Over the years the BBC has made a practice of covering the various court cases against former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and so it came as no surprise to see that the BBC News website published both written and filmed reports on the day that Olmert began his prison sentence.
What did come as a surprise, however, was the fact that in its February 15th coverage of that story (billed as the lead item on its webpage) the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newsday’ found it appropriate to provide a stage to unsupported allegations bordering on conspiracy theory.
The item (from 19:30 here) begins with the following introduction from one of the programme’s two presenters.
“The former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will today become the country’s first ex-prime minister to go to jail over a number of corruption charges, including dating back to when he was Mayor of Jerusalem. Now Mr Olmert [who] was in office from 2006 to 2009 is due to serve 19 months in jail. It was actually reduced from a six month sentence which he was originally handed down in 2014.”
The original 2014 sentence was six years (as the BBC has itself noted in a backgrounder on the topic) and so that latter statement is obviously a mistake. The introduction continues:
“Err…there have been appeals and sentences back and forth. To update us let’s speak to the Israeli author – formerly a senior journalist with Ha’aretz newspaper – Danny Rubinstein who joins us now. Danny; welcome to the programme. Ehm…it can be a bit hard to follow what he’s been convicted of. There’s been this legal toing and froing pretty much since he’s been leaving office. What has he actually been found guilty of?”
Listeners – the vast majority of whom will of course be unfamiliar with Danny Rubinstein and his political views – then heard the following:
“He was found guilty of taking bribe of twelve – or I’ll say it’s about £12,000 – which is…which is peanuts. Erm…a bribe, after he was found innocent on one of the larger accusations against him but they eventually said about taking this – you know – this amount of money.”
Presenter; “Because some of the accusations, I mean, these involved property deals – enormous amounts of money – and you’re saying it’s actually a matter of $15,000 that has sent him down.”
Rubinstein: “$15,000 – that’s all – which is really peanuts; it’s really nothing. But people see it as a symbol to corruption. If you take it, it doesn’t matter if it’s one penny or thousands or millions. In here it’s the principle – the principle that he’s corrupt. And this is the atmosphere in Israeli…I would say public opinion. “
The dismissal of a bribe taken by a high-ranking public official as “peanuts” and “nothing” does not raise any reaction from the programme’s presenter and neither does the fact that Rubinstein airbrushes Olmert’s additional convictions for fraud, obstruction of justice and breach of trust. Rubinstein then continues:
“”But I want to add here that I think that there’s also a lot of politics involved here. Eh…the campaign against Ehud Olmert started when he start to be…how to say…moderate or he start to talk with the Palestinians. He was ready to [make] Israeli concessions about ten years ago when he was prime minister. He was the first prime minister of Israel that was ready to divide Jerusalem and to give the Palestinians a lot of – you know – the West Bank and so on and I’m sure that it’s not…I’m sure that also politics involved in this case.”
And what is the BBC presenter’s reaction to the unsubstantiated allegation that the “moderate” Olmert was stitched up by people to whom that description presumably does not apply just because he wanted to make “Israeli concessions”? Did the presenter bother to inform listeners around the world that there is no evidence to support those claims? Did he point out that there were various investigations into alleged corruption on the part of Olmert months and even years before Olmert attended the Annapolis conference in November 2007 and subsequently began negotiations with the PLO? No – instead the BBC’s representative elected to add wind to the sails of Rubinstein’s conspiracy theory by saying:
“That’s very interesting: that makes it a sort of a complicated and murky issue as well.”
The rest of the interview with Rubinstein is largely unremarkable but the presenter closes the item with the following bizarre statement which is of course disconnected from reality:
“The way it’s being written in the Israeli press as well is ‘Olmert set to enter prison’. Ahm…he’s kind of handing himself in, in that way. We’ll see if it happens.”
So – rather than BBC audiences around the world being given an accurate, impartial and realistic view of this story they were instead fed sensational but entirely unsupported allegations which apparently the BBC World Service finds more attractive and newsworthy than the story of a country capable of holding a corrupt former prime minister to account.