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.