As readers most likely know, 95% of the anti-terrorist fence constructed from 2002 onward in order to prevent terrorists from Palestinian Authority controlled areas reaching towns and cities in Israel is made out of wire mesh and the remaining 5% is constructed from concrete in order to prevent shooting attacks in sensitive locations.
The BBC’s ‘style guide’ instructs its staff to use the term ‘barrier’ to describe the structure.
“BBC journalists should try to avoid using terminology favoured by one side or another in any dispute.
The BBC uses the term ‘barrier’, ‘separation barrier’ or ‘West Bank barrier’ as an acceptable generic description to avoid the political connotations of ‘security fence’ (preferred by the Israeli government) or ‘apartheid wall’ (preferred by the Palestinians).
The United Nations also uses the term ‘barrier’. It’s better to keep to this word unless you have sought the advice of the Middle East bureau.
Of course, a reporter standing in front of a concrete section of the barrier might choose to say ‘this wall’ or use a more precise description in the light of what he or she is looking at.”
Nevertheless, on February 27th listeners to BBC Radio 4 heard the anti-terrorist fence repeatedly and predominantly described as a “wall” during a forty-minute edition of ‘Start the Week‘ titled “‘Build That Wall’: Barriers and Crossings” (available here).
The programme’s synopsis reads:
“On Start the Week Kirsty Wark explores what it means to live either side of a wall, and whether barriers are built to repel or protect. Supporters of the US President urge him to ‘build a great wall’ along the Mexican border but the journalist Ed Vulliamy points out that there is already a wall and border guards, supported and funded by US Presidents for decades. And yet still drugs, guns, money and people continue to move north and south. Israel has been building its own separation barrier since the turn of the century, but Dorit Rabinyan is more interested in psychological barriers that drive Palestinians and Israelis apart. The map-maker Garrett Carr travels Ireland’s border to explore the smugglers, kings, peacemakers and terrorists who’ve criss-crossed this frontier, and asks what it will become when the United Kingdom leaves the EU. The historian Tom Holland looks back at the successes and failures of wall-building from Offa’s Dyke to Hadrian’s Wall and asks whether they work more as statements of power than as insurmountable barriers between people.”
Presenter Kirsty Wark introduced the programme as follows:
Wark: “Hello. Trump, Brexit: the talk is all about building walls and controlling borders. But there’s nothing new in that. Today we’re setting out to explore the real and the imaginary walls and borders that exist – some of them from almost two millennia – and what use they are. Do they keep people out, or in? Do they fulfil some visceral need to mark territory, to set us apart, to keep out the barbarians – whoever they may be? And what does it mean to live either side of the border?”
Israel’s anti-terrorist fence made its first appearance in the discussion at 09:42 with Wark describing a structure which is 95% wire mesh as looking like a “solid thing”.
Wark: “And just talking to you about that, Dorit, because the thing about the security barrier is that it is there, you can see it, separation barrier is there. It is a physical fact. People who look out on it – and although it’s got a lot of crossing points – it looks like a solid thing…”
Dorit Rabinyan then raised a point rarely heard by BBC audiences:
Rabinyan: “Yes, it’s actually a scar in the landscape. It’s really ugly and it’s nasty but we must agree, we must look on reality that the past 15 years that the wall is up and separating Israeli territories to the Palestinian territories, there’s a huge reduction on the number of terror attacks that we knew in the mid-90s and early years of millennium.”
Wark, however, chose to take the conversation in a different direction, ignoring the fact that around a million people cross the fence each month and that special gates provide access to Palestinian farmers:
Wark: “But when it went up, the idea was it was to be temporary.”
Wark: “And of course, when is the end of temporariness [sic]? Because although it stops terror attacks – as you would say – it also separates Palestinian farmers from their agricultural land. It separates families who are on this side because it is not a perfect thing, a wall. It’s got displaced people on both sides.”
Rabinyan: “This path that the wall goes through is decided only upon the Israeli government; it’s not agreed on with the Palestinians. That’s what makes it so high and what makes it into a barrier and not a border line. This not agreed, this is disputed by those Palestinians living nearby. But it’s actually based more or less on the ’67 lines.”
Wark: “On the ‘green line’?”
The conversation moved on to extensive and often unrelated discussion of Rabinyan’s novel, towards the end of which (15:50) Wark even went so far as to impugn Rabinyan’s description of the structure as a fence.
Wark: “…but what absolutely separates you is this idea that there has to be this physical wall, this – as you call it – ugly scar, that Hilme [a character in the novel] thinks is for no good reason at all but your view, I think, through your character and also your own view is that in order to be good neighbours we need a wall rather than being bad enemies. And of course that is entirely disputed by the Palestinians.”
Rabinyan: “In Israel we don’t call it a wall; we call it a fence…”
Wark [interrupts]: “Yes, but it is a wall.”
Still later in the conversation, after Rabinyan described borders as being “something that protects you”, Wark opined:
Wark: “Is that possible when the two sides do not agree at all on the reason and the nature of the wall? Because, you know, if it is to protect you, it is not to protect the Palestinians…”
As readers may recall, Rabinyan’s novel has on several occasions been inaccurately described in previous BBC content as being ‘banned’ and Radio 4 had to edit a recording after a complaint from BBC Watch was upheld. The myth of the ‘banned’ book surfaced in this programme too – and was challenged – when Wark noted (from 18:16) that mixed Catholic and Protestant marriages were a “problem” in Northern Ireland and Garrett Carr responded:
Carr: “Yes, although such books…there were similar love stories told by Northern Irish writers but they were certainly never banned in schools; in fact they were encouraged.”
Rabinyan: “Thank you for defending me on this.”
Wark: “But of course Dorit’s book’s not been banned from the point of view of being…”
Carr: “Just not included on the curriculum.”
Carr later promoted another myth – that of ‘1967 borders’ – while apparently not being aware of the fact that the 1949 Armistice line and the ‘green line’ are one and the same thing.
Carr: “And I was struck – you could almost call it a cruelty for the Palestinians and the Israelis – that their nations are not framed in a way that seems like an important…seems like an important absence for people. That you need to know the shape of where you’re from and for both those peoples the edges of the country shimmer completely and there is that sense of not being located on the map and having…yes…your sense of nationhood framed cleanly. And even though Ireland’s border’s contested and probably always will be, it is still a clean line that actually hasn’t changed in a hundred years. […] Whereas Israel Palestine have been denied that. Their frame’s still more about…there’s the ’48 borders, ’67 borders, the green wall….ah the green line…and the wall.”
Discussing the US-Mexico border and the question of “what do people want”, Ed Vulliamy opined (21:25):
Vulliamy: “I mean maybe when you say what do people want, they want to see what the Israelis have built because that’s a real bloody wall and, you know, good enough for Banksy to have to do the wonders he does with it with his, with his…all the marvelous graffiti. I think that’s what people want.”
The fact that around a third of this programme was devoted to Israel’s anti-terrorist fence, together with the numerous additional references to it as a “wall” in spite of clear BBC guidance, leaves little doubt that listeners would have gone away with misleading and inaccurate impressions of a structure which is in fact 95% fence.