to analyze or criticize them. For many foreign journalists, these were not targets but sources and friends—fellow members, in a sense, of an informal alliance. This alliance consists of activists and international staffers from the UN and the NGOs; the Western diplomatic corps, particularly in East Jerusalem; and foreign reporters.”
As we see above, the BBC continues to indulge its ‘journavism’ habit of uncritical repetition and amplification of claims made by political NGOs of a certain genre.