Sunday, 27 June 2010

Comment 12 and Mark Urban - 'private' words on the issues

On 10 June 2010, I posted a comment at BBC diplomatic correspondent Mark Urban's blog, below the heading: 'West Bank development strategy begins to bear fruit'.

It entailed a series of points challenging Urban's interpretations of the present situation in the West Bank, including his understandings of economic 'development' and the political implications of the Fatah-Hamas conflict.

My comment was immediately blocked and referred for further consideration, appearing eleven days later on 21 June. Despite two emails to BBC Head of News, Helen Boaden, the BBC complaints unit and Mark Urban himself, no reply was sent explaining the reason for the stalled comment. It only appeared after my second letter to Ms Boaden stating that I'd be compelled to write to the BBC Trust if the comment wasn't posted.

Subsequent to the comment being published, an enquiry was made (outwith my knowledge) to Mark Urban by another party asking for his thoughts on my statement. Urban offered his responses in two emails, the contents of which were forwarded to me, in good faith, by the enquirer asking for my own responses to Urban's assertions. The enquirer's request to Urban and myself was made in the hope of illuminating the missing background to Urban's report and prompting an openly-published exchange on the issues.

As agreed by us both, a request was made by the enquirer to Mr Urban asking that our collective discussion be published at the Media Lens message board, or/and at my and Mr Urban's blog.

The request was rejected by Mr Urban. Mr Urban asked that his words not appear at Media Lens, stating that he believed the enquiry and his response to be one concerned with clarification rather than for open publication.

The enquirer wrote back to Urban questioning his reticence and reasons for avoiding publication or/and any further exchange. The message expressed disappointment and suspicion over Urban's refusal to expand on the issues, in particular the absence of critical background to the Fatah-Hamas conflict. No further reply came back.

Having given considerable thought to the moral and practical implications of this correspondence (and the BBC's conduct over the initial comment referral), I have decided to publish the content of Mr Urban's (two mailed) comment pieces, and my own response to them, here at this blog.

I have not included any of the enquirers words to Mr Urban, or the content of Urban's third reply declining to have his comments published. Nor have I sought any direct approval/permission from Urban (or anyone else) for posting his words. My only purpose here is to highlight and answer Urban's points on the subject matter itself.

Mr Urban, it seems, has sought to evade open criticism and debate over his initial piece. He has also, I believe, used a questionable excuse in claiming a 'private/public' distinction with regard to his comments.

The crucial point is that Mark Urban is replying as a BBC employee, in response to an enquiry (regarding my comment) at a BBC-run website. There's no good reason, to my mind, why Urban's comments, dealing with the specific issues in his film/article, and critiquing my words at his site, should not be in the public domain.

There are also more special issues arising from senior reporters' coverage of war or violent/conflict situations, as in Palestine, Iraq or Afghanistan, where journalists' output, usually in the service of power, has a key bearing on those most immediately affected. In short, I don't believe that publicly-funded journalists like Mark Urban have the right to that kind of 'privacy' or anonymity where such systematic taking of lives and daily state oppression are evident. There's too much at stake.

Mr Urban's refusal to permit his already-stated words, in defence of his own piece, to be posted at a site like Media Lens tells us much about his and other senior journalists' apprehensions in having their 'impartial' words challenged and their roles within the corporate/establishment media critically dissected.

I trust that, if nothing else, the citing here of Mr Urban's evasions might help expose the pretence claims we often hear about our 'open and accountable' media.

There are, of course, basic protocols here. My standard practice is to publish all such communications with journalists, editors and other such figures on open public issues so long as there's nothing private, personal or otherwise incriminating contained within such correpondence.

This posting, thus, relates only to the subject matter first presented in Urban's report and his subsequent comments on the issues.

I take sole responsibility for citing Mark Urban's words.

Mark Urban is free to offer any further comment at this space.

John Hilley

My initial comment 12 (and comment 19) at Mark Urban's BBC site:


12. At 1:45pm on 10 Jun 2010, johnwhilley wrote:

This article says so much about Mark Urban's and the BBC's loaded view of the issue. It offers no serious analysis of the West's and Israel's expedient efforts to promote Fatah and help drive a wedge between them and Hamas in order to isolate Gaza.

It skirts around the collaborationist roles of Abbas and Fayyad in this process and the problem of the PA having no effective mandate to speak for the Palestinian people.

And, in the usual default deference from BBC journalists, it has nothing to say about the staggering affront of Tony Blair's role as a 'peace envoy'.

Mark Urban also notes:

"The progress does not get reported much, firstly because it is a slow incremental business and secondly because hemmed in Gaza, under its Hamas leadership, has produced all the spectacular news of late."

Mr Urban should think, more immediately, about all the daily Israeli brutality that never gets reported from the West Bank. Moreover, it's not Hamas that's "produced all the spectacular news of late." It's - despite skewed reporting by the BBC - Israel's assault on Gaza and the aid flotilla. The BBC, in lipservice mode, has made it appear like a 'Hamas issue' rather than an 'Israel issue'.

He also talks of Balata refugee camp - a place I am reasonably well acquainted with. Perhaps if BBC journalists ventured there more often to report honestly on the gross poverty, isolation and brutal treatment of its people by Israeli forces, they wouldn't feel such "trepidation". How easy, and lazy, just to cast Balata as an 'epicentre of militancy', rather than as a potent illustration of Israel's cruel occupation - and the PA's role in policing/enforcing it.

He goes on:

"Indeed the success of the PA in the West Bank marks the fruition of a Western strategy started three years ago when, following Hamas' strong showing in parliamentary elections, the Islamist movement seized power in Gaza and the two parts of the Palestinian Occupied Territories veered apart under different leaders."

That's a conveniently cursory reading of what happened, serving to disguise Hamas's legitimate mandate and the real sequence of events.

Here's some of the key context missing from Mark Urban's piece regarding the Fatah-Hamas issue, as previously stated in a complaint exchange with the BBC:

In fact, Hamas were elected after one of the cleanest elections ever seen in the region. The only problem was the West's refusal to recognise a democratic government it didn't like.

As widely documented, the US was eager to see elections in the West Bank and Gaza in order to assert Fatah rule and undermine Hamas. The point was to prop-up Abbas's collapsing mandate and further isolate Hamas, all part of the mendacious agenda to fragment and divide the Palestinians.

Taken aback by the unexpected Hamas victory in Gaza and the West Bank, the US and Israel began imposing punitive sanctions, withdrawing tax revenues and aid, intensifying their support for Fatah and actively funding, training and arming the contingent around Fatah henchman Mohammed Dahlan.

In 2007, with the situation further disintegrating, various Arab states intervened to help form a national unity Palestinian government (the Mecca Accords). It's on record that Condoleezza Rice “was apoplectic” with rage when she discovered this plan. Here's a flavour of the furious US mood as Hamas and Fatah prepared to meet in Mecca, as indicated in a leaked report by the retiring UN Envoy for the Middle East, Alvoro de Soto:

“The US clearly pushed for a confrontation between Fatah and Hamas, so much so that, a week before Mecca, the US envoy [David Welch] declared twice in an envoys meeting in Washington 'how much I like this violence', referring to the near-civil war that was erupting in Gaza in which civilians were being regularly killed and injured because 'it means that other Palestinians are resisting Hamas'.”(Cited, Jonathan Cook, Disappearing Palestine, p 113.)

Having cultivated Dahlan over many years, the US and Israel conspired to see Fatah overthrow the elected Hamas government. As a key article in Vanity Fair, drawing on official US documents, subsequently revealed, a bankroll $1 billion budget was allocated for Fatah arms, training and salaries, all pushing for the “desired outcome” of giving Abbas “the capability to take the required strategic political decisions...such as dismissing the [Hamas] cabinet and establishing an emergency cabinet”.(Cited, ibid, 114.)

Alerted to the planned putsch by the increased arrival of US weaponry to Fatah, Hamas saw-off the threat, in effect pre-empting a Western-backed Fatah coup in Gaza.

Thereafter, Israeli and US leaders resolved to use the split to best advantage by stressing the divisions between the 'co-operative' Fatah administration in the West Bank and the 'militant' entity in Gaza - the 'Hamastan' which they are ever-eager to portray. All classic divide and conquer tactics, none of which the BBC seems willing to air or explain to its viewers.



19. At 00:31am on 22 Jun 2010, johnwhilley wrote:

Just for the record, my comments at #12, above, were finally published on 21 June. Despite prior emails to the BBC asking why it was referred and held up, no explanation has been offered.



Following the enquirer's letter to Mark Urban asking for his thoughts on these comments, Urban replied:

thanks for your message. The problem with criticism like John Hilley's is that any piece of journalism can be attacked for what it does not say. This is the case particularly with TV journalism where the amount of script available to a reporter, even in a story on Newsnight, is similar to that in a short-ish newspaper article. The West Bank film did however note that the PA under Salam Fayyad has been involved in suppressing islamists. We interviewed a leading dissident, Abdul Sattar Qassem, and questioned Mr Fayyad about his policies in this regard. The fact that the PA declines to hold new presidential elections was also mentioned in my recent report.

With regards the deeper background and Hamas's democratic mandate, these were the subject of previous Newsnight reports. During the 2006 election campaign, for example, I accompanied Hamas campaigning in the Hebron area and interviewed their candidate. I have interviewed Aziz Dweik, the Hamas speaker of the PLC elected in 2006, on several occasions.

The 2006 PLC elections produced an anomolous situation where the PLC, in which Hamas was strongest, had a democratic mandate, but so did president Mahmud Abbas, the Fatah leader who had also been directly elected. This threw up all sorts of challenges to the west, given its support of democratic reform in the Middle East. It also created a political crisis because Palestinians had voted for a party that does not believe in a long term two state solution (Hamas) to run the PLC, a fruit of the peace process, based upon that two state concept.

Much of what Mr Hilley has to say is fair comment and of course he is entitled to his view. Where my analysis would differ markedly from his is in his description of the circumstances in which Hamas wiped out Fatah in Gaza in 2007. Mr Hilley cites a story I've heard before that the Fatah security chief in Gaza, Mohammed Dahlan, was planning a coup against Hamas. I do not believe Mr Dahlan or Fatah thought they had any serious chance of suppressing Hamas three years ago. When Hamas attacked Fatah militias and the presidential Guard, they soon collapsed, revealing the real balance of power in Gaza. Hamas has since been accused of murdering, imprisoning and torturing hundreds of Fatah activists in Gaza. It's worth looking at the human rights websites for further background about this. The circumstances of the Hamas takeover make it all the harder for Fatah and Hamas to reconcile and the peace process to resume.

I hope this helps,
all the best

Following a further response to this statement from the enquirer, Mark Urban wrote:


In response to your quick point, one of my own. The observation that Hamas seized power in Gaza is correct in that the organisations they attacked such as the Presidential Guard (aka Force 17) were subordinate to the president - also democratically elected. Gaining a majority in the PLC was not sufficient, in itself, under the Palestinian arrangement of powers to gain control of the security apparatus. Both Fatah and Hamas claimed legitimacy.

These realities were certainly addressed at the time in our coverage, even if I can see that they are fresh to someone with a new found interest in this detail.
all the best


Having been notified of these two comments, I wrote the following to the enquirer, which was then passed on to Mark Urban:

Dear [],

Many thanks for pursuing the issues and eliciting those reponses from Mark Urban.

It was, indeed, helpful of him to reply, though we might ask why he didn't think fit to do so directly at the blog piece.

You might wish to ask Mark Urban if he would be amenable to having your enquiries to him, his replies to you and my responses to his points all collated for publishing at the Media Lens board (while making him aware, as you suggest, that we've been in correspondence over the matter []).

I suspect he may be unwilling to do so, preferring to resist open debate and criticism, but I think he should be pressed on the matter, given the importance of his spurious reporting and continued evasions.

In anticipation of such, here's my response to his exchange with you.

And thanks again for your good work.

All the best



Mark Urban's replies are riddled with the usual BBC evasions and misleading tropes.

He says, firstly:
"The problem with criticism like John Hilley's is that any piece of journalism can be attacked for what it does not say."
This is a familiar and tired posture.

We can agree with the obvious truism that not everything can be covered in any report. The crucial point concerns the context and tone of what does come through in the piece. In this case, the omissions are key to the version of events and impressions that Mark Urban seems very keen to promote: namely, that Fatah and the PA are the acceptable face of Palestinian 'development' and proto-statehood, while Hamas, despite holding a clear and decisive political mandate, remain a threatening, terrorist entity undeserving of political recognition and engagement by a 'neutral' and 'benevolent' West.

It's not without significance that Tony Blair features prominently in Urban's output. The entire piece pays close lipservice to Blair's and the Western/Israeli narrative of 'good PA/bad Hamas'.

On the subject of that shared lexicon of power-serving journalism, might I suggest to Mark Urban this latest, superb indictment from Robert Fisk :

But, let's look a little more closely at what Mr Urban has actually omitted.

Surely any serious discussion of West Bank 'development' should highlight the issue of PA collaboration, the illegitimacy of Abass's presidential tenure, the fact that Salam Fayyad's position has never been ratified by the PLC and Fayyad's own Western-leaning background.

It should also be flagging-up the PA's recent collaborationist practices, from attempting to subvert the Goldstone report at the UN to it's reported efforts, via Obama, to stop the blockade of Gaza being lifted.

None of this vital context is remotely evident in the film, which all reinforces viewers' assumptions that PA/Western development is key to solving the conflict and that this is being spearheaded by a legitimate political entity.

Central to this narrative is the demonisation of Hamas. As Mr Urban goes on:
"It also created a political crisis because Palestinians had voted for a party that does not believe in a long term two state solution (Hamas)"
As any serious observer knows, this is a grossly false distortion of Hamas's actual position.

Consistent with multiple statements from its leaders, Hamas is, in reality, very ready and willing to sit down and negotiate a viable two state solution based on the 1967 border with a divided Jerusalem as its capital.

If Mr Urban can't recognise and relate this most elementary fact, he has no business acting as a leading diplomatic correspondent.

Even if Mr Urban insisted that Hamas don't believe "long term" in two states - a speculative assumption in itself - there's no acknowledgement here that many, many observers of the situation don't believe that two states will ever, ultimately, resolve the issues. In short, there's a very respectable argument for one fully democratic state granting full civil and political rights for all citizens.

How conveniently misleading, in this regard, to castigate Hamas as the main impediment to a solution, one state or two, when Israel has done all in its power to stall, undermine and wreck any potential solution, other than the ongoing occupation.

He continues:
"The 2006 PLC elections produced an anomolous situation where the PLC, in which Hamas was strongest, had a democratic mandate, but so did president Mahmud Abbas, the Fatah leader who had also been directly elected. This threw up all sorts of challenges to the west, given its support of democratic reform in the Middle East."
This a classic rationalisation of the 'emergency' powers Abbas assumed on behalf of Fatah in response to the Hamas mandate and ensuing pressure from the West as it begun its sanctions policy against Gaza.

Urban's words "threw up all sorts of challenges for the west" are a typical neutralisation. What it really means is that Hamas's electoral victory threw up all sorts of problems for the West, exposing its intolerance of a government unwilling to bow to the West/Israel and the fiction they call a "peace process."

And why does Mr Urban so-readily repeat that the West actually supports democratic reform in the Middle East? This, of course, carries with it a whole host of Urban-related assumptions about the West's 'democratic ambitions' for Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

As was clearly evident, but crucially skirted in this report, the West went to decisive lengths to undermine the democratic process when it came to Hamas.

Despite Urban's misgivings over Mohammed Dahlan's capabilities, a massive exercise in military aid, diplomatic manoeuvring and Western intelligence was effected to help overthrow the elected Hamas government. That Fatah, Dahlan and their Western-Israeli sponsors ultimately failed to realise that task in no way undermines the seriousness of their illicit actions and attempted coup. Again, Mr Urban has no mention of this vital historical context for his viewers.

Likewise, it's all very well citing the attacks mounted by Hamas on Fatah - or the many Hamas people rounded-up and ill-treated by Fatah. But this simplified version of competing factions omits any mention of Washington's own input, thus failing to draw together the full story of the West's underhand role in promoting that violence. All this is documented in the statements noted in my comments.

In the same vein, any attacks made by Hamas on the Presidential Guard, or forces supposedly subordinate to the PA, cannot be understood outwith that context of Hamas resisting a planned Western/Israeli-backed PA putsch.

Mr Urban also notes:
"The circumstances of the Hamas takeover make it all the harder for Fatah and Hamas to reconcile and the peace process to resume"
This is yet another repetition of the standard Western narrative: Hamas are primarily to blame for the failure of the "peace process". And, again here, the readily-accepted view that there actually is a peace process.

As Fisk puts it:
"For two decades now, the US and British – and Israeli and Palestinian – leaderships have used the words "peace process" to define the hopeless, inadequate, dishonourable agreement that allowed the US and Israel to dominate whatever slivers of land would be given to an occupied people."
As with many of his reports from the Middle East and elsewhere, Mark Urban's interpretations follow the same, loaded language and agenda of power. His selective presentation of the 'peace process', Palestinian 'development' and Hamas's 'militant recalcitrance' all help obscure, rather than illuminate, the background realities. That, essentially, is why he's doing the job he's doing.

John Hilley

PS: I'd still like some explanation from Mr Urban as to why my comment at his blog piece was referred and held back for so long.



David Cromwell said...

Well done John - your patient and forensic dissection of Mark Urban's propaganda is impressive. Not surprising, but nonetheless shameful, that he has not wanted such an exchange to be made public on his BBC blog.

John Hilley said...

Many thanks David - your words are much appreciated.


John Hilley said...

A reminder here of the ongoing poverty and suffering across the West Bank.

This al-Jazeera report offers a very useful correction to the selective messages in Mark Urban's film on West Bank 'development'.