“Death in the Med” for BBC Journalism? Panorama investigates the Mavi Marmara incident

Posted: August 21, 2010 in International politics, Media & Journalism

A recent edition of BBC Panorama, Death on the Med’ (16 August), set out to investigate Israel’s assault on the Turkish ‘Free Gaza’ flotilla last May, 31st,  particularly the lead vessel, the Mavi Marmara. However, certain features of this 30-minute film raise questions once again about the way in which western journalism deals with controversial issues concerning Israel and its conduct in the illegally Occupied Territories. While it claims to investigate the incident from “both sides” of the story to find out what “really” happened, it soon becomes clear from the way it is framed and sourced that the opposing accounts are not treated as equally valid.

Take, for example, the reporter Jane Corbin’s introduction to the film, delivered as she observes Israeli navy commandoes in training for boarding hostile or suspect vessels:

I’ve had unique access to this top-secret unit – Naval Commando 13 has never been filmed by the media in action before. Israel says these commandoes had to fight for their lives on the ship that night. Turkey accuses Israel of an act of piracy. They called it Operation Sea Breeze but what these Israeli naval commandoes encountered on the Mavi Marmara was anything but a breeze. It caused a storm of international condemnation. But did Israel fall into trap? And what was the real agenda of some of those people who call themselves “peace activists” on board the Free Gaza flotilla?

In tone, language and setting, therefore, the film privileges the Israeli account of the incident without nuance or questions such as ‘What was the real agenda of the Israeli operation?’ By contrast, it undermines the account of those on board the Mavi Marmara by drawing suspicion upon their credentials and motivations and by constantly emphasising the use of violence by some of the activists in trying to repel the Israeli assault. Much is made of the commandoes’ use of non-lethal force, including paintball guns. Yet the shooting dead of nine of the activists is merely mentioned, not investigated. The fact that each was found dead with a single bullet to the head is not even raised with the Israeli commandoes.

The programme goes on to consider both accounts in more detail using film taken by the Israeli commandoes during the incident and film shot on board the ship by the anti-war organisation, Cultures of Resistance.  It also interviews the chairman of the Israeli Defence Force’s inquiry into the incident, which has questioned some of the tactical decisions taken during the operation but not the strategic principles behind it. Here again, however, it’s clear that the film privileges the Israeli account, handling the oppositional version with much more scepticism. This deference to official and thus “authoritative” sources has long been standard practice in public service news and current affairs so it’s hardly a surprise any more. But that shouldn’t dull our critical faculties.  For me, the critical fault in the programme is its lack of context because it hinders our understanding of what this incident was really about and why it happened in the first place.

Explaining the context

Explaining the context of the blockade seems crucial to understanding both why the Free Gaza flotilla set out to break it and why the Israelis enforced it so strongly. However, “Death in the Med” affords very little time to that and omits some essential information. A critical moment comes early in the film when Corbin pays a brief visit to Gaza and tells us that:

Here in Gaza, the problem is not so much a lack of food or medicine. There’s no easy access in or out, no economic life because of the Israeli embargo. Hamas, which rules here, refuses to recognise Israel’s right to exist. Militants have fired thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel in the past few years. People [in Gaza] are forced to recycle rubble to rebuild houses – Israel allows in hardly any cement or steel in case they’re used to make weapons and bunkers.

Do you see what she did there? First of all, she tells us the problem in Gaza is ‘not so much a lack of food or medicine’. In fact, it is a crucial effect of the Israeli embargo and one of the key impulses behind the efforts of various organisations to bring the people some relief. Then we have this strange and sudden leap, from telling us about militants firing rockets at Israel to pictures of civilians recycling rubble to rebuild their homes. What’s going on? Are these rockets falling short and hitting homes in Gaza? That’s what the edit implies. And why do the militants fire rockets over the border into Israel?  For the fun of it? Are they just testing them out? We are not told.

And why do the people have to rebuild their homes? What happened? Was there an earthquake? Did some Biblical tempest hit Gaza? We are simply left to guess or presume that perhaps the people lost their homes due to some unknown disaster and it just so happens that they can’t access materials to rebuild because of that pesky Israeli blockade. The reporter doesn’t refer even briefly to Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s devastating military assault on Gaza in December 2008, which laid waste to hundreds of such homes and took the lives not just of militants but hundreds of innocent civilians.

So is this just a matter of lazy journalism? I think there’s more to it than that. For  Corbin to answer any of these questions would undermine the working assumption of her story: that the Gaza aid flotilla was little more than a propaganda exercise and that the Israelis’ only mistake was to overreact and fall into a trap. In effect, it is the Israeli version of the incident as it has evolved to date. Seen through an Israeli propaganda filter, it is impossible to tell it any other way, like this for example:

Here in Gaza, the problem is Israel’s total control over the densely packed population of 1.5 million people, which Amnesty International says amounts to collective punishment in contravention of the Geneva Conventions – in other words, a war crime. There is a shortage of basic essentials like food and medicine and malnutrition is on the rise. There’s no easy access in or out, no economic life because of the Israeli embargo. Israel refuses to recognise the democratically elected government of Gaza because they say the leading party, Hamas, is a terrorist organisation that denies Israel’s right to exist. Militants have fired thousands of rockets at civilian targets in Israel in the past few years in retaliation against Israel’s punitive security policies. And each time this happens, Israel retaliates with maximum, overwhelming force. Last December, it launched Operation Cast Lead, which devastated Gaza’s infrastructure and took a terrible toll in civilian as well as military casualties. People’s homes were targeted and destroyed and now they are forced to recycle rubble to rebuild them – Israel allows in hardly any cement or steel in case they’re used to make weapons and bunkers.

A propaganda triumph

In the end, ‘Death in the Med’ vindicates the Israeli line and fails to reveal much more about what happened than what most of us already know. It stands as a good result for the Israelis. Of course, it’s not just about a single BBC programme. Much of the information we received about the incident came through the mainstream media, the privileged source of which was, of course, the Israeli authorities. They have been much more successful than their enemies in shaping and dominating the news agenda with their account of this and many previous incidents. In the days after the story broke, the very effective Israeli spokesman, Mark Regev, appeared in almost every major news bulletin on British and Irish television to ram home the Israeli line. Here he is interviewed by Jon Snow on Channel Four News on the day of the incident: 

Panorama’s “investigation”, don’t forget, starts off by stating the Israeli case and watching navy commandoes in training. That frames the entire programme: it determines the validity of the Israeli case and questions the motives of the Free Gaza flotilla. It was a stroke of Israeli propaganda genius, part of a clearly discernible and well established PR pattern. Islamic Jihad in Gaza or Hezbollah in the Lebanon launch a small-scale attack on the IDF or on Israeli civilians. Israel responds with overwhelming force, taking a large toll in civilian casualties. The operation attracts widespread, international condemnation – criticism even – from decent journalists like Jon Snow. But it doesn’t matter if the Israelis get a hard time from the media, as Regev got in that interview, because for them the key strategy is to dominate the news coverage with a single, repeated line of defence, which is rarely retracted or modified. In a matter of days, the controversy subsides, the media lose interest and that is that.

By the way, I’m not the only one that’s vexed about this poor excuse for journalism – there’s been quite a lot of complaints about the programme. Google ‘Death on the Med’ and  have a look at this post from Harpy Marx.  

See also this article in the Guardian by Greg Philo (2004), which examines patterns of news reporting on the Israeli-Palestine conflict  that are still applicable today. If you’re up for a more detailed read, then I recommend Philo and Berry’s book, Bad News from Israel, published by Pluto Press.  For some historical background and context, see David Hirst’s The Gun and the Olive Branch: The roots of violence in the Middle East, Faber and Faber, 2003; and Noam Chomsky’s The Fateful Triangle: The United States, Israel and the Palestinians, Pluto Press, 1999 They’re both still in print and available through Amazon. 

  1. Michael King says:

    Oh dear !!!
    The BBC has discovered that this whole “aid” flotilla was one big publicity stunt.
    “Aid” was not their real intent.
    The medicine on board was mostly outdated. Some “aid”. All the goods could have been sent though an Israeli port but the true reason of the flotilla is to deliberately create a confrontation with the IDF and hopefully create as much headlines as possible.

    The problem of all the anti-Israel bloggers like yourself, is that the Israeli case is backed with stronger evidence, video shots, photographs, audio recording etc.

    It is interesting you mention the Gaza operation on Decemeber 2008 (not 2009 as you’ve mentioned) without mentioning what led to this attack. I’m talking about the thousands of Grad rockets, Qasam tockets and mortar shells that were launched upon Israeli civilian town and caused many casualties. I can asure you that if, for example, Cuba would have launched as much as 10 rockets on florida, The US would have flattened half of Cuba.

    • Thanks for your comment, Michael, and for correcting me on the date of Operation Cast Lead.

      While we may dispute the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestine conflict, I’m not anti-Israeli and wish peace for Israelis as much as for Palestinians. I think we need to occupy a space in which we can be critical of a country’s actions and policies without being branded as just “anti” for the sake of it. So there are great things about Israel, great things about America and England as well, but I reserve the right to criticize these and any other country when they’re wrong. It doesn’t mean I think their enemies are always right.

      There’s also a fundamental principle at stake here. Once countries calling themselves democracies respond to terrorism in kind, or ignore international law or UN resolutions, they lose the authority to pull up other countries that overstep the mark. This has happened to Britain and America. And it has happened to Israel. It calls itself a democracy, boasts many of the features of a democracy, yet through many of its actions internally and externally it’s actually surrendering its moral legitimacy as a democracy.

      Your hypothetical example of America and Cuba is interesting but then, who needs to speculate when we can look to a whole bunch of historical precedents, the most recent being America and Britain’s illegal war in Iraq since 2003? And Saddam didn’t even have to fire a rocket! I never doubt America’s propensity to throw its military weight around when its interests dictate.

  2. Michael King says:

    Hi again,

    Regarding the war in Iraq – I totally agree with you. This war was stupid and because of it, thousands have lost their lives.

    Anyway, I just want to say that the situation in Gaza is very complicated.
    The Hamas, an organization that most of the world (including most European countries) regards as a terrorist organization, violently took control of Gaza (killing dozens of Palestinian police forces) and run it as an islamic state “iranian style” (even worse than Iran – including executions without a trial of those who are suspected as “colaborators with Israel”).
    The Hamas doesn’t recognize Israel at all. Its charter calls for the distruction of Israel and the killing and deportation of its Jewish population (check out “Hamas” on Wikipedia).
    Since the Hamas took control of Gaza, they started to shell the southern Israeli town on a daily basis.
    The siege on the Gaza strip is there for a reason – the Hamas would like to launch bigger rockets and to aim at Tel Aviv and so, Israel has to do the best it can to prevent weapons from reaching Gaza.
    The Hamas is not an organization that will ever agree on any peace treaty with Israel because of its against their religious belief that the land should be cleaned of the “infidels”.
    Actually, the situation in Gaza is far better than in places like most African countries, some Asian countries (like Bangladesh, Mianmar etc.) and countries in central america because it enjoys the support of the UN (through UNWRA) and … also the help of Israel. Israel supplies many of the goods the Gazan get and some of it is sponsored by Israel.
    Look at the absurd here – Israel sends supplies to Gaza and Gaza sends … rockets back on Israeli civilian towns.

    Ironically, Gaza gets 50 times more press coverage than all the poor African, Asian and central American countries altogether that the world is not interested in sending any aid to whatsoever.

    As long as Gaza is controlled by a bunch of religious bigots – don’t expect the situation there to become any better. Israel will be forced to control everything that gets into Gaza in order to keep Tel Aviv out of the Hamas’ rockets range.

    Whoever wants to help Gaza – has to do one of the following:
    – Protest to set Gaza free of the Hamas regime.
    – Send aid to Gaza through Egypt or through Israel.

  3. charley young says:

    Regarding the thousands of rockets fired from Gaza to Israel. Why does nobody tell the whole story? According to B`Tselem , an Israeli human rights organisation, & the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs 21 Israelis were killed by rocket fire from Gaza in the period from June 2004 till the end of January 2009. IN the same period over 3000 Gazans were killed by fire from Israel`s army and air force , nearly one fifth of them children. This is a bit more precise than Michael King`s “many casualties” and tells a completely different story.

    • Indeed, Charley. And the role of the Israeli peace and human rights activists is much underestimated/not well known in the west. It’s easy and safe for us to voice our opinion on what’s happening to Gaza and the West Bank but Israeli activists pay a high price for it. They’re attacked as “Arab lovers”, “traitors” and “the enemy within”, demonstrating how Israel’s policies on the Occupied Territories are polarizing its own society and destroying its democracy.

  4. Ian Lowery says:

    Michael King is wrong, Hamas did not “violently take control of Gaza”, they won free and fair elections which were supervised by many luminaries from the world including even our own MEP who told me categorically that these were properly organised elections the result of which he saw as completely fair.

    Fatah is a completely different story who many Palestinians see as the Israelis poodle. Israel and the US armed them up so that they could create mayhem in Gaza even though they were not the majority representatives of the Palestinian people. Further more, Israel systematically imprisoned a large proportion of the Hamas representatives.

    Where Michael King falls into a really deep hole is his claim of “executions without a trial of those who are suspected as “colaborators with Israel”.

    So exactly what were the Mossad hit-team doing in Dubai when Mahmoud al-Mabhouh suffered extra-judicial assassination.

    Spying carries the penalty of capital punishment in many many countries world wide including the US, in these circumstance what makes the execution of convicted spies in Gaza so unique?

    • Thanks for that, Ian. What’s remarkable, ironic and rarely remarked upon in the sweeping official and media narrative is that in some ways Hamas was Israel’s own creation. At the height of Fatah’s political dominance under Aarafat’s leadership, Israel was desperate to find any excuse not to negotiate so they carefully nurtured the nascent Hamas, allowing it to register as a political organisation in Israel and even funding it. The idea of course was to counter-balance Fatah’s power and influence among Palestinians. Then the Israelis could ask the west: “How can we negotiate with Fatah when it can’t even lead a united people?” Now, it’s come full circile. Hamas is the bete noir and Fatah the poodle. (Google this article by Jeremy Hammond in Foreign Policy journal: ‘The Rise of Hamas in Gaza’; January 2010).

      No doubt Israel will go into any future negotiations and deploy the same tactics as they did during the Oslo process, where they made Arafat an offer he could only refuse. The long term Israeli strategy has always been to delay any settlement until it has created all the necessary “facts on the ground” – a de facto “Greater Israel” beyond the 1967 line and a divided and unviable Palestinian “bantustan”.

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