The BBC: Living in a Bubble - Part II

Recently, Ibrahim Helal, editor-in-chief of the much-criticized Al-Jazeera TV network, was hired by the BBC World Service Trust. The job the BBC wanted him for? To advise on balance in Middle East coverage....

Tom Gross

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[Part 1 of this article can be read at]

A Minute's Silence For Sheikh Yassin

Back in London, BBC staff are careful to promote sympathy for Hamas and other Palestinian terror groups in more subtle ways. Dr Jenny Tonge, a Liberal Democrat Member of the British Parliament, declared in January that she would consider becoming a suicide bomber if she were Palestinian (and subsequently led a minute's silence in March ? in the House of Commons, no less ? for the deceased Hamas leader Sheikh Yassin, who issued orders for dozens of suicide attacks against Israeli civilians). Since then, Dr Tonge's invitations to appear on BBC have noticeably increased.

She was sacked by the Liberal Democrat party leader as parliamentary spokesman for children's issues for these remarks, but this hasn't bothered the BBC, who now invite her on both radio and TV to discuss the Middle East.

In one case, in February, BBC Radio 4's flagship morning news program "Today" actually sent her off to "Palestine" (at the BBC's expense), after which they broadcast her "diary", in which she further defamed Israel and reiterated her sympathy for suicide bombing. She has also repeated her support for suicide bombers on air on the BBC on other occasions.

Similarly, there is the case of Oxford university literature lecturer Tom Paulin. Paulin has, among other things, compared Jewish settlers to Nazis, has said they should be "shot dead," compared the Israeli army to Hitler's SS and said he could "understand how suicide bombers feel." He continues to be invited as a regular guest commentator by the BBC; indeed, he is one of the two or three most frequent contributors to their most widely screened program on the arts.

Don't Mention Limb Amputation

Those who dare criticize Arab extremism are dealt with somewhat differently by the BBC.

For example, Robert Kilroy-Silk ? who does not appear on BBC news, but hosted a daytime chat show ? was immediately taken off air after he had the temerity to write in a non-BBC newspaper article in January that Arabs were "suicide bombers, limb amputators, women repressors." He swiftly apologized and the newspaper in question acknowledged that he had written "Arab governments" and this was inadvertently changed to "Arabs" as a result of an editing error. But Kilroy-Silk was rapidly sacked by the BBC nevertheless.

However, Kilroy-Silk's remarks ? as many Arab moderates who welcomed them, such as the Egyptian human rights campaigner Ibrahim Nawar, have pointed out ? were not technically inaccurate. Limb amputation and repression of women are enshrined in Saudi law, and suicide bombing of Israelis and Americans strongly encouraged by some in government circles. Paulin's comments, on the other hand, were untrue, blatantly biased and incendiary.

And they were comments which may have had consequences. Just a few days later, after they were approvingly reported across the Arab world, several Israeli settlers were murdered, including five-year-old Danielle Shefi, slain as she screamed in her bedroom, leaving behind her Mickey Mouse sheets soaked in blood. (I am not seeking to suggest that there is a direct link between Paulin's comments and Shefi's murder; but collectively, the BBC's attitude of appeasement towards terrorism is likely to produce consequences in terms of killing and suffering.)

Kilroy-Silk ? whose article appeared just a few days before Dr Tonge's suicide bomb remarks ? apologized. He said he "greatly regretted the offence caused" by his remarks. But this wasn't enough to satisfy the BBC. Paulin and Tonge have offered no such apology; but then the BBC gave no indication they would expect one.

When Harvard University later withdrew an invitation for Paulin to lecture, the BBC seemed to think it was all a bit of a joke. BBC news online commented: "[Paulin's] knockabout style has ruffled feathers in the US, where the Jewish question is notoriously sensitive."

"The Stuff of Legends"

The BBC rarely misses an opportunity to denigrate Israel or its prime minister. One program even staged a mock "war crimes" trial for Ariel Sharon. (The BBC verdict ? that Sharon has a case to answer ? was never in doubt.)

Yasser Arafat, though, receives a very different treatment. One particularly cosmetic exercise was a 30-minute BBC profile of Arafat that described him as a "hero," and "an icon," and spoke of him as having "performer's flare," and "charisma and style" and "personal courage" and being "the stuff of legends." Adjectives applied to him included "clever," "respectable," and "triumphant". He was also inaccurately referred to as "President." [2]

This was broadcast on 5 July 2002 ? just two weeks after President Bush had called for a change in Palestinian leadership following revelations about Arafat's links with suicide terror attacks. But then, the BBC knew that they would get this kind of approach when they asked the notoriously anti-Israeli journalist Suzanne Goldenberg (formerly Jerusalem correspondent for the London Guardian, now the Guardian's Washington correspondent) to make the program.

A particularly blatant example of bias, perhaps, but not an isolated one. The BBC rarely mention Arafat's dictatorial rule, his endemic corruption, or the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade ? the terror group he set up after launching the current Intifada, a group which, in recent months, has outstripped Hamas in the number of terror attacks perpetrated against Israeli civilians. As for Hamas, Sheikh Yassin was recently described by one of BBC radio's Gaza correspondents, Zubeida Malik, as "polite, charming and witty, a deeply religious man."

Did Someone Say Double Standards?

The BBC's double standards are clear to almost everyone except, it seems, to the BBC itself and its sympathizers in the press. A BBC spokeswoman for example, told the Guardian (May 23, 2002) after the BBC was accused by British Jews of being a prime force in inciting renewed anti-Semitism in the UK, that "The BBC's reporting about the Middle East is scrupulously fair, accurate and balanced."

The official BBC line has not changed since then, even after the scathing criticism of the Hutton report. Such are the level of arrogance and the spirit of denial that permeate the BBC newsroom. Indeed, recent denials of political bias have been stronger than ever. Of course, the BBC would be in danger of losing its enormous public funding if they were admitted.

For a short while after the Hutton report was published in January, the BBC was a little more careful in its attacks on Israel. But recently, they have returned to old ways, with at least four anti-Israeli TV documentaries airing in recent weeks. That makes a total of 20 major documentaries the BBC has made on Israel since 2001 (all but one attacking Israel.) That is three times more than the number of documentaries the BBC has made on any other single country, with the exception of Britain.

Meanwhile, to my knowledge, the BBC has made no documentaries about human rights abuses in the Arab world; or about Palestinian schoolbooks; or about the Palestinian Authority's incitement of the Palestinian population; or about the Palestinian Authority's funding of terrorism allegedly with the use of European Union aid funds.

The problem is not that every individual correspondent is biased. Whereas some, such as Orla Guerin, make almost no attempt at balance, others, such as James Reynolds in Jerusalem, do make a genuine effort to be fair. The problem is that the culture that permeates the BBC, a habit of thought that has become engrained throughout the network, allows only one worldview, in which the US and Israel are vilified well beyond any reasoned or justified criticism of anything these states have actually done.

Hiring practices reinforce this. Recently, Ibrahim Helal, editor-in-chief of the much-criticized Al-Jazeera TV network, was hired by the BBC World Service Trust. The job the BBC wanted him for? To advise on balance in Middle East coverage, and head "media training projects," i.e., to train BBC (and perhaps other journalists) into "understanding the Middle East better."

Occupied West Bank of the Sahara?

This culture makes it all but impossible for anyone who thinks differently to gain or hold a job at BBC news. Who at the BBC can name the leader of the Polisario Front, fighting for independence against a 25-year Arab occupation of the Western Sahara (a territory bigger than Britain)? Who at the BBC has done a report about all the Arab settlers that the Moroccan government has been bussing into the area to take the land of the indigenous Saharawi people since Morocco annexed it 25 years ago?

This article has been limited to BBC news programming. But even elsewhere there is anti-Israel (and some would argue anti-Jewish) sentiment. Each summer, for example, BBC Radio 3, a station largely devoted to classical music, carries a broadcast of "The Proms." The Proms are a British institution, a jovial annual event at the end of the British summer during which classical favorites and (on the Proms' final night) tunes such as "Rule Britannia" and "Land of Hope and Glory" are sung by the audience with great fanfare and light-hearted flag-waving at the Royal Albert Hall in London. Yet on the evenings of August 13 and August 20, 2002, the BBC Radio 3 producers decided to fill the time during the interval in their live broadcast (there are no commercials on the BBC) with a recitation of poems that compared Israeli actions to those of the Nazis and asked Holocaust survivors why they had "not learnt their lesson."

A Global Problem

The BBC's Middle East problem is not just a British problem but an international one. The BBC pours forth its worldview not just in English, but in almost every language of the Middle East: Pashto, Persian, Arabic, Turkish. Needless to say it declines to broadcast in Hebrew, even though it does broadcast in the languages of other small nations: Slovene and Slovak, Macedonian and Albanian, Azeri and Uzbek, Kazakh and Kyrgyz, and so on. (It doesn't broadcast in Kurdish either; but then the BBC doesn't concern itself with Kurdish rights or aspirations since they are persecuted by Moslem-majority states like Syria and Iran. We didn't hear much on the BBC, for example, when dozens of Syrian Kurds were killed and injured by President Assad's regime two months ago.)

Throughout the world, the BBC enjoys exceptional influence. An article last month in the liberal Israeli daily Ha'aretz, for example, quotes a leading Lithuanian campaigner against anti-Semitism as saying that inflammatory and biased international BBC news coverage against Israel was helping to revive anti-Semitism in Lithuania against those few Jews remaining who were not murdered in the Holocaust.

The English-language version of the BBC seems to be just the tip of the iceberg. My friend Kamran Al-Karadaghi, an urbane, moderate and thoughtful Iraqi, who was for a decade the political editor of the Arabic-language newspaper Al-Hayat in London, and who until last week, served as head of Radio Free Iraq, tells me that the BBC Arabic language service is not just far worse than the English language BBC. It is "even worse," he says, than Al-Jazeera in the vitriol it pours out against America and Israel.

[Part 2 of 2. A slightly different version of the above article appeared on National Review Online, June 18, 2004.]


[2] For many other examples contrasting BBC coverage of Sharon and Arafat, see the well-compiled reports by London lawyer Trevor Asserson at