Thursday, 29 January 2009

BBC Scotland: the silent men

Yesterday, a four person delegation headed by Stop the War held a meeting with Ken MacQuarrie, Controller of BBC Scotland, Ian Small, Head of Public and Corporate Affairs, and Alistair McLeod, Head of Editorial Compliance, to discuss the BBC's decision not to air the DEC Appeal for Gaza.

My own part in this worthy grouping was primarily motivated by a desire to help our movement keep the issue high-profiled - following our excellent occupation of the BBC - rather than any hope or expectation of serious engagement from Mr MacQuarrie and his colleagues.

As predicted, it was a sham consultation, riddled with prevarications, reiterations and sterile excuses. The most 'earnest' statement was the promise to pass our latest letter to the BBC Trust.

Still, it's always instructive to watch those in service to power act out the sham. Defending the indefensible is actually something of an art form.

MacQuarrie's position was, thus, dutifully made: he fully supports Mark Thompson's decision. And that, when all else was stripped away, was the 'case for'. No rational defence. No personal thoughts. No moral reflection.

MacQuarrie did, of course, repeat Thompson's feeble, and rather insulting, excuse that showing news images of this ongoing conflict while also having those images appear as part of a humanitarian appeal would undermine the BBC's efforts to maintain balance. This rather implies that viewers can't somehow see the difference between the two. We also wondered how the BBC managed to allow the DEC appeals for Darfur, Congo and other places in between those "rolling conflicts" .

Moreover, we asked, did MacQuarrie believe that the DEC-based aid agencies were acting partially in assisting all these suffering people in Gaza? If not, why should the BBC behave any differently in granting them help?

What MacQuarrie can't do - and would have no appetite for, anyway - is to act independently of Thompson in London and screen the DEC Appeal. What he, and his colleagues can, however, do is voice their senior level disapproval of that decision. They could speak out as conscientious directors, alert to the BBC's own Charter which instructs them to recognise and support humanitarian causes. They could also simply speak out as basic human beings concerned to help and protect suffering others.

None of these promptings, made at this meeting, appear remotely on the cards.

MacQuarrie also denied my assertion that BBC staff are working under a virtual atmosphere of intimidation when it comes to speaking out on this and other such issues. One wonders what true understanding of reality he and his fellow executives have in this regard.

But, as I'd already noted, that's not so surprising given the "Alice in Wonderland version of reality the BBC would have us believe". Thus, over 1300 Palestinians lie slaughtered, over 6000 wounded and 1.5 million psychologically injured and the BBC would have us understand that Hamas are the 'militants' while Israel 'responds' in 'defensive' mode.

Although the key aim of our lobby was to push for the DEC Appeal to be shown, nothing of this issue can be understood outwith the BBC's blatant bias by omission, language and context when 'covering' the Palestine-Israel question. So I and others made use of the moment in pointing out instances of journalistic and editorial bias. I told them of my times in the West Bank observing the daily brutality at checkpoints and inside the refugee camps and asked why the viewing public learn so little of all this from the BBC. I related the problems within the BBC's Jerusalem bureau in failing to cover the plight of the al-Kurd family in East Jerusalem, a case reported extensively by Al-jazeera and other international media, yet only given belated attention by the BBC. If all these editors, journalists and directors had been doing their job over so many years of brutal occupation, people would better understand the latest aggression against Gaza.

Mr MacQuarrie seemed somewhat bemused that anyone could criticise the BBC's 'world class' reputation. Mr McLeod, a journalist of 22 years, echoed the point, citing haloed reporters like Jeremy Bowen. How, they wondered, could the BBC be accused of bias having had people like Alan Johnston in Gaza?

The time at hand, alas, didn't allow for a little development of Chomsky's propaganda model and the institutional disincentives to critical output. But I did duly direct them towards Glasgow University Media Group's work, the 2006 study by Loughborough University (commissioned by BBC governors) and multiple Media Lens archives, all carrying clear and documented evidence of the BBC's systematic bias in favour of Israel.

Our able interlocutors made further challenges on gathering licence fee dissent and the failure of Mr MacQuarrie and his colleagues to have full statistical information on the level of public complaints. We tried to pin them down on every technical aspect of the DEC decision, using the BBC's own Charter codes to undermine their case.

Yet, all this remains ancillary to the more fundamental issue of political bias at the BBC. Thus, I invited them to explore what really underlies the politics of this decision: the truth that Britain and the West support Israel, and the BBC follow that same conformist line. That was, predictably, rejected, accompanied by more proclamations on BBC 'impartiality'. My suggestion that there is no such thing, that we all bring value judgements to such situations - as the BBC have clearly done - was likewise refuted.

While pleased to have been part of our lobby group in helping to keep the issue in the media spotlight, this meeting reaffirmed how the BBC and other centres of power use such 'consultation' to enhance their own profile, allowing them to say they've 'listened carefully to our concerns' and will 'take them on board'.

The BBC's decision over the DEC issue confirms the kind of serially complicit organisation we're dealing with here. As viewed at this meeting, the institutional bias is so complete that senior directors are prepared to weather widespread public opposition, including the disgust of many artistic figures, in order to protect established interests. Their silence, I suggested, in putting power and career before human beings is truly shameful.

Mr MacQuarrie had to 'wrap up' the meeting and thanked us for our presentation.

I merely wanted to remind them of this one sole truth:

"The BBC is party to Palestinian suffering."



Anonymous said...

John, keep doing what you're doing.

John Hilley said...

Cheers Neil. I think we all need to keep participating in direct actions. Last night we helped set up a new Action Palestine group at Glasgow University with the aim of keeping all the issues prominent on campus. This will include highlighting and challenging the university's links with arms companies and the murder in Gaza.



Anonymous said...

Thank you for a compelling (and sadly bleak and I think accurate assessment) report and for taking precious time out of your life to stand up to the Pro-Israel monolith that is the western media.
There must be a way to slowly dismantle it...

Keep it up!


Anonymous said...

There are increasing demands for Israel to be brought before the International Criminal Court for War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity. The Palestine Solidarity Campaign are part of a worldwide network of supporters of this campaign and have created an online petition for you to sign. You can also download and print the petition and use it in any street activities, local branch meeting or at work or trade union branches and take the signatures to your local MP.

To sign the petition go to:

Needless to say please pass this on to everyone you know.

Neil from Barra

Anonymous said...

While I completely agree that Israel's actions are reprehensible, i really object to the implication that the BBC has blood on its hands when it comes to the Palestinian people. The UK public can still donate to the DEC appeal. Secondly, i simply don't understand why so many people think the BBC is some kind of propaganda machine for the Israeli government. There's a massive, massive leap from what the BBC does to what state-run television does. The BBC's impartiality should be held up for what it is - a template for how other newsgathering organisations should be have.

There's always room, i believe, for making moral stands - Edward R Murrow is one example - especially if the fabric of a nation is at risk of being pulled apart. In this case, the BBC can't be held responsible for the actions of Israel and Hamas. They can only keep doing what they do - report accurately and truthfully.

Anonymous said...

It is little wonder people are confused about this issue, as the BBC is trying to convey that Israel is defending itself (again) while the images show that it is committing war crimes against Palestinian civilians.

Regarding the last comment I suggest they look at the Glasgow University Media Group report "Bad News From Israel" that showed a pro-Israeli bias in reporting this issue... or try what Craig Murray did in his blog on 6 January;

"I watched BBC World News for a timed hour yesterday. In that time I saw:

Pro-Israeli (including US government) speakers - 17
Pro-Palestinian speakers - 2
Mentions of Hamas Rockets as reason for war - 37
Mentions of illegal Israeli settlements - 0
Mentions of Palestinians killed by Israel during "ceasefire" - 2
Mentions of Sderot - 12
Mentions Sderot used to be Palestinian - 0"

...and they call this "imapartial"?

Of course the BBC can't be held responsible for the actions of Israel and Hamas but it can be held responsible to us the licence payer for not being objective in its reporting.

The decision not to show the DEC Gaza Appeal clearly shows that the BBC is more interested in trying to protect Israel's reputation than helping with a humanitarian disaster and that is absolutely shameful.

Neil from Barra

Anonymous said...

Would it be churlish to point out that first of all BBC World News is not funded by the licence fee? Second of all, i would find it hilarious that someone has come to the conclusion that the BBC is pro-Israeli after watching one (one!!) hour of reporting, if it wasn't such an example of the myopic view many people take on Middle East issues. To suggest that one hour of reporting constitutes a bias is one of the most preposterous arguments i've ever read. I won't be back to make another comment on this blog because the views on here are stunning in their lack of understanding on how the BBC works and the inability to accept another viewpoint.

Anonymous said...

Dear above former poster, I have watched the BBC reporting many times and for many hours and its coverage does mirror Craig Murray's findings.

How many times has the BBC mentioned the illegal occupation, the illegal settlements, or the Apartheid wall?

To everyone else, from the PSC website;

Three years ago the Church of England at their annual conference, the Church Synod, voted to heed the call of its sister church, the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East for morally responsible investment in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. In particular, it voted “to divest from companies, such as Caterpillar Inc, until they change their policies.” The Church of England won great praise for this principled act in standing up for international law and the human rights of a people living under Occupation. However, sadly, this decision has not been

It is time to ask the Church of England to put its words into action by divesting from companies linked to Israel. Here is the link and please pass it on;

There is also a petition by SPSC to the Scottish Parliament calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to the UK;

Neil from Barra

Anonymous said...

John and everyone else, here is a link for another petition condemning the BBC DEC Gaza decision. Please sign and circulate.

Neil from Barra