Director of BBC television signs The Guardian’s pro-Israel letter

Director of BBC television Danny Cohen. (BBC Media Centre)

The BBC’s outgoing director of television has signed a letter published in The Guardian last week, pleading for Israel not to be singled out as a target for cultural boycotts.

Danny Cohen, a member of the BBC’s executive board and one of the most senior figures in the organization, joins top Israel apologists — including the chair of Conservative Friends of Israel and the vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel — in putting his name to the letter.

(The BBC recently announced that Cohen was to move on from his position at the BBC after eight years, but will retain his post through the end of November.)

The letter published in The Guardian states that “Cultural boycotts singling out Israel are divisive and discriminatory, and will not further peace,” and calls for “cultural engagement” in place of boycotts.

As Omar Robert Hamilton writes in Counterpunch: “When you’re dealing with the mechanized destruction of an entire people by one of the most technologically advanced and diplomatically shielded militaries in the history of mankind then talk, in 2015, of ‘cultural engagement’ is nothing more than further cover for Israel’s continuing colonization of what remains of Palestine.”

It is to this letter, and the highly politicized opinions within it, that the BBC’s director of television, whose salary is funded by license fee payers, has put his name.

In response to a query I sent, asking if Cohen is in breach of any BBC guidelines requiring employees to show impartiality regarding the situation in Palestine and Israel, the BBC Press Office sent this inconsequential reply: “Danny Cohen was expressing his view about his belief in the importance of creative freedom of expression.”

This is ridiculous.

The views expressed in the letter do not constitute a request for unfettered “creative freedom of expression” but are a plea for Israel to be protected from the consequences of its illegal occupation of Palestinian land and its siege on Gaza.


The letter also declares support for a new organization called Culture for Coexistence, whose committee includes at least one Israeli, but no Palestinians, and board members of Conservative Friends of Israel, but no one from a pro-Palestinian organization. The website itself is sparse, containing only the text of the letter to The Guardian and a list of committee members.

It looks suspiciously like a front for a bigger hasbara (or propaganda) organization.

Cohen’s fellow signatories to The Guardian letter include Eric Pickles MP, chair of Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI), a pro-Israel lobby group which, according to its website, “works to ensure that Israel’s case is fairly represented in Parliament.”

Another 13 members of parliament, apart from Pickles, have signed the letter. Seven of them are CFI’s parliamentary officers, five others are either members of CFI or have recently been on one of its delegations to Israel, and the 13th, Michael Dugher, is vice-chair of Labour Friends of Israel — the Labour Party’s equivalent group.

There are no pro-Palestinian MPs among the signatories.

Openly pro-Israel

There are former BBC employees on the signature list as well, including George Weidenfeld, who worked for the BBC Overseas Service, and is now vice-chair of the EU-Israel Forum. Weidenfeld also founded the eponymous Weidenfeld Safe Havens Fund, whose stated aim is to “rescue” Christians from Syria. The fund has received financial support from the Jewish National Fund, an organization essential to the continued ethnic cleansing of historical Palestine.

These signatories are openly pro-Israel. Cohen’s position at the BBC, however, requires neutrality. If he supports Israel in its suppression of the Palestinian people, those views should not be allowed to affect his work at the BBC.

And yet, here he is, with others, very publicly arguing for a continuation of the status quo which favors the Israeli state against the occupied Palestinian people, employing vacuous terms such as “building bridges” to hide the fact that Israel is a serial violator of international law and Palestinian human rights, whose senior politicians openly declare that there will never be a Palestinian state. 

It is a stupefying display of favoritism towards Israel from the BBC’s director of television, a man whose job supposedly demands impartiality.

Cohen’s influence within the BBC is huge. He oversees the BBC’s four main TV channels, BBC One, BBC Two, BBC Three and BBC Four, in addition to BBC iPlayer, and online content for BBC Television. He also oversees the drama, entertainment, knowledge and comedy genres and BBC Films. Further responsibilities include the BBC Television archive and BBC Productions, Europe’s largest television production group.

And his views on Israel and the occupation are now out in the open.

Shockingly, he is not the only senior figure at the BBC known for pro-Israel sympathies.

Endemic bias

The BBC’s director of news and current affairs, James Harding, once told a conference organized by the pro-Zionist Jewish Chronicle newspaper: “I am pro-Israel. I believe in the State of Israel.”

Speaking in 2011, when he was still editor of Rupert Murdoch’s newspaper The Times, Harding added, “I would have had a real problem if I had been coming to a paper with a history of being anti-Israel. And, of course, Rupert Murdoch is pro-Israel.”

Harding is responsible for the entirety of the BBC’s news and current affairs output across BBC radio, TV and online, including its current coverage of October’s violence in Palestine and Israel. The position he holds at the BBC is described by The Guardian as “arguably the most important editorial job in Britain.”

He came to the BBC in April 2013. There he joined James Purnell, who had been appointed two weeks earlier as the BBC’s director of strategy and digital. Purnell is a former Labour MP and minister who, for two years, served as chair of Labour Friends of Israel.

But the pro-Israel bias is not present only in the BBC’s current appointments. Another signatory of the letter in last week’s Guardian is Michael Grade, who served as chair of the BBC between 2004 and 2006.

Deep support for Israel

As well as calling for Israel to be protected from boycotts, Grade last week publicly complained that the BBC was too pro-Palestinian in its coverage of events in October which have seen at least 61 Palestinians killed in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, as well as 10 Israelis.

The Jewish Chronicle reported that Grade had written to the BBC’s director general, Tony Hall, accusing the BBC of failing to show stone-throwing Palestinians in its reports and creating an “equivalence between Israeli victims of terrorism and Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli security forces in the act of carrying out terror attacks.”

Ironically, as close monitoring by Palestine Solidarity Campaign has demonstrated, the BBC’s coverage in October has focused almost exclusively on Israeli stabbing victims, and its flagship radio news program Today has even attempted to fool its audiences into thinking that all those killed during October have been Israeli.

But it would seem that, whatever lengths the BBC goes to in order to present the occupying Israeli state as a victim, it can never go far enough for some who have worked at the organization.

It cannot be denied then that support for Israel runs deep through the top layers of BBC management, both past and present, and that support probably trickles down through the rest of the BBC as a matter of corporate culture.

This could explain why BBC editors failed to see the pro-Israel bias of commissioning historian Simon Schama to make a five part series for BBC Two in 2013, during which he made what he called “the moral case for Israel” and announced, in one episode, “I am a Zionist and quite unapologetic about it.”

Schama, unsurprisingly, joined Cohen in adding his name to The Guardian letter on cultural boycotts.

Corporate culture

The same corporate culture could also explain why BBC Online’s Middle East editor, Raffi Berg, felt comfortable enough to send his colleagues an email during Israel’s November 2012 assault on Gaza asking them not to “put undue emphasis” on Israel for starting the prolonged attacks.

And it may explain why Cohen feels he can sign a letter in support of Israel without fear of reprisal from his bosses for breaching impartiality requirements.

Consumers of BBC news and current affairs may often wonder why the number of Israeli spokespersons appearing across the BBC’s output far outnumber Palestinian spokespersons, why Palestinians, when they do make a rare appearance, are constantly interrupted by BBC presenters, while Israelis such as diplomat Mark Regev are given free rein to speak almost without challenge.

They may wonder why the killing of Palestinian children by Israeli soldiers goes unreported by the BBC, while rockets fired from Gaza which cause damage to roads make headlines.

But, if the pro-Israeli views of those at the top of the BBC have created a corporate culture of pro-Israeli bias throughout its editorial ranks, then such one-sided reporting, while disgraceful, should no longer come as a surprise to anyone.




Calling this the "Guardian letter" is misleading. It's more likely the "Guardian advert".


Everyone knows that the BBC has been run as a mouthpiece for Israel for decades. Now we know who's behind it. There is a simple answer-boycott all BBC output!!


What an excellent piece of research, Ameena. Anyone interested in challenging media bias and in justice of Palestinians must thank you for giving us this invaluable tool. I've downloaded a copy for future reference.


Amena has said it all, except that the Board of Trustees at the BBC are in grave dereliction of their duty and appointment in allowing the biased top-dogs at the BBC free rein. The bias across the whole of BBC broadcasting in favour of Israel is now so endemic and blatant that it allows Danny Cohen (with Israeli lackey co-writers) room to write a public letter in defence of Israel.

picture that Danny Cohen is leaving the BBC. It saves us the trouble of making a case against him. However, the others are still there and their influence stretches into every area of Britain's media, cultural and political life. And who knows how much Cohen will influence the choosing of his successor?
What does it actually take to unseat these people for blatant bias and mis-/dis-informing Britain and those who watch or listen to the BBC abroad? I personally think this would be one of the most rewarding challenges: to insist on our entitlement to fair and accurate reporting by the BBC, which we indeed pay for.
In a court case where all evidence has to be considered, there can be none of these phone calls and emails and complaints at dinner parties when any news item indicates that Palestinians live under a brutal and illegal occupation.
There is something truly loathsome about men who, consumed by their Zionist indoctrination, are willing to abuse their powerful positions to ensure that Israel is always depicted as the good, brave, victimised little country in the Middle East.


That Cohen thought he could get away with endorsing this letter while holding his BBC position -- and that the BBC is covering up for him -- indicates how normal its pro-Israel bias is. So the BBC doesn't enforce its own (low) standards; hardly good news, unfortunately.

But I join in congratulating the author and EI for this detailed expose.


There has been almost no coverage on the current intifada since the settlers' violent infiltration on Al-Aqsa and the Haram al Sharif -only the stabbings of Israelis broke their silence -and while both Al Jazeera and RT have had regular coverage every day, the BBC has kept shtum so that any reporting of an incident on an odd day is completely lacking in context and only when Israeli's are the target.
Ironically the Israel lobby keeps harping on about the BBC's anti-Israel bias -what is it they want? Applause for every IDF atrocity on Palestinians?


The issue is not whether Cohen holds atrocious racist ideas or has signed a statement supporting such ideas. It is just that those ideas infect his work as a journalist. Surely we would not criticise a pro Palestinian journalist for expressing their views.

A related issue is that a pro Palestinian journalist who did so would almost certainly not pass below the radar as Cohen has done.


Their coverage of not only Israel but of anything linked to anti Neo Con polemic is a disgrace in a so called democratic society. Like FIFA it needs to be dissolved and started again using a competence not seen before. Stop this amateurish, bigoted reporting, where distortion and deletion of the facts are conveniently used.


Accepting israel's role in this perpetual war results in them having no reason to end it.
For this war to end, israel must want to end it. BDS provides that motivation. Telling them, "It's OK, we'll treat you the same no matter how you treat the palestinians." will motivate them to keep the war going.
Israel do not want to end this war, they are too determined to steal palestinian land. Palestine has not the power to end this war.
We must back palestine or this war will go on for a hundred years more.


The heavily-biased BBC should study the wording of the Balfour declaration, that stipulates that Britain is supportive of Jews moving into Palestinian territory, as long as no harm comes to the Palestinian people already living there, or their cultures.

In many ways, that commitment to the safe-being of the Palestinians seems to have been completely ignored for as long as Israel has existed, and the words of Balfour revealed to just be political camouflage for the extermination process taking place in Israel today, an extermination process which has at times actually been stated by approving senior Israelis to be exactly that at several times during Israel's history, though like the words of Balfour, such statements are quickly snowed over by other words that make the horrific real truth no longer evident to the world.


I understand that the role of the director of the BBC is a position that should show impartiality . Mr Cohen's and his ilk clearly showed strong anti Palestinian bias which I understand is contrary to this undertaking. Almost identical bias was shown by the BBC to the anti Apartheid campaign . The current intefada was started by Ariel Sharon and his police escort. This was bound to trigger and explosion to religious tensions .


The Balfour Declaration was given first to his Oxford classmate Rothschild, who passed it on to the Zionist leadership. Then we have Professor Ruskin at Balliol, Oxford; Cecil Rhodes; the Round Table; Chatham House;the Boer War or rather regime change for gold and diamonds; the Institute for International Relations - throughout the Commonwealth-camouflaged/renamed as the Munk Centre at the University of Toronto and called Council on Foreign Relations in NYC. The people of Britain never held the reins of government in their own hands. Why be astonished about the subversion at the BBC, which merely mirrors the conditions in the rest of the "free" world ?


I support the concept of an Israel within the 1967 borders and a flourishing Palestine to match. Who would agree with me that this is a reasonable compromise, and something well worth working for by both Israelis and Palestinians?


BBC clean up your mess and try to save your increasingly damaged reputation, the world is watching.


Well done Amena, and thank you for your watchful eye. It is because everyone wants to rely on the BBC's reputation for its impartial reporting of world events that this level of bias from the top is such an abuse of public trust. We are paying for this and we must challenge it.

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.