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Scribblings: The "Culture of Bias" exposed

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Tzvi Fleischer

The “Culture of Bias” exposed

I have often written before about the “culture of bias” that exists in some media organisations, especially public broadcasters such as the ABC, SBS and their “Big Aunty”, the BBC. But claims along these lines are generally dismissed by representatives and dedicated supporters of these organisations as attacking the integrity of journalistic professionals, or being too one-eyed to see the whole truth, as presumably the reporters do.

Now Robin Aitken, a very experienced former BBC reporter, has explained extremely well what I mean by a “culture of bias” in an excerpt of his new book, Can We Trust The BBC? which was published in Britain’s Daily Mail (Feb. 17). The excerpt details how Aitken, a BBC journalist for 25 years, including a stint at the flagship “Today” radio program, repeatedly took his concerns about one-sidedness and lack of political balance at the BBC to editors, producers, the Director of Editorial Policy, two successive Directors-General, and finally, the BBC Governors. Responses were at best dismissive, with no sign of real consideration or investigation, or hostile - he was told raising such questions was “destructive” while another time he was told he should leave if he was “disaffected”.

But most interesting in the excerpt (I have not yet read the book) is Aitken’s description of the problem as he sees it - clearly one of culture. He says, “‘Neutral’ for BBC journalists is left of centre for everyone else; everything is seen through the distorting prism of the progressive agenda. As one senior news presenter told me: ‘Anybody who attacks the Labour Government is always coming from the Left, and the Tories are written off as insane.’”

Then there is:  

“In 2007, there is a solid consensus within the BBC on most issues of private morality and, in many cases, public policy. One presenter described the sense of superiority that working at the BBC confers on its staff, ‘It’s the whole thing that ‘we know best’ and it’s our responsibility to educate the poor unfortunates beneath us in how things should be’…The erstwhile young rebels who changed the BBC in the sixties and seventies are now the Establishment, and their views, once so radical, have become an ossified consensus - just like the ones they replaced.”  

He also says, “I enjoyed my career and never doubted the integrity of my colleagues - they truly believed they were acting impartially, they just didn’t recognise their bias.”

This is exactly the problem as I see it – an ossified consensus which makes journalists, who are generally trying to do their jobs properly, unaware of their own biases. It certainly occurs in Middle East coverage where the baby boomer generation who have come to dominate the BBC, ABC and SBS are largely infused overall with the third-worldist and anti-colonialist ideas. This predisposes them to view the Palestinian cause sympathetically, and terrorism and extremism by non-European peoples as always an understandable response to oppression and economic deprivation. This internal consensus comes through in coverage, especially if they have an ethos of “educating” the public in their coverage.

It is this that explains how, in a leaked internal memo on developments in the Middle East dated Jan. 5, the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen was able to tell various BBC News staff that intra-Palestinian violence was a direct result of Israeli policies. He wrote, “Palestinian society, which used to draw strength from resistance to the occupation, is now fragmenting. The reason is the death of hope, caused by a cocktail of Israel’s military activities, land expropriation and settlement building - and the financial sanctions imposed on the Hamas-led government.” No other view was canvassed and this was simply presented to BBC News employees as the whole background they should understand for their coverage.  

The problem with Palestinian unity

Unity is a very important ideal in Palestinian society and has been since the big Arab Revolt in the late 1930s turned into a particularly ugly internal Palestinian civil war. So it is not surprising that in the wake of the recent fighting between Hamas and Fatah, official PA-TV, (which has remained under the control of PA President Abbas, and not the Hamas cabinet) has shown clips promoting unity. The only problem is that the message seems to be that Palestinians should unite to expel and kill Jews, described as “evil souls” and “evil ones”.

According to Palestinian Media Watch, a music clip being shown repeatedly on Palestinian television is entitled “Palestinian Unity”. A teenage boy sings the following against a background of religious Jews walking in Jerusalem, and praying at the Western wall,  

 “I am Palestinian, and my home is my home.
The evil souls! A thousand evil ones are in my home!
But I am Palestinian and my home is my home,
The evil souls! A thousand evil ones are in my home!”  

The rest of the video shows scenes of military parades and funerals of both Fatah and Hamas and attacks on Israeli jeeps and tanks, with lyrics like, “We want to liberate the land through the national unity... We are a sword which is not drawn, except towards the occupier.” These last words were sung to images of a gun firing and then an Israeli soldier falling.

Unfortunately, this clip pretty much sums up the historical problem with Palestinian ideals of unity and indeed identity - it is been almost wholly focused on fighting Israel, Israelis and Jews. If the Palestinians had been half as focused on uniting to build institutions of governance, their economy and the pre-conditions of peace, both Israelis and Palestinians would likely be a lot better off today.

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