The Guardian JULY 16, 2014 - by John Plunkett


Pro-Palestinian group claims news programmes are 'devoid of context' as protest is staged outside Broadcasting House

The BBC has defended its coverage of the latest Israeli air strikes in Gaza after it was criticised in a forty-five-thousand-strong online petition organised by a pro-Palestinian group and faced a protest outside its London headquarters.

The online open letter to BBC director general Tony Hall, organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, claimed the corporation's news programmes were "entirely devoid of context or background" in their coverage of the latest Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The petition, signed by Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, Ken Loach, Brian Eno and Jeremy Hardy, accused the corporation of pro-Israeli bias and said it would "like to remind the BBC that Gaza is under Israeli occupation and siege [and] that Israel is bombing a refugee population".

The protest rally - with estimates of numbers taking part ranging from several hundred to several thousand - took place outside the BBC's New Broadcasting House in central London on Tuesday afternoon, with people chanting "BBC - shame on you!". The rally following another demonstration outside BBC North in Salford on Saturday.

Glasgow University professor Greg Philo, co-author of Bad News from Israel and research director of the university's media unit, claimed he had been told by senior BBC journalists that they were unable to get the Palestinian viewpoint across.

"I think the protestors are doing the BBC a favour, they will help the journalists get a better perspective," he told Radio 4's Today programme on Wednesday.

"Many times senior journalists at the BBC have told me they simply cannot get the Palestinian viewpoint across, the perspective they can't say - which is the Palestinian view - is that Israel is a brutal apartheid state.

"The Palestinian perspective is just not there. The Israelis are on twice as much. The issue is the roots of the conflict. The problem with the coverage is that it doesn't refer to the history of it, that the Palestinians are a displaced people."

Jonathan Freedland, the Guardian's executive editor, opinion, and columnist for the Jewish Chronicle, also appearing on Today, said BBC correspondents would say it was "impossible in a sixty-second report to give the history of what is at the minimum a hundred-and-twenty-year-plus conflict".

He said the criticism of the BBC was "made in exactly the same detail on the other side of the argument. Jewish Chronicle readers will denounce the BBC for failing to give the history that explains the Jewish people's historic need to have a homeland of their own."

The accuracy and impartiality of the BBC's coverage on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has long been a source of contention. An independent report commissioned in response to concerns, headed by Sir Quentin Thomas and published in 2006, found no evidence of "deliberate or systematic bias".

Freedland told Today: "The BBC was under huge assault five years ago from pro-Israel people, much less I think from people who are anti-Israel.

"This time there's a difference because people feel the BBC this time is acknowledging the fact that even though the death toll is very lopsided in the current conflict, no one can deny that, there is understanding that despite that there is a mutual exchange of fire. Hamas is firing rockets, Israel is doing air strikes, and that has been absorbed into the coverage in a way I think perhaps was missing last time."

But Philo said recent reporting was "pretty much a carbon copy" of previous coverage. No representative of the BBC took part in the Today debate.

The BBC, which did not cover the New Broadcasting House protest in any of its news bulletins, said in a statement: "BBC News reports widely and extensively across TV, radio and online, on many different aspects of this ongoing and complex conflict.

"Our role is to explain what is happening and why and we endeavour to reflect a range of voices, amid deeply held views. We are committed to continuing to report and analyse sometimes fast moving events in an accurate, fair and balanced way."

Sarah Colborne, director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, which estimated the number of people at the London protest at "more than five thousand", said the BBC's coverage was "unbalanced and lacking in context".

She added: "Their omission allows the BBC to present Israel's assault as a retaliation to Palestinian rockets rather than as an enforcement of its occupation and siege.

"Truly unbiased journalism would allow its consumers to consider both options instead of presenting them with just one viewpoint, as the BBC is doing."

On the BBC's decision not to include the Broadcasting House protest in any of its news bulletins, a spokesperson said: "We cover stories based on how newsworthy they are, and what else is happening.

"Many of our programmes focused on detailed reporting and analysis of the latest developments in the Gaza conflict rather than a protest about our reporting, although this was included in our coverage on some outlets.

"There were also a number of bigger news stories yesterday including a significant cabinet reshuffle and the implications of a sharp rise in inflation."