BBC media editor’s softball interview with fellow journalist sold audiences short

Back in June BBC Radio 4 aired an edition of ‘The Media Show’ which is still available online and includes an item (from 00:46 here) which is described as follows in the synopsis:

“Saudi Arabia and her allies have demanded that Qatar shuts down a number of media outlets as a condition of ending the crisis in the region. David Hearst is editor in chief of Middle East Eye. Crispin Blunt MP is Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee.”

Readers may recall that at the time a number of Arab states issued a list of demands (which was later modified) to Qatar that included:

“…stipulations that Doha close the broadcaster al-Jazeera, drastically scale back cooperation with Iran, remove Turkish troops from Qatar’s soil, end contact with groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and submit to monthly external compliance checks. […]

…the Saudi-led alliance regards the Arabic wing of al-Jazeera, the most widely watched broadcaster in the Arab world, as a propaganda tool for Islamists that also undermines support for their governments. The list of demands also called for other Doha-supported news outlets to be shut, including the New Arab and Middle East Eye.

Other key demands mapped out by Saudi include Qatar severing all ties with terrorist groups, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State, al-Qaida and Lebanon’s Hezbollah.” 

The framing of the story by ‘The Media Show’, however, portrayed it solely as an issue of press freedom and made no effort to examine whether or not there was any substance to the Saudi claims concerning the named media organisations – including ‘The New Arab’, founded by Azmi Bishara  and Al Jazeera.

Presenter Amol Rajan – who is the BBC’s media editor – introduced the item as follows:

Rajan: “But first more on a story we’ve been covering on ‘The Media Show’. It’s the demand by Saudi Arabia that Qatar shuts down a number of media outlets. Qatar is currently being isolated by its neighbours who claim the country supports terrorism. The closure of the Qatari funded TV network Al Jazeera is near the top of Saudi Arabia’s list of demands to resolve the crisis. Saudi Arabia says Al Jazeera is Qatari propaganda; a charge denied last week on this programme by Giles Trendle, the acting managing director of Al Jazeera English.”

After listeners heard a recording of Giles Trendle of Al Jazeera English insisting that his outfit “cover[s] the world without favouring any point of view”, Rajan continued:

Rajan: “Since that interview we’ve learned that it’s not just Al Jazeera that Saudi Arabia and her allies want shut down. In fact some of the media organisations on the list are based in the UK. One is ‘The New Arab’ and the other is ‘Middle East Eye’ whose editor in chief is David Hearst and he’s with me now.”

Listeners then heard former Guardian employee David Hearst – who never had much of a problem rubbing shoulders with Islamists – insist that “we’re totally independent of Qatar” before Rajan asked him “why have they targeted “Middle East Eye’?”.

Hearst: “Well one of the things that’s going on is…well the business model of ‘Middle East Eye’ is that we sell our journalism to people who translate it into Arabic and other languages. And these regimes, unfortunately, do not want their citizens learning about what’s going on.”

Rajan’s next question was “who funds ‘Middle East Eye?”.

Hearst: “So, we fund it ourselves. And we…ah…we sell our journalism to people who translate it. It’s not a big operation…it’s not some sort of shadowy organization. It’s twenty journalists in London. It’s a British-based company and it’s about 700 contributors. And it’s been growing because it is a space in which people can actually discuss real issues and we actually bite every hand. Actually if you look at our coverage…ah….we’re critical of the Qataris, we’ve had really good reports from Kurdish areas of Turkey so you can’t say we’re funded by the AKP.”

Rajan then asked Hearst whether “the Saudis basically contend that you are sort of essentially Qatari agents”. In his response Hearst raised the legitimate issue of state censorship of the media in many Arab countries while avoiding answering that question directly. When later asked if the Qatari government had ever asked him “to adjust an editorial line”, Hearst’s answer was negative.

Having introduced Crispin Blunt, Rajan stated:

Rajan: “It’s completely unacceptable, isn’t it, for another country to demand the closure of a UK-based news source.”

Later on Rajan asked Blunt “why is the house of Saud targeting media organisations?” with Blunt replying that he does not know but opining that Al Jazeera English’s editorial standards “look pretty similar to the BBC” and that the outlet “looks pretty impeccable”. Admitting that he knows “less” about Al Jazeera Arabic , Blunt went on to compare Qatari funding of Al Jazeera with BBC funding by British tax-payers via the licence fee, again claiming that Al Jazeera’s editorial standards are similar to those of the BBC.

Listeners subsequently heard Rajan assert that the Saudi demands would “make it even harder to cover the Middle East properly” and after Rajan portrayed Hearst as a champion of free speech, the latter replied:

Hearst: “…the people who want to close us down believe in sort of weaponisation of the media. They believe the media is an instrument and it is a lever – it doesn’t exist in its own right.”

Remarkably, Amol Rajan failed to make any effort to question Hearst on the issue of his own organisation’s use of the media as “an instrument”.

At no point in this item were listeners were told that the ‘Middle East Eye’ stable of contributors includes political activists infamous for their “weaponisation” of the media such as the occasional Guardian and BBC contributor Ben White, the anti-Israel blogger Richard Silverstein, the former ‘Russel Tribunal’ coordinator and Al Jazeera contributor Frank Barat, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Kamel Hawwash, ‘Palestine Chronicle’ founder Ramzi Baroud, the Palestinian Return Centre’s Sameh Habeeb who has been linked to Muslim Brotherhood campaigns and also produces the ‘Palestine Telegraph’ and even ‘CAGE’ activist Moazzam Begg and well-known Hamas supporter Azzam Tamimi.

Neither did Amol Rajan ask Hearst why the ‘Middle East Eye’ website was originally registered by a person – Adlin Adnan – connected to the Hamas linked charity ‘Interpal‘ or who actually owns the company and why the only name on its official records is that of Jamal Awn Jamal Bessano – a Dutch national of Palestinian/Kuwaiti origin with previous links to both Al Jazeera and a Hamas TV station in Lebanon.

At no point did Rajan address the topic of the type of content produced by ‘Middle East Eye’ which includes sympathetic coverage of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood such as the following anodyne portrayal of Yusuf Qaradawi by David Hearst himself:

“Rival preachers are cast as terrorists – but not because their interpretation of Islam is more extreme. It’s their moderation the Saudi clerics fear.

One of the objects of Emirati (and Israeli) ire comes in the form of an eminent Muslim Brotherhood scholar, Yousef al-Qaradawi, who lives in Doha. Qaradawi is no social liberal. He is not about to embrace homosexuality or Western feminism. But it is not those qualities that have put him on the Saudi terror list.

In May 2008, Qaradawi issued a fatwa permitting the building of churches in Muslim countries. He said it is allowed in Islam and Muslims have to respect and protect them.”

As we see listeners to this edition of ‘The Media Show’ were told a story framed as an assault on media freedom that by no means provided them with the full range of information concerning either the issue itself or the media organisation that is its focus. David Hearst was at the time doing the rounds at various media outlets to present his side of the story and Amol Rajan’s softball interviewing refrained from making any real effort to challenge Hearst’s narrative.

Would BBC audiences have gone away with a better understanding of this story? Quite the opposite.

Related Articles:

BBC’s Israel-Al Jazeera row reporting displays double standards – part one

BBC’s Israel-Al Jazeera row reporting displays double standards – part two

Superficial BBC Radio 4 reporting on Qatar funding of Hamas

Qatar’s expulsion of Hamas officials not newsworthy for the BBC

BBC Business airbrushes abuse of foreign workers in Qatar

Op-ed at UK site edited by former Guardian editor claims Israel intentionally murders children  (UK Media Watch) 

 

 

 

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