‘Theft is illegal under English law, although thieves dispute this’: Bias And The BBC

Let us imagine that an old lady is walking down Kensington High Street on a sunny afternoon when a gang of thugs run towards her, snatch her handbag and throw her to the ground. Not realising that Kensington High Street is more intrusive than the Big Brother Diary Room, they are eventually identified on CCTV, arrested and sent to court. At the hearing, one of the defendants tells the judge: “Yes it was us, no we don’t regret it and yes we will continue to do it; we disagree that theft is against the law.” Would the BBC, upon reporting the story, put a ridiculous sentence near the end of the article which reads: ‘Theft is illegal under English law, although the thieves dispute this?’ Of course they would not.

Why, then, does a search for ‘the settlements are illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this’ in quotation marks on the BBC website throw up over 150 results? (If you vary the syntax and lexicon you can get even more results). There is no question as to the lack of legality of the ‘settlements’: The International Court of Justice, the highest judicial body in the world, has said that ‘the Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (including East Jerusalem) have  been  established in  breach of international law’ (ICJ Report, p. 184); Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that an ‘Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies’; UN Security Council Resolution 465 (adopted unanimously) denounced Israeli settlements, which they said have ‘no legal validity and… constitute a flagrant violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention’ (UNSCR 465); not a single member of the international community support Israel’s settlements, and they are certainly not supported by the world’s most reputable NGOs, including Human Rights Watch who say the ‘settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories violate two main principles of international humanitarian law’, and Amnesty International, whose quotidian way of referring to them is as the ‘unlawful Israeli settlements’.

In short, there is absolutely no legal basis for the settlements whatsoever; even the handbag robbers have a greater claim to a ridiculous caveat like ‘although X disputes this’ than Israel does. Yet the BBC relentlessly insist on using it for Israel – and no-one else – including on yesterday’s article on the talks between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama. In repeatedly giving such ludicrous claims textual space the BBC are legitimising them. Very few things are taken for granted in journalism and rightly so, but surely there is something amiss when the UK’s state television brings into disrepute the UK’s clearly defined view towards legal issues and their authority? Otherwise we may as well begin questioning the very authority of words themselves and leave the BBC’s pages looking like cut-outs from a megalomaniac philosopher’s scrapbook.

Of course words do matter. They matter a great deal. This is where an even greater issue arises with the reporting on this aspect of the conflict – something that is far more endemic than just the BBC: referring to new houses built on Occupied Territory as ‘settlements’ or, even worse, ‘neighbourhoods’. Such words completely cleanse the actions behind them of the belligerence and brutality which characterise them. It’s not like we don’t have a word in the English dictionary for territory forcibly seized from another people and ruled over – we do. We call it a colony. I would very much like to see the BBC simply refer to Israel’s expansionist actions as they are.

So when Israel announces 1,500 Jewish-only housing units in Occupied East Jerusalem the day before Obama’s Middle East speech, the accurate way to report this would be: ‘Israel expands colony in Palestine’. Instead, we are told of ‘settlement activity’, bored with committee details, insulted with Israel’s disputation of international law and, essentially, sanitised of the crimes of apartheid.

In the second part of my analysis of the BBC, I will take a much broader look at the question of the BBC’s impartiality, referring to the report on reporting of the Israel/Palestine conflict in 2006, the recent decision to censor the words ‘Free Palestine from a hip-hop song, the infamous decision not to air a humanitarian appeal during Operation Cast Lead, and much more.

This first, brief introspection into the BBC and the question of bias has been a very focussed linguistic one where I have sought to give a key example of the inherent bias in the BBC’s discourse that is widespread and central to the conflict. The problem is certainly a systemic one; when individual journalists try to be fairer, such as Jeremy Bowen referring to Israel’s ‘defiance of everyone’s interpretation of international law except its own’, they are adjudged to have breached BBC regulations and punished. (The spuriousness of the Trust’s justification is lucid). Couple Bowen’s statement with the plethora of legal backing I have supplied above, and surely the only logical conclusion one could reach is that Bowen referred simply to facts as they are. And was punished for it.

Essentially, my point is that reader reception and understanding is contingent on language. Therefore, it is only when the BBC and all other media organisations use language in a way that strives to accurately reflect reality – rather than deceptively ameliorate it – that we can truly expect ordinary readers to ascertain an accurate understanding of what’s really going on in the Middle East.

Hesham Zakai


5 thoughts on “‘Theft is illegal under English law, although thieves dispute this’: Bias And The BBC

  1. Michael Castle

    The BBC says that “the settlements are illegal under international law” simply because international law is more complex, and its rulings are not widely known amongst the public. Nearly everyone reading the BBC site knows that theft is against the law, far fewer know the rulings of the International Courts of Justice about land in Palestine.

    1. Hi Michael,

      It’s not the fact that the BBC highlight that ‘the settlements are illegal under international law’ alone that I’m drawing attention to. It’s primarily the clause that comes directly after that: ‘although Israel disputes this’.


  2. TK

    Not saying I support the Israeli settlements in any way, but although this post looks good in spirit, it falls flat when you stop to think about the complexities of international law which not every nation has agreed to in every respect, and the criminal law of a country, which every citizen as a member must obey.

    If you’re trying to be balanced in this argument (though you’re clearly not) and point out the failings of the BBC, why do you not link to the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry that disputes the rulings? Including several of the arguments you line out.

    It is completely indisputable that a member of the citizenry of a country should only obey the laws they personally agree to in the context they are agreed in, as the whole concept of nationality revolves around (in the UK) common law and your abiding of it. In the international community there is no longer this forced membership and agreement to a set of laws in a set manner, it is completely irresponsible to compare the two.

    Wrong it may be in your, and many others, eyes. Wrong it may be in the eyes of the international community and the Geneva convention. But there are many arguments for and against it, and it’s the BBC’s duty in this area to respect the fact that both sides exist.

    Good luck finding someone to dispute a theft under common law.

    1. Hi TK,

      I think you’ve missed the point, and this is perfectly illustrated by your final line: ‘Good luck finding someone to dispute a theft under common law’. There is no point wishing me luck in finding someone or something I’m not going to be looking for. That is the whole point of the analogy. Whilst, in a manner of speaking, anyone can dispute any and everything, it is not possible to *credibly* dispute any and everything – this is why I won’t be seeking anyone to dispute the illegality of theft, and nor do I think it is right to seek to dispute the illegality of the settlements.

      The *specific* question of the settlements in international law is beyond dispute. The sources I provide demonstrate that and you haven’t pointed out a single thing to the contrary. With regards to this part of your comment:

      ‘If you’re trying to be balanced in this argument (though you’re clearly not) and point out the failings of the BBC, why do you not link to the Israeli Foreign Affairs Ministry that disputes the rulings? Including several of the arguments you line out.’

      The answer is several reasons:

      1- I do not want to drench my blog in irony, and the fact you cannot see how it would be absurd to provide justification for disputing the indisputable reflects my earlier suggestion that you have missed the point.

      2- The Israeli FAM is full of nonsense, such as claims that ‘the settlements themselves are not intended to displace Arab inhabitants, nor do they do so in practice’. Anyone with a grasp of the region’s politics knows that this is utter nonsense. Indeed, the inverse is true as the settlements function as a key part of Israel’s attempts to alter ‘facts on the ground’. Have a look at this report by the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre and Norwegian Refugee Council which states:

      ‘Since 1967, internal displacement has been a direct and indirect result of Israeli policies of occupation, including house demolitions, evictions and land expropriation for settlement expansion… More than 110,000 people are reported to have been internally displaced during the last four decades.’

      Or read the Human Rights Watch’s report titled ‘Separate and Unequal’, or the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs’s recent publication which shows that ‘ In 2011, 192 Palestinian-owned structures have been demolished in East Jerusalem and Area C, displacing 339 people’.

      3- The point of this blog is to make a clear argument rooted in facts, providing sources and research. All of this has been achieved. The point isn’t to waste my time responding to ridiculous attempts to alter well established and well accepted premises.

      As most of your post is general rather than specific, as in:

      ‘the complexities of international law which not every nation has agreed to in every respect…In the international community there is no longer this forced membership and agreement to a set of laws in a set manner’

      It is worth me refocusing the debating by pointing out that Israel is party to the Geneva Conventions and thus bound by its obligations. It is also worth me pointing out that Israel’s own Supreme Court has acknowledged that the Occupied Palestinian Territories are indeed occupied territory:

      ‘The general point of departure of all parties – which is also our point of departure – is that Israel holds the area in belligerent occupation.’

      Finally, and unsurprisingly, I don’t accept that ‘it is completely irresponsible to compare the two’. It was indeed a comparison and not a claim that they are identical, and the further evidence I have added here just strengthens my resolve in that regards.

      Thank you for your comments. I hope you continue reading the blog.

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