Early in November the PLO’s ‘Negotiations Affairs Department’ – headed by frequent BBC contributor Saeb Erekat – issued a guidance document to members of the international media titled “Key Points to Remember when Reporting on Occupied Palestine“.
Analysis of the document’s content falls outside our remit but has already been carried out by Dr Eran Lerman at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. In this post we will take a look at the degree of BBC compliance with some of the PLO messaging laid out in that ten-point media guidance.
The PLO’s first point is titled “Israel occupies the State of Palestine” and journalists are told that “Israel is the occupying power and Palestine a nation under foreign occupation”.
Whilst the BBC stops short of describing the geographical areas controlled by different Palestinian factions as a state, it does describe them as ‘occupied’ – including the Gaza Strip.
A BBC profile of the Gaza Strip dating from 2009 and still available online informs readers that:
“In 2005, Israel pulled out the troops occupying Gaza, along with thousands of Jews who had settled in the territory. As far as Israel was concerned that was the end of the occupation.
However, that has not been accepted internationally as Israel still exercises control over most of Gaza’s land borders, as well as its territorial waters and airspace.”
That messaging has been frequently repeated in BBC News reports – see examples here, here and here – and was defended by the BBC Trust’s ESC in 2013.
The BBC regularly used the phrases “occupied West Bank” (see recent examples here, here and here) and “occupied East Jerusalem” (see for example here and here) in accordance with the BBC Academy ‘style guide’ which states:
“Israel occupied East Jerusalem in 1967. A law in 1980 formalised an administrative measure tantamount to the annexation of land taken as a result of the 1967 War. The claim to East Jerusalem is not recognised internationally. Instead, under international law, East Jerusalem is considered to be occupied territory.”
Individual locations are also described in BBC content as being “occupied” – including the H2 area of Hebron.
Regarding this point, the BBC obviously adopted PLO messaging long ago.
The second point in the PLO document is headed “The main issue is the Israeli Occupation” and in relation to the current wave of terrorism, members of the media are informed that:
“The Israeli government attempts to shift the focus away from their colonization enterprise and illegal occupation, which is the root cause of the continuous uprisings of the Palestinian people who have for decades endured an Apartheid regime. Though Israeli spokespeople have claimed that the main issues are Al-Aqsa and “Palestinian incitement”, the fact of the matter is that Israel continues to systematically deny Palestinian rights.”
BBC audiences have seen that messaging promoted on numerous occasions in recent weeks – not least by the corporation’s Middle East editor.
“I think that there is…err….there’s a lot of anger and rage at the continuing occupation and the fact is that the underlying context of all the violence that really ever happens here to do with the conflict is the conflict itself and the almost fifty year occupation of the Palestinian territories by the Israelis and that generates a sense of hopelessness, of hatred and – in some people as well – murderous rage.” (Jeremy Bowen, ‘Newsnight’, 13/10/15)
“Many Palestinians have told me they believe the reason for the attacks is that another generation is realising its future prospects will be crippled by the indignities and injustice of the occupation of the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem. […]
Violence does not come out of the blue. It has a context. Once again, the problem is the unresolved conflict between Palestinians and Jews. It is at the heart of all the violence that shakes this city.
A big part of the conflict is the military occupation of the Palestinian territories, including East Jerusalem, that has lasted for nearly 50 years. It is impossible to ignore the effects of an occupation that is always coercive and can be brutal.
In successive Palestinian generations, it has created hopelessness and hatred. In some cases, that bursts out into murderous anger.” (Jeremy Bowen, BBC News website, 15/10/15)
“The current violence stems from decades of unresolved conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. At its most basic, it is a fight over land and national rights.” (BBC News website, 13/10/15)
Clearly that PLO talking point has been well absorbed and embraced.
Point four is headed “For Israel, forcible displacement and colonization are an official policy, not the two-state solution” and reporters are told that “On the eve of Israeli elections in March 2015, Netanyahu promised his constituents, “If I’m elected, there will be no Palestinian State””.
The BBC has engaged in selective, context-free promotion of that statement both at the time that it was made and subsequently.
The PLO’s fifth point is titled “East Jerusalem is an integral part of the Occupied State of Palestine” and journalists are told that “the legal status of East Jerusalem is an occupied territory, and must continue to be referred to as such”.
As can be seen in the above link to the BBC’s ‘style guide’, the corporation has long complied with that dictate. Specific neighbourhoods are also similarly portrayed.
“The rabbi’s killer, who was shot dead, came from Jabel Mukaber in occupied East Jerusalem.”
Point six also relates to Jerusalem and is headed “Israeli settlements in Occupied East Jerusalem are as illegal as settlements in the rest of the Occupied State of Palestine”. Members of the media are told that:
“Pisgat Ze’ev, Gilo, French Hill, Neve Ya’akoub, Har Homa, Ramat Shlomo, Giva’at Hamatos, East Talpiyot (Armon HaNetziv) and Ramot, among others, are all illegal Israeli settlements and should be referred to as such.”
The BBC has long complied fully with that dictate too and recent reports have described Pisgat Zeev and East Talpiot, among other places, as “settlements”.
The document’s seventh point – titled “The Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound is under Israeli Occupation just as the rest of East Jerusalem” – includes the following statement:
“While some media outlets have preferred to focus their discussion on whether Al-Aqsa is holy for Muslims or for Jews, they tend to omit the fact that this Muslim holy site is under Israeli Occupation, as is the rest of Occupied East Jerusalem’s Old City.”
The BBC has even produced a handy map to aid promotion of the notion that the Old City of Jerusalem – including Temple Mount – is under occupation and its Jewish Quarter an “illegal settlement”.
Point eight is headed “Israel has effectively changed Al-Aqsa’s Status Quo” and it describes the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif as follows:
“The Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound is a holy site comprised of 144 dunums [sic] of land, which includes the two mosques (the Dome of the Rock and Al-Qibli) as well as open areas for prayers around them.”
Recent months have seen repeated cases in which BBC journalists have likewise promoted the erroneous notion that Temple Mount is “al Aqsa Mosque”. The PLO also circulated an earlier directive to journalists on that topic, urging them not to use the term Temple Mount.
Notably, throughout its coverage of the recent wave of terrorism, the BBC has failed to inform audiences in its own words that Israel has neither changed – nor has any intention of changing – the status quo on Temple Mount and has even amplified conspiracy theories relating to that issue.
In point nine – titled “International protection is a right for the Palestinian people” – journalists are told that Israeli policy towards the Palestinians includes “forced displacement and collective punishment”.
In October BBC audiences heard Kevin Connolly describe temporary checkpoints at the entrances to Jerusalem neighbourhoods from which many of the terrorists carrying out recent attacks had come as creating “the sense that restrictions on movement are a form of collective punishment”. Within 24 hours of the commencement of the 2014 conflict between Israel and terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip the BBC began promoting the notion of ‘collective punishment’ and that evidence-free distortion of a legal term became a theme repeated in its coverage of the conflict.
Throughout this document the ‘apartheid’ trope is promoted several times. The BBC is of course no stranger to promotion of that trope. The term ‘Israeli occupying force’ is also used by the PLO in this document and recently we saw similar phrasing used by BBC Arabic. The term “international law” is also liberally scattered throughout the guidance and as veteran readers will be aware, partisan presentation of that topic is a permanent fixture in BBC content.
Whilst we do not know whether or not BBC journalists received this PLO document at the beginning of November, it is obvious that BBC content has already long complied with much of the ‘guidance’ for the media as laid down by that organisation and that recent reports have included messaging eerily similar to that promoted in this document.
But whilst the query of whether the PLO managed to save itself a stamp remains unanswered, the real question is how BBC adoption and promotion of specific terminology and themes – which are obviously viewed by the PLO as furthering its aims and narrative – can be said to contribute to meeting the corporation’s public purpose remit of enhancing audience understanding of international issues through accurate and impartial reporting.