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Why the BBC must change

May 4, 2014 at 4:29 pm

Love it or hate it, the BBC is perhaps the most powerful media institution in the world. Not even the Murdoch empire in its heyday matched the scale and impact of the BBC’s operations. Yet, in the last week, it has suffered two embarrassing setbacks in the aftermath of which its funders, the British public, are entitled to a change of policy.

For almost one month, the corporation’s coverage of the Palestinian prisoners’ hunger strike gravitated from disregard to marginalisation and then to grudging acknowledgement. It got to the final stage, reluctantly, long after other sections of the British media were highlighting the story. The BBC’s performance was so pathetic that even the right-wing Daily Mail got there first with a piece by David Rose on 5 May regretting the fact that “1,600 are on hunger strike and the world doesn’t even bat an eyelid”.


The following weekend, 13 May, an editorial by the Observer pointed out that the hunger strikers had exposed an inhuman system and that Israel was in no position to claim the moral high ground while holding Palestinians without charge. Then on Monday, 14 May, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown wrote in the Independent, “The moralistic Chief Rabbi will not be on ‘Thought for the Day’ expressing sorrow for the treatment of these prisoners.” This was a subtle critique of the Chief Rabbi’s use of a slot on the BBC’s flagship Radio 4 programme to champion Israel’s cause.


Furthermore, articles written by Prof Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights Situation in the occupied Palestinian Territories, as well as Prof Noam Chomsky, drew attention to the illegality and inhumanity of Israel’s policies towards Palestinians in its jails and detention centres.

Meanwhile, even as protests in London, Amsterdam, Brussels and other European capitals gathered momentum the BBC remained resolutely indifferent and muted. When it finally decided to break its self-imposed censorship, it found no better commentator to host than Mark Regev, the glib Australian-born Israeli spokesman; the BBC gave the Israeli prime minister’s mouthpiece a platform without any challenge or opposing opinion to counter his propaganda. To many people who pay their licence fee in good faith, this was the ultimate insult by the Beeb.

Clearly the BBC has not learnt any of the lessons from the 2005 independent commission which it ordered under the leadership of Quentin Thomas to examine its impartiality in its reporting and handling of Israel and Palestine. The commission’s report, which was submitted in April 2006, pointed to the BBC’s “failure to convey adequately the disparity in the Israeli and Palestinian experience, reflecting the fact that one side is in control and the other lives under occupation”.

While the corporation’s failure to report adequately on the hunger strike exposed its long suspected prejudice, its own survey of global opinion confirmed how grotesque its editorial policies on the conflict have been. The BBC’s newly released 2012 country ratings poll, conducted by GlobeScan/PIPA, revealed that public opinion on every continent has swung decisively against Israel, lumping it with its erstwhile bête noire, Iran, and North Korea. Of the 24,090 people polled in 22 tracking countries, the survey showed that 50 per cent have negative views on Israel, an increase of three points from 2011.

In Britain itself, Israel’s negative rating now stands at 68 per cent. In an apparent act of damage limitation, the Israeli Knesset subcommittee for ties with Jewish communities worldwide announced that it will meet to discuss anti-Israel sentiment in Britain. The head of the subcommittee, Einat Wilfe, claimed, “In recent years Britain has become the centre of anti-Israel activity in Europe, even worldwide.” British Jewish leaders are expected to take part in the conference, which will focus on problems facing the Jewish and pro-Israel communities in Britain due to the so-called anti-Israel sentiment.

But why single out Britain? The BBC survey showed that negative views about Israel have hardened in Spain (74 per cent), up 8 points from 2011 and in France (65 per cent) up 9 points. Even in Canada and Australia, public opinions about Israel have worsened; Australia shows a 7 point increase to 65 per cent of negative ratings, and Canada is 7 points up to 59 per cent.

In the light of these developments – the mishandling of the prisoners’ hunger strike and the results of the global survey – there is no reason why the BBC should not carry out an immediate and total overhaul of its coverage of the conflict in Palestine. It is inconceivable that after the exposure of Israel’s ghastly treatment of the Palestinians and the outrage felt by people around the world, including Britain, that the corporation should carry on with business as usual.

If the BBC’s directors really have the interests of Israel at heart, as is self-evident, they must now save it from itself by respecting the will and opinions of the British public. Clearly, the hardening of opinion around the world is not because of who runs the Israeli political establishment. More than any other factor, it is about their utter disrespect for the rule of law and the human dignity of others.