BBC rouses anger by ‘burying’ documentary on Israel

BBC rouses anger with timing of Israel documentary

By Cahal Milmo

The Independent 19 March 2003

The BBC reportedly received more than 1,000 complaints after it moved a documentary comparing Israel’s arms programme to that of Iraq from prime time to a “graveyard” slot and replaced it with a repeated film on windmills.

The corporation said yesterday it had received more than 2,500 calls about the Correspondent documentary on BBC2, Israel’s Secret Weapon, which investigated Israel’s undeclared nuclear programme. Viewers protested to the BBC by telephone and e-mail after the programme was switched from 7.15pm on Sunday because coverage of the Azores summit on Iraq over-ran. The documentary, which asked whether there were double standards in the world’s treatment of Israel and Iraq, was strongly criticised by Jewish groups, including the British Board of Deputies, before its original screening time.

But when it was suddenly replaced with an old documentary on windmills by the steeplejack-turned-celebrity Fred Dibnah, the BBC received a further flood of complaints that it had caved in to political pressure. The film was eventually shown on Monday at 11.20pm after an extended Newsnight on the Iraq crisis.

The BBC refused to say how many of the calls were complaints but 300 phone calls and 720 e-mails are understood to have criticised the decision. A BBC spokeswoman said: “For a programme of its type it has received a very large number of calls. There were complaints about the decision to postpone. But it was taken purely because of the Azores summit over-running. When we are dealing with a major news story, that receives priority.”

The BBC said it moved the film so it could trail it throughout Monday and screen it in a slot where current affairs programmes had been shown before. Audience figures showed it drew one million viewers.

But senior BBC managers privately admitted the decision was controversial. An internal memo sent to the Correspondent team by the BBC2 controller, Jane Root, said the scheduling switch “will add fuel to the conspiracy theorists”.

The producers of the programme were said to be disappointed by the move but added that they accepted the pressure of news coverage was responsible.

Jewish groups remained unmoved last night, saying that the programme, which accused Israeli forces of using an illegal incapacitating gas against Palestinians in Gaza two years ago, was unjust in comparing the Jewish state to Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime.

The documentary, which reported on Mordechai Vanunu, the whistleblower who exposed Israel’s nuclear programme, asked: “Which country in the Middle East has undeclared nuclear weapons?”, “Which country in the Middle East has undeclared biological and chemical capabilities?” and “Which country in the Middle East has no outside inspectors?”

Neville Nagler, director general of the Board of Deputies, said: “We are concerned that this documentary was screened absolutely at a time to reinforce the views of those who seek to draw a linkage between Israel and Iraq. We say that is completely unfounded … The allegations about gas use were unproven.” But, he added, the board had not wanted the BBC to withdraw the programme.