Israel’s 60th Birthday


Pro-Israel Lobbyist in BBC Glass House Throws Stones by Dave
June 10, 2008, 10:40 pm
Filed under: BBC, Israel, UK, Zionist federation | Tags: , , ,

A biased BBC source is unhappy that other BBC sources are biased. Yes you heard it here first, the Jerusalem Post has run an opinion piece by the Director of Public Affairs for Britain’s Zionist Federation (ZF), Gavin Gross, saying that he is unhappy working with the BBC due to their use of biased sources. Bearing in mind that he is head of PR for the ZF which has a long successful history as part of the Israel Lobby in the UK, it’s quite funny to hear Gavin’s concern. Doesn’t he consider himself a biased source? Doesn’t he think his organisations attempts to shape news on the Israel-Palestine conflict inside the BBC as incorrect? I certainly consider him extremely biased, as a member of a lobby group and a PR goon, and hope he walks away from the BBC as he shouldn’t be anywhere near the place. It seems to me that as he approves of himself as a source he doesn’t really have a problem with bias, he just doesn’t like perspectives other than his own.  Also we might ask why he doesn’t want to discuss what happened 60 years ago while he is celebrating a 60 year anniversary? The anniversary reminds myself and many others of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine and it’s important to highlight this history, much more important than whatever superficial little party it spoils. Personally I wasn’t happy with the BBC either – it was mostly ‘Israel birthday’ articles with a small mention to the Nakba in them (can’t recall them saying ‘ethnic cleansing’) when it should have been articles about the ethnic cleansing perhaps mentioning the celebrations (and how divisive or disgusting they are, dancing on Palestinian graves).

Is it Time to Give Up on the BBC? At Britain’s Zionist Federation (ZF), the topic on which we get the most correspondence is the perceived anti-Israel bias of the BBC. While I tell people they can complain to the BBC if they have a problem with a particular news item, from the ZF’s point of view I have always argued that it is more useful to feed the BBC with interesting Israel story ideas and assist producers as programs are being made, rather than attacking them after a particular story airs. However, after my experiences in the lead-up to Israel’s 60th anniversary, I wonder whether this is simply a lost cause.

In May I was invited to appear on BBC Radio 4’s Sunday program, a religious news and current affairs show, to discuss the ZF’s upcoming “Israel 60” concert at London’s Wembley Arena that attracted over 7,500 people. The producers also invited Ivor Dembina, a Jewish comedian performing at a Jewish Socialists’ Group (JSG) dissenting event at a small hall in north London. Dembina had just signed a letter in The Guardian newspaper titled “We’re not celebrating Israel’s anniversary” which claimed that Israel was a “state founded on terrorism, massacres and the dispossession of another people from their land” and which “even now engages in ethnic cleansing.”

Despite the fact that the ZF’s event would be at least 25 times the size of theirs and was supported by 50 mainstream Anglo-Jewish organizations, the BBC producers felt that as a matter of journalistic “balance” these two opposing views of Israel’s 60th anniversary should be presented to their listeners. A senior Sunday producer told me that the JSG event was newsworthy because it involved important British cultural figures. The producers also made it clear that I would be expected to answer the charges made in this Guardian letter.

In the end I chose not to appear as I felt my time would be spent having to rebut these accusations against Israel rather than discussing our celebrations. Without a ZF spokesperson, the item was never broadcast.

IN APRIL I did appear in the BBC TV program Aliyah – The Journey Home? produced by its religion department and broadcast during Pessah as part of the BBC Charter’s requirement for non-Christian programming. While I was told the program set out to examine the spiritual and religious motivations for British Jewish aliya, I was asked mainly political questions about the Palestinian right of return and Israel’s treatment of its Arab citizens. The producers used Antony Lerman, an anti-Zionist Jewish academic, as one of their on-air experts even though Lerman has called publicly for the repeal of Israel’s Law of Return and for the evolution of a single Israel-Palestine state. When I queried the use of Lerman on such a program, given that his views on aliya and Israel represent a tiny fringe of Anglo-Jewish opinion, the executive producer told me that Lerman had the support of significant Jewish figures such as Haim Bresheeth, who the producer referred to as a reputable academic and noted author.

Bresheeth, an Israeli-born academic and activist within the UK’s University and College Union (UCU), regularly calls for a full boycott of Israeli academic institutions and was quoted by The Jerusalem Post as telling a “Resisting Israeli Apartheid” conference at London University that: “The occupation started in 1948” and “There is no valid comparison between South Africa and Israel; Israel is much worse. South Africa exploited its native population while Israel expelled and committed genocide against its native population.” Is it ignorance or malice [or integrity] that would lead a BBC producer to credit this man with being an important representative of the Jewish community?

FINALLY, The Jerusalem Post‘s UK correspondent Jonny Paul was invited to appear on the BBC World Service’s “World Have your Say” radio show in the run-up to Israel’s 60th anniversary, alongside a Haaretz journalist and two Palestinian students from the Olive Tree scholarship program at London’s City University. According to its Web site, the Olive Tree project brings together young Israelis and Palestinians to encourage “mutual understanding” and “dialogue” and to build “mutual respect and a shared future.” However, when Paul arrived at the BBC’s studios he was shocked to find Dr. Azzam Tamimi replacing one of the Palestinian students. Nicknamed “Kaboom” by bloggers, Tamimi is a Hamas supporter who doesn’t believe Israel has a right to exist, supports suicide bombings within Israel, and famously told the BBC’s Hardtalk TV program that he wanted to be a suicide bomber himself. Paul threatened to walk out of the studio but was eventually persuaded to stay. Various BBC programs use Tamimi as a Palestinian spokesperson.

These behind-the-scenes experiences represent only a snapshot of the BBC’s activities and are not meant to characterize everything they do on Israel. The BBC is a huge, global organization that produces an enormous amount of Israel material across its many domestic and international TV and radio stations and Web sites, some of it quite good. But the actions and sentiments expressed by certain producers are worrying, and there appears to be a distinct reflex to turn to the most extreme Israel critics available.

DUE TO this sort of journalistic decision-making, and the fact that as the national broadcaster the BBC claims 34 million domestic radio listeners weekly, the British public ends up with a distorted view of the situation in Israel and Anglo-Jewish opinion of it. This is not only a Jewish or Israeli issue. When a British Muslim radical attacked then Home Secretary John Reid at a public meeting saying he should not set foot in any Muslim neighborhood, he was promptly invited to present his views on BBC Radio 4’s Today program.

I would like to consistently see reasonable, intelligent, level-headed discussion of Israel issues on the BBC, but given past experience I wonder whether this is even possible.

The writer is Director of Public Affairs for Britain’s Zionist Federation, which was founded in London in 1899 to support the Jewish national movement.

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