The BBC: A reputational liability in historical perspective

The first time I allowed myself to listen to the news BBC Radio 4 in the aftermath of the massacres that took place on the traditionally joyful Jewish festival of Shmini Atzeret in the western Negev (half an hour by coach from where I used to live ten years), a highly visible newsreader caught himself saying “massacre”, changed tone, and said: “that they say (higher pitch) is a massacre”. Fast forward to yesterday evening, which was on the 13th of November 2023. The news not given: Hamas prevented Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza from accepting from Israel 300 litres of fuel for urgent medical need, an offer rejected because it would have given credit to Israel. The news as given when I was listening to BBC Radio 4: more than 30 patients, including babies, at Al-Shifa Hospital died because of fuel shortages.

Today, November the 15th, The Jewish Chronicle headlined a report “BBC apologises after saying IDF is ‘targeting’ doctors inside Gaza hospital”, and an X (ex-Twitter) post by that newspaper’s editor proves the Reuters report the BBC used was entirely subverted in order to portray the Israeli army as targeting medical teams and Arabic speakers”. That same article in the Jewish Chronicle quotes Hadar Sela, co-editor of CAMERA UK, as telling that newspaper: “The fact that the presenter and the rest of the production team did not question the claim that Israel was targeting medical staff and Arabic speakers speaks volumes about the ‘received wisdoms’ at play in BBC newsrooms”.

In October 2023, after one evening I switched off the radio in utter disgust at the BBC misreporting about the genocide perpetrated by Hamas a short distance from where I lived ten years (BBC in October 2023 most definitely won back for Britain the world championship of hypocrisy it had lost many years earlier to the United States and also Sweden) — and switching the receiver on that occasion was also, I learned later, something also relatives did — on that night I could not sleep, and I recalled one episode that had greatly impressed me, concerning what the BBC is. It was before elections that Robert Mugabe then won again in Zimbabwe.

The BBC was not permitted to report from inside Zimbabwe, so a male reporter was doing it from near the border. He claimed three local ladies standing on his side were a former medical doctor, a former lawyer, and a former policewoman, and he boasted that they were forced into prostitution because of the effect of the British boycott on Zimbabwe. (So this is one of the things the British boycott of Israel was meant to achieve? or rather the total destruction of Israel, as well?)

Of course, that utterly indecent BBC reportage about Zimbabwean misery brought about, as the BBC on that occasion had it, by their former overlord of whom the reporter was the visible representative, at the time had starkly reinforced my strong opinion that the BBC is, internationally, Britain’s biggest reputational liability. On that occasion, I reckoned, Zimbabweans listening would rush to vote for Mugabe, and it was also making his opponents appears to be traitors, something for which the BBC could congratulate itself.

And when, a few years later, the BBC closed down its broadcasting in countries of Africa as well as in the Caribbean (an injustice to British possessions in the Caribbean), I reckoned that this regional withdrawal of the BBC was going to be a boon for Britain’s reputation in Africa, because there would no longer be the BBC to remind us, peoples formerly under the British boot, of why historical memories of British rule are so damning, and consistent everywhere.

Ruth Smythe, Baroness Anderson, who had taken the brunt of Corbynites even in the presence of their eponymous lord and master (who would then chat and smile with such an offender on the premises), has written for Jewish readers, in the aftermath of the horrors of October 2023: “Antisemitism will not disappear because we wish it away, misinformation will not be challenged by turning off the news and our communities will not be safe if we pretend that there isn’t hate on our streets”.

At least twice, Winston Churchill appointed persons as head for a delicate task, and I tend to believe he assumed they would behave decently. The outcome suggests they were not. The first case was when Sir Kinahan Cornwallis was put in charge of the spring 1941 invasion of Iraq. He chose to disobey Churchill’s orders, and convinced General Archibald Wavell to let the massacre of Baghdad’s Jews to run its course, and the rationale may have been a goal of disabusing the locals of the notion that Britain’s was the Jews friends, something the flamboyant playboy Younis Bahri (his name means “Jonah Maritime”) was proclaiming to a great effect from Radio Berlin.

Bahri also reserved a thought to British Jews: a relative recollected that Bahri promised in a broadcast: “Finchley, we’ll come and take EVERYBODY”. Cornwallis rejected a plea from Baghdad Jews’ communal leaders to have the army, which was on the outskirts of town, intervene. He went to the embassy’s premises and played bridge. On the second day of the massacre, after the mob began attacking high-street shops owned by non-Jews, Allied troops intervened.

The second misguided appointment Churchill made, was upon his return to 10 Downing Street, having succeeded Clement Attlee as prime minister. He appointed to lead the BBC Alexander Cadogan, an aristocrat who had represented the UK at the United Nations under Attlee’s premiership. Not only Ernest Bevin, but also Cadogan become a hate figure among Jews. His task had been to give international expression to the policy of undermining Jewish efforts to attain statehood, and Jewish perceptions of perfidiousness are something for which, arguably, Attlee and Bevin owed Cadogan something. Jewish perceptions at the time hadn’t to wait until the publications of Cadogan’s diaries, in which he referred to Soviet interlocutors as Jewish (they were not, in all likelihood), with a quite derogatory flourish.

In 1952, Churchill appointed Cadogan Chairman of the Board of Governors of the BBC. Cadogan told him he had no experience in that domain, and that he disliked broadcasts anyway, and Churchill retorted that no qualifications for the job existed, and that all he had to do was to be fair. “And sensible”, Cadogan added. Churchill nodded. Whenever you find yourself seething at the BBC, bear in mind that the ghost of Cadogan is still at work there. Just a score staff members, even less, need to be determined to keep it that way. (Mind you, I suspect Cadogan himself, if he is listening or reading, would begrudge me giving him credit for behaviour in a later generation. Especially because I suspect they may have sometimes surpassed his own behaviour in his days.)

Cadogan’s tenure at the United Nations saw anti-British demonstrations by non-Jews in France and Italy, because of the ship Exodus, whereas still Nazi onlookers were watching at a harbour of their while Jewish refugees were being downloaded for internment in Germany. Those were the day when New York City had become the most anti-British big city on earth, because the local Jews had joined the local Irish in resentment.

When Jason Webb of the BBC, at Barak Obama’s first press conference as President, blurted his question, namely, why not boycott Israel, it didn’t occur to the reporter that Obama was raised by his mother’s Irish-American family, and perhaps did not have all the patience in the world for a Briton’s eccentricity. I can think of two occasions when Obama (celebrated as O’Bama in Ireland when he visited) plunged a stiletto into British pride, and official UK was almost left speechless (think apportioning full blame to BP for a catastrophic oil spill whereas a local corporate operator was more directly responsible, and think sending Britain to the end of the queue for a trade agreement: Bevin had already said the Jews were to stand at the end of the queue with their claims).

Now, consider that the BBC shooting British reputation in the foot, as with the reporter boasting about the Zimbabwean lady medical doctor, lawyer, and policewoman forced into prostitution because of a UK boycott, had an antecedent in Cadogan. A carton from Jewish Palestine drew him as first in the line, with Bevin behind, and Hitler’s ally the Mufti of Jerusalem as the other end of the same line of who the Jews were having to contend with.

BBC attitudes have both antecedents, and a tradition. And they are not as smart as the BBC, or at any rate boss Tim, somewhat dimly believe. Take this as a consolation, to assuage your sense of hurt at the corporation’s assiduity at misrepresentation.

About the Author
Dr. Ephraim Nissan has extensive experience as an academic scholar, and as such he has worked in three countries. He has been in London for decades now. He has authored and published more than six hundred publications, in journals or at international conferences, or as chapters in books, and he has also published books he has authored or edited. He also has extensive editorial experience for journals.
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