When the British Government announced on May 11, 2016, that it was planning changes to the way the BBC is governed and overseen, it was stepping into a minefield.
To millions of people, the publicly-supported British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is the gold standard in news and entertainment. Award-winning director Peter Kosminsky spoke for many recently when he called the BBC the “envy of the world” – and warned against making any changes to the corporation.
Yet the BBC routinely violates its own mandate to provide high-quality, impartial news. When it comes to Jewish issues and to Israel, the BBC – far from being a paragon of journalistic integrity – is often biased, selective, or downright wrong.
The BBC made it seem as if it the attack was perpetrated by the Jewish victims.
Take the recent wave of stabbings in Israel, which has seen scores of Israelis killed and wounded. When a terrorist murdered two Israeli Jews in Jerusalem on October 3, 2015, the BBC headline initially read “Palestinian shot dead after Jerusalem attack kills two” – making it seem as if the attack was perpetrated by the Jewish victims.
Later that month, the former Chairman of the BBC, Lord Michael Grade, complained the BBC “deliberately misled” viewers in its coverage of stabbings attacks. The BBC, he wrote, created a false equivalence between terrorists and victims, and showed “inexcusable bias” in its reporting on the attacks.
Lord Grade singled out BBC reporter Orla Guerin, criticizing her for equating “Israeli victims of terrorism and Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli security forces in the act of carrying out terror attacks”. Ms. Guerin also lied in her reporting, Lord Grade asserted, claiming that Palestinian political groups were not involved in the attacks when her own reporting later showed otherwise.
(It wasn’t the first time Ms. Guerin was criticized for playing fast and loose with the truth where Israel was concerned. In 2014, covering the Israel-Gaza war, Ms. Guerin falsely and repeatedly reported that Hamas was not using human shields. It was only a year later that the BBC Trust finally responded to complaints, acknowledging that Ms. Guerin’s reporting had indeed been inaccurate. By then, her misleading comments had already been heard by millions.)
At times, antipathy to Israel has distorted the BBC’s reporting of Jewish-related issues.
That was the case on January 11, 2015, after terrorists murdered four Jews in a kosher supermarket in Paris. When veteran BBC reporter Tim Wilcox interviewed a Jewish woman at the scene who said the attack was reminiscent of 1930s Europe, Wilcox dragged Israel – and his own anti-Israel bias – into the interview with the traumatized woman. “Many...many...many critics, though, of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well,” he bizarrely said. Though Wilcox did tweet a half-hearted apology after complaints, the BBC stood by him, rejecting complaints from outraged viewers and declining to take action.
In the aftermath of that terror attack, the head of the BBC Arabic service, Tarik Kafala, explained to the Independent newspaper that the BBC found the term “terrorist” too “loaded” and difficult to define, and so did not use it to describe the Paris attackers. Less than six months later, however, a BBC interviewer did use the term terrorist – when interviewing Israeli politician Tzipi Livni. "Would you describe your parents as terrorists?” he asked Ms. Livni, whose parents fought the British in pre-state Israel as part of the underground group the Irgun. When it came to Israel, it seemed, the term “terrorist” was suddenly acceptable.
On May 8 and 9, 2016, two separate BBC features described the Christian holy site Qasr al Yahud in the Jordan Rift Valley as “the most dangerous church in the world,” asserting that Israeli soldiers rigged land mines in the area (and strongly implying they did so as an anti-Christian act). The truth – that nearby landmines from the 1967 war are well marked (and are being cleared) and that Qasr al Yahud is in fact an Israeli national park – open to visitors from all over the world – somehow never made it into either report.
Given all these outrageous distortions and omissions, how has the BBC escaped serious questions about its seemingly anti-Israel slant?
It hasn’t. In 2004, the BBC’s then Director of News, Richard Sambrook, faced an unprecedented number of complaints about the BBC’s impartiality in the Arab-Israeli conflict. (BBC reporter Barbara Plett describing bursting into tears on the air when she watched Yassir Arafat being airlifted out of his compound and taken to hospital that year certainly sparked some of the complaints.)
BBC executives hid the report, refusing to make known any of the results of BBC’s bias against Israel.
The resulting report – compiled by the journalist Malcom Balen and known as the Balen Report – was concluded in November 2004. BBC executives then hid the report in its archives, refusing to make known any of the results of BBC’s bias against Israel.
Not only did the BBC refuse to release the Balen Report, it spent nearly half a million dollars fighting to keep it secret. From 2005 until his death in 2011 British lawyer Steven Sugar filed Freedom of Information requests to compel the BBC to release the report – and then followed up the BBC’s ensuing refusals in British courts. In 2012, after Mr. Sugar had died, Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that the BBC need never release the contents of its own inquiry.
Perhaps the current proposals to change the way the BBC is governed will do what countless complaints, years of monitoring and frustration, and years of legal maneuvers have failed to do: hold the Corporation to its own standards of providing high-level, impartial news. The British Government's White Paper on overhauling the BBC includes proposals to replace the self-governing BBC Trust with a new board, and placing the broadcaster under the supervision of Ofcom, Britain's communications regulator, which would investigate complaints about violations of impartiality and accuracy.
The proposed changes are being fiercely debated. But after so many years of biased, distorted reporting, change is desperately needed. The new proposals are worth a try.