BBC takes lessons on ‘impartiality’ from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign

As readers may have heard, the BBC has described a former employee’s signature on a letter opposing a cultural boycott of Israel as “inadvisable”.

“The BBC has criticised former director of television Danny Cohen for signing a letter opposing a cultural boycott of Israel.

The corporation said that it regretted the “impression” created by Mr Cohen’s name appearing on the letter but that it “had no bearing on his ability to do his day job”.

The letter, published in the Guardian in October, was signed by more than 150 writers, artists, musicians and media personalities including J K Rowling and Melvyn Bragg. It was a response to an earlier announcement by media personalities calling for a cultural boycott of Israel and described boycotting Israel as ‘a barrier to peace’.

Following a complaint to the BBC about Mr Cohen’s involvement, the BBC responded in a December email describing Mr Cohen’s actions as ‘inadvisable’. The email went on to say that senior employees “should avoid making their views known on issues of current political controversy”. However, no further action was taken as Mr Cohen, who announced that he was leaving the BBC the week before the letter was published, no longer worked for the corporation.”

Via the Guardian’s account of the story, we learn that:

“Sara Apps, interim director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said the views in the letter opposing the boycott were “those of the Israeli state” and called on the BBC to provide reassurance that staff “are impartial and seen to be impartial, in their work at the BBC” .

She said: “By failing to take any action against Cohen, the BBC sent a message to licence fee payers that it only pays lip service to the concept of impartiality when it comes to the subject of Palestine and Israel, and that BBC executives are free to publicly express their views on this subject with no regard for the code of impartiality written into the royal charter.”PSC campaign against Danny Cohen

One cannot of course disagree with the demand for the BBC to ensure that its staff  “are impartial and seen to be impartial, in their work at the BBC”. One also cannot disagree with the claim that when BBC staff “publicly express their views on this subject” there is a risk that the BBC’s impartiality may be compromised.

The trouble is that Ms Apps and her friends at the Palestine Solidarity Campaign who organized the complaints against Danny Cohen (the group’s second campaign against a Jewish BBC employee in just over a year) do not in fact care a fig about BBC impartiality.  

If they did, they would have similarly protested when a BBC staff member with considerably more influence on the impartiality of the BBC’s reporting of news from the Middle East than the corporation’s director of television collaborated with an anti-Israel political campaign run by one of the signatories to that February 2015 pro-boycott letter, Leila Sansour.Knell Crouch End 2

They would surely also have had something to say on the topic of ‘impartiality’ in relation to the fact that the BBC has broadcast content made by a former employee who pinned his own political colours to the mast by collaborating with the Palestine Solidarity campaign.

There is of course nothing novel about this latest episode in the PSC’s employment of selective outrage over BBC impartiality for anti-Israel PR purposes. Sadly, there is also nothing remarkable about this latest example of the BBC allowing itself and its editorial guidelines to be used as tool in the political campaigning of an opaquely funded group which provides support for a terrorist organization proscribed by the British government.

And whilst we’re on that subject, if readers are wondering why the Palestine Solidarity Campaign currently has an ‘interim director’ (and what happened to the previous flotilla participating one), the answers can be found here.  

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No BBC coverage of antisemitism at event organised by its most promoted NGO

BBC’s capitulation to political pressure on Gaza casualty figures: tip of a bigger iceberg?

Selective PSC outrage over BBC impartiality and integrity

Why does the BBC Trust’s ESC pretend that the 1947 Partition Plan is a thing?

BBC promoted NGO supplying props for ‘Israel Apartheid Week’

One BBC-related issue which we find ourselves having to raise on these pages with disturbing frequency is that of the inadequate introduction of guests or interviewees linked to political NGOs. In our round-up of NGO contributors to BBC content in 2014 we noted that:

“In some instances an interviewee or contributor to BBC content was presented to audiences by name and with the title of his or her organization, but more often than not the political agenda of that organization and the interviewee’s resulting “standpoint” were not adequately clarified – as demanded by BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality. The same practice was evident when quotes were used from organisations’ press releases without being attributed to a specific person. […]

In other cases, interviewees or contributors were presented by name only and – again in breach of editorial guidelines – BBC audiences were not informed of their affiliations with campaigning organisations or of the fact that their contribution should be assessed within the context of a particular political agenda.”

On at least two occasions last year the ‘Senior Campaigns Officer’ for ‘War on Want‘, Rafeef Ziadah, was interviewed on BBC Radio 4. On one occasion – in a programme about Jerusalem – Ziadah’s employment at ‘War on Want’ and her activism in the BDS movement were not clarified to listeners at all, whilst on the other – in a programme about drones – her position at ‘War on Want’ was mentioned but the BBC did not bother to meet its own editorial guidelines by informing audiences about that organisation’s anti-Israel campaigning.

One recent manifestation of that political campaigning comes in the form of an offer from ‘War on Want’ to supply props to student groups organizing ‘Israel Apartheid Week’ events at UK universities. Students are encouraged to:WoW 1

“Organise an Apartheid Wall display on your campus to raise awareness about the ongoing destruction and human rights violations caused by the Wall. Props available to borrow are:

Six wall panels. Each panel measures approximately 2 metres x 1 metre and is heavy and must be supported. Your group may borrow some or all of the panels.

One watch tower measuring 2 metres by 70cm diametre. It is very heavy.

Four  cardboard/paper mache over sized guns measuring 1.5 metres each (new – not in picture)”

In other words, the BBC has provided audiences with information on Israel-related issues by means of a representative of an organization with a very clear political agenda which has been repeatedly concealed from listeners.

An additional aspect of this issue is the fact that among the bodies funding ‘War on Want’ is the UK charity ‘Comic Relief’ which is supported by the BBC.  This year’s annual fundraising drive – known as ‘Red Nose Day‘ – will take place on March 13th, with much BBC One programming devoted to the event. As we noted here two years ago:

“As a publicly funded body committed to impartiality, it is imperative for the BBC to ensure that – via its partnership with Comic Relief – it is not associated with organisations such as War on Want which demonise Israel as part of a racist campaign to deny self-determination to one specific ethnic group.” 

Unfortunately, not only has nothing changed on that front since those words were written, but BBC collaboration with the amplification of the ‘War on Want’ political agenda by means of inadequately introduced interviews with its ‘Senior Campaigns Officer’ appear to have become the norm.

If the BBC’s Director of Television is as concerned about antisemitism in the UK as his remarks last December suggest, a serious review of the activities of organisations funded via his programming is just as urgent as examination of the corporation’s failure (despite the repeated lip service paid to that issue) to adhere to its own editorial guidelines on impartiality when introducing guests and interviewees.  

BBC’s director of television Danny Cohen makes headlines in Israel

The BBC’s director of television Danny Cohen attended a conference on the topic of comedy as a vehicle for social change in Jerusalem on December 21st. His interview with Channel 2 news anchor Yonit Levi made headlines in Israel because of what Cohen had to say about antisemitism in Europe.

Screenshot from Walla!

Screenshot from Walla!

“I’ve never felt so uncomfortable being a Jew in the UK as I’ve felt in the last 12 months. And it’s made me think about, you know, is it our long-term home, actually. Because you feel it. I’ve felt it in a way I’ve never felt before actually”. […]

“And you’ve seen the number of attacks rise. You’ve seen murders in France. You’ve seen murders in Belgium. It’s been pretty grim actually. And having lived all my life in the UK, I’ve never felt as I do now about anti-Semitism in Europe.”

The context to those statements can be appreciated in the full interview (in English), available here with the relevant section appearing at around 18:49. A little earlier – at around 16:00 – Levi raises the subject of BBC bias against Israel and the corporation’s recent reporting of Operation Protective Edge which she describes as having been handled as reporting on a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, divorced from the context of Hamas missile fire on Israel. She gets the standard answer to the effect that ‘we annoy both sides so we must be doing it right’.

Cohen: “Does the BBC get every news report, every minute and every second of the thousands of hours of content we produce every year absolutely right? No. No broadcasting organization in the world would. Do the teams work hard to maintain their objectivity? I’d say yes. Are we perfect? No.”

Danny Cohen is of course not personally responsible for BBC News. If he can get past corporate loyalty, platitudes and sound-bites, he is however in a position to help those who are to understand the connection between inaccurate and partial BBC reporting of both Middle East and domestic events, the manner in which those stories are framed,  the BBC’s tolerance of antisemitism on its own comments boards, and the atmosphere on the streets of Europe which he clearly and justifiably finds so worrying.

After all, as his wife noted whilst writing about antisemitism even before the summer conflict between Israel and terrorist organisations in the Gaza Strip:

“Jews in Europe now face a three-pronged attack. […] First, from the far right, for whom antisemitism is a long-established part of their manifesto. Second, from the liberal left, whose often knee-jerk anti-Zionism serves to fan the flames of antisemitism, all too frequently expressing its hostility to Israel in language and imagery traditionally deployed to attack Jews. […]

But fighting antisemitism cannot just be a top-down initiative. Each of us has to take responsibility for this project. This means being mindful about language and the imagery we accept. […] It means being careful to keep criticism against Israel fair and legitimate – evidence based, politically balanced and absent of racial overtones – so that it doesn’t demonise Jews. It means understanding our own latent biases, so that we can consciously address them.”

And whilst we are on the topics of comedy, language, imagery and antisemitism, it is worth remembering that this programme aimed at 16 to 24 year-olds was broadcast on Danny Cohen’s watch.

Related Articles:

How did BBC News cover this summer’s anti-Israel demonstrations in the UK?

BBC Breakfast’s Jenny Hill enables PSC antisemitism washing

BBC News website coverage of Operation Protective Edge: part five