BBC and Propaganda: Mavi Marmara

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BBC Governing Body Hails "Pretentious Propaganda" Documentary on Gaza Aid Ship Massacre
by Richard Lightbown
The BBC Panorama programme, “Death in the Med” took as its subject the Israeli commando raid on the Mavi Marmara. Broadcast on 16 August 2010, the programme received both accolades and brickbats.
Pro-Zionist blogs expressed delight that the BBC had finally produced a “balanced” documentary, while Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs downloaded the whole programme onto its website. (The  Goldstone Report was denied the same distinction.)
On the other hand, of the more than 2,000 respondents to the programme who expressed an opinion, 72 per cent were negatively inclined. The BBC considered about one quarter of these were more or less identical with the wording recommended by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign. It is possible then that the programme generated about 1,000 original complaints.

Selective background

Because the programme length was limited to 29 minutes the subject had been confined to the raid on the Mavi Marmara. The report tells us on page 88 that the “story of the film was the organized resistance to Israeli commandos and the shocking consequences of the decisions taken by each side”. Interestingly, the programme itself had not made this claim, but had stated that it would “piece together the real story – for the first time” – of the raid on the Turkish ship.

As part of the background to these events, the firing of rockets from Gaza and the allegation of racist abuse over the marine radio band had been mentioned. Yet years of violent occupation, military attacks on the Gazan population, often with illegal weapons, and the condemnation of the blockade by the United Nations were all considered irrelevant to the story by first the programme makers and now the BBC Trust.

Complainants were first dealt with by the programme’s deputy editor, Daniel Pearl, and then passed on to the Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) if they remained dissatisfied (or had the stamina to continue). The ECU rejected all of the complaints. The final stage of the process was handled by a committee of the BBC Trust, which met to consider the 19 remaining complaints in a consolidated appeal on 17 March. Its findings were published on 19 April, nine months after the programme was broadcast. This in part upheld three of the 51 points of complaint. Lest anyone should think this to be some kind of rebuke, the committee was at pains to commend the BBC for tackling this “most controversial of issues” and declared that the programme was “an original, illuminating and well-researched piece of journalism”. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs will no doubt appreciate this extra copy.

Breaches of BBC guidelines on accuracy and impartiality

The points of complaint upheld were:

1. Material from the Turkish preliminary autopsy reports would have given some indication of the level of force employed by the commandos. (Viewers were given no indication that the nine dead had been shot 30 times in total. This included the fatal injury to Cevdet Kiliclar who was shot once in the centre of the forehead; the ECU had told one respondent: “No one except those directly involved is in a position to state as a fact that the victims were deliberately killed.” Instead viewers heard a commando tell the reporter that he had aimed at the legs.) This was considered to have breached Editorial Guidelines on accuracy, but not those on impartiality.

2. By mentioning that the Israelis evacuated the badly wounded to hospital without mentioning widespread allegations of mistreatment of some of the casualties, the programme makers were considered by the committee to have breached the guidelines on impartiality. Despite omitting all mention of claims that wounded passengers had died following denial of medical attention, the committee considered that there had been no breach of guidelines on accuracy.

3. The programme was also considered to have breached the guidelines on accuracy by mentioning (in a deprecating fashion) only a small part of the aid cargoes carried by the flotilla. However, the committee agreed with the programme that the purpose of the flotilla was not really about taking aid to Gaza.

(This curious opinion was also shared by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees mission. The flotilla had been carrying 10,000 tons of aid, the majority of which was construction materials and other items not allowed into Gaza. Just how much aid do private citizens have to organize for the beleaguered population in defiance of their indolent governments before the BBC and other spectators deign to take them seriously?)

The BBC’s perverse reasoning

Among the points of complaint that were rejected were:

The programme did not mention that the blockade and siege are widely considered to be illegal.

Despite being condemned as collective punishment (and therefore illegal) by the UN, the BBC committee decided the information was not essential to understanding the story. Yet perversely the committee had endorsed the programme’s claim that the attempt to breach the blockade was political, i.e. it was defying the illegal imprisonment of a whole population.

2. The legality of the boarding and takeover did not need to be explored because the committee considered (without justification) the viewers’ perception of the issue was not altered by its exclusion.

3. Israeli attacks on Gaza were never referred to because they were not essential to understanding the situation whereas the rockets from Gaza were considered central to the circumstances of the conflict.

4. The reporter’s statement “Here in Gaza the problem’s not so much a lack of food or medicine” was described as correct even though it contradicted the statement by Dr Ahmed Yousef that “Many people have died because [of] the lack of medical supplies, or because there is no chance for having surgery here.”

5. Having observed that allegations of links to terrorism by the Turkish charity IHH needed to be well sourced and based on sound evidence, the BBC committee accepted that links to Hamas, which runs the government in Gaza constituted links with terrorism, along with totally unsubstantiated assertions from Judge Bruguiere made in 2010.

6. The allegations of the use of live fire by activists were not sufficiently tested for veracity.

The committee had noted that proving a negative – that the activists did not use live fire and did not possess live weapons – was not a reasonable expectation. However, it did not consider that proving a positive – that Israel had made allegations that it has never produced evidence to substantiate – is a very reasonable expectation that the programme and the BBC Trust should both have insisted on.

7. That live fire had commenced from the helicopters, before the commandos boarded.

The BBC committee ignored the fact that Israeli aerial infrared film of the raid has been withheld for the crucial period when this allegation is most likely to have occurred. They also ignored the fact that laser sights from a helicopter was shown scanning the deck in the Cultures of Resistance film thus disproving the assertion of the Israeli Turkel Commission, which the committee used here in assessing the evidence, that this equipment was not carried in the helicopters. And they have overlooked the fact that at least one of the activists who was shot from above was on the navigation deck at which location only a helicopter can fire from above. It is fair to say therefore that the BBC committee exhibited wilful ignorance on this point.

8. The commandos repeated use of the word terrorist was never countered.

The BBC committee apparently failed to understand that terrorism involves attacks on civilian targets, and that in describing the defence of a ship against armed military aggression this is not an accurate word to use. The committee should also not have naively regurgitated Israeli propaganda that 50 individuals on the ship had connections with “global jihad-affiliated terrorist organizations”. This is nothing less than a McCarthy-type slur intended for the gullible. The committee might also have recognized that the definition of a terrorist that they quote from the Turkel Commission – “…terrorists are an armed group dressed for battle - protective vests, masks and facial covers” – most accurately (and appropriately) describes the Israeli commandos.

9. The programme had not mentioned the abuse and humiliation of passengers when detained on the ship. While accepting that there were detailed allegations of ill-treatment, the BBC committee decided that the exclusion of this information was a legitimate editorial decision. Thus, having allowed the Israelis to call the passengers terrorists the programme then excluded any mention of the Israeli behaviour that the UNHRC has described as tantamount to torture. We are then told by the committee that this version of events is impartial.

It is unsurprising then that in its final paragraph the BBC committee should conclude: “…’Death in the Med’ was an original, illuminating and well researched piece of journalism. It had achieved exceptional access to key players from both the Israeli and the activists’ side. Voices were heard that had not previously spoken and in presenting their story Panorama performed a valuable public service.”

In truth the only public that was well served by this pretentious propaganda were the Israeli bigots who lined the hill overlooking Ashdod in order to jeer at the activists illegally abducted into the port. Nothing of value will ever be served by distorting reality and no credit will come to the BBC for promoting or excusing such a travesty of the truth.


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