Saturday, September 18, 2010

A BBC Journalist's Fabulist Portrayal of an Israeli City

by Michael Weiss

BBC Arabic’s Jerusalem correspondent Ahmad Budeiri claims that were it not for “hostile environment training,” he might have been beaten and kidnapped by “an angry mob” of Israelis in Ashdod in response to his reporting on the Free Gaza flotilla raid.

In an online dispatch for the BBC World Service, Budeiri describes a scene in the Israeli port city as something out of Somalia or Waziristan. Only by his own quick-witted recourse to the BBC’s safety-first self-preservation seminar, Budeiri insists, did he and his crew narrowly escape being assaulted or taken hostage by a violent gang of Ashdod residents. He writes:

I remembered what I was trained for in a kidnap situation and used the exact process during the mob incident. The cameraman and I had a password that, if used, he will start packing and I would be on the phone for more than ten minutes. By doing this the mob lost interest in me and gave us a gap to leave the location without being spotted. Other Arab crews were beaten when they all left as one big group and were slow departing because of their equipment.

Budeiri says that the Ashdod police merely looked on with indifference and “never reacted to nor stepped in to prevent the threats” – an odd disclosure in that these “threats” were evidently backed up by real actions and yet our correspondent doesn’t explain what the police response to those might have been. Also, assuming others saw and reported on the Ashdod “chaos,” why is this first-person testimony the BBC’s first and only statement on the matter?

Even as a primer on institutional methods of journalistic precaution in the field, Budeiri’s piece does little to avoid a descent into macabre self-parody:

The course also taught me to avoid any confrontation, but at the same time not to be seen as a weak person. While I was on air, the mob tried to distract me and some then even blocked the camera. I tried to get them to speak on air and show I was not weak, but also fight back in a positive way to gain respect for a moment - other reporters did not do that which resulted in more fury.

It seems almost cruel to inquire of Budeiri how a furious mob of would-be kidnappers were first approached for on-air testimony, or to what secret location in Israel’s fifth largest city they might have repaired with a foreign stringer from a multinational news organization. Other daunting obstacles standing in the way of Budeieri’s broadcasts that week included “having to charge my mobile phone four times a day” and tolerating the beastly heat and unreliable bus schedule of Beersheva.

Pseudo-heroics at a nonevent account for only part of the reason why the BBC decided to publish such an article. But there would be appear to be a quieter motive lurking beneath Budeiri’s purposefully vague prose.

A few weeks ago, the BBC earned the enmity of flotilla defenders with its comprehensive and hard-hitting Panorama program, “Death in the Med.” Protestors lined up outside BBC headquarters in London and Manchester to denounce a clear Zionist put-up job that dared to report on what happened on May 31 rather than run through the script of Hamas apologetics. Ken O’Keefe, a former U.S. Marine who renounced his American citizenship in 2004 and now calls himself a “Citizen of the World,” sailed with the Mavi Marmara and was interviewed by Panorama. He’s been especially indignant at the BBC’s journalistic gall of checking the facts against his portrayal of them.

So inundated has the BBC been by complaints of this nature that it is now producing its own internal investigation into the accuracy and fairness of the Panorama broadcast. Britain’s trusted news source is thus examining the examination of an incident that itself is being or has been examined by the United Nations, the IDF, and an independent Israeli commission.

But the Budeiri piece easily qualifies as an early installment of narrative correction: The IHH activists have metamorphosed into thuggish Israelis, a port city normally given to the calm of democratic law and order has been refashioned into the upper deck of a Turkish blockade-runner.

Facile moral equivalence – that’s perhaps the best way to describe the BBC’s reporting in this instance.

Michael Weiss is the executive director of Just Journalism, a London-based think tank that monitors the British media's coverage of Israel and the Middle East.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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