For many years the BBC has been a free hit for the Jewish community. As writer of the media column at our future partner newspaper, the Jewish Chronicle, the public broadcaster’s coverage of the Middle East was the subject which aroused the most regular, hostile interest. In 2004 it resulted in a 20,000 word report by the BBC journalist Malcolm Balen which was regarded as so toxic it was held under wraps.
One of the particular gripes over the years was the reporting of the brave foreign correspondent Orla Guerin who as the BBC’s person in Jerusalem was seen as unfriendly. She was certainly no Michael Elkins, the legendary BBC person, who reported so brilliantly on Israel’s big conflicts of the 1967 and 1973.
In January Guerin was perceived to have blotted her copybook when reporting Auschwitz commemorations at Yad Yashem in Jerusalem. Referring to the young soldiers solemnly marking the Shoah she observed “the state of Israel is now a regional power. For decades, it has occupied Palestinian territories”. Reference to the Palestinians in the context of the greatest horror of the 20th Century was seen as gratuitous.
The BBC could almost certainly have done without Guerin’s remarks, which brought a rebuke from a former chairman Michael Grade. The mini-dispute is particularly unhelpful at a moment when the broadcaster finds itself under enormous pressure. Downing Street is unforgiving of the broadcaster for what it saw as biased coverage, during and after the EU referendum in 2016 and during the 2019 election campaign. Boris Johnson has been kept the broadcaster at arms length.
There is also serious discussion about killing off the licence fee and replacing it with some kind of subscription service. There is no doubt that people are accessing their home TV coverage differently with the advent of streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon and a multiplicity of news sources.
As irritating as the licence fee may be the current £154.50p a year is something of a bargain. Buyers of full subscription packages, including sports and movies, could pay that in a month for commercial services. As a public service broadcaster the Beeb more than pulls its weight.
Members of the community latched onto the Guerin incident as if was fully representative of what the broadcaster does. But it was a fraction of broadcast time around commemorations of Auschwitz liberation. The Beeb’s ‘as live’ broadcast of Shoah commemorations organised by HMDT from Westminster was sensitive and moving.
The documentary The Windermere Children which told the little-known stories of some of the 300 orphaned Jewish refugees who began new lives in England in their own words, was as intelligent a piece of TV as will be seen this year. It is hard to imagine Sky or Amazon, with all their resources, producing something requiring such deep research and with such beauty.
I was moved to tears when, in the same week, as the Auschwitz events the BBC broadcast Belsen, which used unique interviews with those who were there and revealed the true experience of life inside the infamous concentration camp. It recalled with great clarity conversations with my uncle, aunts and cousins who survived these horrors.
I can think of no other broadcasting organisation around the world which would have devoted so much time, attention and care to the Shoah over several days. It put one infelicitous news bulletin into perspective.
When it comes to great historic events the public broadcasting credentials of the BBC are superlative. It is hard to think that a subscription service would be willing to devote the resources, time and energy to projects such as Windermere with little pecuniary pay back.
We are free to criticise what we don’t like. But enfeebling a great national institution would be an act of sabotage.