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Where is the BBC's objectivity where Palestine is concerned?

January 28, 2014 at 2:28 am

It goes without saying that almost every news network claims to report truthfully and objectively. The BBC, for example, portrays itself to be ” independent, impartial and honest.

This brief analysis questions the BBC’s proclaimed impartiality and honesty in how it chooses to report stories related to Israel-Palestine.

To understand how the media manipulates and reconstructs narratives one needs to get as close as possible to the art of playing with words in which news agencies are very skilled. Bearing this in mind, I will compare the BBC and Al Jazeera English coverage of the story of Wadia Maswadeh, a five-year old Palestinian child who was abducted in Hebron by the Israeli military on 12 July 2013. The incident is unquestionably an audacious episode in a “series of illegal” child abuse incidents by the Israeli military.

The minimum age of criminal responsibility in Israeli law is 12 years, which means that there is no question that a 5-year old child must not be detained under any circumstances, even by Israeli standards.

In June 2012 a group of British lawyers argued with “undisputed facts” that Israel is in breach of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child for incarcerating Palestinian children, discriminating against them, non-separation from adults whilst in jail, delayed access to a lawyer, use of shackles and so on. According to an Aljazeera documentary about “7,500 Palestinian minors aged between 12 and 18 have gone through the prison system over the past 11 years.” Click here to see the film on Palestinian youngsters who have been imprisoned in Israeli jails.

A comparison of BBC and Aljazeera stories illustrates how the former glosses over the facts and rights of a child in order to represent incidents as normal procedures.

Here are five examples taken from the detention of Wadia Maswadeh:

1. The BBC did not call things by their proper names

The noun “child” was not used in the title that the BBC gave to the story. It also used inverted commas to detach itself from agreeing with the phrase “illegal detention”, implying that this is a disputed fact, when in reality it is not, even by Israeli law. The subtitles still did not use the word child; referring to him instead as a “boy” in order to downplay the exceptionally young age of the child. Of course, child and boy have different connotations.

Al Jazeera, on the other hand, used straightforward phrases and modalities. It used “juvenile detention”, a quasi-judicial term used for when a young person is detained. The BBC used a passive voice (“has been accused”) and modalities that cast doubt and disassociates itself from indisputable facts confirmed by the human rights group, B’Tselem. Al Jazeera put the title and subtitle in the simple present, and without dismissive modalities such as “Israeli group decries” and “urges”.

2. The BBC provided an illusive image

The BBC embedded an exceptionally small-size picture (see figure 1) by resizing the standard screenshot from the YouTube video and deliberately selected a specific frame in order to hide the horrified facial expressions of the child, which may evoke sympathy from the reader.

BBC -Palestinian child arrested

In fact, the image that the BBC used made the entire scene of a soldier arresting a 5-year old child appear normal: the child seems to be on a casual walk with a relative, who is looking elsewhere, unaffected by the soldier in the background, who appears to be entering his jeep unconcerned with the child.

The image caption was especially wishy-washy. It does not tell who is taking whom, and erases any mention of the role of the Israeli army shown in the picture. The BBC’s caption stated: “Video showed the boy taken into an army jeep accompanied by a Palestinian man.”

By comparison, however, Al Jazeera described the image precisely by identifying the role of each person. It made the facts clear: “Wadia Maswadeh was seen crying while being led into a military jeep by soldiers accompanied by a Palestinian adult.” (emphasis added)

Palestinian child being arrested   

Similarly, Al Jazeera selected a picture from the same video but a few frames after the one picked by the BBC. The image is three times the size of what the BBC showed, and focused exclusively on the child’s facial expressions and body language (see figure 2). The child appears unequivocally scared, crying and screaming. Putting emphasis on the child’s face came at the cost of not revealing the entire scene, particularly the military involvement. However, Al Jazeera added a clear reference and a link to the footage showing the entire situation.

3. The BBC hid certain information

The BBC’s story did not offer the reader the possibility to see the video independently. Instead, it preferred to shelter its own account by omitting any link to the footage, therefore hiding it from a reader curious to watch and make his or her own judgments.

4. The BBC story is written from the abuser’s point of view not the victim’s

The BBC story dedicated relatively sufficient space to explain why the military detained the child from the army’s point of view, giving less precedence to the perspective of the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem.

The BBC cited the army account at length, whereas the Palestinian perspective, especially from the child himself, was left out; I’d say purposefully. By doing this, the BBC gave the Israeli army an advantage to tell its version of the incident, whilst denying the Palestinians the same right. The words of the Israeli army were privileged and legitimised, while the Palestinian voice that is essential for impartiality and honesty was excluded.

By contrast Al Jazeera also cited the army’s perspective but emphasised B’Tselem’s legal judgement. However, it too failed to acknowledge the Palestinian voice.

5. The BBC’s story ended with deceptive information

Al Jazeera ended its piece by highlighting B’Tselem’s judgment that this is not just an anomalous incident but part of a “series of similar detentions” and emphasised this point further with a pull quote to left from B’Tselem: “The footage clearly shows that this was not a mistake made by an individual soldier, but rather conduct that, to our alarm, was considered reasonable by all the military personnel involved, including senior officers.”

However, the BBC story ended with a disputed figure: “More than 150 Israelis had been injured in over 2,050 rock-throwing incidents…” Indeed, the purpose of this half-truth looks as if it was to distract the reader’s attention from the gravity of the offence committed deliberately by the Israeli army and offer implicit justification for the soldiers’ action.

Undoubtedly, this ending of the story attempted to encumber the sympathetic reader and downgrade his or her empathy towards the child. Had the BBC considered the number of incidents in which Palestinians were killed and injured by the settlers and Israeli army (to mention but a few examples of what Palestinians encounter under occupation in their homeland), this would dwarf those statistics which the BBC made sure to leave the reader with in an attempt to justify the Israeli position.

It is apt to conclude here with the proverb, “Half a truth is often a whole lie.”

Emile Badarin is a co-founder and editor of the Palestine Studies Group, which functions as an e-platform for post and undergraduates.

Your may also be interested in: Why does the BBC plead ignorance on Palestine?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.