BBC’s Jon Donnison Displays a Professional and Ethical Conflict of Interests
On Saturday, November 24th 2012, BBC Radio 4 broadcast an edition of ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ (also scheduled to be broadcast on the BBC World Service), which included a piece by Jon Donnison. The broadcast can be heard here or here, or downloaded here.
Frankly, this is a subject I would have preferred not to have had to write about. Donnison’s broadcast concerns the death of the son of his BBC colleague, Jihad Masharawi, on November 14th and of course any death – but perhaps particularly that of a baby – is tragic and bound to evoke understandable emotional reactions – especially among those who know the family personally.
But as is the case with professionals in any field, journalists should be able to separate their personal storm of emotions from the task of carrying out their job. It is Jon Donnison’s inability to do that (along with many of his colleagues) which leaves no choice but to address the subject.
Below is a transcript of the programme: [all emphasis added]
Introduction by Kate Adie:
“A fragile ceasefire continues to hold in the Gaza Strip this morning. One Palestinian was shot dead by Israeli forces yesterday near the town of Khan Yunis. He was the first to be killed since the ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel came into effect on Wednesday night, ending a week of fighting between the two sides. Israel launched its offensive in what it said was an effort to prevent Palestinian rocket fire. Jon Donnison has spent the week in Gaza and was there as one of his BBC colleagues heard that his house had been bombed.”
Adie gives no context whatsoever for the shooting of Anwar Qudaih on November 23rd and her casting of aspersions upon the reasons for Operation ‘Pillar of Cloud’ – although by now standard BBC fare – totally ignores the context of the attack on an army jeep in Israeli territory with an anti-tank missile on November 10th and 110 missiles fired from Gaza at civilian communities between that incident and the operation’s commencement on November 14th.
Next, we hear Donnison’s broadcast:
“My friend and colleague Jihad Masharawi is usually the last to leave our Gaza bureau. Hard working but softly spoken, he often stays late, beavering away on his laptop. He has a cool head – unflappable when others like me are flapping around him. He’s a video editor and just one of our local BBC Arabic service staff who make the office tick. But on the Wednesday before last, soon after Gaza’s latest war erupted with Israel’s killing of Hamas’ military commander Ahmed al Jabari, Jihad burst out of the edit suite, screaming. He sprinted down the stairs, his face ripped with anguish. He’d just had a call from a friend to tell him the Israeli military had bombed his house and that his eleven month-old baby boy Omar was dead.”
Yet again, Donnison promotes the standard BBC line which ignores five days of rocket attacks on civilians prior to the targeted killing of Jabari, thus placing the blame for the hostilities on Israel – and excusing Hamas from any responsibility. Donnison makes an early attempt to establish the supposed bombing of Masharawi’s house by Israel as fact, despite having no proof for that assertion. He continues:
“Most fathers will tell you that their children are beautiful. Omar was a picture book baby. Standing in what’s left of his burnt-out home this week, Jihad showed me a photo on his mobile phone. It was of a cheeky, chunky, round-faced little boy in denim dungarees, chuckling in a push-chair. Dark eyed, with a fringe of fine brown hair pushed across his brow. “He only knew how to smile” Jihad told me, as we both struggled to hold back the tears.
“He could say just two words – Babba and Mamma”, his father went on. Also on Jihad’s phone is another photo; a hideous tiny corpse – Omar’s smiling face virtually burnt off, that fine hair appearing to be melted onto his scalp. Jihad’s sister-in-law, Hiba, was also killed. “We still haven’t found her head”, Jihad said. And his brother is critically ill in hospital with massive burns. His chances are not good.”
Donnison’s unnecessarily graphic descriptions are the audio version of the photographs of dead children (some real and some not – as Donnison well knows) used frequently by Hamas propagandists to incite world opinion against Israel.
Let us be quite clear: this is war pornography. Its use is designed specifically to shock audiences into oblivion regarding the circumstances and facts and it aims to solicit purely emotional reactions of anger and disgust at the suggested perpetrator.
Of course we have never (thankfully) heard comparable BBC descriptions of Israeli casualties broadcast in such a manner.
For those unfamiliar with the BBC’s domestic broadcasts, it is worth pointing out that they are rife with warnings to the effect that “some viewers may find the content disturbing”. No such warning is given at the beginning of this programme. Did its unnamed producer consider the usual niceties unnecessary – or a hindrance?
“Jihad has another son, Ali, four years old, who was lightly injured. He keeps asking where his baby brother has gone. Eleven members of the Masharawi family lived in the tiny breeze-block house in the Sabra district of Gaza City. Five people slept in one room. The beds are now only good for charcoal. On the kitchen shelves there are rows of melted plastic jars full of spices, their shapes distorted as if reflected from a fairground mirror. And in the entrance hall; a two foot-wide hole in the flimsy metal ceiling – where the missile ripped through.”
Donnison is the only person claiming that the Masharawi family home is in the Sabra district. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights, as well as numerous media reports, all place the house in the Zeitoun neighbourhood of Gaza City and that fact is very relevant indeed.
Donnison goes on:
“Despite the evidence pointing towards an Israeli air-strike, some have suggested it might have been a misfired Hamas rocket. But at that time, so soon after the launch of Israel’s operation, Israel’s military says mortars had been launched from Gaza, but very few rockets. Mortar fire would not cause the fireball that appears to have engulfed Jihad’s house. Others say that the damage was not consistent with powerful Israeli attacks, but the BBC visited other bomb sites this week with very similar fire damage, where Israel acknowledged carrying out what it called “surgical strikes”. Like at Jihad’s house, there was very little structural damage, but the victims were brought out with massive and fatal burns.”
With all due respect, none of the numerous BBC correspondents in Gaza last week are ballistic or munitions experts, and until an independent study by such a professional comes to light, Donnison’s conjectures based on anecdotal evidence remain precisely that.
Regarding Donnison’s claim of mortars, “but very few rockets” having been fired at the time (I have seen no such statement by the IDF, but would be delighted if Donnison could produce it), as is pointed out here, “very few rockets” does not mean no rockets.
It is at this juncture useful to return to a report on the same subject put out by Donnison on November 15th – the day after the incident. In that report (specifically marked as containing disturbing images), Jihad Masharawi is interviewed by colleagues from the BBC Arabic Service. The report’s synopsis states that:
“Jihad Misharawi said his 11-month-old son Omar died after shrapnel hit the family home in Gaza.”
In the filmed interview, the following exchange takes place between Jihad Masharawi and the interviewer:
Interviewer: “Our condolences, Jihad. Tell me what happened with you.”
JM: “Shrapnel hit our house.”
JM: “Yes. My sister-in-law was killed along with my son and my brother and my other son were wounded.
Interviewer: “In which area?”
JM: “In al Zeitoun.”
Viewing the timeline of announcements from the IDF Spokesman on the relevant day (and corroborated in numerous media reports from the time) we see that immediately following the targeted killing of Ahmed Jabari, attempts were made to neutralize the arsenal of long-range Iranian supplied Fajr 5 missiles held by Hamas and other terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip so as to minimize the dangers of reactions to Jabari’s killing to Israeli civilians.
Later that evening, the IDF released an aerial photograph of one such rocket launching site – owned by Hamas – in the Zeitoun neighbourhood in which Jihad Masharawi’s house is – according to him – situated.
Whether or not Jihad Masharawi’s house was hit by a short-falling terrorist rocket, by shrapnel from secondary explosions of Fajr 5 missiles deliberately hidden by Hamas in built-up residential areas or whether an errant IDF shell targeting those rocket launching sites and weapons storage facilities caused that accident, we may never know.
But it is significant that the BBC has doggedly avoided conducting any sort of investigation whatsoever into the subject of Palestinians killed or injured by at least 152 known shortfalls of rockets fired by terrorists during the week November 14th to 21st and that it has had no inclination whatsoever to report on the use of the civilian population of Gaza as human shields by Hamas and other terrorist organizations storing and launching military-grade weapons from residential areas, despite having frequently (if inadvertently) documented those launchings itself.
In that vein, Donnison continues:
“Most likely is that Omar died in one of the more than 20 bombings across Gaza that the Israeli military says made up its initial wave of attacks. Omar was not a terrorist.”
Of course an eleven-month old baby was not a terrorist: we do not need to be told that by Donnison. But let us also take note of the fact that after a week of furious avoidance of that word, the BBC has finally found a use for it: as a means to chastise Israel.
Donnison goes on:
“Of course every civilian death on either side – not just Omar’s – is tragic. The United Nations says its preliminary investigation shows that 103 of the 158 people killed in Gaza were civilians. Of these, thirty were children, twelve of whom were under the age of ten. More than a thousand people were injured. The Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev said that every non-combatant death or injury was tragic and an operational failure.”
Significantly, Donnison chooses to quote exclusively figures put forward by the highly partisan UN OCHA. Other sources suggest very different ratios of civilian to combatant deaths with the IDF reporting 120 combatants out of a total of 177 dead and B’Tselem’s initial findings (not complete) showing a ratio of 40 civilians to 62 combatants.
But it is in the next part of his report – obviously inserted in the name of ‘impartiality’ – that Donnison truly exceeds himself:
“In Israel too there were casualties. Four civilians and two soldiers. There were also many injuries, but the fact that the Israeli ambulance service was also reporting those suffering from anxiety and bruises is an indication of the asymmetric nature of the conflict.”
Very classy: having spent a week advancing the narrative that not enough Israelis were being killed, the BBC now promotes accusations that Israel inflates casualty figures.
And, quick off the mark to ‘prove’ his point, Donnison continues:
“Jihad’s son Omar was probably the first child to die in this latest round of violence. Among the last was a young boy – Abdul Rahman Naim – killed by an Israeli attack just hours before the ceasefire was announced. Abdul Rahman’s father, Dr. Majdi, is one of the leading specialist doctors at Gaza City’s Shifa hospital. The first he knew of his son’s death was when he went to treat a patient, only to find that it was his own boy.
Before I left Jihad’s house, leaving him sitting round a camp-fire with other mourners, I asked him – perhaps stupidly – if he was angry over Omar’s death. “Very, very angry”, he said, his jaw tensing as he glanced at the photos on his phone. My thoughts, after a week where I’ve had little time to think, are with Jihad and his family. Remarkably and unnecessarily, he told me his thoughts were with me and the rest of our BBC team. “I’m just sorry, Jon, that I had to go and wasn’t there to help you with your work” he said, before we hugged and said goodbye.”
It is, of course, perfectly natural that Donnison and other BBC staff should be upset about the death of a colleague’s child. It is even perhaps understandable that several of them allowed their emotions to dictate their reactions and actions at the time.
What is not acceptable, however, is the BBC’s use of this insufficiently investigated story to promote the narrative of a child’s death being the result of Israeli actions – whilst at the same time brushing aside the conflicting unverified versions as to what actually happened and in stark contrast to its point-blank refusal to report on the subject of casualties caused as a result of the use by Hamas of its civilian population as human shields.
No less problematic is the BBC’s collaboration in the promotion of the same narrative outside its own outlet.
Fisher did indeed use Danahar’s photographs in his article in the Washington Post.
Jon Donnison has, over the last two days, been promoting his ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ feature with considerable zeal on Twitter.
As angry and upset as Donnison and his colleagues may be, they have clearly crossed a line which has led to a professional and ethical conflict of interests. The tragic story of Omar Masharawi is now no longer being reported: it is being used and abused to advance a very specific narrative of Israel as a killer of children.
It is in danger of rapidly turning into a ‘journalists’ blood libel’ – if it has not already done so – and that is because of the fact that despite a number of deaths of children in the Gaza Strip during the recent hostilities, the BBC fails to make clear that none of those children (or any other civilians) were deliberately targeted by Israel and fails to present the events in their true context – part of which is the fact that not only does Hamas deliberately target Israel’s civilian population, but it also intentionally endangers its own in order to reap exactly the kind of images and stories the BBC is now running so enthusiastically.
One may be tempted to ascribe the BBC’s actions to naivety or ‘battle fatigue’ but that may not necessarily be the case – as indicated in the Tweet below by BBC Foreign Editor Jon Williams.
“Gaza” did not produce those images: journalists did. And in the case of the BBC it is increasingly emerging that they are knowingly and intentionally being promoted in order to advance a specific – yet unverified – narrative.
It is that fact which has seriously compromised the BBC’s reputation as an impartial and accurate reporter of the news and tipped it over into the already over-populated category of journalists who wish to define the news and the public’s perception of it for the purpose of furthering a wider agenda.