BBC domestic radio would not usually bother to report on closed primary elections held by one of tens of parties set to run in a foreign country’s general election that is two months away.
That, however, is exactly what listeners to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme heard on February 6th and to understand why, it is worth recalling Jerusalem correspondent Yolande Knell’s crystal ball gazing on the same radio station in late December 2018.
Knell’s predictions for the year ahead in the Middle East focused not on Syria, Iran, Yemen or the embattled Kurds but on a story much closer to her own office’s back yard.
Knell: “In terms of new names I mean I’m going to say the Attorney General here in Israel. Avichai Mandelblit. I mean he’s very well-known here but I really think he’s going to be internationally sort of known in the months ahead because he has to make this big decision about whether to charge the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in these public corruption cases. And there’s real drama here because Mr Mandelblit was Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet secretary. When he was appointed originally he was accused of being too close to the prime minister and now he could become the man who takes down the prime minister after a decade in power. And if Mr Netanyahu can stay in office until the middle of next year he would actually be the longest-serving prime minister in Israeli history, taking over from the founding father David Ben Gurion so there’s a real legacy issue here. Ahm…the BBC did get to ask Mr Netanyahu about all of this at an end of year journalists’ event and we just got his usual mantra which is nothing will come out of this because there’s nothing in it and I think this is going to be a fascinating year for Israeli politics. I mean certainly that is something that his party supporters believe that this has been some kind of witch hunt and just to go back to Mr Mandelblit, I mean this man many journalists remarked how he’s gone from having red hair to turning grey in the few years he’s been in his job, having to make lots of tough decisions. He already, I think, lost his invitations to go to the prime minister’s luxury private residence in the north of Israel because he charged his wife Sarah in a case about misusing state funds for catering when she has a cook paid for by the state. So I’m foreseeing lots more political drama here in the months ahead.”
Many of those themes were recycled in this latest report from Knell which was introduced by presenter Mishal Husain (from 2:41:17 here) as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original]
Husain: “In Israel the Likud party of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been voting on its list of candidates to contest April’s general election. While it faces new competition, polls suggest that Mr Netanyahu is best placed to lead the next coalition government, putting him on course to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister this summer. But he might also become the first sitting Israeli leader to face a criminal trial. There’ll be a decision soon on possible corruption charges. He denies any wrongdoing. Our Middle East correspondent Yolande Knell reports from Jerusalem.”
Knell: “There’s a big effort here in Jerusalem to put on a positive show as the Likud faithful vote for their preferred candidates in a primary election. But there’s no disguising that the upcoming general election is going to be tough for the party leader Benjamin Netanyahu. He’s facing possible corruption charges and his most formidable political rival in years, a former general, Benny Gantz. Ha’aretz journalist and Netanyahu biographer Anshel Pfeffer sees the PM on the attack.”
Pfeffer: “He’s very much under pressure, he’s very much acting impulsively. The more time passes, the more these indictments will create more problems for him and these challenges on the political scene with a new party like the Gantz party and with rivals within Likud perhaps starting to speak out against him, we’ll see less the statesman and more the local politician fighting a very dirty battle of survival.”
Knell continued with portrayal of daily videos posted on Facebook as a television channel.
Knell “And as part of that battle, this week Mr Netanyahu launched Likud TV – his own channel to counter what he describes as fake news. He’s furious at the media coverage of three criminal investigations against him, calling it a witch hunt and insists he won’t step down. Before the election Israel’s attorney general has said he’ll announce whether he intends to prosecute. Guy Luria of the Israel Democracy Institute says it’s not clear what happens next.”
Luria: “No prime minister in Israeli history has been indicted while in office. It’s really difficult to see how he could conduct himself in court facing serious potential multiple corruption charges and continue to conduct government. We are in uncharted waters. We don’t know how that will take shape.”
Knell: “At a recent press event the BBC asked the prime minister about his legal predicament.”
Recording Netanyahu: “I believe nothing will come of it because there’s nothing in it. And it doesn’t affect me, it doesn’t affect my support because people believe what I just said and they also believe that we’re doing the right things for the country.”
Knell: “Here on a main road by the Likud polling station you can see how Mr Netanyahu is building his campaign around that belief. There’s a huge billboard showing him with President Trump, beaming and shaking hands. ‘Netanyahu – a different league’ reads the slogan. The prime minister is stressing how his close relations with this White House has helped deliver a tough approach on Iran and the Palestinians as well as US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Grass roots Likud voters strongly support their leader.”
Unidentified Man: “Currently there is no-one that is nearly as strong or as intelligent or as experienced as Netanyahu is.”
Unidentified Woman: “Netanyahu I think is the best prime minister we had here, not just for security – also for the economic situation.”
Knell: “If, as polls predict, Mr Netanyahu is set to win his fifth election, this summer he’ll take over from the founding father David Ben Gurion as Israel’s longest ever serving prime minister. But he could also make another record: as the first sitting prime minister to fight criminal charges. The coming months will define his legacy.”
As we see, while this item used the previous day’s Likud primaries as a hook, BBC audiences actually heard nothing at all about the results. Neither – once again – did they get any information about the policies of the party described by the BBC as “new competition” headed by a “formidable political rival” or news about any of the additional parties which have so far registered.
Rather, the BBC continues to focus audience attention on Yolande Knell’s speculations concerning an indictment which may or may not be issued and a court case which may or may not take place – all the while failing even to provide audiences with relevant factual background.