Boycotting the Beeb
- Haaretz, July 1, 2003
Boycotting the Beeb
By Sharon Sadeh
Israel is cutting working ties with the world's largest
broadcaster over what it calls `biased and hostile coverage.'
LONDON - Israel joined Zimbabwe last weekend as one of two
countries boycotting the BBC. The move was taken in protest of
the "biased and hostile coverage policy," as Danny Seaman, the
head of the Government Press Office in Jerusalem put it. Although
Israel has not gone so far as to expel journalists, as did
Zimbabwe, "A decision to expel all BBC correspondents has not
been ruled out," Seaman says. At this stage, Israel is making do
with measures designed to make life more difficult for the
world's largest television and radio news broadcaster.
Official government spokesmen will not grant interviews, press
credentials will be issued sparingly, the authorities will not
assist the network's crews in crossing into the territories, and
there will be meticulous enforcement of the issuance of work
Israel's wrath was kindled by last Saturday's rebroadcast of a
documentary entitled "Israel's Secret Weapon," which is about
Israel's efforts to develop nonconventional weapons.
Seaman has frequently clashed with Western media that adopted a
pro-Palestinian perspective. "The weapons program contains
ridiculous false assertions," he said. "We had to draw a red line
rather than just complain about a consistent attitude in which
successive BBC programs attempt to place us in the same context
as totalitarian, axis-of-evil countries such as Iraq and Iran."
`Verging on anti-Semitic'
"The overall BBC attitude toward Israel is verging on
anti-Semitic. There is no recognition inside the corporation of
the sensitivity of a people who have faced attempted
annihilation," he said.
In March, when the documentary first aired in Britain, Israel
chose not to respond. Now, with rebroadcast of the film on BBC
World, which is aired worldwide, Israel has decided to fight
back, after a spate of critical programs on Israeli policies.
"The attitude of the BBC is more than pure journalistic matter;
it is dangerous to the existence of the State of Israel because
it demonizes the Israelis and gives our terrorist enemies reasons
to attack us," said Seaman.
The decision by the government's public relations forum to cut
off working relations with the BBC is another step in the battle
between Israel and the British corporation. In April, Israeli
cable TV companies decided to no longer carry BBC World,
ostensibly due to a financial disagreement, although it was
hinted that political considerations were behind the decision.
The channel continued to be received in Israel on the Yes
satellite network, and after a while, the cable broadcasts were
Media industry sources in Britain are not certain that
boycotting the network is such a wise move for Israel. "BBC is an
exceptionally influential news broadcaster, especially within the
UK; roughly half of the population is regularly tuned in to the
BBC programs," says a British journalist, who asked to remain
unnamed. At the network's headquarters, Seaman's decision was
received indifferently. "We regret that Israel felt the need to
take this action, but we stand behind the veracity of the film,"
says the director of news, Richard Sambrook (the number two
executive at BBC, below director general Greg Dyke.) However,
last night a BBC spokesman insisted that the BBC has not received
any official announcement from the Israeli government and from
their point of view nothing had changed.
Israel is not alone in its criticism. British solicitor Trevor
Asserson, a partner in an international law firm, set up the Web
site BBCWatch.com last year, on which he has issued reports on
BBC coverage of the Middle East. "The BBC has a legal obligation
to report news in an accurate and impartial way. We found
numerous significant breaches of these obligations," says
Asserson, who is Jewish. Among the violations documented in his
first two reports includes the broadcast of a profile of Yasser
Arafat in July 2002. "The program opens by describing Arafat
variously as a `hero,' `an icon,' having `charisma and style' and
being `the stuff of legends.'"
Additional breaches included "unjustified discrimination in the
use of language; omissions of material events, facts and
viewpoints; misleading use of pictures; and the improper
inclusion of journalists' personal comments hostile to Israel and
the Israeli government."
Two weeks ago, Asserson released a new report in which he
compared coverage of the war in Iraq, which featured occupation
of a foreign population, suicide attacks against soldiers of the
American-British coalition and the assassination of high-ranking
Iraqi officials, with that of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
and actions taken by the IDF. He claims to have discerned a
blatant contrast between the reports. "Coalition troops are
described in warm and glowing terms, with sympathy being evoked
both for them as individuals and also for their military
predicament. By contrast Israeli troops are painted as faceless
ruthless and brutal killers with no or little understanding shown
for their actions," Asserson writes in the report.
Asserson's actions were at first met with laconic diffidence by
the network. In response to his first report, which appeared in
March 2002, Sambrook dispatched a terse letter six weeks later,
in which he refuted the allegations and stated that the coverage
of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was balanced, and that "not
every news piece can be a history lesson." The BBC believed that
in so doing, the affair was ended, but the reports continued to
be disseminated around the world through Web sites and groups
that identify with Israel.
The Jewish community in Britain went into action, and the
complaints began to pile up on the desk of the BBC executive
board. The Board of Deputies also made a formal complaint to the
BBC in early June regarding the profile of Israel which appears
on the BBC Web site. Israel's profile, the BOD argues, is
partial, inaccurate and misleading. It implies that the failure
to reach a peaceful settlement in the Middle East lies solely
with Israel; there are references to [Prime Minister Ariel]
Sharon's wealth and housing purchases, and he is also accused of
sparking of the second intifada [despite Palestinian officials
admitting that the intifada was planned ahead of Sharon's
What is a terrorist?
Sambrook appointed a special team to study Asserson's reports
and respond to their findings. When the inquiry was complete,
Asserson received a detailed report, the bottom line of which was
that the network is careful to balance its coverage, and that it
meets the criteria set forth in its charter. Sambrook was
especially infuriated by the allegation that the network makes
discriminatory use of the term "terror organizations." For
instance, Hamas is described as a "militant" organization, in
disregard of the descriptions of the U.S. and British
"We are unaware of any law compelling journalists to describe
particular people as terrorists; and we do not believe there is
any agreed international definition of what constitutes a
terrorist group - and certainly none that gets round the
pejorative charge the word carries - which is what makes it so
difficult a word for the BBC, which seeks neutral precision in
its language," wrote Sambrook.
"As a result of the BBC becoming a global broadcaster, a policy
developed for our international journalism, is now increasingly
applicable to our domestic journalism. This suggests that we
should become less rather than more ready to label particular
people as "terrorists." We have to decide on our own use of
language according to our own principles. It would be wrong for
us to allow the terminology we use to be determined by the legal
definitions adopted by some states. We prefer to use neutral
language where the political legitimacy of particular actions is
Asserson's response: "This is an astonishing statement. The
`some states' to which he refers is the UK, whose citizens pay
for the BBC and whose legislature grants it life and sets its
rules. What Sambrook appears to suggest is that the blowing up of
teenagers in a disco, of old age pensioners at a religious
service, of school children on a school bus, or kids at a pizza
bar - these are actions which could have `political legitimacy.'
In other countries they are described as terrorist acts."
Nevertheless, Asserson does not share Daniel Seaman's view that
the BBC is "verging on" anti-Semitsm. "The anti-Israeli bias is
definitely not anti-Semitic. It stems probably from a distorted
liberal post modernist view. The BBC staff comes largely from
leftist middle class background; they are usually critical of
nationalistic governments, like those of Israel and the U.S., and
instinctively opposed to institutions and those that, in their
view, dispossess the weak and the oppressed."
Diplomatic sources in London note that at other times the BBC
would have responded more heatedly toward Israel, However, BBC
management is currently engaged in a battle for survival with the
British government, which has accused it of hostile and specious
coverage of the war in Iraq and the steps that led to it-
stemming from the BBC's opposition to the war.
Some of Israel's complaints Israel has lodged complaints on
several occasions over the past few years to BBC management over
erroneous or biased reports that it claimed cast Israel in a
l In 2001, the BBC's then chief Jerusalem correspondent Hillary
Anderson began a report by saying: "Deep underground in Bethlehem
are the remnants of an atrocity so vile, so far back in history,
King Herod's slaughter of the innocents" - a comparison that was
branded a reintroduction of the blood libel, as it created the
impression that the Jews, who had tried to murder young Jesus,
were again killing innocent children.
l On May 6, 2001, Fayad Abu Shamala, the BBC's Arabic service
Gaza correspondent for the past 10 years, told a Hamas rally in
Gaza that "journalists and media organizations [are] waging the
campaign shoulder-to-shoulder together with the Palestinian
people." In response, the BBC issued a statement saying, "Fayad's
remarks were made in a private capacity."
l "The Accused", June 2001: This installment of the Panorama
investigative journalism program named Ariel Sharon as a suitable
candidate for being placed on trial for crimes against humanity,
due to his ostensible involvement in the Sabra and Chatila
massacre. The program disregarded evidence that refutes the
claim. Shortly afterward, the legal procedure in which Sharon was
put on trial in Belgium began. Uncharacteristically, the program
was broadcast by BBC four times over the course of the same week,
to ensure optimal viewership.
l "Israel's Secret Weapon": The documentary program compared
Israel to the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and alluded
to the fact that a sort of double standard persists in the
international community regarding Israel's possession of weapons
of mass destruction. The program also quoted Palestinians who
accused Israel of using new, mysterious gases against
Palestinians, without providing any evidence to support that
The program focused on the role played by Yehiel Horev, the
supervisor of security for the defense establishment, whose face
was exposed on the program for the first time. (S.S.)