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.
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.
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.
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.
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.