Why is the BBC so afraid of the word “Palestine”?

By Amena Saleem

2 February 2012


This week, the BBC issued its final ruling on a controversy which has been raging for nearly a year after the words “Free Palestine” were censored from a freestyle rap played on Radio 1Xtra.

Appearing on the popular Charlie Sloth Hip Hop M1X last February, the artist Mic Righteous performed a rap which included the lyrics: “I can scream Free Palestine for my pride/still pray for peace.”

BBC producers replaced the word ‘Palestine’ with the sound of breaking glass and this is the version that was aired and which can be seen on a video on the BBC website (the censorship occurs at 2:59).

The edited performance was repeated in April on the same show.

BBC upholds censorship decision

Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) has spent the last eight months trying to find out why the decision to censor an artist who raised the issue of Palestine was made.

During the course of a long correspondence, the BBC’s head of editorial standards for audio and music, Paul Smith, wrote that the show’s producer “did not edit out the word ‘Palestine’ because it was offensive — referencing Palestine is fine, but implying that it is not free is the contentious issue.”

In that single sentence, a senior BBC executive revealed the BBC’s complete disdain for the Palestinians and their suffering, and its shameful disregard for international law when it is being broken by Israel.

The United Nations is clear in its recognition of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land, and UN Resolution 242 calls for the withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank and Gaza. The chant “Free Palestine” is basically shorthand for the same demand.

It is obvious why Israel, the occupier, would want to silence calls for a free Palestine, but not so clear why the BBC feels the same. PSC’s attempts to find out, backed up by a concerted campaign of pressure from members, resulted on 31 January 2012 with the BBC’s ruling that it had been “overcautious” in making the edit but that the final content broadcast on the Charlie Sloth show had not been biased and therefore did not breach its editorial guidelines.

And so this taxpayer-funded public broadcaster evaded our accusation that it had displayed bias against Palestine through its censorship of an artist’s work, and instead defended itself by saying that the final content, from which the word “Palestine” had been removed, was not biased against Palestine.

It is a level of manipulation and duplicity that would not be out of place in Joseph Heller’s novel of self-contradictory, circular logic, Catch 22.

Artists speak out against censoring Palestine

The musician and political activist Lowkey, who has made regular appearances on the Charlie Sloth Hip Hop M1X, said of the BBC’s decision: “This censorship sets a dangerous precedent for the future of the BBC, where it seems people are free to criticize any state in the world, even their own, but not Israel. Moreover, it seems you are free to recognize the plight of any group of people in the world, apart from Palestinian people. One can only wonder why.”

Lowkey was one of 19 artists, MPs, academics and lawyers who signed a letter to The Guardian newspaper on 23 May 2011 protesting the edit as “an attack on the principles of free speech” (“Palestine on the BBC”).

The film and television director Ken Loach was another signatory, and he also condemned the BBC’s final ruling this week, accusing the corporation of making “a perverse, political judgement.”

He added: “The BBC’s bias towards Israel is consistent, relentless and has been clearly documented by the Glasgow Media Group in Bad News from Israel and More Bad News from Israel. One small example: when Palestine was admitted to UNESCO, Radio 5 Live’s news bulletin in the afternoon had one interviewee to comment. Guess what? It was an Israeli. No Palestinian was allowed to speak. In general, the Palestinian voice is not heard.”

Palestinian voices missing from flagship BBC program

The absence of the Palestinian voice from the BBC’s considerable output is glaring. Even more so when compared to the frequency with which Israeli government ministers, opposition leaders and spokespersons are invited to air their views.

The Today program on BBC Radio 4 is promoted by the BBC as being its flagship news and current affairs program. Broadcast daily except Sundays, it is widely acknowledged as setting the political agenda for the day.

In the 12 months from February 2011 to February 2012, Today conducted at least six in-depth one-on-one interviews with Israeli spokespersons, including Danny Ayalon, Israel’s deputy foreign minister, and Tzipi Livni, the leader of Kadima, now Israel’s opposition party which previously led the government and ordered Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s 2008-09 massacre in Gaza. There was also an interview with the outgoing Israeli ambassador to London in June 2011 and with his successor three months later.

The outstanding characteristic of each interview is that the BBC’s heavyweight journalists, including John Humphreys and James Naughtie, both famous for their aggressive interviewing style, conducted them without challenge or interruption. Moreover, the interviews focused on the issues of “Israel’s security in the light of the Arab Spring” and “the threat of Iran.” Israel’s aggression towards the Palestinians and its daily violations of international law were not considered topics for discussion.

In that same period, not a single Palestinian leader or spokesperson was accorded a similar one-on-one interview on the Today program. While Israelis were interviewed, on average, once every two months, the Palestinian viewpoint was simply not sought.

This culture of promoting the Israeli perspective while denying the same rights to the Palestinians was vividly highlighted during the three day visit of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas to London last month. Abbas met Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the principal leader of the Church of England, to discuss the Jordanian-backed peace talks.

During a press conference with Abbas, Clegg condemned Israel’s West Bank settlements and described them as “an act of deliberate vandalism” to peace negotiations.

Yet on the Today programme, and across the BBC, it was as if Abbas’ visit had never happened. The BBC’s self-proclaimed flagship news and current affairs program made no mention of it over the three days he was in London, it found nothing newsworthy to report on from the press conference with Clegg, and there was certainly no long, uninterrupted interview with any Palestinian figures, despite this being the ideal opportunity to seek their views.

Even more incredibly, on the first day Abbas was in London, the Today program not only ignored him, but chose instead to interview Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who happened to be in Manchester, for a full six minutes during which he wasn’t challenged on any of Israel’s well-documented violations.

Palestine “does not exist”

This is all shocking enough, but it doesn’t end there.

In the same letter in which he disputed the occupation, the BBC’s Paul Smith went on to say: “Palestine does not exist at the moment … ‘Palestine’ refers to a historical state or an aspiration.”

According to BBC journalists who have spoken to PSC, this is the BBC’s unofficial policy on “Palestine” and hence the desperate attempts to keep the word out of its broadcasts. An exception, they say, will be made during the Olympics when reporting on the efforts of the Palestinian competitors.

But this does not go far enough. In November, PSC wrote to the BBC to ask why Canon Giles Fraser, the recently departed Canon Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, had been allowed to say he was visiting Israel during a report for the Sunday program when, in fact, the towns he visited were Bethlehem and East Jerusalem — both in the occupied West Bank.

We received this reply: “He didn’t refer to going to Palestine because at the moment there is no independent state of Palestine. The aim of the peace process is to establish a state of Palestine alongside a state of Israel but until this happens many people prefer not to use the word.”

So there you have it — as far as the BBC is concerned, Palestine is a dirty word. It’s controversial and using it may offend people who deny its existence.

Who benefits from the erasing of Palestine from our news reports? The same people who benefit from the BBC’s complete failure to place news events from the occupied territories in the context of occupation, blockade, house demolitions, land theft, arbitrary arrest and trial of civilians, including children, in military courts, the destruction of farmland and olive groves by settlers, air and land attacks and much more. The same people who benefit when the BBC consistently invites Israeli spokespeople onto its programs to voice their fears for Israeli security, without mentioning the daily terror of the Palestinians under occupation.

The result is coverage which is incomplete and misinformed at best and complicit in an illegal occupation at worst. Frighteningly, it is produced and broadcast by a media organization which commands the lion’s share of the audience in the UK and has a worldwide reach.

And, in the time of the Arab uprisings, when the BBC is covering the struggles of millions of people for freedom, its greatest shame is that it remains committed to editorial practices that make Palestine invisible.

Amena Saleem is active with the Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK and keeps a close eye on the media’s coverage of Palestine as part of her brief. She has twice driven on convoys to Gaza for PSC. More information on PSC is available at: www.palestinecampaign.org

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