Is It Possible to Curb the Extreme Bias of the BBC?
Former Israeli ambassador to the UK, Zvi Shtauber, told me in an interview in 2005: “The BBC is a problem in itself. Over the years I had endless conversations with them. Any viewer who looks at the BBC’s information on Israel for a consistent period gets a distorted picture. It doesn’t result from a single broadcast here or there. It derives from the BBC’s method of broadcasting. When reporting from Israel, the mosque on the Temple Mount is usually shown in the background which gives viewers the impression that Jerusalem is predominantly Muslim.” Shtauber summed up his remarks up by saying that it was almost a daily task for him to react to the BBC’s distortions on Israel.1
Over the past decades there have been ongoing complaints about the BBC’s anti-Israel bias.2 There is more than enough material for a book about this. Camera UK maintains a special monitoring site focusing on the BBC’s anti-Israel bias.3
Only a few recent examples can be given here. Senior BBC producer Rosie Garthwaite is working on a new documentary critical of Israeli actions in East Jerusalem. She has already admitted to sharing inaccurate pro-Palestinian propaganda on social media. Garthwaite deleted a false map illustration from her personal Twitter account that greatly overstated alleged Palestinian land loss to Israel. She is also accused of sharing other false or controversial claims about Israel on social media. Garthwaite has wrongly suggested that Gaza has only one border, which is controlled by Israel. This is just a selection of her anti-Israel propaganda.4
Senior BBC journalist Nimesh Thaker used the Twitter account @notthatbothered to belittle antisemitism. He promotes extremists such as Jackie Walker who was expelled by Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s chairmanship due to her antisemitism. Thaker has also used an anonymous social media account to support a text against Jewish presenter Emma Barnett after she spoke out about the personal impact of antisemitism on her life.5
Jewish activist David Collier wrote that one doesn’t need to wonder anymore about why the leftist fringe group Jewish Voice for Labour was so often given BBC airtime. He added that people like Thaker write the news that millions of people read each day and concluded that nothing in the UK bears more responsibility for the spread of the false anti-Israel narrative than the BBC.6
One can go on and on. Shtauber said : “Several key positions in the BCC are held by extreme leftists.” He mentioned that the BBC publishes its personnel advertisements in the left wing daily, The Guardian.7
With so many biased journalists, it isn’t surprising that many other cases of one-sidedness — not related to Jews or Israel — occur.8 Yet in the past other than criticize the BBC publicly, there was little one could do.
Previous Conservative governments have neglected the BBC bias. The situation may now be changing. In June the British government appointed Tim Davie as Director General of the corporation. He has been making critical remarks about the BBC’s lack of impartiality similar to those of many critics. In a BBC staff meeting in early September Davie said: “If you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media then that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC.”9
The big question is whether a director general can turn a body permeated with biased journalists like the BBC into an impartial one. One way would be to tell the 50 or so top executives that they are fired and offer them the, option to re-apply for a position. They would have to bring all their social media material of the last few years. Independent researchers should investigate their work at the BBC. They should be asked to explain their bias in the past and how they intend to prevent that in the future. For people where left leaning values are almost a part of their bloodstream, this often may be too difficult a task. As a matter of principle not more than half of them would be rehired. Such a method is however not permitted in democratic British society.
British Jewish lawyer Trevor Asserson — now living in Israel – has invested his own money from 2000 to 2004 in four well documented studies detailing with the BBC’s systematic bias against Israel. He concluded that the BBC’s coverage of the Middle East is infected by an apparent widespread antipathy toward the country. This distorted media reporting creates an atmosphere in which antisemitism can thrive.
Asserson remarked that the BBC’s monopoly derives from a legally binding contract with the British government. He defined the BBC’s fifteen legal obligations under its charter. Asserson then showed many instances in which the BBC breached several of the guidelines, and in some cases even most.
A few examples of Asserson’s findings: In his first report, he wrote that in the BBC: “Vriolic comments are part of facts or unattributed quotations.”10
He also analyzed two extremely partial portraits of Sharon and Arafat that had appeared on the BBC website. Asserson explained: “An unattributed comment implied Sharon uses unbridled violence.” Asserson exposed this as an extreme lie. One of the reasons was that Sharon was subject to a rule of law that had stripped him of his office in the past.
About Arafat Asserson wrote that he was described on the website with terms such as heroism, selfless devotion to public duty, hard-working and having natural leadership talents. Arafat’s close involvement in organizing terror attacks was overlooked. After Asserson published his report, the two portraits were removed from the BBC website.11
In his second report, Asserson brought proof that the BBC failed to give adequate prominence to many important topics that would give a negative image of the Palestinians.12
In his third report, Asserson compared the BBC’s reporting on British soldiers in Iraq with that of Israeli troops in the conflict with the Palestinians. He concluded that in Iraq: “Coalition troops are described in warm and glowing terms with sympathy being evoked for them both as individuals and for their military predicament. In contrast, Israeli troops are painted as faceless, ruthless and brutal killers.” 13 He and his coauthor showed how widespread the BBC bias was by offering a substantial number of widely diverse examples.14
Asserson’s reports had some effect. In November 2003, the BBC suddenly created a senior editorial post to advise on its Middle East coverage. A former editor of the BBC’s 9 o’clock news, Malcolm Balen, was selected for this position. The then head of BBC news, Richard Sambrook, told Asserson that his reports had been one of the reasons behind the decision to create the position.
leased which led to a series of legal battles to make its content public.16 After eight years, the Supreme Court decided that the Balen report is exempt from The Freedom of Information Act.17 The BBC had however to disclose its legal costs on this matter which were about half a million dollars at the time. One wonders why the BBC, if the inquiry found that its reporting was impartial, would spend so much money to keep it secret.
It would be good if sources in the Jewish community would send all Assserson’s material to the new director general. It may save him much time trying to understand the manipulations of part of the BBC staff.
Honest Reporting was one of those who at the time made a major unsuccessful effort to get the Balen report published.18 It could now suggest to Mr. Davie to retrieve this report from the BBC’s safe and finally make it public. It may show that the BBC heads, already more than 15 years ago, knew that their company was biased in its Mid-East reporting.
1 Manfred Gerstenfeld, Israel and Europe: An Expanding Abyss? JCPA, The Adenauer Foundation, 2005 (Jerusalem, Israel) pg. 189
7Manfred Gerstenfeld, Israel and Europe: An Expanding Abyss? JCPA, The Adenauer Foundation, 2005 (Jerusalem, Israel) pg. 189
10Manfred Gerstenfeld, Israel and Europe: An Expanding Abyss? (Jerusalem JCPA, The Adenauer Foundation, 2005) pg. 196
11Manfred Gerstenfeld, Israel and Europe: An Expanding Abyss? pg. 196
12Ibid, pg. 199
13Ibid, pg. 200
14Ibid, pg. 201