STEPHEN GLOVER: Why would the BBC take the word of a terrorist group?

STEPHEN GLOVER: What an odd state of affairs it is when our national broadcaster takes the word of a barbaric terrorist group over that of a democratic government

Truth is the first casualty of war. This adage has been attributed to several sources.

The truth isn’t always easy for the media to discover at the best of times, and when bombs are going off, and heated claims and counter-claims are being made, it’s even harder to find out what has happened. It is also tremendously important.

On Tuesday evening, there was a blast at al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza in which hundreds of people are reported to have been killed, including many children. It’s possible this seismic event will serve to intensify and widen the conflict.

Who was responsible for this outrage? That was the question this newspaper asked on its front page yesterday morning. Was it the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) or Palestinian terrorists? There was then no way of knowing, which is why the Mail didn’t point a finger.

Other media organisations, especially the BBC, have been less circumspect. Although Israel quickly denied any responsibility, reporter Jon Donnison declared on BBC News within hours of the strike: ‘It’s hard to see what else this could be, really, given the size of the explosion, other than an Israeli air strike, or several air strikes.’

The burning hospital building after the blast at al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza

This opinion was broadcast to huge numbers of people, including in the Middle East. Auntie is much-respected in the Arab world, and her word is taken seriously there by politicians and ordinary folk alike.

Over on BBC1’s News At Ten, veteran correspondent Jeremy Bowen was offering a similar view, albeit in slightly less forthright terms. He observed that the missile which had hit the hospital was ‘very powerful’ and questioned whether Palestinian Islamic Jihad (a junior partner of Hamas, blamed for the blast by the Israelis) possessed missiles that ‘had that much power in them’.

Since the BBC rushed to judgment, the IDF have produced evidence which plausibly suggests — I’ll put it no stronger — that they weren’t responsible for the attack on the al-Ahli Hospital.

The IDF released an audio clip procured by Israeli military intelligence in which two alleged Hamas terrorists can be heard discussing the explosion, and saying that the rocket came from Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Although Israel quickly denied any responsibility, reporter Jon Donnison declared on BBC News within hours of the strike: ‘It’s hard to see what else this could be, really, given the size of the explosion, other than an Israeli air strike, or several air strikes’

The Israelis also produced images that demonstrated that there was no structural damage to buildings around the al-Ahli hospital, no craters in the adjacent car park and no debris consistent with an air strike. They claimed that a direct hit from one of their missiles would have caused far more destruction.

A fair and reasonable person will surely take on board what the IDF have said. I don’t say we must swallow it whole. It’s possible new evidence will emerge that contradicts the Israelis. But they could well be in the clear.

That is what the U.S. government believes. Joe Biden, who doesn’t express himself in the dignified language one hopes to hear from an American President, said yesterday in Israel that the attack appeared to have been carried out by ‘the other team’.

The BBC, by contrast, implied immediately after the bombing that the Israelis were responsible. Anyone watching Jon Donnison’s report, and probably Jeremy Bowen’s, would have got the impression that the Israelis were guilty of a war crime. Both men, by the way, have previously been accused of anti-Israeli bias.

There is further evidence of the Corporation’s partiality. At 7.49pm on Tuesday, minutes after the outrage, BBC News (World) tweeted to its 40 million followers: ‘Hundreds of people have been killed in an Israeli strike on a hospital in Gaza, according to Palestinian officials.’

The identity of these officials wasn’t specified, but since the claim of Israeli responsibility came from Gaza, we can assume that these particular Palestinian officials were Hamas — a terrorist organisation that murdered some 1,400 Israelis, and took around 200 hostages, 12 days ago.

Wounded Palestinians sit in al-Shifa hospital in Gaza City, central Gaza Strip, after arriving from al-Ahli hospital on Tuesday

Auntie is evidently prepared to quote Hamas without issuing a health warning. Not so in the case of the Israelis. Yesterday morning, the same BBC News (World) tweeted: ‘Daniel Hagari, a spokesman for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), says communication from Gaza discussed misfired rocket [sic]. The BBC has not been able to verify Hagari’s claims.’

In other words, Hamas’s claims about the attack, which may well be false, are taken at face value. Whereas Israel’s claims, which may well be true, are kept at arm’s length by the BBC, which is at pains to tell us that they haven’t been verified.

What a very odd state of affairs it is when our national broadcaster is readier to take the word of a barbaric terrorist organisation than that of a democratically elected government.

On Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday morning, presenter Mishal Husain interviewed the IDF’s Lt Col Peter Lerner almost as though he were a representative of a criminal organisation. She wanted ‘an independent body’ to investigate Israeli claims of innocence, though the IDF had just openly shared persuasive evidence in a way Hamas would never dream of doing.

We shouldn’t be surprised by the BBC’s behaviour in view of its refusal to describe the mass murderers of Hamas as terrorists — a reluctance that seems at least partly driven by the Corporation’s desire to curry favour in the Arab world.

Israel’s President Isaac Herzog expresses the incredulity of many of his fellow countrymen — and many in Britain — in today’s Mail when he says: ‘The BBC reporting is atrocious. The fact that the BBC does not recognise Hamas as a terror organisation requires a complete legal battle and public battle. It’s unbelievable. What other type of torture do they want before they decide it was a terrorist organisation?’

Mr Herzog is a moderate who stands above the Israeli government, and is no ally of the country’s prime minister, the abrasive and hardline Benjamin Netanyahu.

The surroundings of Al-Ahli Baptist Hospital after it was hit in Gaza City

Will the BBC take a hard look at itself? Will it ask itself again why it doesn’t describe Hamas as terrorists? Will it admit it was wrong to be so precipitate in implying that Israel was guilty of the hospital attack? Will it examine its tendency to take the claims of a terrorist group more seriously than those of an elected government?

I fear the answer to all these questions is ‘No’. And yet I still believe that there are many honest and scrupulous journalists at the BBC. I’m also sure that some of them have qualms about the coverage of recent days.

Admittedly, the Corporation is far from being the only offender. The front page headline of yesterday’s Financial Times read: ‘Gaza health ministry says hundreds killed in Israeli air strike in hospital.’

Well, they would, wouldn’t they? For as was noted yesterday by the Guardian newspaper — far more balanced than the FT — the Gaza health ministry is run by Hamas, though admittedly the Financial Times later acknowledged this point in its piece.

But the BBC, because it is so powerful both at home and abroad, is the most egregious offender. The instant condemnation of the hospital bombing by Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt — and their conviction that Israel was guilty — must owe a lot to the BBC’s reporting in the immediate aftermath.

Truth is indeed the first casualty of war — and especially when the world’s most influential broadcaster jumps to conclusions without a shred of evidence.

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