BBC Radio Scotland has a programme called “Sunday Morning with…” which is described as providing listeners with “Two hours of music and stimulating conversation from a faith and ethical perspective”.
The August 11th edition of that programme included an item billed in its synopsis thus:
“Raja Shehadeh and Penny Johnson live in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank. They’re both writers and campaign for Palestinian civil and political rights. They talk to Sally about their writing and their life together.”
The hook for that item was the couple’s participation in the Edinburgh International Book Festival, with links to a site selling tickets provided on the programme’s webpage and those links promoted by presenter Sally Magnusson at the end of the item.
However what listeners mostly heard throughout the twelve-minute item (from 1:08:30 here) was political propaganda which went totally unchallenged by the presenter even though – as the synopsis and her introduction showed – the BBC is well aware of the fact that both interviewees are political campaigners.
Although the BBC Academy’s style guide on Israel and the Palestinians clearly states that “[t]here is no independent state of Palestine today” and “you should not affix the name ‘Palestine’ to Gaza or the West Bank” because “it is still an aspiration or an historical entity”, listeners heard both Raja Shehadeh and Penny Johnson repeatedly refer to “Palestine” with no comment from Magnusson.
“You know in Palestine we don’t get rain from April until November…”
“Well we met in Palestine…”
“I came to Palestine…”
Having asked Johnson about what she termed their “intifada wedding” – because it took place in 1988 – Magnusson went on:
Magnusson: “And just remind us; the, you know, the intifada – of which there have been more than one of course – tell us…tell us about…about that.”
Unsurprisingly, listeners heard whitewashed and romanticised accounts of those two periods of intense Palestinian violence.
Johnson: “Well the first intifada which was mass civil resistance, pretty much led by the young but involving everybody. The second intifada was violence-racked: a very difficult period and a very difficult time, a very difficult kind of struggle. So if it’s the first intifada we probably go back to, sometimes perhaps with maybe too much nostalgia but also with all the lessons we learned.”
Shehadeh: “There was so much hope during the first intifada that we were building a new society, that we were coming to an end of the conflict through negotiations and indeed the first intifada did lead to the negotiations. But unfortunately the outcome of these negotiations was not good and we’re still suffering that terrible outcome.”
With no clarification of the fact that the premeditated second intifada put paid to any positive outcome to those negotiations, listeners next heard Magnusson claim that Ramallah – which has been under the control of the Palestinian Authority since 1995 – is “occupied”.
Magnusson: “And indeed your latest book, Raja, ‘Going Home’, is a kind of homage to Ramallah after fifty years of Israeli occupation and a reflection on what it’s meant.”
The nineteen-year-long Jordanian occupation of Ramallah was of course not mentioned in the conversation but listeners did hear that the scarcity of gardens in the city can be blamed on Israel, despite the city having been under PA control for nearly a quarter of a century.
Shehadeh: “…Ramallah used to be very attractive with houses with gardens. Almost every house had a garden around it and now having a garden is a great luxury and there are no open spaces because of the restrictions that the Israelis have put. It’s very crowded and people build high up – high rises – rather than having houses that are surrounded by open space and a garden.”
Listeners later heard Magnusson opine that “home of course has been a complicated and agonising matter for you, as for every Palestinian, over the years…” before going on to ask Johnson about her book’s claim that “the lives of animals help us to understand what’s happening to the humans in the West Bank”.
Johnson: “…we used to walk in the valleys near Ramallah and one of the heart-lifting sights was always a mountain gazelle picking her way up the olive groves. Those gazelles are largely gone and they are now endangered; on the red list of endangered species. But what I think we share is both a common life and a common fate. We share a frightening loss of habitat because in the 61% of the West Bank that is Area C and under Israeli control and the home of a hundred settlements, the shepherds and their flocks and the villages that they live in are not…it’s not their own development. It’s not Palestinian development. It is restrictions because of a land grab. Of a grab of water, grab of grazing land. And a desire to get the Palestinians out.”
The mountain gazelle (which suffered from reduced numbers in the mid-1980s due to foot and mouth disease) is not on the WWF 2019 list of endangered species but it does appear on a “red list” drawn up by an organisation called the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. The factors cited by the scientist who recommended the gazelle’s inclusion on that list four years ago include construction, paving of roads and erection of fences as well as growth in the number of predators and feral dogs. Those factors are of course not limited to what the three participants in this item call the West Bank: the gazelle’s numbers have also fallen elsewhere.
Magnusson made no effort to challenge her interviewee’s equally tendentious claims of “a land grab”, “grab of water” and “a desire to get the Palestinians out”.
Listeners next heard Shehadeh complain about rising urbanisation during the past two and a half decades.
Shehadeh: “We were so fortunate until the mid-90s to be able to leave our home and just immediately be walking in the hills away from the noise of cars and people and take long walks as we like without encountering any difficulties and any settlements. And this is mainly gone now. If we want to walk we have to take the car to a distant place to start a walk and then we often encounter settlers and settlements and problems and it’s not the same as it used to be so we had a golden period in the 70s and 80s that we often reminisce about…”
In fact the Israeli communities in the vicinity of Ramallah – for example Beit El, Psagot and Kochav Ya’akov – were established during that “golden period” of the 70s and 80s and – as the BBC well knows – construction of new communities did not take place after the Oslo Accords were signed.
Magnusson then gave the cue for some overt political comment:
Magnusson: “What’s your sense of the political situation now and where might it be heading next?”
Shehadeh: “It’s a very difficult time now because of, you know, the American government is giving Israel a carte blanche to do whatever it wants and the Israeli government, which is dominated by settlers, is taking that licence to grab as much land as it can and destroy as much of the landscape and the beauty of the landscape by building more and more settlements.”
Not only is the currently inactive cabinet not “dominated by settlers” but Shehadeh’s allegations of ‘land grabs’ and “building more and more settlements” – along with a subsequent claim that Israel makes “attempts at making [Palestinian] people leave” – are patently false.
Magnusson however again failed to make any effort whatsoever to challenge those blatant falsehoods and closed the item shortly afterwards with yet another misleading reference to “fifty years of occupation”.
In short, BBC Radio Scotland audiences heard twelve minutes of entirely predictable yet totally unquestioned political propaganda which not only failed to “help people understand” the subject matter but actively hindered that BBC obligation.