BBC News Selectively Report on Protests

Graham Bell, 16 May 2011

Categories: Democracy | Protest | BBC News |

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At least two rallies took place in central London on Saturday afternoon, both within short distance of the houses of Parliament. Opposite Downing Street on Whitehall was a rally entitled “End the Siege on Gaza – Free Palestine”, to commemorate the Nakba, or "catastrophe", the 1948 expulsion of half the population of Palestine. At Old Palace Yard, a “Rally Against Debt” was held, organised by the Tax Payers Alliance, which called for higher cuts from the coalition government. Both rallies were of equal size (see photos below), and, one would assume, equally likely to be picked up by an unbiased press.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the rally organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign outside Whitehall went unreported by all of the UK press. The Rally Against Debt was picked up by the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Daily Express and the BBC. The coverage from the right-wing press is to be expected, as organisers of the event doubled up as journalists for the newspapers. However, for the BBC and the Guardian to pick up one rally and ignore the other should be more surprising.

Photos of both rallies on Saturday 14th May in London - Click to enlarge

Not only did the BBC choose only one rally to cover; they aired snippets from speeches given on the morning, both on television and on their website, thereby voicing the concerns of the protest to the country. Compare this to the recent occasion on which anti-war protesters called for an end to the occupation of Afghanistan and marched from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square on the 20th November 2010. The attendance at this protest was 28 times as high as that of the Rally Against Debt. None of the speeches which followed were aired by the BBC, even though there were up to 10,000 protesters in Trafalgar square for the afternoon.

For a public service news organisation, who we may expect to cover the voice of protesters accurately, there are some real disparities here. BBC reporting now gives the illusion that the voice of those speaking out against government policy is nowhere near as loud as those agreeing with it.

The story did not make the BBC news through a news wire agency, as neither Reuters nor Associated Press ran a story on the Rally Against Debt. Some may argue that it may have been a coincidence or a mistake to have covered one rally but not the other. However, a better understanding for the lack of coverage might be gained after considering just a few examples of the BBC’s general attitude towards the fate of the Palestinians.

A protest in 2009 outside the BBC in Portland Place saw 7,000 people calling for the BBC to broadcast an appeal from the Disasters Emergency Committee for aid to Gaza – after which they still refused. Similarly, just last week, during a Radio 1 live session, the word “Palestine” was censored from a Mic Righteous song featuring the lyric “free Palestine”. Countless other examples exist, such as the selective use of the words “kidnap” and “arrest”, depending on whether it is Israel or Palestine capturing an opponent. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that a protest commemorating the Nakba is not given any airtime.

As for the disproportionate coverage of the Rally Against Debt, it is interesting to note that some time ago, BBC journalists were told that the word “cuts” made the government austerity programme appear more friendly, and that the word “savings” should be used instead. Again in the weekend's reporting we can expect that the BBC is peddling the government line, and using the rally to suggest widespread support for the “savings”.

For a fully democratic society, the proportionality of protest coverage is out of control. Government media will always emphasise the importance of a demonstration which fits with the government line. The net effect is that the message of demonstrations getting out to news viewers is distorted; the numbers on the street mean very little compared to the numbers getting the news at home. As George Monbiot wrote in 2004, the BBC is “from time to time spectacularly and disastrously disciplined by the government, generally acting in concert with the right-wing press”.

Categories in which this article appears: Democracy | Protest | BBC News |

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