BBC WS ‘Newshour’ messaging reflects that of anti-Israel group

The April 1st edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ included a report by the BBC’s US State Department correspondent Barbara Plett Usher which was introduced by presenter Julian Marshall (from 45:11 here) as follows:

[emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Marshall: “The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life in hotly contested elections next week, trying to win another term in office despite facing possible indictments on corruption charges. His election campaign has made much of his ability to deliver dividends from Israel’s relationship with America and has highlighted his friendship with President Trump but for some time his Right-wing policies have been chipping away at America’s strong bi-partisan support for the Israeli government and that fracture is becoming ever more public. Barbara Plett Usher takes a closer look.”

Listeners heard no justification for the use of the buzz words “Right-wing policies” and no explanation of what those policies supposedly involve. They were given no evidence to support the claim that American support is for “the Israeli government” rather than Israel as a whole. Neither was any evidence provided supporting the claim that such support has been diminished solely and exclusively because of the Israeli prime minister’s policies. Plett Usher’s report opened with a recording of the Israeli prime minister speaking.

Recording Netanyahu: “Thank you President Trump. Thank you for your leadership. Thank you for your friendship.”

Plett Usher: “Benjamin Netanyahu has always believed he’s best at reading the wind when it comes to Americans and he felt that wind at his back on a trip to Washington last week.”

Recording Trump: “Under my administration the unbreakable alliance between the United States and Israel has never been stronger.”

Barbara Plett Usher went on to repeat the buzz words heard in the introduction but while this time listeners learned that those policies supposedly relate to “the Palestinians and Iran”, they were not told what those policies are or in what way they are “Right-wing”.

Plett Usher: “President Trump has embraced him and his Right-wing policies on the Palestinians and Iran.”

As Jonathan Spyer recently pointed out, there is in fact “an almost complete consensus between a broad mass of the Israeli (Jewish) public” on the issue of Iranian threats against Israel and “a decline in the level of polarisation within the Jewish voting public over the last two decades” concerning “the security challenge of Hamas-controlled Gaza, and of the unresolved conflict with the Palestinian Arab national movement”.

“Regarding Iran, former IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White list, which forms the main challenger to the ruling Likud party in the 2019 campaign, has made clear that there are no disagreements between himself and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the question of Iran and the threat it poses.

The consensus, however, goes beyond the rightist Likud and centrist Blue and White party. Labor and Meretz, representing the centre-Left and left-wing spots on the political map, are similarly supportive of the government’s stance on Iran.”

Quite how Plett Usher justifies her claim of “Right-wing policies on Iran” is therefore unclear.

On the subject of the conflict with the Palestinians, Spyer notes that:

“…this debate has lost much of its passion. On the Left, the belief that a partner for historic compromise had been found in the PLO lost many adherents after the collapse of the peace process and the commencement of Palestinian insurgency in late 2000. On the Right, the fervent and ideological commitment to avoidance of any land concessions west of the Jordan River also faded.

This has been reflected in the 2019 campaign. The main contenders – Likud and Blue and White, are clearly competing for the centre ground. “

Once again the justification for Plett Usher’s use of the slogan “Right-wing policies” is unclear.

She continued with a segment including unidentified interviewees at the recent AIPAC conference –using another label for which she did not bother to provide evidence.

Plett Usher: “But outside the White House the wind is shifting. [music] Not here. Support was rock solid at this conference of the powerful pro-Israel lobby the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee – or AIPAC. It has promoted Israel’s relationship with the US for decades in both political parties. But a few young, newly elected Democrats have been challenging that orthodoxy, triggering a controversy over charges of antisemitism and the level of bi-partisan support.”

Man 1: “The three vocal Democratic representatives are just vocal. They’re loud mouths. And I feel their uproar – people like uproar, they like a tumult, OK – and I think it’ll die down.”

Man 2: “I think that there’s enough love and support in the United States for Israel and an understanding of the importance of the alliance that it really will not affect the relationship.”

Referring to a small demonstration against AIPAC in March, Plett Usher went on to introduce a representative of a political group which, interestingly, she did not find it necessary to locate on the political spectrum.

[shouting: ‘Free Palestine, Free Gaza’]

Plett Usher: “Only a handful of demonstrators showed up but in fact opposition to Mr Netanyahu’s policies has been building for some time, especially when it comes to treatment of the Palestinians and especially in the younger generation. [shouting] That includes many American Jews who say Israel has lurched so far to the Right they no longer share its values. Ethan Miller belongs to a protest group called ‘If Not Now’.”

Miller: “You know, we’re a rising movement – a rising grassroots movement – of American Jews but I think we’re starting to see changes in Congress as well. We’re starting to see members of Congress both in the house and in the Senate actually start to speak up for Palestinian human rights in a way that we haven’t seen for a long time.”

The group ‘If Not Now’ claims to be “working to transform the American Jewish community’s support for occupation into a call for freedom and dignity for all”. Apparently Plett Usher would have her listeners believe that “the occupation” – which of course began as the result of a defensive war during the term of a Left-wing government when the current Israeli prime minister was still four months short of his eighteenth birthday – is one of “Mr Netanyahu’s policies”.

Plett Usher: “It’s a trend that’s never been so pronounced or contentious.”

Recording: “Breaking news coming out of the House of Representatives where a resolution has just passed condemning antisemitism and other forms of bigotry.”

Plett Usher then presented a highly selective version of a story from February, failing to clarify that the congresswoman did in fact use an antisemitic trope.  

Plett Usher: “A Muslim congresswoman, Ilhan Omar, was accused of using antisemitic language. That broke open divisions within the party in a public and messy way. Still, there was an upside says Jeremy Ben Ami. He heads a liberal pro-Israel lobby called J Street that is challenging AIPAC and he organised a conference call on the controversy.”

Recording Ben Ami: “The space that we need to have is the space to discuss the occupation. I think that we are in a place now where those conversations can actually start to be had.”

Plett Usher did not bother to inform listeners that J Street – which some would dispute is “pro-Israel” – was founded in 2007 when the prime minister of Israel was Kadima’s Ehud Olmert or that, in contrast to AIPAC which does not donate to candidates or campaigns, J Street donated some $4 million to exclusively Democratic candidates in 2018. She went on:

Plett Usher: “Or maybe not.”

Recording Trump: “But they are totally anti-Israel. Frankly I think they’re anti-Jewish.”

Plett Usher: “President Trump has seized the moment to go after the Democrats, even though he’s been accused of enabling antisemitism. Republicans are claiming to be better defenders of Israel and Democratic lawmaker Tom Malinowski says there’s now less space for conversation about Israel within the party – not more.”

Malinowski: “I am absolutely convinced it is possible to have a debate about our foreign policy towards Israel or any other country but when people start using blatantly antisemitic tropes in that debate, it actually makes it harder. It actually tends to shut down serious debate about foreign policy because everybody becomes defensive and angry rather that thoughtful about the choices that are before us.”

Plett Usher finished by building up what she apparently knows to be an imaginary story about a ‘boycott’ of the recent AIPAC conference.

Plett Usher: “The young and outspoken lawmakers have received an outsized amount of coverage but it is not just about them. Democrats who’ve announced they’re running for president include a mix of liberals and ethnic minorities who have also been more critical of Israeli policy.”

Recording Pence: “And as I stand before you, eight Democrat candidates for president are actually boycotting this very conference.”

Plett Usher: “The vice-president Mike Pence brought up the 2020 election at the AIPAC conference.”

Recording Pence: “It is wrong to boycott Israel and it is wrong to boycott AIPAC.”

Plett Usher: “In fact only one candidate – Bernie Sanders – explicitly said he was not attending because of policy differences. But it does look as if Israel will be an issue in America’s presidential campaign long after the Israeli prime minister has finished his.”

Plett Usher’s framing of this story is abundantly clear: ‘liberal’ Americans are, according to her, abandoning Israel solely because of its prime minister’s “Right-wing policies”. Unsurprisingly she ignored the relevant issue of the Democratic party’s leftward shift over the years in order to uncritically and unquestioningly promote a narrative advanced by the anti-Israel group showcased in her report.

“My generation sees the occupation and what’s happening in Israel-Palestine as a crisis the same way we do climate change,” said Simone Zimmerman, 28, a co-founder of a progressive group, IfNotNow, that opposes what it calls Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Ms. Zimmerman scorned what she called “the Trump-Netanyahu” alliance and said “too many in the American Jewish establishment and the Democratic establishment have let them off the hook.”

So much for the BBC’s obligation to provide its funding public with “accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming” intended to “build people’s understanding of…the wider world”. 

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BBC R4 presenter floats ranking racism

Last month we documented one of many examples of BBC reporting on antisemitism in which an antisemitic statement was inaccurately and misleadingly described as “comments about Israel” and insufficient effort was made to explain why the statement was considered antisemitic. We observed at the time that:

“…as long as the BBC continues to report such stories while avoiding referencing the accepted definition of antisemitism, it cannot give its audiences an accurate and informative account of events.”

On March 12th listeners to BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme witnessed another such example in the introduction to an item relating to US politics (from 2:51:23 here) by presenter Justin Webb. [emphasis in italics in the original]

Webb: “President Trump limps from crisis to crisis but his opponents, the Democrats, seem themselves to be in a mess. They won control of the House of Representatives last autumn and they sent some very high-profile new faces to Washington, among them the Muslim congresswoman Ilhan Omar. Well it hasn’t turned out though to be such plain sailing for her or the others. She is now accused of being antisemitic after she suggested that Jewish Americans have an allegiance to Israel.”

Leaving aside the fact that criticism of the comments made by Ilhan Omar in late February has focused on the antisemitic nature of the dual loyalty charge found in her statements rather than on the congresswoman herself and so Webb’s claim that “she is now accused of being antisemitic” does not reflect that criticism, no effort was made to explain to listeners that the claim that “Jewish Americans have an allegiance to Israel” – or as Omar actually put it “I want to talk about the political influence in this country that says it is OK for people to push for allegiance to a foreign country” – is categorised as a manifestation of antisemitism according to the IHRA working definition:

“Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations.”

Without that essential information, listeners would obviously not be in a position to understand this story fully. Webb continued:

Webb: “And that has prompted some very deep soul-searching as the party works out how it’s going to get rid of President Trump in the presidential elections. I’ve been hearing from the Democratic supporting polling expert John Zogby.”

After Zogby had spoken about “the demographic battle within the party between an old guard versus a new group of Young Turks that represent really millennials and Generation Z”, Justin Webb came up with the following bizarre question.

Webb: “The party’s having a big row about antisemitism and it’s fair to say to the surprise, I think, of some Democrats who really thought it wasn’t going to be the issue that it is. If…if the party decided to say to its supporters ‘look, we think that antisemitism is a bit like the way some of our people might regard anti-white racism; that actually it’s a different order of racism, it’s not as important, it’s still bad but it’s not as important as some other forms of racism’, what impact do you think that would have?”

We have been unable to find any evidence of such a suggestion having been put forward by the Democratic party (and indeed Zogby’s response was “you won’t see it happen”) so why Webb found it appropriate to float the grotesque notion of more important and less important types of racism is unclear.

Unsurprisingly, Webb failed to challenge Zogby when he came up with the inadequately explained claim that some people within the Democratic party are confusing antisemitism with “opposition to Israeli policies”.

Zogby: “By the same token to confuse antisemitism with Israeli policies and opposition to Israeli policies is a very difficult road to go down and by some establishment figures within the Democratic party, we saw how dangerous that gets. And that is one of the key points within this demographic revolution. Younger people let’s just say don’t have the automatic admiration for Israel. They know a post-intifada Israel and they know Israel as a foreign country.”

Webb went on to ask Zogby what would happen “if the Democratic party moved in the direction of being much more critical of Israel than it has been in the past, never mind the antisemitism issue”. Zogby replied that while some Jewish voters “would move away”, the numbers could be “more than made up…by energising millennials and energising non-whites”.

After a final question concerning the presidential election, Webb closed the item.

Following the broadcast the Jewish Chronicle contacted the BBC for comment and was told that “Justin is the first to admit he should have phrased his question better”. Apparently a BBC representative also said that “Mr Webb accepted the question needed to be better phrased because “the audience will not have been as familiar with the state of American politics as he and John Zogby are””. 

For years we have watched the BBC fail to provide the accurate and impartial reporting which would help its audiences understand antisemitism related stories in the UK. As we see, that serial failure is now being replicated in stories relating to US politics – not least because the BBC still does not work according to the accepted definition of antisemitism and because BBC staff too often appear to have forgotten that it is their job to inform audiences rather than subject them to esoteric insider chats that show off their own ‘familiarity’ with a topic. 

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BBC R4 report on antisemitism in the US uses the Livingstone Formulation

If the BBC was making a report about homophobic remarks or racist comments directed at black or Asian people it would be unlikely to solicit a contribution from a person promoting the view that criticism of such statements was intended to “shut down legitimate debate”.

That, however, is exactly what listeners to the March 4th edition of the BBC Radio 4 programme ‘World at One’ heard in an item by Gary O’Donoghue which was introduced by presenter Sarah Montague (from 25:03 here) using a rather curious claim. [emphasis in bold added, emphasis in italics in the original]

Montague: “Now then, Labour isn’t the only Left of centre political party having to weather accusations of antisemitism at the moment. In the United States Democrats are having to counter claims that the leftward shift of their party is leading to antisemitic attitudes among some of their new members of Congress. Republicans have been trying to make the most of their political difficulties. From Washington, here’s our correspondent Gary O’Donoghue.”

Using an archive recording of former US president Harry Truman that includes the phrase “the problem of Israel”, O’Donoghue began by noting the longstanding Jewish American support for the Democratic party before asking “So what’s wrong?”. Listeners then heard from a person subsequently identified as Jonathan Weisman of the New York Times.

Weisman: “I think that the Labour party of Britain right now is what the Democratic party dreads and is desperate to avoid.”

O’Donoghue explained:

“…it’s the antisemitism label he’s talking about when he says the Democrats are desperate to avoid Labour’s mistakes in Britain. But why would a party that gets 75% of Jewish American votes risk being called antisemitic?”

Listeners then heard the phrase “It’s all about the Benjamins, baby” read out before O’Donoghue explained:

O’Donoghue: “A Tweet from a new young progressive Democrat elected to the House of Representatives called Ilhan Omar – one of the first two Muslim women ever to sit in Congress. She was talking about the influence of AIPAC – the American Israel Political Action Committee – a powerful lobbying group. The Benjamins is slang for $100 bills carrying, as they do, the face of Benjamin Franklin.”

O’Donoghue then brought in Deborah Lipstadt to explain further.

Lipstatdt: “When you say ‘it’s all about the Benjamins, baby’, that’s using a trope. Whether she was conscious of it or not – she says she was not conscious of it so I don’t know – American politics is infused with money. So if you say only this is about money, again, how come only this and not everything else?”

O’Donoghue went on to tell listeners that Lipstadt “says money is just one of a whole range of tropes that constitute antisemitism” before another recording was heard.

O’Donoghue: “Enter Rashida Tlaib; fellow Muslim freshman in Congress and […] someone else facing accusations of antisemitsm. In her case it was criticisms of fellow Democrats for not backing the so-called BDS movement which promotes boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel.”

As ever in BBC content, listeners heard no further explanation of the anti-Israel BDS campaign and its aims before O’Donoghue went on:

O’Donoghue: “And yes, it was a Tweet.

‘They forgot what country they represent. This is the US where boycotting is a right and a part of our historical fight for freedom and equality.’

That, say her critics, manifests another antisemitic trope: that Jews have split loyalties.”

Listeners then heard the BBC’s idea of ‘balance’: promotion of what is known in the UK as the Livingstone Formulation.

O’Donoghue: “But Yousef Munayyer of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights says antisemitism allegations are used to shut down legitimate debate.”

In breach of editorial guidelines stipulating that the “particular viewpoint” of contributors should be made clear, O’Donoghue did not bother to inform his audience of the fact that Munayyer is himself a supporter of BDS and that the organisation he represents mobilises anti-Israel BDS campaigns. Lacking that obviously relevant information, listeners then heard from Munayyer:

Munayyer: “It weaponises one form of bigotry and one form of oppression to help defend and enable another. It is important to be able to say, you know, in one voice that we oppose antisemitism. We also oppose what the Israelis are doing to the Palestinians.”

And so we see once again that the BBC’s interpretation of impartiality leads it to amplify claims from inadequately introduced anti-Israel campaigners which actually hinder audience understanding of the issue of antisemitism.

O’Donoghue’s report continued with comment from a representative of a Jewish organisation linked to the Democratic party before he went on:

O’Donoghue: “But it’s not just two members of Congress. Others on the Left face similar allegations. Most recently leaders of the Women’s March organisation have been heavily criticised over their connections to Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, who many regard as overtly antisemitic.”

Failing to provide his British listeners with anything more informative than that tepid portrayal of Farrakhan’s long-standing record of antisemitism and additional forms of bigotry, O’Donoghue brought in Deborah Lidstadt once again before closing his report.

O’Donoghue: “It’s not of course just a problem for the Left. Far-Right white supremacists trade in the same antisemitic ideas. But the Democratic leadership are conscious that a new, younger, more Left-leaning party base could drive a wedge between them and Jewish Americans, already wooed by Republican policies such as pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and moving the US embassy to Jerusalem.”

Remarkably, although there was no room in O’Donoghue’s portrayal of antisemitism in the United States for the no less relevant issue of Islamist antisemitism, he did find the space for promotion of false balance in the form of the Livingstone Formulation – just as has been seen so often in BBC coverage of antisemitism in the UK Labour party.

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