BBC R4’s Today omits context to revisited story

Nearly four years ago, in May 2016, the BBC produced two reports about a project to clear landmines at a site in the Jordan Rift Valley. As was noted here at the time, both those reports failed to inform audiences of the context to the actions taken decades ago in that area.

“Israel mined the area along the Jordan River following the Six Day War in a bid to prevent Jordanian tanks and infantry, as well as Palestinian fedayeen guerrilla fighters and terrorists, from infiltrating into Israeli-held territory and attacking Israeli settlements.”

An item aired in the April 8th edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘Today’ revisited that story but once again audiences were not provided with that vital context. The item was introduced (from 2:49:51 here) by presenter Mishal Husain who told listeners that the churches at Qasr al Yahud had been abandoned “because of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war” rather than because of measures taken to combat infiltrations by Palestinian terrorists. [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Husain: “Churches on the banks of the River Jordan in the West Bank, abandoned for more than 50 years because of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, will now be available to visit thanks to de-mining work that has been completed by the Halo Trust. Its chief executive James Cowan is on the line […] Describe the site that you’ve been working on.”

Cowan likewise repeatedly misled listeners with regard to the date and purpose of the mine laying.

Cowan: “…this is a very special situation where these eight churches had been mined and booby trapped during the Six Day War and it came to our notice a long time ago, actually in 2014, that they needed to be cleared. So we got the various churches together, asked if they’d work together – eight different denominations – and then we got the Israelis and we got the Palestinians and so all three major faiths and we looked at how we could do this. All the churches had been booby trapped and then surrounded by a huge minefield of eleven hundred land mines.” […]

Husain: “And those mines and booby traps, who left them?”

Cowan: “So they were put there by the Israelis during the Six Day War as a protective belt and of course we all abhor the laying of land mines because they remain in the ground just as lethal decades after the event. But I think to Israel’s credit they were at least prepared to join us in removing that threat.”

Cowan did not clarify that, as abhorrent as he and others may find the laying of land mines, their purpose in this case was to save lives threatened by cross-border terrorism. Neither did he or Husain bother to inform Radio 4 listeners that a significant portion of the funding for his organisation’s project at Qasr al Yahud was provided by Israel.

“HALO Trust has provided around NIS 10 million ($2.6 million), largely funded by donations, while the Israeli government has provided NIS 7.5 million ($2 million).”

Qasr al Yahud

Failing to clarify that the baptismal site at Qasr al Yahud was made accessible by Israel in 2011, Husain went on:

Husain: “And the significance of these churches is that they’re all built around the site where Christ was believed to have been baptised.”

Cowan: “Yes exactly and it’s extraordinary that one of the great sites of Christendom actually, and also for the Jewish faith as well, ehm…should be treated in this way.” […]

Had audiences been told that the reason the site had to be mined was to protect Israeli civilians from terrorism, they may have been able to put that remark from James Cowan – and his subsequent one – into the appropriate context.

Cowan: “There’s a huge amount of restoration work. You can imagine after 53 years of being abandoned the churches need a lot of work doing to them. But I think that at a time of Covid, as you mentioned, it’s really nice to have a story like this in which there’s actually a bit of hope and in a place like the West Bank where these three faiths have competed with each other for millennia it’s nice to see them actually cooperating.”

And so this ‘feel good’ Easter story was once again presented to BBC audiences in a manner that completely erased the Jordan-based Palestinian terrorism which necessitated the laying of the mines that have now been cleared.

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