Boycotting the Beeb

LONDON - Israel joined Zimbabwe last weekend as one of two countries boycotting the BBC. The move was taken in protest of the “biased and hostile coverage policy,” as Danny Seaman, the head of the Government Press Office in Jerusalem put it. Although Israel has not gone so far as to expel journalists, as did Zimbabwe, “A decision to expel all BBC correspondents has not been ruled out,” Seaman says. At this stage, Israel is making do with measures designed to make life more difficult for the world’s largest television and radio news broadcaster.

Official government spokesmen will not grant interviews, press credentials will be issued sparingly, the authorities will not assist the network’s crews in crossing into the territories, and there will be meticulous enforcement of the issuance of work permits.

Israel’s wrath was kindled by last Saturday’s rebroadcast of a documentary entitled “Israel’s Secret Weapon,” which is about Israel’s efforts to develop nonconventional weapons.

Seaman has frequently clashed with Western media that adopted a pro-Palestinian perspective. “The weapons program contains ridiculous false assertions,” he said. “We had to draw a red line rather than just complain about a consistent attitude in which successive BBC programs attempt to place us in the same context as totalitarian, axis-of-evil countries such as Iraq and Iran.”

‘Verging on anti-Semitic’

“The overall BBC attitude toward Israel is verging on anti-Semitic. There is no recognition inside the corporation of the sensitivity of a people who have faced attempted annihilation,” he said.

In March, when the documentary first aired in Britain, Israel chose not to respond. Now, with rebroadcast of the film on BBC World, which is aired worldwide, Israel has decided to fight back, after a spate of critical programs on Israeli policies. “The attitude of the BBC is more than pure journalistic matter; it is dangerous to the existence of the State of Israel because it demonizes the Israelis and gives our terrorist enemies reasons to attack us,” said Seaman.

The decision by the government’s public relations forum to cut off working relations with the BBC is another step in the battle between Israel and the British corporation. In April, Israeli cable TV companies decided to no longer carry BBC World, ostensibly due to a financial disagreement, although it was hinted that political considerations were behind the decision. The channel continued to be received in Israel on the Yes satellite network, and after a while, the cable broadcasts were renewed.

Media industry sources in Britain are not certain that boycotting the network is such a wise move for Israel. “BBC is an exceptionally influential news broadcaster, especially within the UK; roughly half of the population is regularly tuned in to the BBC programs,” says a British journalist, who asked to remain unnamed. At the network’s headquarters, Seaman’s decision was received indifferently. “We regret that Israel felt the need to take this action, but we stand behind the veracity of the film,” says the director of news, Richard Sambrook (the number two executive at BBC, below director general Greg Dyke.) However, last night a BBC spokesman insisted that the BBC has not received any official announcement from the Israeli government and from their point of view nothing had changed.

Israel is not alone in its criticism. British solicitor Trevor Asserson, a partner in an international law firm, set up the Web site last year, on which he has issued reports on BBC coverage of the Middle East. “The BBC has a legal obligation to report news in an accurate and impartial way. We found numerous significant breaches of these obligations,” says Asserson, who is Jewish. Among the violations documented in his first two reports includes the broadcast of a profile of Yasser Arafat in July 2002. “The program opens by describing Arafat variously as a `hero,’ `an icon,’ having `charisma and style’ and being `the stuff of legends.’”

Additional breaches included “unjustified discrimination in the use of language; omissions of material events, facts and viewpoints; misleading use of pictures; and the improper inclusion of journalists’ personal comments hostile to Israel and the Israeli government.”

Two weeks ago, Asserson released a new report in which he compared coverage of the war in Iraq, which featured occupation of a foreign population, suicide attacks against soldiers of the American-British coalition and the assassination of high-ranking Iraqi officials, with that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and actions taken by the IDF. He claims to have discerned a blatant contrast between the reports. “Coalition troops are described in warm and glowing terms, with sympathy being evoked both for them as individuals and also for their military predicament. By contrast Israeli troops are painted as faceless ruthless and brutal killers with no or little understanding shown for their actions,” Asserson writes in the report.

Asserson’s actions were at first met with laconic diffidence by the network. In response to his first report, which appeared in March 2002, Sambrook dispatched a terse letter six weeks later, in which he refuted the allegations and stated that the coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was balanced, and that “not every news piece can be a history lesson.” The BBC believed that in so doing, the affair was ended, but the reports continued to be disseminated around the world through Web sites and groups that identify with Israel.

The Jewish community in Britain went into action, and the complaints began to pile up on the desk of the BBC executive board. The Board of Deputies also made a formal complaint to the BBC in early June regarding the profile of Israel which appears on the BBC Web site. Israel’s profile, the BOD argues, is partial, inaccurate and misleading. It implies that the failure to reach a peaceful settlement in the Middle East lies solely with Israel; there are references to [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s wealth and housing purchases, and he is also accused of sparking of the second intifada [despite Palestinian officials admitting that the intifada was planned ahead of Sharon’s visit.]”

What is a terrorist?

Sambrook appointed a special team to study Asserson’s reports and respond to their findings. When the inquiry was complete, Asserson received a detailed report, the bottom line of which was that the network is careful to balance its coverage, and that it meets the criteria set forth in its charter. Sambrook was especially infuriated by the allegation that the network makes discriminatory use of the term “terror organizations.” For instance, Hamas is described as a “militant” organization, in disregard of the descriptions of the U.S. and British governments.

“We are unaware of any law compelling journalists to describe particular people as terrorists; and we do not believe there is any agreed international definition of what constitutes a terrorist group - and certainly none that gets round the pejorative charge the word carries - which is what makes it so difficult a word for the BBC, which seeks neutral precision in its language,” wrote Sambrook.

“As a result of the BBC becoming a global broadcaster, a policy developed for our international journalism, is now increasingly applicable to our domestic journalism. This suggests that we should become less rather than more ready to label particular people as “terrorists.” We have to decide on our own use of language according to our own principles. It would be wrong for us to allow the terminology we use to be determined by the legal definitions adopted by some states. We prefer to use neutral language where the political legitimacy of particular actions is hotly contested.”

Asserson’s response: “This is an astonishing statement. The `some states’ to which he refers is the UK, whose citizens pay for the BBC and whose legislature grants it life and sets its rules. What Sambrook appears to suggest is that the blowing up of teenagers in a disco, of old age pensioners at a religious service, of school children on a school bus, or kids at a pizza bar - these are actions which could have `political legitimacy.’ In other countries they are described as terrorist acts.” Nevertheless, Asserson does not share Daniel Seaman’s view that the BBC is “verging on” anti-Semitsm. “The anti-Israeli bias is definitely not anti-Semitic. It stems probably from a distorted liberal post modernist view. The BBC staff comes largely from leftist middle class background; they are usually critical of nationalistic governments, like those of Israel and the U.S., and instinctively opposed to institutions and those that, in their view, dispossess the weak and the oppressed.”

Diplomatic sources in London note that at other times the BBC would have responded more heatedly toward Israel, However, BBC management is currently engaged in a battle for survival with the British government, which has accused it of hostile and specious coverage of the war in Iraq and the steps that led to it- stemming from the BBC’s opposition to the war.

Some of Israel’s complaints Israel has lodged complaints on several occasions over the past few years to BBC management over erroneous or biased reports that it claimed cast Israel in a negative light.

These include:

  • In 2001, the BBC’s then chief Jerusalem correspondent Hillary Anderson began a report by saying: “Deep underground in Bethlehem are the remnants of an atrocity so vile, so far back in history, King Herod’s slaughter of the innocents” - a comparison that was branded a reintroduction of the blood libel, as it created the impression that the Jews, who had tried to murder young Jesus, were again killing innocent children.
  • On May 6, 2001, Fayad Abu Shamala, the BBC’s Arabic service Gaza correspondent for the past 10 years, told a Hamas rally in Gaza that “journalists and media organizations [are] waging the campaign shoulder-to-shoulder together with the Palestinian people.” In response, the BBC issued a statement saying, “Fayad’s remarks were made in a private capacity.”
  • “The Accused”, June 2001: This installment of the Panorama investigative journalism program named Ariel Sharon as a suitable candidate for being placed on trial for crimes against humanity, due to his ostensible involvement in the Sabra and Chatila massacre. The program disregarded evidence that refutes the claim. Shortly afterward, the legal procedure in which Sharon was put on trial in Belgium began. Uncharacteristically, the program was broadcast by BBC four times over the course of the same week, to ensure optimal viewership.
  • “Israel’s Secret Weapon”: The documentary program compared Israel to the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and alluded to the fact that a sort of double standard persists in the international community regarding Israel’s possession of weapons of mass destruction. The program also quoted Palestinians who accused Israel of using new, mysterious gases against Palestinians, without providing any evidence to support that claim.

    The program focused on the role played by Yehiel Horev, the supervisor of security for the defense establishment, whose face was exposed on the program for the first time.

    Related Links:

  • BBC Transcript of “Israel’s Secret Weapon”