The Man Who Put the BBC 'In its Place'
In August, the British Broadcasting Company surprised supporters of Israel – as well as anti-Israel groups – with a documentary on the May IDF raid on the Mavi Marmari, one of the ships in the Turkish flotilla to Gaza. The documentary was universally praised as “fair and balanced” by pro-Israel groups, while anti-Israel groups – perhaps as much out of surprise and disbelief as of outrage – slammed the BBC for saying that IDF soldiers who were nearly lynched had little choice but to try to defend themselves.
The stories on the BBC nearly always leaned far more towards the negative – to the extent that between 80 percent and 90 percent of stories about Israel were negative.
Media-watchers expressed surprise at the documentary, which was quite out of character for the usual coverage the BBC provides on Israel. But British-Israeli attorney Trevor Asserson thinks he knows why the BBC may have “reformed” itself. “If there's one thing the BBC is sensitive to, it's well-documented criticism, and my research has shown up the BBC to be a very anti-Israel organization. So, the change may have been a reaction to our showing up the BBC for its anti-Israel stance in the past. They are a little more careful about saying indefensible things about Israel,” Asserson told Israel National News Radio.
Sick and tired of the BBC's nasty take on Israel, Asserson several years ago began methodically studying BBC stories for examples of bias against Israel. “I set up a criteria that examined how consumers of the BBC's TV and radio programs, or their web coverage, would feel about Israel after reading a story. Of course, some bias would be expected, but we would have been satisfied if the anti-Israel stories were balanced one for one by the pro-Israel stories. But the stories on the BBC nearly always leaned far more towards the negative – to the extent that between 80 percent and 90 percent of stories about Israel were negative,” says Asserson, whose innovative law firm was a candidate for a major UK prize this year.
For example, in a report on BBC coverage during Operation Cast Lead, presented at the Ariel Conference on Law and Mass Media earlier this year, Asserson focused on the man he said was the chief architect of the BBC's anti-Israel reporting, Middle East Bureau Chief Jeremy Bowen. “Bowen didn't even try to put up a pretense of objectivity,” Asserson says. “Israeli officials who tried to speak with him were given the cold shoulder, and even when reporters were kept out of Gaza during a period of the war, he made it his business to interview only Palestinians.”
Then there was the case of Bowen's personal diary, chock-full of personal opinions, almost all of it negative about Israel. “According to the BBC's rules, reporters aren't supposed to express personal opinions about issues, and they are certainly not supposed to post the opinions on-line – or use the news story they wrote to promote that opinion. But that is exactly what Bowen did, suggesting that readers click on a link he supplied to his diary.” Eventually, the practice stopped, but not before millions of impressionable people mistook Bowen's opinion for fact. “It's difficult to say this, but in some ways, Al Jazeera's coverage of Cast Lead was more balanced than the BBCs,” he adds.
How did a once-venerable news organization fall to the level of a mere propaganda mouthpiece? “Arab and Muslim states have a great deal of influence on the news,” Asserson says. “The Middle East desk is made up of individual country desks, staffed – and in some cases apparently paid for, from what I gather – by representatives of that country. Thus, the Libyan desk is staffed by a Libyan, the Saudi desk by a Saudi, etc. In addition, most of the people who end up working at the network are liberals, of at least the 'soft left,' which is generally anti-Israel already. Add all this together, and you can understand how the BBC has become a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment,” Asserson says.
The network, naturally, has not been very happy with Asserson's reports, and has attempted to intimidate him into stopping – but the seasoned attorney is not easily intimidated., and since his revelations, a number of Israeli and British Jewish groups have cropped up to monitor the BBC. “The BBC is well-funded, and has essentially a stranglehold on news and information in Britain. According to their own figures, BBC programs reach over 90 percent of Britons weekly. And the network has a well-respected brand name, so they are trusted abroad as well.
“The British public continues to pay for this unfair, partial and inaccurate news service through the license fee,” Asserson says. “We wonder whether it is healthy for Britain’s democracy that such huge public funds should be provided to what is essentially a monopolistic and unaccountable body. If the BBC cannot provide impartial news coverage it has no legitimate call on public funds simply to promote its own prejudices.”
Asserson himself lives in Israel, but still practices law in the UK – via an innovative idea he has come up with, to establish a full-service British law office here in Israel. His Jerusalem-based law firm, Asserson Law Offices in Beit Yoel on Jaffa Road in Jerusalem, “is an exciting Zionistic project that helps encourage British lawyers make aliyah. Without having to learn Hebrew or even Israeli law, attorneys trained for the British legal system can continue to practice while living in Israel.” It was such an innovative idea that Asserson's firm came in second place in the annual excellence awards run by The Law Society of England & Wales. “We actually came very close to winning, the judges told us, and we beat the largest firm in the world, which came in third.” That's a record to be proud of – as is having the title of being the man who put the BBC in its proper place.