Softball interviews with Israeli ministers breach impartiality code, BBC admits

Moshe Yaalon, Israel’s defense minister, has told a series of lies on British radio. (Munich Security Conference/Wikimedia Commons)

A BBC investigation has found that one of its senior presenters, Sarah Montague, breached the organization’s editorial standards on impartiality in a radio interview she conducted with Israeli defense minister Moshe Yaalon in March.

The investigation was carried out following allegations of pro-Israel bias against Montague’s interview by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) and a number of concerned individuals who complained to the BBC.

The ruling against Montague is the second time in recent months that the BBC has upheld a complaint initiated by the PSC.

In the first ruling, the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) agreed with complainants that an online BBC article about Gaza’s tunnels had breached the organization’s accuracy guidelines by presenting its pro-Israel author, Eado Hecht,  as an “independent” defense analyst.

The two ECU rulings highlight just how often the BBC provides an unchallenged platform to Israel’s spokespeople.

Montague’s interview with Yaalon on the current affairs radio program Today was shocking in that a supposedly impartial journalist remained completely silent as the defense minister told lie after lie on air, including the outrageous claim that “the Palestinians enjoy already political independence … And we are happy with it.”

In his first response to complainants, George Mann, assistant editor of Today, wrote via email: “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy Sarah Montague’s interview with Moshe Yaalon … Having listened back [to the interview], I feel she challenged him well.”

There were, however, no challenges from Montague to Yaalon’s propaganda, so Mann’s statement was deluded at best, an act of complicity in defending the bias at worst.

After being challenged again, Mann continued to defend his presenter and so complaints were made to the ECU, which, in the BBC’s complaints system, is one stage away from the BBC Trust.

Last week, all complainants received an email message from Fraser Steel, the BBC’s head of editorial complaints, on behalf of the ECU.

Steel, announcing that he would be upholding the complaint, wrote: “Mr. Yaalon was allowed to make several controversial statements … without any meaningful challenge, and the program-makers have accepted that the interviewer ought to have interrupted him and questioned him on his assertions.”

Steel then tries to excuse Montague’s appalling silence as Israel’s defense minister took over the BBC airwaves by claiming that Montague was badly briefed by researchers and didn’t have much time to make the recording.

He concludes: “The result was that the output fell below the BBC’s standards of impartiality.”

Damage is done

So, will Montague and other presenters on Today — billed by the BBC as its flagship news and current affairs program — be giving free rein to Israeli spokespeople again?

Steel writes: “The program-makers recognize that more recording time and greater attention to background detail would have ensured that the interview was managed appropriately and the editor has asked the production team to factor this in to future interviews.”

But, of course, the damage caused by the Yaalon interview has already been done.

Once again, the BBC allowed an Israeli spokesperson to completely airbrush the occupation.

The ECU’s ruling will eventually be published online, but only an apology on the Today program, where the interview was aired, could go some way towards mitigating its noxious effects.

In the other positive ECU ruling published this year, Steel upheld complaints against the BBC website’s description of Eado Hecht — a lecturer in the pay of the Israeli army — as an “independent defense analyst.”

Hecht authored an article on BBC Online in July last year headlined “Gaza: How Hamas tunnel network grew.”

The article itself is classic Israeli propaganda, devoted to describing tunnels “booby-trapped with explosives” and repeating the lie that Israel withdrew from Gaza.

It was written and uploaded by the BBC two weeks into Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza and is an attempt to justify the destruction inflicted on Gaza’s people. The tunnels, Hecht writes, are “almost impossible to detect” and so the Israelis are compelled to “go in and search for them house by house.”

And, because merely “blowing in the entrance or some of the airshafts leave most of the tunnel intact … the entire length of the tunnel and its branches must be located, mapped and then completely destroyed.”

Seven hundred Palestinians had already been killed in Gaza in 15 days when this article — which completely ignores the Palestinian perspective — was put onto the BBC’s website. By the end of the slaughter towards the end of August, more than 2,200 Palestinians lay dead and whole areas of Gaza were reduced to rubble.

It’s repellent enough that the BBC commissioned and printed an article attempting to justify this destruction, but even more so that its virulently pro-Israel author was presented as a neutral commentator.

Israeli privileges

Once again, the BBC initially rejected complaints that presenting Hecht as independent was inaccurate and therefore misleading to BBC audiences.

Complainants were forced to bring their arguments to the ECU, where Steel agreed that Hecht’s connections with the Israeli military — he lectured at the army’s Command and General Staff College — rendered him a partisan observer of the situation.

In a letter to complainants, Steel added that ”articles published under Dr. Hecht’s name reveal a clear pro-Israel perspective and offer guidance and analysis as to how Israel might better prosecute its dispute [sic] with the Palestinians.”

BBC Online’s description of Hecht was judged by the ECU to have breached the following editorial guideline on accuracy. “We should normally identify on-air and online sources of information and significant contributors, and provide their credentials, so that our audiences can judge their status,” the guidelines state.

Publishing the ruling online in February, the BBC writes: “The editor of BBC News Online has reminded staff that it is important to give sufficiently detailed information to enable readers to calibrate a contributor’s affiliations.”

Which is all well and good, but why are BBC editors commissioning such biased articles in the first place? And, if they must, why don’t they clearly mark them as opinion pieces?

This is meant to be a news organization without an agenda, but Hecht’s propaganda piece (minus the word “independent” in his biographical note) remains on the BBC website, alongside other similar articles written by pro-Israel commentators whenever Israel is conducting a full-blown assault on Gaza.

There are no comparable articles commissioned by the BBC from Palestinian or pro-Palestinian commentators, in which they are given carte blanche to set out their stall.

This is a privilege afforded by the BBC only to Israel’s spokespeople and, until now, those spokespeople have taken full advantage of this freedom across the BBC’s output, whether broadcast or online.

It is to be hoped that these two ECU rulings will go some way to pushing back those privileges and introducing something that more resembles professional journalism in the BBC’s coverage of Israel’s occupation.




So the BBC admits their broadcasts were impartial, yet these broadcasts still remain on their website! Clearly then, they are merely paying lip-service to impartiality, thus the sincerity of their 'admission' holds little credibility.


I wrote a detailed complaint to the BBC and received, obviously, the standard email from Mann, rather than an answer to specifics.
Despite this ruling, I believe the BBC will continue to give air and tv space to such propaganda. This is policy, not simply ignorance or the excuse that "Montague was badly briefed by researchers and didn’t have much time to make the recording." - In this case I ask the BBC, whether the public should be deceived by badly briefed presenters who are not given enough time to know what they are talking about?
The question is, how to tackle this obvious bias, over and above the ECU?


I am sick of being made to pay a TV licence to have such biased drivel rammed down our throats to suit the Zionist agenda.
I myself have made complaints on various occasions regarding innacurate ir biased reporting for Israel only to be brushed aside like an annoying bee. Well it's about time we stopped this Licence fee nonsense and the BBC do what other television companies do and seek their funding elsewhere. We have to pay because otherwise we cannot watch any TV.
It is not fair that outside of the UK others don't have to pay to watch BBC TV so why should we?


Although I am not a fan of Press-TV, it is occasionally interesting to watch, if you overlook the style of presentation, and there's a piece on the BBC, which raises a few useful bits of information, e.g., that there are individuals at the BBC who do not approve of BBC reporting on Palestine, but are afraid to raise their concerns.


This WILL happen again, and again, and again, etc., etc. This type of reporting has happened in the past, and there's no way it will be stopped until a fundamental change in the UK's foreign policy which starts treating israel as a war criminal and human rights abuser that it is.


There are terrible biases in the BBc around specific things - and Israel is one of them, mainly because Israel has deliberately targeted the BBC over many years. It is now beginning to change as journalists become better informed about Israel and as social media expands. It is important to keep the pressure up AND to resist the Tory Government agenda of 'clipping the wings' of the BBC. David Cameron is the most pro-Israel PM we have seen for a long time. If you look back at such things as Gay Rights, I can remember the time when, as a matter of policy, the BBC simply didn't acknowledge it. Early coverage of the Vietnam war was lamentable. You have to keep the pressure up and force change - and the most important thing to stress is the need for balance and fairness in coverage. The Israeli's are more terrified of this than anything else because they know what they are doing on a daily basis. Netanyahu's ultra right wing Government will massively alienate politicians in Europe and eventually the spotlight will turn on Israel in a much more critical way and then years and years of Israeli lies will become exposed.


BBC news on internet as a rule totally ignore the daily incidents during which the occupation forces murder palestinians ,even if the dead is a child, but always writes detailed information about the rare incidents when there are zionist victims of palestinian violence, even if they only have received a scratch.

Amena Saleem

Amena Saleem's picture

Amena Saleem is a journalist and activist. She has twice driven on convoys to Gaza and spent seven years working for Palestine Solidarity Campaign in the UK.