A crime of sandwich
This happened a few years ago: I was attending Limmud – the Jewish learning event that takes place in the UK every year around Christmas time. I was listening to a (not terribly articulate) speaker – a former BBC Jerusalem correspondent. After a perfunctory introduction, he launched into what he referred to as the inhuman treatment of Palestinians. “It was during the holy month of Ramadan,” he waxed lyrical, “when Muslims fast all day long and eat only after sunset. I was traveling in the West Bank and reached this check post, where perhaps 200 Palestinians were queuing to enter Israel. And there” – the ex-reporter’s tone heralded the story’s punch line – “was this young Israeli soldier. He was eating a sandwich! Imagine all those hungry Palestinians and this soldier deliberately baiting, mocking them by eating a sandwich in public.”
Once he finished his rather prolix talk, I raised my hand and asked a simple question: “How do you know that soldier was doing it deliberately? Did you ask him?” The former BBC correspondent looked dumbstruck, as if the very suggestion was outrageous. “I didn’t have to,“ he finally said after many moments of embarrassing silence. “It was absolutely clear to me. Why else would he do something like that?”
Well, why indeed? Why would a 19-year-old soldier on boring guard duty do something as unusual as… eating a sandwich? Could it be that he had no idea that it was Ramadan? Maybe he had never experienced a whole month of daily fast and did not realize he was bothering anyone? Perhaps he was famished and just did not care?
Out of the dozens of more benign interpretations, the ex-BBC man had ‘instinctively’ chosen the most malevolent one. Would the same explanation have popped into his mind if the soldier were British? Or indeed Palestinian? The entire psychology of racism rests on subliminal prejudice, on the casual assumption of evil; the ideology of hatred comes later.
BBC’s Jewish problem
This wasn’t a singular case. BBC journalists, editors and managers have long been accused of such casual but consistent anti-Israel bias. One BBC reporter couldn’t even describe a ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial without adding dog-whistle allegations about Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
Many have claimed that this type of deep-seated hostility against the Jewish state was but a manifestation of subliminal antisemitic prejudice. And, certainly in recent years, BBC journalists have provided ample evidence to support that thesis. Remember the reporter who, in an interview dedicated to Islamist terror attacks in France, felt compelled to tell a frightened Jewish woman that “the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well”? How about Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen, who publicly opined that “[e]very Jew, and every gentile [sic!]” should read an article claiming that “racism, hate and violence are Jewish values, too”? And how about the BBC insistence that Judaism’s holiest site is “Al-Aqsa Mosque” or “Al-Aqsa Mosque Complex” (which, the BBC tells us, is “also revered by Jews”)? Or the ‘debate’ on whether Jews count as an ethnic minority?
The last straw
On 29 November 2021, a bus organized by Chabad took a group of Jewish children to a Hanukkah party. According to the testimony of Rabbi Shneor Glitsenstein, the group’s leader,
“at Oxford Street we got out on the sidewalk and danced to Hanukkah music. A few minutes in, approximately three young Middle Eastern men began playing Arabic music from their phones and dancing next to us. They quickly became aggressive, and began making profane gestures and yelling ‘Free Palestine!'”
In order to defuse the situation, the Jewish group returned to the bus, at which point the attackers proceeded to assault the vehicle: they shouted profanities, threw projectiles, spat on the windows, banged with their fists and shoes, and kicked the doors. They also managed to perform a Nazi salute, before the bus moved away.
One of the bus passengers managed to capture part of the attack on video, filming it with her smartphone from inside the bus. Enough evidence for the London Metropolitan Police to open an investigation and treat the incident as a hate crime.
The short clip was posted and widely circulated on social media. News about the incident soon found its way also to the mainstream media (for instance The Telegraph and The Evening Standard on 1 December).
The BBC reported the incident only on 2 December, in an article entitled “Oxford Street: Men filmed spitting at Jewish people on bus,” which was published on its News website and mobile app. Later on the same day, BBC TV One broadcast a report as part of its London news bulletin.
Unlike the Telegraph, the BBC chose not to report that the attackers shouted (among other things) “Free Palestine”. Unlike the Telegraph and Evening Standard, both BBC ‘contributions’ called the attack an “alleged anti-Semitic incident”. And unlike the Telegraph and Evening Standard, both BBC ‘contributions’ claimed that
“some racial slurs about Muslims can also be heard from inside the bus.”
The BBC did not provide a source or any evidence supporting that statement of fact (i.e. not allegation).
In response to a deluge of complaints, the BBC admitted that “some racial slurs about Muslims” was inaccurate and replaced it with “a slur about Muslims”.
Ultimately, the complaints were referred to the Executive Complaints Unit (ECU), BBC’s ‘highest court’ of complaints. The ECU has now published its report. So let us read and analyze it together.
Firstly, a general (but, I suggest, very pertinent) remark: the BBC is not a regular media outlet. It is a public institution, funded through a universal and compulsory poll tax euphemistically called ‘the license fee’. Anyone residing in the UK must pay ‘the license fee’, whether one chooses to use BBC services or not. Failure to pay ‘the license fee’ isn’t treated as a mere debt, but as a criminal offense.
Whether this arrangement is fair and appropriate in a 21st century democracy and market economy is an interesting topic, but one not relevant to our discussion. What is relevant is that, in return for a colossal amount of money (circa £3.5 billion a year), the Corporation is required to act in the public interest and adhere to the principles of openness, transparency and accountability. The public (i.e. the Corporation’s owners) has the right to require from the BBC a much higher standard of quality and ethics than that expected from commercial media outlets: those are not funded from the public purse, but survive by selling their services to willing buyers.
Secondly, let me make a procedural remark: as required, the BBC has a set code, according to which complaints are considered in 3 stages, with ECU being the 3rd and final one. Members of the public cannot bring their complaints to the attention of the ECU before patiently waiting for rulings at the lower stages (a process that can take many weeks and sometimes months). Even then, the ECU is not required to consider a complaint, unless it chooses to do so. But such rules are for plebs; the BBC, which made those rules, feels free to unmake them when convenient. In this case, Director-General Tim Davie did away with the procedure and ordered that all complaints related to the Oxford Street incident should be dealt with directly by the ECU. The more junior BBC personnel (i.e. those likely to naively let the truth get in the way) were thus carefully neutralized. In the touching words of the Report:
“In the light of the deeply-felt concerns expressed by senior leaders in the Jewish community and others, the Director-General in his role as Editor-in Chief [sic!] instructed the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit to investigate the complaints as a matter of urgency.”
The Report also declares that
“The ECU, though part of the BBC, is independent of programme-makers, and is tasked with judging complaints about BBC output against the requirements of the BBC’s editorial standards, as expressed in the Editorial Guidelines.”
And what does “independent of programme-makers” actually mean? As Editor-in-Chief, Tim Davie is ultimately responsible for all the content published by the BBC. But as Director-General, he is also the boss of the ECU…
As we have seen, Mr. Davie has already bent the rules to put ECU directly in charge of these complaints. If he actually gave a rat’s about “the deeply-felt concerns expressed by senior leaders in the Jewish community and others,” he could have bent them a bit further and entrusted the investigation to a truly independent inquiry. But let’s not be naïve!
Well, since the investigation was performed by the ECU, what exactly did they investigate? The Report tells us that:
“In reaching our finding we have watched and read the relevant output, watched and listened to an enhanced audio version of the disputed recording, examined the editorial processes which led to the inclusion of the claim about an anti-Muslim slur in both the online and broadcast items, and considered the BBC’s subsequent decision to stand by its reporting. We have also considered the two reports commissioned by the Board of Deputies, along with the result of a separate check carried out on behalf of the BBC.”
Let us remember: “the relevant output” consisted a 500-word article and a brief television segment; the “disputed recording” had a total duration of 58 seconds; and the “editorial processes” all took place in the course of one day. I’d say that most of us, in our professional lives, would be expected to accomplish that volume of reading, watching and considering in a couple of hours, not a couple of months. Especially when instructed to “investigate […] as a matter of urgency”!! But superior intellects, the likes of which obviously inhabit the Executive Complaints Unit cannot, should not be held to mere human standards.
But let’s continue to investigate the ECU investigation: one thing people complained about is that the BBC reported the (actual) racist attack against Jews as “alleged”, while presenting the (alleged) slur by the Jews as fact. The ECU Report explains that… well, it’s the bloody lawyers’ fault.
“the terminology was used on the basis of legal advice taken by the programme-makers, and was by no means unusual in reporting matters under police investigation which may fall to be decided by the courts, and where not all the facts have been established.”
The only problem with that explanation is that… it fails to explain anything. Because, as the BBC News article stated
“The Met Police has said the incident will be looked at ‘in its entirety’”.
That sentence was placed immediately after the report on the anti-Muslim slur, clearly implying that, at least in BBC’s view, that slur was part and parcel of the ‘entirety’ under police investigation (and, like anything “under police investigation”, liable “to be decided by the courts”).
As for the facts, clearly all of them hadn’t yet been established.
Why, then, the difference in BBC reporting?
In reality, claims the ECU, the BBC report favored the Jews, because
“the anti-Muslim slur claim […] was contextualised in the online item in a way the statements about the behaviour of those outside the bus were not, by the inclusion of a quote from one of the students on the bus, in which she denied hearing any such insults from her fellow-passengers.”
All true, of course. But there is a slightly deeper context to the BBC contextualization (or lack thereof): the victim of the antisemitic attack spoke to the BBC, while the perpetrators were nowhere to be found – for rather obvious reasons!
The Report then addresses another part of the complaint: referring to ‘the slur,’ the BBC TV reporter’s stated that
“It’s not clear at the moment for the person which said that what role this may have played in the incident.”
This, many complained, is tantamount to suggesting that ‘the slur’ provoked the entire incident – i.e. blaming the attack on its Jewish victims.
Not so, found the ECU. It
“did not accept that either item lacked impartiality in the senses complained of, or that the charges of victim-blaming or false equivalence are warranted. In two significant respects however both items were inaccurate.”
And why? The ECU wisemen provide three reasons:
- The TV item was unscripted, so “the reporter’s intended meaning was not expressed with complete clarity.”
- “he did not assert that the slur had played a role” and
- “the reference came towards the end of a piece in which the overriding focus had been on the behaviour of those outside the bus.”
Well, why was the item unscripted? This was not a reporter hastily broadcasting from the site of a recent crime. According to ECU’s own findings, the BBC had learned about the incident the day before; it had even managed to publish an article about it hours before the TV segment was aired.
As for whether the reporter ‘asserted’ or not… one would think that journalists (who make a living from writing and speaking) would treat words with a bit more respect. Nobody said that the reporter ‘asserted’ anything; but he certainly suggested it. If I said “It’s not clear whether X played a role in Y,” a reasonable person would understand that there is about a 50:50 chance of X having played a role in Y; we just don’t know. But if I say “It’s not clear what role X played in Y,” then the suggestion is that it did play a role, the extent and/or nature of which is still unknown.
But why would anyone (let alone a BBC journalist) believe that ‘the slur’ (even if there was one) played any role? After all, the slur is supposed to have been captured in the video, which was taken after the attack started. And could the attackers standing outside the bus hear ‘the slur’ uttered inside, at a volume that makes it barely audible in the video taken inside?? If the BBC reporter genuinely believed what he said, I suggest that he should not be working for the BBC; his skills set makes him a great fit for a periodical like The Fordwich Courier!
As for the statement about ‘the role of the slur’ being “towards the end of [the] piece,” many a journalist (though probably not those of the BBC variety) will tell you that the end is more important and more memorable than the beginning; it’s the end where one usually finds ‘the punch line’ of a story.
But let’s go on: was the BBC justified in reporting (as fact!) ‘a slur’ that somebody at the BBC – and, at that point, at least, only at the BBC – thought s/he heard in a blurry, noisy and indistinct amateur video? Yes, it was justified, says the ECU. Why? Because of:
- “an unusually high level of consultation among colleagues about the content of the recording”. Including “at least seven members of BBC London news staff and a senior editor in network news, all of whom agreed that the phrase ‘Dirty Muslims’ could be heard”.
- “a WhatsApp exchange with the CST [the Community Security Trust]”
The first justification begs the question: what was the reason for that “unusually high level of consultation”? If ‘the slur’ had been clear, surely there would have been no reason for “at least seven members of BBC London news staff and a senior editor in network news” to be consulted. And if it was unclear enough that seven different people had to be asked, should the BBC not have asked an expert, before publishing what amounts to a grave accusation of racism against a group of children and their adult supervisors?
‘But we did ask an expert’ appears to be the ECU’s claim. ‘We asked the CST’. Except that the CST expertise in this matter consists of them… being Jewish. Apparently, in the minds of the ECU grandees Jews all think the same and know about each other. Hence the CST are experts, even though they are not (and never pretended to be) either linguists or sound engineers…
It is also interesting to analyze the innards of ECU’s claim involving the CST. The Report says that
“The claim was put by the reporter in the television item to the representative of the CST with whom he had been dealing, who replied (in a WhatsApp exchange which the ECU has seen) in terms which the BBC took as confirmation that the phrase in question had been spoken and, in the ECU’s judgement, it was entirely reasonable to take them in that sense.“
So nobody at the CST provided any confirmation, but ‘something’ that the BBC took (or chose to take) as confirmation… Notwithstanding the fact that the CST (which had not been present during the incident) had no way to know whether “the phrase in question had been spoken” or not.
It is interesting (not to say ‘revealing’) that the ECU chooses not to quote the supposed “confirmation” in its report, though they quote many other things. The public (which pays the inflated salaries of the BBC bosses sitting on the ECU) has no way to assess how reasonable it was for the BBC to take that alleged CST message as “confirmation”. The public, of course, must not be allowed to question “ECU’s judgement”.
On its part, the CST strenuously denies that it gave any such “confirmation”. It tweeted:
“CST completely rejects the claim in today’s BBC report that CST confirmed to the BBC on 2nd December that an anti-Muslim phrase had been spoken on the Chabad bus that was attacked on Oxford Street.
CST was not asked for any such confirmation by the BBC and was in no position to provide any confirmation: we had no prior knowledge of the allegation and had not sought to confirm it with any of the witnesses or victims at that point.
Instead, a BBC journalist who had already been in contact with CST over the incident phoned to tell us that (a) an anti-Muslim slur was audible and (b) the BBC was going to include it in their report. He was definite on both points.
CST replied in a WhatsApp to argue that the alleged slur, even if true, was irrelevant to the dynamic of how the incident occurred and should not be reported. We were in no position to confirm (or not) whether the now much-disputed phrase in question had been spoken.
The BBC’s claim is therefore a completely misleading representation of the exchanges between the BBC and CST on that day. CST informed the BBC of this before today’s report was published but they have gone ahead anyway. Their behaviour is appalling and deeply damaging.”
It does not take too much imagination to put 1 + 1 together. A BBC journo phoned the CST and told them something like: ‘We’ve discovered that the Jews inside the bus uttered anti-Muslim slurs. What do you guys have to say about that? We’re going to include this in our report tonight’. ‘I’ll get back to you,’ must’ve said the unsettled CST person. S/he was faced with a dire choice: s/he was unable to distinguish any such slur in the recording; but was the BBC, with its superior technical capabilities, right? If so, denying it (a denial that the BBC would have quoted, alongside the ‘lack of condemnation’) would have hurt CST’s credibility. So our CST person sends a WhatsApp message saying something like ‘Look, we condemn any kind of racism. But, even if such slur was uttered, it’s irrelevant. By then, the antisemitic incident was already ongoing. Reporting the slur would only serve to establish a false equivalence between the attack and the slur that came afterwards.’
‘Aha,’ said the BBC reporter, ‘so they confirm my scoop! I’d better call The Fordwich Courier and tell’em I’m not accepting their offer just yet.’
No, it does not take too much imagination to reconstruct all this. But it does take a bit of honesty – a merchandise that is, it seems to me, in short supply among BBC ‘executives’.
But what the ECU did not investigate is even more revealing than what they did. After all, the video was undeniable evidence of an antisemitic attack. What’s more, it completely corroborated the testimony of Tamara Cohen (one of the victims of the attack, who was quoted in the BBC News article). So why did someone at the BBC think that, instead of trying to understand the shouts by the attackers (including the shout of ‘Free Palestine,’ which the BBC chose not to report), efforts should be made to gather what the Jewish victims said inside the bus? And who was that ‘someone at the BBC’?
Well, we can quite easily answer at least this latter question. Because the correction paragraph added by the BBC to the original article says the following
“Correction 3 December: During the editing process a line was added to this article reporting that racial slurs about Muslims could be heard inside the bus. This line has been amended to make clear that “a slur about Muslims” could be heard.”
So the initial writer penned an article describing the attack – an article similar to others that had already been published by The Telegraph and the Evening Standard. It is “during the editing process” (i.e., by the editor in charge) that the libellous statement was added. In other words, this wasn’t the initiative of a lowly BBC journo; it was the editor that harbored the prejudice; the editor who thought ‘I bet these Jews did something or other to provoke this. Play it again – and this time forget those silly Muslim boys. Let’s see what the Jews were saying…’
The ECU, of course, paid no attention whatsoever to this aspect. They did not ask the question. As if seeking ‘evidence’ that incriminates the victims is common BBC practice – rather than something they do only when Jews are involved.
Instead, the ECU Report turned to what they refer to as
“the third question, about whether the BBC has been right to continue to defend the statements in its reports about an anti-Muslim slur as accurate and not requiring amendment.”
We thus learn that the BBC has made big efforts to prove that they were right all along.
“the mobile phone recording has been listened to by a number of senior members of BBC News management (and a member of staff with a working knowledge of Hebrew), and discussed with the BBC’s Jerusalem Bureau with input from native Hebrew-speakers there (though with inconclusive results…)”
So inconclusive, in fact, that the BBC decided to… employ a firm of translators. Presumably, the translators understand Hebrew better than native Hebrew speakers from Israel. True, employing a firm of translators costs money, but the BBC has £3.5 billion of our money to spend… And, after all, it is easier to get ‘the correct result’ when one pays for it… Though they did not quite get everything they wanted: while 3 of the translators ‘construed the phrase’ as ‘Dirty Muslims’, a 4th one heard the Hebrew version of ‘Call someone, it’s urgent’ (i.e., the same phrase identified by a Professor of Linguistics and a team of digital forensic and data security specialists consulted by the Board of Deputies of British Jews).
This invites a few questions:
- Which firm of translators was this, who were the translators themselves and on what basis were they selected? Since the public paid for this, isn’t the public entitled to know?
- If the claim is that the phrase was ‘Dirty Muslims’ spoken in English, what makes a Hebrew translator’s opinion any more relevant than that of any other English speaker?
- While the Hebrew for ‘call someone’ (tikrá lemíshehu) may be said to have a (very, very vague) phonetic resemblance to ‘Dirty Muslims’, the entire phrase (call someone, it’s urgent/tikrá lemíshehu, ze dahoof) is much longer. Did those translators who thought they hear ‘Dirty Muslims’ identify the next two words? If those were not identified, then that decreases the credibility of this version.
But there is a bigger issue here – one that the ECU has, of course, chosen to ignore. Employing translators is not common journalistic practice. The first journalistic instinct when facts need investigating is… to ask questions; to interview people. Especially people who are eye witnesses. In fact, the BBC did interview one such eye witness – Tamara Cohen. Who stated that
“she did not hear anyone saying anything provocative to the group of men gathered outside the vehicle.”
The ECU simply ignored that; after all, Tamara Cohen is clearly Jewish. So ‘she would say that, wouldn’t she’?
There is also the testimony of Rabbi Shneor Glitsenstein, which I have already quoted above.
Has anyone at the BBC tried to interview the good rabbi? Has anyone tried to identify and interview additional eyewitnesses (through the rabbi, through Tamara Cohen, or by just asking around)? No such attempts are described in the ECU Report – so we can only assume that they did not take place. The question is: why? Is it because the BBC reporters, editors and managers thought that interviewing more Jews isn’t going to reveal anything – after all they all stick together and lie through their teeth?
How does the ECU justify discounting not just the opinion of experts consulted by the Board of Deputies, but also the testimony of eyewitnesses – the two that spoke and the others that could have done if approached?
Instead of asking questions about the most basic journalistic practice (ask questions, interview eyewitnesses), the ECU Report plunges into the realm of philosophy, by recycling and somewhat twisting a side remark made by the Professor of Linguistics consulted by the Board of Deputies. The Professor had mentioned the concept of ‘Apollonian tendency’ – a term that seeks to capture the natural propensity of the human mind to seek order and meaning in apparently chaotic information. Thus, the suggestion is that, when human beings hear something they cannot clearly understand (e.g. in a foreign language) they seek to interpret it based on prior information and sheer imagination. The ECU attempts to use this concept to claim that they
“had encountered cases where the same audio material can genuinely be construed in entirely different senses by different listeners. The interpretation arrived at may well depend on cues which the listener is unaware of having received and, once arrived at, may be very difficult to controvert.”
This is clearly a fine example of intellectual contortionism – but the intellectual part is rather faulty. “The interpretation arrived at” may indeed depend “on cues which the listener is unaware of having received”. But in this case, what were – even with hindsight – the cues that led the BBC to ‘hear’ a slur coming from a bus full of Jewish kids?
What the ECU chooses not to say is that, more often than not, it is not cues that drive human beings to misinterpret things in a particular way; rather, it is preconceptions and prejudices. If people whisper behind my back and I cannot clearly make out what they are saying, ‘Apollonian tendency’ may cause me to ‘hear’ that they slander me – particularly if those whispering are people I dislike or mistrust; if they are friends or people I like, I may ‘hear’ that they are organizing a surprise party for my birthday…
Even if we assume that (as the ECU wants us to) that this is a case of ‘Apollonian tendency’ on both sides, it remains a fact that the BBC journalists, editors and managers ‘heard’ an anti-Muslim slur uttered by Jews. What does that tell us about the preconceptions and prejudices harbored by those journalists, editors and managers?
But there is another point worth making here. ‘Apollonian tendency’ is precisely that: a tendency, an impulse. As human beings we should be capable of reigning in such impulse, of tempering them, of challenging them with the tools of decency, fairness and ethics. Those tools include the notion of ‘benefit of doubt’. When sitting on a jury, we may experience a subliminal dislike or mistrust towards the defendant. Perhaps the shape of his face subliminally reminds us of someone who one wronged us; perhaps his eyes bring up some other unpleasant memory. But we be instructed – not just by the judge, but by our own conscience and sense of justice – to pay attention to evidence, not to our own impressions and preconceptions: the defendant (any defendant) should be seen as innocent until/unless proven otherwise.
In the case at hand, the only certainty was that there was doubt: this is why there was “an unusually high level of consultation among” BBC reporters and editors. Yet they decided not to give the benefit of doubt. How do we explain that, except by concluding that, for these BBC employees, prejudice outweighed the presumption of innocence? Stripped to the bones, this is the same implicit racial bias that causes an American police officer to reach for his gun when encountering a young black man with an indistinct object in his hand…
I do not for a moment believe that everyone at the BBC harbors antisemitic prejudice; or even that most BBC journalists do.
A relatively recent study found that nearly 1 in 3 Britons believes in at least one antisemitic trope (that does not make 1 in 3 Brits antisemitic; human opinions and behaviors are not binary but distributed along a spectrum).
It is likely that the BBC (with its 22,000 employees) isn’t very different from the British society at large. But human communities and institutions are more than the sum of their parts. Those 22,000 are bound together by that complex glue we sometimes call ‘culture’.
Sir William Macpherson provided us with the best definition of institutional racism. It isn’t about numbers – but culture, attitudes, behaviors:
“The collective failure of an organization to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour that amount to discrimination through prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”
Tim Davie and his Executive Complaints Unit should read this definition. Then read it again. Then, if they have a dram of decency, they’ll hopefully bow their heads in shame. Because they allowed prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping to taint processes, attitudes and behavior; because they allowed the cancer of institutional racism to spread at the British Broadcasting Corporation. And the result is not just that a small ethnic community has been highhandedly, contemptuously discriminated against; even worse: by abusing its privileged position, the BBC has rendered such discrimination acceptable in the wider society. The BBC caused damage that will be extremely difficult to undo.