Anti-Israel Bias at the BBC
by Trevor Asserson
Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld
SUMMARY: Trevor Asserson, a leading British litigation lawyer, has undertaken three well-documented studies detailing the BBC’s systematic bias against Israel.
The BBC is increasingly developing from an organization that reports news into an organization that manufactures it.
Where Israel is concerned, the BBC is in breach of all or most of the guidelines set forth in its Agreement with the Government to which its material must conform. These guidelines include, inter alia, issues such as fairness, respect for truth, due accuracy, attachment to fundamental democratic principles, not broadcasting their own opinions on current affairs or matters of public policy, ensuring that opposing views are not misrepresented, and ensuring that the audience would not be able to gauge reporters’ personal views. BBC news reports about Israel are distorted by omission, by inclusion, by only giving partial facts, by who is interviewed, and by the background information or lack of it that is provided. Distorted media reporting creates an atmosphere in which anti-Semitism can thrive. It is no longer appropriate for the BBC to exist in its present form in a free market. The British government should not renew the BBC Charter when it comes due in 2005.
Widespread Antipathy Toward Israel
“The BBC’s coverage of the Middle East is infected by an apparent, widespread antipathy toward Israel,” says Trevor Asserson, a leading British litigation lawyer. In the past two years, Asserson has undertaken three well-documented studies detailing the BBC’s systematic bias against Israel, that may be found at www.bbcwatch.com. Asserson’s methodology can also be used to analyze other media.
For his most recent report that appeared in June 2003, “The BBC: The War on Iraq – an Analysis,” Asserson and Lee Kern recorded BBC coverage during 3-18 April 2003, from when the war was a few days old until after the war had effectively ended. When comparing BBC news treatment of the coalition forces in Iraq with its coverage of Israeli army operations, the authors concluded that their findings “suggest that the partiality of the BBC’s reporting quite possibly infects its coverage of all politically sensitive issues.”
This is not the first time that Asserson has taken on the BBC. As a young lawyer, he was involved in a suit against the BBC brought by the UK’s Social Democratic Party (SDP). At the time, the party had the support of about 35 percent of the electorate, but the BBC rarely gave the SDP coverage to express its opinions. The case was ultimately settled confidentially out of court. “During the negotiations I saw how worried the BBC was by the evidence we brought. They were the accused, and I think they should be so again today.”
The BBC’s Breach of Contract
Asserson says: “It has been clear to me and many others for a long time that the BBC has been biased in its approach to Israel. News reports are distorted by omission, by inclusion, by only giving partial facts, by who is interviewed, and by the background information provided or lack of it. I thought that the only way to establish this factually was to do a proper forensic analysis, the way I would do it to prepare bringing either a defamation or a breach of contract case before a court.”
“I thought the BBC should be analyzed because its significant influence on public opinion is combined with a unique obligation to produce ‘impartial’ news. The BBC has a contract with the government to which it must keep. I wanted to see to what extent it was breaking its terms. I prepared my reports in the way in which a judge would expect the evidence to be put in a court of law.”
Under its legally binding Agreement with the Government, the BBC has established guidelines to which its material must conform. Asserson has identified fifteen independent obligations from this discursive document. They include, inter alia, issues such as fairness, respect for truth, due accuracy, attachment to fundamental democratic principles, not broadcasting their own opinions on current affairs or matters of public policy, ensuring that opposing views are not misrepresented, and ensuring that the audience would not be able to gauge reporters’ personal views. In his reports, Asserson explains in great detail why all or most of these guidelines are frequently breached where Israel is concerned.
Systematic Abuse of Language
In order to proceed with his inquiry, Asserson hired an assistant at his own expense to physically record the broadcasted material. He also assembled a number of lawyers and historians to comprise a BBC Watch Committee with whom he consults in the preparation of his reports. “We had to work out an objective and reasonable method to analyze the material, which is the most difficult challenge. We decided which news reports to record, and thereafter transcribed them so that we had a full written text of what was broadcast.”
Asserson then defined the different types of distortions. These definitions appear in his first report, published in March 2002, entitled “The BBC and the Middle East: A Critical Study,” which he wrote together with research assistant Elisheva Mironi. They recorded the bulk of BBC news output on TV, radio, and website for a seven-week period (12 November 2001 to 30 December 2001). For comparison, they simultaneously recorded reports from a variety of other sources. All programs were recorded consistently to avoid any allegation that material had been analyzed on a selective or partial basis.
They concluded that the BBC was in frequent breach of the obligations of its charter and broadcasting license. For instance, it often showed partiality in its choice of language. “The BBC refused to label Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups as ‘terrorists,’ terming them ‘militants,’ ‘hard liners,’ or ‘radicals’ instead. When suicide bombers killed twenty-six Israeli civilians in attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa, the word ‘terror’ was used by the BBC only when describing Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Palestinian targets.
“This was a breach of the BBC’s own guidelines, which should govern all the BBC’s material, including material posted on the Internet. By refusing to attribute the word ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’ appropriately, the BBC breaches its own guidelines on five points, i.e., ‘fairness, attachment to fundamental democratic principles, the audience should not be able to gauge reporters’ personal views, fair usage of language, as well as not using language inadvertently so as to suggest value judgments, commitment or lack of objectivity.'”
Asserson also describes the BBC’s abusive use of terms such as ‘occupied Palestinian land,’ or ‘occupied Palestinian territories,’ as if the West Bank and Gaza had ever belonged to an autonomous sovereign Palestinian entity. “The neutral and accurate term is ‘disputed territories.’ The BBC also frequently uses the adjective ‘presidential’ in connection with Chairman Arafat. This creates a misleading impression as his title is Ra’ees (chairman), which was carefully chosen in the Oslo agreements to avoid language implying statehood.”
Asserson writes in conclusion on this subject: “Language is the principal medium for broadcast communication. Choice of language is fundamental to achieving an aim of impartiality. Where certain words or phrases have a specific legal or quasi-legal meaning that appears to support one side of a politically controversial debate, a neutral term should be used where available. The BBC’s failure to do so must impute its claim to impartiality.”
Sharon versus Arafat
Asserson analyzes two extremely partial portraits of Sharon and Arafat which had appeared on the BBC website but were removed after his first report was published. He writes about the BBC’s bias against Sharon: “Vitriolic comment is passed off as fact or as unattributed quotation. For instance, the BBC said: ‘Ariel Sharon’s mission – his enemies call it a dangerous obsession – is to fight for Israel’s security, believing all the while that the end justifies the means.’ The tone of the BBC’s statements suggests that the security of Israel is an ignoble aim; in fact, it is a foundation stone of UN Resolution 242.”
Asserson comments: “This unattributed comment implies Sharon uses unbridled violence. In fact, he operates under the glare of considerable international press presence, is answerable to an electorate, shares his cabinet with his political opponents, and is subject to a rule of law that has stripped him of office in the past. It is implausible to suggest that he believes that any means are available to him.
“On the other hand, Arafat is described with terms such as heroism, selfless devotion to public duty, hardworking, and having natural leadership talents, while Arafat’s close involvement in organizing terrorist attacks is effectively overlooked.” Asserson says that the BBC ignores findings of Human Rights Watch “that Arafat has ruled in a dictatorial manner, employing many separate police forces, and carrying out torture of detainees, arbitrary arrest, prolonged arbitrary detention…executions after grossly unfair trials, [and failing] to bring justice to those responsible for vigilant killings” (see www.hrw.org/reports/2001).
The report states that when one reads the profiles of Sharon and Arafat together, they betray breaches of several of the aforementioned BBC guidelines as well as additional ones, such as the guidelines that the network should remain attached to fundamental democratic principles and that news programs should be dispassionate. He concludes that the BBC breaks its guidelines here, not only through its abusive use of language but also with its unbalanced reporting.
Masking True Facts, Distorting Emphasis
From the seven-week period analyzed, Asserson brings seven examples of how the BBC frequently distorts or masks the true facts. He showed, for instance, how when BBC correspondent Kylie Morris reports from Gaza on Israeli retaliatory reactions, he omits the Israeli army’s claim that buildings destroyed had been used for attacking Israel. The BBC’s behavior on this subject was very different from that of other media sources which Asserson’s assistant recorded for comparison.
Furthermore, Asserson shows how a factually accurate report can be partial and inaccurate by distorting its emphasis through the selection of material. For example, on 12 December 2001, Palestinians attacked a civilian bus in Emmanuel. Ten Israeli civilians were killed and dozens were badly injured. In retaliation, Israel attacked a Palestinian police station. There were no fatalities or serious casualties. BBC radio broadcasts reported briefly on the Palestinian attack, but went into very little detail about its sophistication and brutality. Despite the absence of serious casualties, the main focus of the BBC’s report was Israel’s retaliation, which was reported very dramatically, with graphic details describing Israel’s bombings that included a live account from Gaza.
Asserson concludes that in this case the BBC was in breach of six of its own guidelines, including the guideline that it should offer viewers and listeners an informed account of issues that enables them to develop their own views.
The BBC’s distortions of the truth concerning Israel take many other forms. When it quoted a study by Human Rights Watch which found that Palestinians severely tortured their prisoners, the BBC chose to conceal that aspect of the report – which was highly critical of the Palestinians – by seeking to deflect the criticism onto Israel and even to blame Israel for Palestinian shortcomings.
In another distortion, the BBC website omitted to mention the existence of virulent racist material put out by institutional Arab government-controlled organs. The above is only a small selection, covering only a short period of recording, of the many examples Asserson found.
Similar Findings a Few Months Later
Asserson then randomly selected the nine weeks from the end of May to the end of July 2002, to see whether the BBC had changed its ways after his first report was published. This period began six weeks after the highly publicized battle in Jenin and three weeks after the end of the siege of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. In Asserson’s December 2002 report, “The BBC and the Middle East: An Analysis,” he found that while the BBC had addressed some of the complaints in his first report, it had not dealt with most of them. He concluded that the BBC’s reporting on the Middle East remained partial, inaccurate, and in frequent breach of its guidelines.
In this report, Asserson mentioned receiving many encouraging emails, letters, and phone calls from around the world in response to his first report. However, the BBC, to whom the report was sent, refused to admit a single breach of any of its guidelines, notwithstanding the detailed and careful way the numerous breaches had been particularized in Asserson’s first report. In its response, the BBC did not deal with the details of any of the complaints raised, but instead confined itself to a blanket denial.
The BBC tried to defend itself by saying that it received a number of similar complaints about its news “from the other side.” Asserson remarks: “We do not consider it legitimate to accord equal weight to complaints, regardless of the merit of the arguments and the evidence brought to substantiate them.”
Using Irrelevant Pictures, Correspondents Giving Their Own Views
Asserson’s second study found that also in this period Arafat was described as “a hero, an icon, clever and respectable, and having charisma and style.” He was once again inaccurately described as president. A brief reference was made to his nepotism and bribery, but none was made to his acts of intimidation, torture, unlawful killings, and manipulation of the court system and the press.
Once again Asserson showed the BBC’s abuse of language, reporting of only the Palestinian side of the debate, suppression of news stories, failure to explain Israel’s mistrust of the Palestinians, and use of pictures not relevant to the spoken story. Furthermore, on several occasions, rather than delivering news, BBC correspondents presented their own views, which display partiality.
In this period, the BBC also mentioned an obscure tale that international aid agencies had accused Israel of obstructing their operations to the point that they could no longer fulfill their mandates. Asserson tried to verify the story. Two major NGOs that were mentioned by the BBC in the story – Oxfam and Doctors without Borders – did not have it on their websites, nor did they reply substantively to inquiries by Asserson.
“The BBC also failed to respond to a letter seeking further information. We were unable to verify even the existence of the American Near East Relief Agency that was mentioned in one of the BBC pieces. Other comparative news sources did not mention the story at all.” Asserson indicated that the story might well have been fabricated and certainly was given undue prominence.
What the BBC Ignores
Says Asserson: “The thing that I did not include in my report, which I probably should have, is the impressive record Israel has for protecting human rights. This record is entirely ignored by the BBC. Many examples can be given. For instance, the number of cases in which individual human rights are taken through the procedure of ” ˜order nisi’ to Israel’s Supreme Court, and the way it protects individuals. Any democracy would be proud to have such a legal history of protection of individual rights. When one looks at the political context of daily violence against the civilian population in which these decisions are being made, it is even more remarkable.
“I do not think there has ever been a democratic country that can begin to compare with the decisions that the Israeli Supreme Court has made, under the pressures in which it finds itself. This is a completely positive area about Israel that is totally ignored by the BBC and many others.
“On the Palestinian side, matters that have been ignored include major issues such as Palestinian education, which is training people to hate. Another area is several Palestinian movements’ aims to eradicate Israel. They are not concerned with territories. What Islamic Jihad and Hamas say is that it is their aim to destroy the whole of the State of Israel. In fact, it is to kill Jews wherever they are.”
In his second report, Asserson gives much attention to the BBC’s multiple omissions of relevant background material. He brings proof that the BBC fails to give adequate prominence to many important topics which would give a negative image of the Palestinians, and adds: “Israeli leaders are often criticized for failing to speak to Arafat. When it is understood that those leaders have credible evidence to believe that Arafat is a corrupt despot who supports groups that wish to destroy Israel, that train children to hate Israel, and that actually attack Israel, the reluctance to talk to Arafat becomes at least comprehensible.”
Sympathy for the Coalition in Iraq, None for Israel
In Asserson’s third report, he and Kern compare the BBC’s coverage of British soldiers in Iraq with its reporting on Israeli troops in the conflict with the Palestinians. They found a major contrast in the BBC’s treatment of these two issues.
In Iraq: “Coalition troops are described in warm and glowing terms, with sympathy being evoked for them both as individuals and for their military predicament. In contrast, Israeli troops are painted as faceless, ruthless, and brutal killers, with little or no understanding shown for their actions.”
“The BBC goes to considerable lengths to explain, excuse, and mitigate any civilian deaths at the hands of coalition troops. Israeli troops receive totally different treatment; little sympathy is shown for their situation, and mitigating arguments are brushed aside or scorned, if voiced at all. At times, the reporting of events in Israel amounts to distortion, and at other times to what appears to be discrimination against Israel.”
Asserson and Kern devote an entire section to what they call “mitigation.” “When coalition culpability is conceded, efforts are made to excuse, explain, and even justify the loss of civilian life.” On the other hand, “when an Israeli weapon causes civilian death, the BBC is quick to criticize and slow to explain, excuse, or indeed show any significant level of understanding of the military difficulties faced by Israel.” The report gives tens of examples of such mitigation as far as coalition forces are concerned, while the “BBC’s reporting of Israeli troops, far from seeking to displace blame, goes out of its way to ensure that blame is ascribed.”
Suicide Bombings, Checkpoints, and Targeted Strikes
The same bias is shown in the matter of suicide attacks. “A suicide attack against U.S. marines is described by the BBC as an act of terrorism. An attack in Israel is the work of a militant. In fact, the BBC has a practice of describing suicide attacks as terrorism in almost every situation in the world, except where the victim is an Israeli.” Furthermore, “the BBC appears to consider Hamas suicide bombers as laudable. It refers to such people as martyrs, without putting the word in inverted commas.”
Concerning the coalition troops in Iraq, “the BBC explains the advisability of using checkpoints….They are presented as a logical and reasonable response to the threat of suicide-bombers and unconventional attacks.” On the other hand, “the BBC seeks to garner antipathy for Israeli checkpoints by stressing the inconvenience caused to civilians.” The authors conclude: “A tremendous amount of energy goes into humanizing coalition checkpoints, in contrast to Israeli checkpoints which are demonized.” Once again, many examples are provided.
Asserson and Kern show how widespread is the BBC bias by bringing a substantial number of widely diverse examples. “The British and Americans used targeted strikes against supposed Iraqi leadership targets. These strikes are explained, justified, and mitigated by the BBC. When Israel uses them, it is often criticized…and vilified for any collateral damage that arises.”
Once a media organization frequently or systematically distorts one of its targets, it will probably distort many others as well. Asserson’s third report shows that the BBC also dehumanizes the Iraqis sometimes when it describes the action of the coalition forces. “They talk of ‘mopping up,’ ‘tidying up,’ and ‘business’ being ‘tied up.’ The human life behind these expressions is glossed over by abstractions. In the case of ‘mopping up,’ one thinks of dirt, mess, and disease….It is the BBC’s description of the death agony of human beings. The fact that we have not found such language used to describe the acts of the Israeli army merely demonstrates that BBC coverage is partial.”
“Saddam’s Republican Guard unit is consistently described by the BBC as ‘fanatic,’ ‘fanatically loyal,’ or ‘diehard fanatics’….Yet the BBC studiously avoids describing the acts of Hamas as ‘terrorist,’ let alone ‘fundamentalist’ or ‘fanatic.'”
A News Manufacturer
Says Asserson: “I did not publicize my second report very widely, yet the BBC took it more seriously than the first one, having seen the popularity of the criticism which I had originally leveled in the first report. Now they are paying attention, but only in a negative way.
“Richard Sambrook, head of BBC News, admitted that the BBC sometimes makes mistakes. However, he did not agree that any of the issues we had identified were in fact mistakes. He attached to his letter a twenty-one page detailed refutation of every allegation. Despite the BBC’s major attempt to deal with our complaints, it refused to meet with us to discuss its response. They are apparently not only biased, but also unable to admit it.
“I also sent them my third report, but at the moment they are rather busy with other things, such as the official inquiry about the reliability of their reporting on what the British government knew before going to war against Iraq. Apart from a veiled threat to sue me for defamation, they have not responded to my third report.”
In light of his own findings and what transpired so far in that inquiry, Asserson says: “My theory is that the BBC is increasingly developing from an organization that reports news into an organization that manufactures it. One sees how it created news in its story that the government had lied in order to persuade the British people to enter the war in Iraq. They had only the very beginnings of a story that they knew would be very exciting. Thus, they wanted to write it. It was part of the BBC’s agenda because they were against the war. The moment they found a little bit of evidence to support this view, they created a whole story out of that scrap of evidence. That is something very different from reporting.”
Bush’s Speech Does Not Fit the BBC’s Agenda
Asserson mentions another example of the BBC creating news instead of reporting it: “On 24 June 2002, President Bush gave a major speech in which he did not mention Arafat. It was a watershed in American policy. He indicated that American policy was going to align with Israel in viewing Arafat as someone they no longer believed could contribute to the peace process.
“Other media covered it that way. The BBC did not because it did not fit their agenda. They tried to cover it as a speech which criticized Israelis and Palestinians equally. In this way, they developed a story that was the opposite of the truth. In reality, Bush did not make a balanced attack but a one-sided one. The speech contained twenty-eight paragraphs, of which nineteen were devoted to calls for reform of the Palestinian leadership and institutions. It issued a sustained attack on them, saying inter alia: ‘Palestinian leaders are compromised by terror…[have] no authority…power is concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable few…Palestinian people live in economic stagnation made worse by official corruption…the Palestinian people lack effective courts of law and have no means to defend and vindicate their rights…Palestinian authorities are encouraging, not opposing terrorism…the Palestinian Authority has trafficked with terrorists.’
“The speech contained only two or three paragraphs which criticized Israeli policy. It appeared on the White House web site under the title ‘President Bush calls for New Palestinian Leadership.’ Nothing the BBC reported was wrong, but through their manipulations they created news about what they wanted to have happened instead of what actually happened.”
Such news manufacturing goes even deeper. Asserson recently recorded instances of the BBC reporting occasions that President Bush, the UN, Tony Blair, and Sharon have each criticized Palestinian “terrorists.” Yet on each occasion the BBC misreports them as having criticized
Palestinian “militants.” Asserson says: “This shows both an astonishing disregard for the truth and contempt for their audience.”
Appointing an Ombudsman
“Most people seem to disagree with Israel’s decision – now reversed – to cease cooperation with the BBC. Clearly the decision started to backfire because the non-cooperation went on for such a long period. However, I suspect that the decision did raise the attention level of some senior BBC staff regarding the magnitude of the problems with their Middle East coverage. It must have dented the BBC’s self-image.
“It also appears to have played a part in the decision to appoint former BBC News journalist Malcolm Balen as a kind of internal BBC ombudsman on the Middle East. Of course the Hutton enquiry on the events leading to the death of Iraqi weapons expert David Kelly, that includes the role of the BBC, has also had a major impact. Furthermore, during the Iraq war, British sailors aboard the flagship aircraft carrier Ark Royal refused to listen to the BBC because they felt it was so biased. I think that all of these complaints have troubled the BBC.
“The appointment of Balen is a huge step forward that indicates – though the BBC will not admit it publicly – that the BBC is responsive to external pressure. The appointment is unprecedented within the BBC and represents tacit acceptance that the BBC is failing in its coverage of the Middle East.
“Balen appears to be well-intentioned. However, there are real flaws in the nature of his appointment. Balen has no specific budget, no clear job description, no automatic access to the governors – who are meant to be the BBC regulators, and no obligation to produce reports, either internally or externally. One is left wondering whether this appointment is really nothing more than a public relations exercise. However, the idea is an excellent one.
“With a review of its license due, and the Hutton report about to be issued, there is a rare opportunity to place the BBC under real pressure. During the Hutton enquiry, Gavyn Davies, Chairman of the Governors, and the Regulator of the BBC, denied Tony Blair’s allegation of inaccurate reporting before even examining the facts behind the allegation. On being questioned, he defended his position, saying: ‘Whatever emerges about the precise details [i.e., the facts], we must not give ground which… suggests that the Governors have buckled to government pressure.’
“Effectively, what the Chairman of the Governors is saying is: “I will support the BBC, right or wrong.” Such an attitude is wholly inappropriate for a regulator whose very job is to ensure that the BBC does admit errors when they are made. If even the prime minister of Great Britain gets this kind of rebuff, what chance do a few wailing Jews possibly have. It is hard to think of a better argument in favor of an independent and accountable regulator for the BBC.”
Anti-Israel Feeling is Rife
Asserson adds: “In private conversations with senior BBC journalists, we have been told that anti-Israel feeling is rife within the BBC. Israel is considered a hated state. Anybody who has a different view has great difficulty being heard or getting his story out. I would not be surprised if that stretches to the point where some people there think that Israel should not exist, because that is now the position taken by some detractors of Israel. It would, however, be na ƒ ¯ve to think that there is a stated, written BBC policy to be anti-Israel. There is no such thing as an unspoken Protocols of the Elders of Palestine in the BBC, whereby senior members of the Board of Governors say: ‘Let’s be anti-Israel, but don’t write that down.’
“In the BBC’s anti-Israeli atmosphere, the system works informally. It is full of reporters holding left-wing, so-called ‘liberal’ viewpoints, including very negative ones about Israel. They then recruit people under them who have a similar outlook. In this way, the liberal left-wing system propagates itself.
“Our own analysis of its output is consistent with this. There are other proofs as well. The name of a BBC journalist, Ian Haddow, signed in his private capacity, was found on an email petition against Israel. He had added the words, ‘save us from Israel,’ after his name.”
The Road to Legitimize Hatred of Jews
On the basis of his findings, Asserson claims that the BBC has been demonizing Israel, trying to turn it into a pariah state. That is barely half a step from making it legitimate to hate those who support Israel. It is axiomatic that pretty much all Jews are widely assumed to support Israel.
“We have seen this in what has become known as the Wilkie Affair. This Oxford pathology professor said that he did not want to have a Jew in his laboratory who had served in the Israeli army. Richard Ingrams, a columnist of the Observer, took a similar step by saying that he was going to discard any letters from people with Jewish names.
“The distorted media reporting also creates an atmosphere in which anti-Semitism can thrive. Tam Dalyell, the British Labour MP who said that the Jews control the media, in the 1950s would not have lasted for two days as a socialist member of Parliament. He made some kind of an apology, but there are enough people in the UK who think that this is a perfectly reasonable view to enable him to remain politically unscathed. Today, being an anti-Semite is no longer a reason to be forced to leave your job. There is a direct link between media demonization of Israel and distortion of the truth, and the tolerance for this outlook.”
Not Renewing the BBC’s Charter
Asserson thinks that it is no longer appropriate for the BBC to exist in its present form in a free market. “It was started in a period when broadcasting was novel. The mechanism for setting it up and paying for it was very unsophisticated. Many new industries providing basic services to the entire population were organized and funded by the government.
“Water, electricity, gas, and public transport are examples. Most of these utilities have been privatized, even though it is comparatively difficult to create real competition for some utilities such as water or gas, since the incumbent will continue to control the huge physical infrastructure along which the product must be delivered. Building competing infrastructures would be prohibitively costly and pointless.
“Broadcasting, in contrast, is a perfect candidate for privatization. Competing delivery systems are already in place – terrestrial, satellite, cable, and telephone lines. A host of competing and financially secure content providers are in place, and more are sprouting up all the time. Real competition already exists. Far from needing an incumbent dominant provider like the BBC, the BBC’s continued existence is a historical anomaly which distorts and damages an otherwise healthy marketplace.”
Asserson thus thinks the British government should not renew the BBC Charter, which comes due in 2005. “In the meantime, a number of steps should be taken. One is that a public debate should be started that includes all groups which are upset with the BBC. For instance, people
who are anti-Europe say that their story is not told by the BBC because the BBC is so one-sidedly pro-European.
“Another is the establishment of a system of control to make sure that its reports on the Middle East – which have a natural tendency to bias – are scrutinized by somebody who would correct it. This system should be imposed within the BBC, and there are precedents for such an approach.
“They do not have an independent regulator. If there are complaints, it is the BBC who decides whether they themselves are in breach or not. Only the BBC is invited to give evidence at the hearing, not the complainant who is not even invited to hear the defense before the BBC makes a decision. They are a ‘liberal’ organization claiming to stand up for human rights, yet they themselves have an appalling procedure for handling complaints, which does not comply with any of the standards of the international justice they defend.”
A Danger to British Democracy
“The British public pays a license fee to the BBC to receive impartial news coverage. The BBC is paid for by the government and all people in England who own a television set, whether they choose to watch the BBC or not. There are further hidden subsidies. The BBC spends considerable airtime advertising its own services. Were a competitor such as Sky to
use the same time advertising its output, it would have to forgo ‚ £1-2 billion in advertising revenue. The BBC gets this advertising time for free, which gives it a huge advantage in the marketplace, and enables it to make its voice overwhelmingly loud as compared with others.
“Now the BBC is even endangering the freedom of British democracy. This unelected, monopolistic, and uncontrolled body, which is at the heart of British society, seemed to be more powerful than the elected government when it appeared to try to topple the latter by apparently inventing news about the decision to enter the Iraq war. Whereas the government is accountable to an electorate, the BBC is accountable to no one. Lord Hutton has not yet delivered his decision following his enquiry. However, the evidence appears to suggest that the BBC invented a story that Blair deliberately misled the House of Commons. It was only because a scientist committed suicide that there was an enquiry which might reveal the truth.
“What is insidious is that the BBC enjoys the hallmark of fair play and reasonableness because it was ‘approved’ by the British government. This cloak of fairness allows it to take a range of partial political stands in its broadcasting in an almost surreptitious way.
“Yet, notwithstanding any revelations which might emerge from Hutton’s enquiry, the BBC is not really accountable to anybody. Were its charter taken away, it would become just another independent newscasting operation which happens to be filled with Israel-haters and other biased people, jostling for market position with all the other peddlers of particular prejudices. But with its charter in place it remains financially inviolable.
“Judicial review is far too blunt a legal weapon for the courts to provide an effective restraint. The BBC is not subject to the forces of the marketplace. Its governors – who are meant to regulate it – seem ready to leap to its defense before even looking at the evidence behind the complaint, even when that complaint is made by the Office of the Prime Minister. Predictably, the complaints of lesser mortals enjoy very scant attention. The one force in the land that could unseat the BBC is the government. But after the Hutton events, it would be a brave government indeed which is prepared to take on the BBC and risk its wrath.”
Asserson summarizes: “The original contract with the British public was that we would pay for the BBC and it would provide impartial news. The BBC has broken the contract and no longer deserves our unthinking financial support. The main hope for change must therefore come from the British people themselves, who have been misled. This is not impossible.
The gloss is coming off the BBC’s halo. For example, the Financial Times, quoting my reports, recently wrote that the BBC has been found to be a biased organization. Increasingly, there are groups and public meetings set up to discuss the BBC’s various shortcomings.”
Taking the BBC to Court
When asked about the operational conclusions of his work for the Jewish community, Asserson answers: “My reports show that the BBC continuously distorts the Israeli narrative and promotes the Palestinian one, which the reporter wants to get across. There appears to be a subtext in almost every story. The journalist asks himself, as it were, ‘How can this story be used to reinforce my world view?’ That is what infects BBC reporting on the Middle East, and doubtless on a number of other issues.
“It is not fanciful to contemplate that, by portraying Israel in an unfairly negative light, the BBC unwittingly legitimizes – and therefore encourages – aggression not only against Israelis, but also against UK Jewish citizens. That does not necessarily express itself only in violence; academic discrimination is another example.
“It is highly likely that the BBC’s campaign against Israel has an effect on Jews in the UK. Jews and Israelis are closely associated in the minds of many Western people. There was a 400 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents in the UK in October 2000, following the start of the Palestinian uprising and its concomitant extremely hostile coverage by the BBC.
“One cannot say that this is just a coincidence. Within Western literature, the most famous book is the Bible, which connects Jews closely with Israel in the Western mind. It is also not wrong for people in the West to assume that a Jew will support Israel, which they do with a small percentage of exceptions. For decades, Arab hate literature has not drawn any significant distinction between Israelis and Jews. Criticism of Israel is legitimate. But those who think that such criticism does not affect the standing of Jews outside Israel are fooling themselves.”
Asserson would like to see legal action brought against the BBC for breaches of its charter, but recognizes that this would require a significant effort by the Anglo Jewish community. While a good case might exist, bringing proceedings represents a significant undertaking for a single individual.”
“I doubt whether the BBC would want to fight such a case in court if it were brought. It is an extremely hot potato. Apart from local UK politics, the Middle East is the most important news story. It is the only international item of continuous interest. If Iraq occasionally takes priority, Israel is even at the center of that story. If a court found that the BBC is totally biased on this issue, this would cause serious damage to its credibility as a news organization.”
“My studies, along with others, show conclusively that the BBC is not capable of living up to its charter. Accordingly, I think the BBC has lost its legitimacy as a broadcasting body that deserves support through taxation. Other media organizations are beginning to spread the same message. It remains for the British people to take the message on board and to elect a government with a mandate to curb this dangerous behemoth which lies like a cancer at the heart of a free society.”
(Trevor Asserson worked as a solicitor for the UK’s leading litigation firm and thereafter set up a department specializing in judicial review at one of the UK’s premier pro bono firms. He was called to the Israeli bar in 1992. He is today a senior international litigation partner in the London office of one of the world’s largest law firms.)
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