New strain of bias is one more problem for new BBC chairman

It will clearly be a bracing experience for both sides when a former Goldman Sachs banker becomes the new BBC chairman.

Later this month Richard Sharp will become chairman of the corporation after 23 years at Goldman Sachs followed by spells as an advisor to Boris Johnson during his term as London mayor, and another as an unpaid adviser to the government on the UK’s economic response to the pandemic. To say, that his arrival at the BBC will be a culture shock is a serious understatement, but I imagine that was exactly what PM Boris Johnson had in mind when he nominated him.

With a slew of major existential issues such as the BBC’s political culture, the licence fee debate and how the BBC will survive competition from streaming services and new broadcasters, he will have his plate full. But the UK Jewish community has something to add: the continuing anti-Israel bias at the BBC and the part it continues to play in fuelling antisemitism.

This is not about ugly anti-Israel rhetoric at the Arabic arm of the BBC’s World Service, nor indeed anti-Israel and anti-Jewish rhetoric in other parts of the World Service, such as the Somali service where  a BBC presenter failed to challenge a Somali politician who asserted on air a Jewish conspiracy against Somalia. World Service channels regularly flout the corporation’s own impartiality guidelines seemingly without sanction. But this is not about them. This is about the anti-Israel bias which continues – albeit in a much more subtle variant than before –  across BBC news and current affairs.

Though less overt this new strain is equally effective in contributing to the 21st century’s brand of Jew-hate, which disguises itself as anti-Zionism.

I suspect, however, that if Mr Sharp broaches the subject of  anti-Israel bias with senior BBC news executives, they will possiblychuckle knowingly. They may (or may not, given that Mr Sharp is himself Jewish) make the odd remark about “over-sensitivity” or “lack of perspective,” before assuring their new boss that anti-Israel bias has been eradicated – World Service aside, of course – and that anti-Israel bias is no longer a problem thanks to new, tougher impartiality guidelines and the re-assignment of certain correspondents who so troublingly and overtly supported the Palestinian cause and helped demonise Israel over so many years.

And, of course, they will be right. Up to a point.  Those correspondents have been moved elsewhere, and strict impartiality guidelines have been put in place – we hear them mocked regularly whenever anyone mentions a brand-name on air.

So let me explain why anti-Israel bias has not disappeared, despite these measures. Indeed, far from it. Bias continues but in a new strain that almost  goes under the radar and is successfully circumventing guidelines.

Let me also say that I do not believe the BBC, as an entity, is out to “get” Israel or Jews. I am not advancing a conspiracy theory about the BBC. I believe that the vast majority  of BBC staffers are decent, humane people going to work each day – or currently, not going to work each day – to make programmes that inform and entertain. But collectively, it’s a different story. While I do not believe most are actively anti-Israel, I do believe there is a hive mentality informed by the fact that many are left-leaning, liberal-arts graduates who came through British universities where, at any time from the 1970s onwards, they would have been exposed to the counterfeit but highly credible Palestinian narrative of Israel/Jews dispossessing, occupying and oppressing.

Sympathy for the Palestinans could, at best, predispose some to be more cynical about Israeli actions and policies. At worst, it may lead some to look for ways to distort coverage to show  Israel negatively.

But none of this would matter – or  have such an impact on British Jews – if the BBC wasn’t perceived as such a trusted communicator reporting impartially. Unlike, say, Al Jazeera, when the British Broadcasting Corporation “reports” there is an expectation – apart, of course, from other media, politicians and Jews, all of whom know better – for impartiality and neutrality. But neither of those is discernible when the subjects are Israel, Palestinians or the Mid-East.

So while I do not believe any employees actively collude in bias – well, maybe a few – I do believe many acquiesce and participate thus creating a mild, but equally deadly strain of anti-Israel bias infecting the BBC.

One example of how a news stories that should focus on Arab or Palestinian aggression is instead given an anti-Israel spin is when Hamas fires rockets on Israeli civilian targets from Gaza in an unprovoked attack (apart, obviously, from the “provocation” of Israel’s existence). The BBC headline is not “Hamas fires rockets on Israeli civilian targets” but the infinitely disingenuous “Israeli jets strike Gaza.”

Thus, long before viewer, listener or visitor to the BBC website reach the explanation that it’s a retaliatory strike following rockets raining down on Israeli civilians, that Alice-in-Wonderland-style inversion of reality has reinforced the negative narrative of Israeli aggression and oppression.

Such headlines are, of course, easily explained away as being “accurate” in terms of the news cycle. And, indeed they are. And certainly Palestinian “news agencies” have cleverly exploited and manipulated news cycles to generate anti-Israel headlines. But I doubt even they could be so consistently successful in achieving such headlines without some collusion – perhaps sub-conscious – from those handling news at the BBC.

A negative spin can be put on reports in other subtle, hard-to-detect ways, too, such as failing to provide context or omitting background and being highly selective over facts that are included or excluded. Israel’s, um, “vibrant” democracy also makes it easy to circumvent impartiality rules by, say, carefully choosing sources that are nominally “Israeli” (in line with the rules) but are actually anti-Israel NGOs. Other techniques are available.

While I freely admit that – even to me – this is sounding alarmingly paranoid, it is how this new strain of covert, casual anti-Israel bias operates, camouflaged as “newsroom practices,” or readily explained as “too little air-time” or by the need for more “clicks.”

Indeed, in some cases, it barely merits the description “bias” but by using such subtle methods, by crafting reports – carelessly or deliberately – in ways that portray Israel as an oppressor and an aggressor, the BBC feeds the narrative of Israel as the evil-doer in the region.  And because it’s so subtle, it’s almost impossible to detect and certainly cannot be halted by anything as toothless as current impartiality guidelines.

Given how many Jews work for the BBC – though not nearly as many as antisemites claim –  you might think that there would be no bias against Israel. Sadly, that’s not the case. Indeed,  the notion of finding an Israel-supporting Jewish broadcaster at the BBC – or an Israel-supporting broadcaster of any religion at the BBC –  seems as likely as being served a pork chop at a Haredi wedding. No Jewish broadcaster at the BBC openly supports Israel. If he or she privately supports Israel, they will try so hard to avoid showing favour that they end up being more critical, or, in the BBC environment, they – like any non-Jewish  peers – fear it would be career-suicide to express support; or they may not support Israel at all having swallowed the oh-so-credible fiction that the Jews dispossessed the Palestinians and are therefore to blame for the tragedy and injustices which followed. Or they co-present “Strictly” and are irrelevant in this context.

I imagine that in defending the BBC, the executives will refer Mr Sharp to the corporation’s coverage of Jewish issues, pointing out programmes such as a documentary and a feature film on the Kindertransporte ; David Baddiel’s documentary on Holocaust Denial;  Panorama on Labour antisemitism; to the extensive coverage of Holocaust Memorial Day and much more.Indeed, the BBC can be justifiably pround of its record on Jewish topics.

But none of that output can compensate for how  long-term, entrenched anti-Israel bias has helped create and foster a climate of antisemitism in the UK and how the continuing low-level and more subtle strain of anti-Israel bias is still helping to fuel antisemitism.

About the Author
Jan Shure held senior editorial roles at the Jewis Chronicle for three decades. and previously served as deputy editor of the Jewish Observer. She is an author and freelance writer and wrote regularly for the Huffington Post until 2018. In 2012 she took a break from journalism to be a web entrepreneur.
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