Over the last week BBC news bulletins have, inevitably, led with the Gaza war. This might seem like an obvious, rational choice, although of course it was also the worst week of the last three years in the Syrian war, with at least 1,700 deaths. Still it is fair enough for the BBC to have decided that war and death in Gaza are more important than war and death a few hundred miles to the North.
The Syrian war story is relentless and complicated with villains everywhere you look; these days, anyway, it would be hard to present it as a compelling David and Goliath narrative. Even more important, it is difficult and lethally dangerous to report. The latter seems not to be the case in Gaza – which itself may say something about the reality of the conflict there, as opposed to the rhetoric of massive bombardments and massacres.
What strikes me as less rational and more peculiar is the way the BBC’s news bulletins about the casualties of the war do not distinguish between Palestinian combatants and Palestinian victims, yet always do that for the Israeli side: Each bulletin begins with the datum that 1,000 (say) Palestinians have died and 40 (say) Israelis have died, all of whom were soldiers apart from (say) three civilians.
The implication of course, whether deliberate or not, is that all the Palestinian deaths are civilian.
The same claim was made, sometimes explicitly rather than implicitly, in the last Gaza war. Afterwards it turned out – and this was confirmed by the Hamas leadership – that more than two thirds of the Palestinian dead in 2009 were in fact Hamas fighters. (That is actually unusually high ratio of combatants to non-combatant deaths for modern urban warfare.)
Of course it could be different this time.
It might be that Hamas fighters are not engaging with the IDF forces that have moved into Gaza, and are instead hiding somewhere safe while civilians engage the invader.
But given how many of Israel’s elite troops have been killed – 13 in one engagement alone – it seems likely that fairly fierce infantry combat has taken place.
It also seems likely Hamas forces, well-armed and well-trained though they are (thanks to Iranian Revolutionary Guard instructors), have also suffered significant combat losses.
Yet, oddly, the BBC bulletins and analyses make little or no mention of such fighters or fighting, and no pictures appear of them, alive or dead, in the newspapers.
This does not necessarily suggest bias – there may well also be pressure on local and foreign photographers, as there has been in previous fighting here, not to film the Hamas army at work or to do anything that might undermine a narrative crafted for foreign consumption.
One BBC radio report on Sunday, did finally make a distinction between Gazan civilians and fighters: it said “more than a 1000 Palestinians have died, mostly civilians.” It is odd that the BBC is so sure, yet so vague.
If even rough estimates were available then the normal thing would be to give those estimates, or at least to quote someone in a position to know, no matter how parti pris. The bulletins could then say that Hamas or a local NGO “says that most of the casualties are civilian”; instead they repeat a flat unsupported assertion, one that, for all the audience knows, could be based on the general consensus among the hacks in the hotel bar.
[This is not standard BBC practice, not even in covering other aspects of the Israel/Palestine conflict.
After all, at the beginning of the current crisis, BBC news bulletins consistently reported Israeli air strikes as “in response to what the Israeli government says are rocket attacks” or being “what the Israeli government says is a response to rocket attacks.” Note the sceptical “says” with its implication that the rocket attacks might not even exist or may not be the real motivation behind the air strikes.]
Then there is the problem of the numbers themselves. Where do they come from? According to most of the BBC reports casualty numbers come from Gaza’s health authorities, ie the Hamas regime’s equivalent of a ministry of health.
Obviously no one appointed by a Hamas ministry to speak to the press would deliberately tell an untruth just to help the cause. Or at least that seems to be the assumption of Jeremy Bowen and his BBC colleagues. They take on faith not only the numbers that they are given but also the assertion that all or most of the dead are civilians.
The peculiar decision not to query these statistics even a little bit or just to qualify them with a “says” is not necessarily, or a least not in every case, a product of political bias or passionate commitment to the anti-Israel cause. It may also reflect a selective naivety and skepticism that is all too common in a great deal of foreign reporting.
I certainly encountered a similar pathology when reporting from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I’ll never forget how BBC reporters, and British reporters in general, believed Iraqi doctors’ claims about coalition-inflicted civilian casualties as if they were gospel truth. It apparently never occurred to those reporters as they relayed tales of massacre from Fallujah or Baghdad that most Iraqi doctors were a) Sunnis and b) Baath party members (that’s how you got to go to medical school under Saddam) and c) likely to be loyal to the old regime and sympathetic to the insurgents.
For them, being good middle class Britons, a doctor was by definition a good and trustworthy person. A British, or especially an American, army officer on the other hand, was not.
That said, there do seem to be quite a few eccentricities and departures from reportorial norms in the Gaza reporting – such as the refusal to engage with the fact that outgoing Hamas rockets often fall short and land on civilians in Gaza — that are better explained by political conviction and bias than by the middle class prejudices of British reporters.
There also seems to be a kind of willful naïveté at play of a kind that was also present in previous wars in the region. It is the willful naïveté that pretends not to know that, in Gaza as in Iraq, ambulances are sometimes used to ferry troops and explosives, that rockets really are fired from schools, that teenagers and young boys are trained and used as fighters, that an organization like Hamas might maintains a military headquarters in a hospital.
It is the willful naïveté that pretends not to know why such ruthless tactics makes strategic sense in the context of the conflict, or that it relies on media acquiescence – what Lenin called “useful idiots” in order to work.