CAMERA OP-ED: Seeing Through the BBC

Most of the 143 million worldwide listeners who tune each week to the BBC World Service, including more than 3.5 million in the U.S. via public radio stations, would probably accept the British network’s claim that it is “the world’s most successful and widely trusted international radio” service. And the trust that these listeners place in the BBC’s crisply-accented reporters would seemingly be justified by the network’s Royal Charter, which requires it to be “a credible, unbiased, reliable, accurate, balanced and independent news service.”

At odds with these high-minded words, however, is the disquieting fact that the World Service is funded directly by “Foreign Office grants.” While, predictably, there is a claim of editorial independence from what amounts to Britain’s State Department, the BBC’s guidelines acknowledge that World Service “aims and priorities must be agreed with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The BBC is, therefore, answerable for the World Service to the Foreign Office, Parliament and taxpayers.”

It is hard to imagine a greater conflict of interest than a news organization specializing in international coverage being funded by, and directly answerable to, its country’s foreign policy arm. Unfortunately, the long tradition of anti-Israel and even anti-Jewish bias at the Foreign Office does seem to have had an impact on the BBC’s Middle East coverage.

Consider, for example, the BBC’s broadcast and now yearlong defense of a false story filed on June 5, 1997 by Stephen Sackur, then the BBC’s Jerusalem Bureau Chief. As part of his report marking the thirtieth anniversary of the Six Day War, Mr. Sackur interviewed Mohammed Burkan, accepting without question Burkan’s claim that the Israeli government had stolen his home in Jerusalem:

Sackur: An awkward meeting in the old city of Jerusalem, thirty years after Israel’s military conquest. We returned with Mohammed Burkan, to the house he owned before 1967. Now a Jewish family lives there… .

Burkan: (translated) No, I don’t hate the Jews who live here. They are not to blame for what has been. I hate the Israeli government because it took my house. No Muslim has the right to give up one inch of Jerusalem.

Apparently Mr. Sackur and his editors were unaware that Mr. Burkan had, more than 20 years earlier, brought his case to the Israeli courts, culminating with an appeal before Israel’s High Court. At each stage Mr. Burkan’s charges were found to be baseless, a key piece of evidence being a letter sent by Mr. Burkan on June 16, 1968 to Israel’s then prime minister and finance minister, in which Burkan stated that he had been living in a rented apartment on the site in question, and only since 1963.

Other evidence cited in the appeal (HC 114/78) also contradicted Mr. Burkan’s claim that the home had always been owned by Muslims. According to Land Registry records from the time of the British Mandate, the land and home in question were owned by a Jewish family that was driven out during the Arab riots of 1938.

The BBC was informed of the facts surrounding Burkan’s claims the day after the program aired. In response, network officials steadfastly defended Sackur’s report, initially arguing that it referred to a home different from the one dealt with in Burkan’s court appeals. However, the network ignored repeated requests to provide the address of this other home so that Land Registry records could be checked.

Apparently unable to produce evidence of the second home, the BBC then offered a new defense of Sackur’s report: “The section of Stephen Sackur’s report that you are questioning should be seen in the context of the report as a whole… the short section… dealing with Mr. Burkan was illustrative of general issues of land and property ownership in territories occupied by Israel (emphasis added).”

That is, even if the Burkan story is fiction through and through, it doesn’t matter because the fiction is “illustrative” of a higher truth, that Israel has dispossessed native Palestinians, stealing their land and homes. And stories which support that higher truth, however false, are evidently acceptable to the BBC.

Indeed, the misreporting of the Burkan case and subsequent journalistic dereliction are not anomalies. BBC journalists have long expressed their animus towards Israel both in their reporting, and in revealing actions after leaving the region. Thus, Tim Llewellyn, twice the BBC’s Middle East correspondent, has repeatedly expressed extreme hostility toward Israel since his departure from the network in 1992. Last year, for example, at a London conference entitled “The Palestinians: A Continuing Exodus 1948–1997,” Llewellyn, who chaired one of the sessions, declared “everything Israel is doing today is aimed at getting the Palestinians out of Palestine.” Referring to his review of a book written by the former Israeli President Chaim Herzog, who had recently died, Llewellyn exclaimed, “I have just given his book a good banging. Three days later he died!” — drawing applause and appreciative laughter from his audience.

It is telling that such statements did not disqualify Llewellyn from writing for the BBC website a series of essays titled “Israel at Fifty,” which predictably declare that the “Judaisation of Arab East Jerusalem proceeds apace,” characterize Israel as an “implant in the Middle East,” and explain American support for Israel as based not on shared democratic values but on the power of the “Jewish lobby.”

But, biased and false anti-Israel reporting, and virulent statements from its former chief correspondent in the Middle East, are unlikely to have displeased either the World Service or its sole source of funds, the British Foreign Office, whose policy in the region has long been profoundly hostile towards Israel and Zionism.

This hostility was manifest even in pre-state days, when Britain kept as a highest secret detailed reports of Nazi Germany's systematic genocide of the Jews. According to recently declassified documents the British government was aware of the developing Holocaust almost from its first days, but said and did nothing.

During the war the British government actually acted against the rescue of Jews, for fear that survivors would cause problems elsewhere, especially in the Middle East. Thus, in December 1943, the British government opposed the evacuation of Jews from Rumania and France because “the Foreign Office are concerned with the difficulties of disposing of any considerable number of Jews should they be rescued from enemy occupied territory." Less than a year later, as the annihilation of European Jewry neared completion, a Foreign Office memo declared that "a disproportionate amount of the time of this office is wasted on dealing with these wailing Jews.”

These anti-Jewish policies and sentiments were hardly aberrations. Sir John Troutbeck, for example, head of the British Middle East Office, characterized Zionist actions in the region as “unashamed aggression carried out by methods
of deceit and brutality not unworthy of Hitler.” And Edward Grigg, British Minister Resident in Cairo, predicted that partition “would very likely bring into existence a Jewish Nazi-state....”

With the British foreign policy establishment harboring such animus towards Jews and the Jewish state, and able to determine the “aims and priorities” of World Service coverage, it is difficult to imagine how BBC reporting on the Middle East could be anything but deeply biased against Israel. Hiring reporters with the extreme malice exhibited by Mr. Llewelyn only ensures this.

After evidence of the BBC's dereliction and stonewalling in the Burkan case was forwarded to the CPB and Congress, a ranking BBC official promised that “senior managers in BBC News” will reexamine the issues and compose a “detailed reply.” Whatever the character of that new reply from the BBC, it is difficult to reconcile the British network's evident conflict of interest and biased reporting with U.S. laws requiring that CPB-funded programs adhere to standards of  “strict objectivity and balance.”

Until the BBC World Service is removed from the purview of the Foreign Office, and until it desists from biased reporting, broadcast of the network's programs should not be subsidized by American taxpayers.

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