My Jewishness has never defined me which is perhaps why I’m not the kind of Jew my parents intended to raise. For instance, I’m far more confident eating a bacon sandwich than, say, fellow Jew Ed Miliband.
My wife doesn’t share the faith I was born with, but is indulgent of my attempts to emulate the brand of paranoid, cantankerous Judaism displayed by my hero Larry David. Religion isn’t my thing and I’m frequently critical of the political leadership of Israel which, despite its faults, is a wonderfully vibrant country. As friends might say, I am broadly in favour of it.
But none of this defines me. Or at least I don’t think it should. And so I’ve been wondering how Richard Sharp, the new BBC chairman, likes to imagine himself: successful banker, deep thinker, smart strategist, mentor to leading businesspeople and politicians, right-of-centre champion, philanthropist and generous donor to the Conservative party, family man, limelight-avoider, safe pair of hands. All these have formed the basis of profiles after he was appointed by Boris Johnson to lead the BBC through a turbulent new era. But there was one article that caught my eye, written almost immediately after his appointment by a journalist who, coincidentally, must now call him “boss”.
Amol Rajan is the BBC’s ubiquitous media editor and someone with whom I’ve crossed blunt swords in the past – he didn’t take kindly to my suggestion that his reporting might be compromised because he was too close to George Osborne and Evgeny Lebedev.
In a rambling piece about Mr Sharp, his business acumen and political connections, Amol wrote: “Sharp’s heritage is Jewish and he is considered by those who know him broadly pro-Israel.”
A tiny sentence that says so much about the way journalists do and don’t think. I don’t believe for a moment that Amol is antisemitic, but I’m struggling with his desire to reveal an individual’s religion in a business profile. Does that fact add to our understanding of who Mr Sharp is? If so, should all profiles carry religious conviction as a descriptor?
My immediate reaction on reading this paragraph was that Amol was suggesting the new BBC chairman is an Israel-loving Jew. Or have I let my Jewish radar zero in on something which has caused me to over-react in a paranoic way? Am I being hypersensitive? Or perhaps a hypocrite. For in a former life, I ran the features desk at a popular Jewish newspaper (not this one) where, each week, I would commission profiles of successful/famous/wealthy/influential/interesting Jews. That last bit was the most important criterion. With his appointment, Richard Sharp was front page news in all good Jewish publications, so why am I making a fuss?
Because each time I read that part of Amol’s piece, it gets worse. His “heritage” for a start. Surely what Amol really means here is religion? Heritage brings to mind an entirely different image, of a man not just Jewish but guided and shaped by it. Jewish whether he reads the Torah or not. If, like me, Mr Sharp has rejected religion, surely it’s irrelevant to who he is as a business person – except for readers of newspapers such as this one, of course. Then there’s the second part of the sentence, regarding what are assumed to be his views about Israel.
So as someone in favour of the BBC, Israel and freedom of expression I approached Amol on social media and suggested his phrasing could be deemed offensive to Jews who don’t think of their Jewishness (or geopolitical opinions) as a useful measurement of whether they’d be any good at a job.
So far, no response. A handful of people who’d seen me mention it on Twitter decided to approach him as well. Again, no response. I contacted the corporation’s editorial director, Kamal Ahmed, again on social media, to ask whether he thought religion and Israel should have been part of a profile of the new BBC chairman. No response.
So I made a formal complaint to the BBC and after three weeks of deliberation received this reply: ‘The sentence in question refers to two statements of fact, in an article profiling the new BBC chairman where his politics and religious background are relevant and of interest to readers. Both Jewish News and Jewish Chronicle reported that Richard Sharp is Jewish, which puts your point about anti-Semitism in context.’
Which is rather like saying if Jews can tell a vaguely offensive Jewish joke – and boy are we good at that! – then so can everyone. Plus, why must the existence and policies of Israel be the only political issue deemed relevant to Mr Sharp’s appointment? It’s a fatuous defence and, rather than putting antisemitism ‘in context’, it highlights the fact that not even the BBC understands its meaning.
I’ve spoken to a few people in and outside the industry and all agree the Amol’s article is offensive – no one can agree whether it’s deliberately so or just crass journalism.
A Jewish journalist friend I trust thinks it’s a deeply uncomfortable and possibly antisemitic phrase, but that Amol himself is not antisemitic. I agree. And yet the BBC’s refusal to even consider that maybe Israel-loving Jew is entirely irrelevant in analysing someone’s career and suitability for a job, strikes me as something different.
Here’s where I – and obviously the BBC complaints department – get confused. Because if the Jewish News does it, why shouldn’t everyone? Perhaps the answer’s on the masthead – a chronicle of Jewishness for a niche audience of Jews who like to see what other Jews are up to and if they’re still alive. Written by and for Jews, it’s a weekly celebration and analysis of Jewishness – with endless argument. Religion in this context is not just relevant but essential. Not so with the rest of the media.
I’ve searched in vain for the religion of Mr Sharp’s predecessor Sir David Clementi, but it’s clearly irrelevant to most writers. Likewise, the two most recent chairs of the BBC Trust, Rona Fairhead and Diane Coyle. Maybe they are Zoroastrians, but I’ve no idea from a trawl through the cuts. All are defined by their qualities and achievements, their successes in business and education.
As journalists, we have to be careful not succumb to laziness, as I’ve just done. We do it unthinkingly. Out there in undeleted cyberspace, the new BBC chairman is described by what I consider to be the most authoritative journalistic organisation on the planet to be Jewish and broadly in favour of Israel. I don’t know what he thinks about gay marriage, for instance, and why should I? I haven’t a clue how he feels about privatising the NHS, restricting immigration, the break-up of the Union or the governance of Tibet.
Whenever someone is looking for background about Richard Sharp, they will find Amol Rajan’s profile and, perhaps unthinkingly, decide that his religion and views on the Middle East are important because, well, the BBC seems to be suggesting that they are.
And, to some, a decades-old antisemitic trope will become even more hardened. Richard Sharp, an Israel-supporting Jewish banker in charge of the media.
- This opinion piece was original published in the British Journalism Review, bjr.org.uk