The BBC is well-used to accusations of bias from many quarters, not least on its coverage of the Israel-Palestine issue, where it appears unable to please anyone. More than 10,000 people have signed a change.org petition demanding that a public inquiry be held into the BBC's pro-Israel bias. Four out of five Jews in Britain, an online poll reveals, believe that the national broadcaster is biased in favour of the Palestinians.
The argument over pro-Israel bias at the BBC has been reignited after a documentary due to be broadcast on Thursday 25th April was pulled suddenly from the schedules. "Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story" argued that there was no evidence for the claim of mass Jewish flight and exile from Jerusalem in 70AD. Several newspaper previews of the programme are available although the show was not broadcast. The Guardian, for example, said it was "likely to ruffle some feathers". The Radio Times explained: "The exile of the Jewish people has played a central role in Christian and Jewish theology for nearly 2,000 years, even being mentioned in Israel's national anthem and its declaration of independence. But what if the exile never actually happened?" The review continues that the documentary would have "severe ramifications for relations in the region".
So why was the documentary pulled at such short notice? The BBC's official line is weak, to say the least: "We originally acquired 'Jerusalem: An Archaeological Mystery Story' to supplement BBC Four's season exploring the history of archaeology. However, we have decided that it doesn't fit editorially and are no longer planning to show it as part of the season."
The film's Israeli-born director, Ilan Ziv, certainly disputes this account. On his blog he points out that the BBC had had the film for six months, so it isn't clear why it would suddenly change its idea of an "editorial fit" at the last moment. He adds that he was told that it was being delayed so he could check the facts and details of the film. "This is ultimately a sad saga of what I believe is a mixture of incompetence, political naiveté, conscious or subconscious political pressure and, ultimately, a lack of courage by broadcasters when they are faced with the complexity of the Middle East issue and the intense emotions, fears and aggression it generates," he writes. Detailing how executives got anxious about how the documentary would be perceived and used, Ziv says he sensed that a "mini political storm was brewing around the film", but points out that it has already been shown at a Jewish Film Festival in Toronto, on Canadian TV and is due to be shown in Switzerland, France, and possibly the US.
Speaking to the Daily Mail, Dr Siam Bhayro, a senior lecturer in Early Jewish Studies at the University of Exeter, said that it was a "strange" decision: "Although I have not seen the film, it would appear that the maker is not saying anything new - everyone knows that Jews continued to live in the Holy Land after 70AD."
The reason for the BBC's particular fear of anything that could be deemed partisan or controversial on the Middle East issue comes back to those statistics at the beginning of this article. The public service broadcaster has a legal commitment to impartiality, which in the case of the Israel-Palestine conflict has become something of an impossible task.
The BBC is under pressure to give equal airtime to the official Israeli and Palestinian stance, which can sometimes be taken to absurd extremes: last year, for example, the words "free Palestine" were censored from a rap on BBC radio. Critics point out that in an asymmetric conflict, where one side is an occupying power (an undisputed fact) and the other under occupation, absolute equality in airtime actually amounts to bias in favour of the occupier. This was very obvious in media coverage, including the BBC's, of Israel's 2008 military offensive against the people of Gaza.
While there is no suggestion or evidence of direct political pressure on the BBC to withdraw the film, the anecdotes in Ziv's blog post suggest deep-seated anxiety about the film being perceived as partisan or used as "propaganda".
Internet commentators have wasted no time in pointing out the inconsistencies evident in the BBC's stand, citing the alleged "public interest arguments" for showing a recent documentary on North Korea. "So why was this programme [about Jerusalem] quietly removed?" asked one Radio Times reader on its website.
At the very least, this self-censorship demonstrates political cowardice by the BBC, which just a week earlier broadcast "Israel: Facing the Future", a less controversial documentary which critics say contained inaccuracies. Ziv has called for the BBC to either air his film or relinquish the rights so he can show it elsewhere in the UK. As is so often the case, the decision to censor the film appears to have been counter-productive, ultimately bringing it more publicity than it would have otherwise had. Coming as it does at a time when a man with known pro-Israel sentiments has been appointed to a top BBC post, this is one accusation of bias that will be far from easy to shrug off.