The BBC is coming under increasing pressure from British Members of Parliament (MPs) and leading pro-Palestinian organizations over recent decisions that throw its impartiality in reporting on the Israeli occupation into serious doubt.
During a meeting in Parliament in April, MPs put Tony Hall, the BBC’s director-general, and Chris Patten, its chairman, on the spot about appointments of pro-Israel advocates to top jobs within the organization.
John Whittingdale, a member of the ruling Conservative Party, expressed his concerns about the appointment of James Purnell to the post of BBC director of strategy and digital. While a Labour Party minister, Purnell served for two years as chairman of the hugely influential Westminster lobby group, Labour Friends of Israel.
“Just in connection with James Purnell’s appointment, can you give any example previously of where a senior management position within the BBC has been filled by somebody who’s not just politically affiliated but has been a very active recent participant in party politics?” Whittingdale said.
Hall replied that he was “satisfied” that Purnell would “buy into [the BBC’s] impartiality.”
He added,“My judgment about James was that he’s hung his boots up at the door and left politics behind some two-and-a-half to three years ago.”
Checks and balances
Sheridan referred to the appointment of James Harding, former editor of The Times, to the post of BBC director of news and current affairs. In his previous role, Harding declared “I am pro-Israel. I believe in the state of Israel” and wrote a leader article defending Israel’s massacre in Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009.
Sheridan told a hearing of a culture, media and sport committee hearing in Parliament, at which Hall and Patten were questioned, that he was concerned about the BBC’s impartiality.
He added: “Can I say that there is an organization … called The Electronic Intifada, and they have a headline called ‘Apologists for Israel Take Top Posts at the BBC,’ and they criticize [James Harding] as declaring he is a very firm supporter of Israel; they then criticize James Purnell as a former member of Labour Friends of Israel when he was a member of Parliament, and then they criticize Ceri Thomas [former editor of BBC Radio 4’s Today program] for repeatedly inviting Israeli politicians to be interviewed as opposed to the other side.
“Now I suggest you’d probably challenge those allegations, but what checks and balances are in place to ensure that when you’re covering things like Israel/Palestine, that both sides get an equal hearing?”
Hall replied: “When you enter the BBC you leave behind all those contacts you might have had, issues that you might have been involved with, and absolutely your job is about ensuring the impartiality of the BBC, and that means looking at all ranges of voices across all issues, including Israel.”
The answer did not satisfy Sheridan, who repeated: “What checks and balances are in place?”
Hall answered: “Well, there’s me, there are Complaints and there’s the [BBC] Trust. I can tell you now that James Harding and I will be absolutely clear about the impartiality when we cover Israel or Palestine or any other issue.”
It was an unconvincing response. The BBC Trust is led by Chris Patten, while the complaints department typically responds to TV license-fee payers’ concerns with standard cut-and-paste responses.
This is the reply that Complaints generally sends to BBC audience members who write with concerns about pro-Israeli bias: “I am sorry to hear you believe the BBC’s reporting from the Middle East is biased. The Corporation is committed to due impartiality in respect of all its news reports and we are careful that this is maintained. The BBC is satisfied its coverage of events in Israel and the Palestinian Authority [sic] has been balanced, fair, and accurate.
“Nevertheless, I recognize you may continue to believe our reports from the Middle East are biased and in this respect your comments have been registered.”
And this is how Complaints, lauded by Hall in Parliament, dismisses the concerns of the BBC audience. The Trust may not even get to hear those concerns. A complainant has to spend months working up several levels before reaching the Trust, which is the final stage of an arduous complaints process.
However, if Leanne Buckle, a BBC editorial adviser, then decides that the Trust is unlikely to uphold a complaint, she can refuse to put the complaint before the trustees. Her decision on what the Trust will think is made without the Trust even seeing the complaint.
It is an arbitrary and undemocratic process. Together, Complaints and the Trust amount to the BBC governing itself, with no genuine independent oversight. It is certainly not the effective system of checks and balances that Hall claimed.
As if to prove the point, last month the complaints system threw out the concerns of license-fee payers who wrote to ask why a documentary which questioned whether the Jewish exile from Jerusalem 2,000 years ago ever happened was pulled from the BBC schedule.
Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story, due to be shown on BBC Four in April, throws into doubt the basis on which the Zionist claim to the Jewish “right of return” to Palestine, and the right to colonize Palestinian land, is based.
It was pulled from BBC Four at the eleventh hour, after being widely publicized. In May, the BBC complaints system dealt with viewers who wrote to ask why it was taken off the airwaves with the following response: “As this film was never aired on the BBC, it is not open to us to investigate it or the decisions made regarding it.”
As far as the BBC is concerned, that was that. Hall’s much-vaunted Complaints was telling the people who pay for the BBC that it had no intention of looking into their concerns or giving them answers about why a film, bought with their money, had disappeared from the schedule.
For the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and other pro-Palestinian organizations, this is not the end of the matter.
This week, they have written an open letter to Hall, demanding credible reasons for pulling Jerusalem.
The signatories, listed below, write: “With no comprehensible reasons being offered by the BBC, license-fee payers are left with the words of the documentary-maker, Ilan Ziv, who, in his blog detailing the BBC’s reasoning over pulling his film, describes ‘a mixture of incompetence, political naivete [and] conscious or subconscious political pressure.’
“It is the potential of political pressure, whether conscious or subconscious, being involved in the pulling of this documentary that most concerns us. If any has been applied, and succumbed to, then the BBC’s commitment to impartiality has been compromised.
“We write to ask if a reason can be provided for removing Jerusalem from the BBC’s schedule that can disprove the reasons given by Mr. Ziv.”
Hall has yet to answer the question, put by the PSC, Middle East Monitor, the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine, Architects and Planners for Justice in Palestine, Friends of Al Aqsa and Jews for Justice for Palestinians.
As the pressure mounts on the BBC over its recent actions, it is to be hoped that he comes up with a more considered explanation than that provided to the MPs who have queried the BBC’s impartiality.