BBC News website editor strikes again for Israel

BBC News website Middle East Editor Raffi Berg

By Nureddin Sabir
Editor, Redress Information & Analysis

The BBC News website’s Middle East section appears to have become all but officially part of Israel’s propaganda machine, with one report after another distorting indisputable facts to paint the best possible picture of the Zionist state.

The distortion

On 14 May the website published a report about US Secretary of State John Kerry’s meeting with Palestinian Authority (PA) Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in London. The meeting was the first since the collapse of the US-sponsored talks between the PA and the Israelis. Explaining why the talks collapsed, the BBC report said:

Peace talks broke down last month after Israel was angered by a unity deal between rival Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas…

Israel ended the US-brokered peace talks, which only resumed last July after a three-year hiatus, on 23 April after demanding the annulment of Fatah’s reconciliation agreement with Hamas.

Now, that is not true. The reasons why the Israeli-Palestinian talks broke down have been well covered and are contested only by Israel’s propaganda – or hasbara – machine. It is therefore hard to believe that the distortion is the result of ignorance or incompetence on the part of whoever wrote the BBC report.

What really happened

Although Israel did indeed formally suspend talks with the Palestinians on 24 April in response to the unity deal between Fatah and Hamas, it is an undisputed fact that the talks actually broke down nearly three weeks earlier, as openly acknowledged in Congress by the US secretary of state.

According to Kerry, the talks broke down for two reasons. The first was Israel’s failure to release 25 or so Palestinian prisoners jailed before 1993, whose release had been agreed to in the Oslo Peace accords – a pledge on which Israel reneged, as it did on the whole Oslo process – and which Israel had undertaken last August to release by April. The second reason was Israel’s announcement that it will build 700 new Jewish squatter homes in occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem.

Here is what Kerry told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on 7 April (emphasis added):

In my judgment both leaders have made courageous and important decisions up until now. For Prime Minister Netanyahu to release prisoners is a painful, difficult political step to take, enormously hard, and the people of Israel have been incredibly supportive and patient in giving him the space in order to do that. In exchange for the deal being kept of the release of prisoners and not going to the UN. Unfortunately, the prisoners weren’t released on the Saturday they were supposed to be released. And so day went by, day two went by day three went by and then in the afternoon when they were about to maybe get there, 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem. And poof! That was sort of the moment.

A hasbara asset at large?

So, why did the BBC choose to home in on the Fatah-Hamas unity deal, rather than Israel’s failure to release the Palestinian prisoners and its decision to build 700 squatter homes in occupied Jerusalem, as the reason for the talks’ collapse?

Raffi Berg standing against the background of Al-Aqsa complex, occupied Jerusalem

Raffi Berg instructed BBC staff to report favourably on Israel

The answer lies with none other than Raffi Berg, the editor of the BBC News website’s Middle East section.

As we reported on two previous occasions (see here and here), Berg is the BBC website’s resident Israel flag waver. In August 2013 he was caught sending his staff emails advising them to write more favourably about Israel’s blitzkrieg against the Gaza Strip in November 2012 and its collective punishment of the people of the Strip – a crime under international law. And last month Berg’s Middle East section chose to fudge the truth by making it seem that Kerry had blamed not Israel but both Israel and the Palestinians in equal measure.

Although Berg may not have been the author of the latest distortion, the fact is that he is the editor of the BBC News website’s Middle East section and nothing is published on that section’s pages without his endorsement. It is for this reason that we have no doubt that he is directly responsible for the distortion.

What you can do

The BBC is a public broadcaster that is paid for by a special tax – the television licence fee, an annual levy imposed on any household watching or recording live television transmissions as they are being broadcast. It is duty-bound to be accurate, fair and impartial.

Eight years ago the BBC’s governing body commissioned an independent report which concluded that BBC coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “does not consistently constitute a full and fair account of the conflict but rather, in important respects, presents an incomplete and in that sense misleading picture”. The reasons for this have long been the subject of serious academic studies, the best known of which is Greg Philo’s and Mike Berry’s More Bad News from Israel.

It is clear to us that, under Berg’s leadership, the BBC News website is in flagrant breach of the BBC’s duty to be accurate, fair and impartial, as outlined in its Editorial Guidelines, and is either wilfully ignorant or contemptuous of the BBC governing body’s report mentioned above.

It should be a matter of grave concern that, nine months after being publicly exposed for instructing his staff to report favourably on Israel, Raffi Berg is still the editor of the BBC News website’s Middle East section and that, under his editorship, his staff continue to publish misleading reports on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Given the failure of the BBC’s management to address this problem, we call on members of the public to do the following:

  1. Complain to the BBC through its formal complaints procedure, expressing your concerns about the lack of accuracy and impartiality of the BBC News website’s reporting on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
  2. Send an email to Raffi Berg, asking him to explain his instruction to staff to report favourably on Israel, the BBC’s misreporting of what Kerry said about the collapse of the Palestinian-Israeli talks, and the latest BBC distortion of the reasons for the breakdown of the talks.
  3. Send an email to the editor of the BBC News website, Steve Herrmann – Berg’s boss – asking him to explain what has he done to address public concerns regarding Berg’s instruction to staff to report favourably on Israel and restore the credibility of the BBC News website’s Middle East reporting. Ask him why he is allowing Berg to breach the BBC Editorial Guidelines with impunity. Ask him if he would have reacted in the same way had the situation been one where a Palestinian (or other Arab) editor of the website’s Middle East section had instructed staff to report favourably on Fatah, Hamas or the Palestinian cause in general.

Please be polite, succinct and specific.

It is only through public action that there is any chance of getting the BBC to live up to its duty to report accurately, fairly and impartially.

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