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Living in a Bubble
The BBC's very own Mideast foreign policy.


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The BBC: Sheikh Abdur-Rahman al-Sudais, from Saudi Arabia, who opened London’s biggest mosque last Friday, is a respected leader who works for “community cohesion” and “building communities.”

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Not mentioned on the BBC: Some of the views of Sheikh Abdur-Rahman al-Sudais. In his own words: In the name of Allah, the Jews must be “annihilated.” They are “the scum of the human race, the rats of the world… the murderers of the prophets, and the offspring of apes and pigs.”

The BBC’s Charter and its Producers Guidelines state: “Due impartiality lies at the heart of the BBC. All programs and services should be open minded, fair and show a respect for truth… [BBC reports should] contain comprehensive, authoritative and impartial coverage of news and current affairs in the United Kingdom and throughout the world….”

The BBC makes many good programs when it comes to drama, comedy, sport, and science. But its enormous news division–by far the world’s biggest–is another story. Using lavish public funding (courtesy of the British taxpayer) and an unprecedented worldwide news reach (its radio service alone, broadcasting in 43 languages, attracts over 150 million listeners daily), it is–in blatant breach of its own charter–virtually conducting its own anti-American and anti-Israeli foreign policy. Anyone who doesn’t agree with its policies (Tony Blair, for example) finds himself at the mercy of BBC news coverage.

In January, criticisms made of the BBC in a report by an official commission set up by the U.K. government (“the Hutton enquiry”) in regard to its Iraq-war coverage, were so scathing that both the chairman of the board of governors of the BBC and its director-general had little choice but to resign. Since then, the BBC has–for a while at least–been a little more adroit at disguising its prejudices. Instead much of its slant now lies in omission rather than in active distortion.

“B” MOVIE ACTOR

Last week, for example, almost every other news organization in the world (including those in the former Communist states) began their obituaries of Ronald Reagan by saying that many (including Mikhail Gorbachev) credit Reagan with helping to bring about the end of the Cold War. But the BBC online obituary (“World Edition,” Sunday, June 6, 2004, titled “Reagan’s mixed White House legacy,” and running to almost 1,000 words–that’s a full four pages if you print it out from the BBC website) didn’t even mention the Cold War, let alone Reagan’s calls to “tear down” the Berlin Wall.

Instead the BBC reminded us that Reagan was “a B movie actor,” and stated that as president his “foreign policy was criticised for being in disarray.” Accompanying photos were not of Reagan meeting Gorbachev, but of Oliver North, and of the invasion of Grenada (“a clumsy sham,” according to the BBC text).

Even during his funeral last Friday, BBC World Service Radio began its bulletin by first referring to Reagan as a film actor before mentioning that he was president.

When I went to interview for a job at BBC news at the end of the 1980s, the BBC interviewers (comprising several senior news producers) literally scoffed at me when I suggested, in a mild way, that perhaps the BBC might devote a little more coverage to the eastern bloc.

But then the Cold War plays a very small part in the worldview of the BBC. They seldom showed signs of caring much about hundreds of millions of people living under Communist dictatorship then, and they are still very reluctant to acknowledge that it happened, let alone their own failings in reporting it.

I mention this because it helps explain the bubble they live in today with regard to the Middle East and Arab world. A bubble which has led them to seek to undermine, even delegitimize Israel, the region’s sole democracy, while at the same time bending over backwards to excuse extremist Islamic clerics, and the worst of the Arab dictators.

The BBC doesn’t seem to care that–as Jonathan Kay of Canada’s National Post once put it–if Robert Mugabe walked into an Arab League summit he would be the most democratically legitimate leader in the room. The BBC’s attitude appears to be that: Arabs don’t deserve to have their human-rights situation mentioned. As far as their reporting is concerned, women, gays, and others don’t deserve rights in Muslim countries.

PREACHING HATE FROM MECCA

Sheikh Abdur-Rahman al-Sudais (referred to in the introduction to this article, and whose surname has also been transliterated by MEMRI and others as Al-Sudayyis [1]) is not just any imam, and his hate-filled sermons are not just delivered in some peripheral setting. He is the preacher at the Grand Al-Haraam mosque–the most important mosque in Mecca, the very heart of Islam.

“Read history,” implored al-Sudais to his massed ranks of followers in another of his sermons, on February 1, 2004, “and you will understand that the Jews of yesterday are the evil fathers of the Jews of today, who are evil offspring, infidels … calf-worshippers, prophet-murderers, prophecy-deniers…the scum of the human race whom Allah cursed and turned into apes and pigs…. These are the Jews, a continuous lineage of meanness, cunning, obstinacy, tyranny, licentiousness, evil, and corruption….”

Al-Sudais has repeated these words, or close variations of them, at several other sermons in recent years. It is because of these and other calls for violence against Christians, Hindus, and Americans, that the Canadian government last month denied al-Sudais a visa to enter Canada.

But none of this seems to have penetrated the BBC bubble. In its reports last weekend on TV, radio, and online, on Sheikh al-Sudais’s visit to Britain, in which he lead 15,000 worshippers at prayer at the opening of the enormous new six-story Islamic center in east London, the BBC mentioned none of this.

BBC Online for example, last Saturday, gave the impression that al-Sudais was nothing but a benign, kindly cleric promoting (to quote the BBC) “community cohesion” between Muslims and their neighbors.

“The centre was opened as Friday prayers took place, led by one of Islam’s most renowned Imams, and celebrations will continue throughout the weekend,” said the BBC. “Worshippers had come to hear Sheikh Abdur-Rahman al-Sudais, Imam of the Ka’ba, Islam’s holiest mosque in Mecca, Saudi Arabia…. With many unable to enter the new centre, some worshippers took to praying on a street behind the mosque using prayer mats and even newspapers.” We are told that the center “will bolster London’s reputation as a vibrant and diverse international city” and has a “spirit of modesty.”

At the side of the BBC website, a video clip was flagged with the caption: “The BBC’s Mark Easton: ‘Events like today offer grounds for optimism.’”

It would be hard to imagine the BBC completely omitting diatribes such as al-Sudais’s had they been made by a Christian leader–or had a prominent Israeli rabbi said anything similar about Muslims.

IS SOMETHING HAPPENING IN SUDAN?

The BBC efforts not to “offend” Arabs extremists even extend to their reports on ethnic cleansing and genocide. On both the occasions in the last week when I heard BBC World Service Radio refer to the ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing in Sudan, the BBC took scrupulous care to avoid saying who the perpetrators were (they are Arab militias) and who the victims are (hundreds of thousands of Black Sudanese Africans–Muslims, Christians, and Animists). The BBC didn’t make any mention whatever of the long history of mass slavery in Sudan, carried out by Arabs with non-Arabs as their victims; nor of the scorched-earth policies, and systematic rape being carried out there by Arabs.

Yet in one of these very same news bulletins, the BBC mentioned that “settlers” in Gaza were “Jewish” and the land they were settling is “Palestinian.” I don’t think I have ever heard the BBC refer to settlers in Gaza without mentioning their ethnicity or religion–which is, of course, relevant to the story (though many would dispute the historical and legal accuracy of referring to the territory as Palestinian). But the BBC doesn’t appear to think ethnicity is relevant when it comes to real killing or ethnic-based cleansing.

That is apart from situations elsewhere, in which non-Arabs are perpetrators. In one of the very same bulletins in which the BBC failed to mention the ethnic make-up of perpetrator and victim in Sudan, it made sure to let us know that “Bosnian Serbs have admitted for the first time their role in the massacre of Bosnian Moslems a decade ago.”

In another report last week, a BBC correspondent casually referred to “a fanatical rebel group” in Uganda. This contrasts with the term “Palestinian resistance group” that BBC reporters often use to describe Hamas, a group the BBC clearly doesn’t find fanatical at all.

SO HAMAS ARE NOT GUILTY?

But then Hamas (along with Yasser Arafat, one of the most vicious murderers of Jews since Hitler) appear to enjoy a certain degree of sympathy at the BBC, which throughout the past four years of Israeli-Palestinian violence has constantly tried to obscure the true nature of the group by using misleading language.

There are innumerable examples of this; they occur almost daily.

“Over the years, Hamas has been blamed for scores of suicide attacks on Israel,” says the BBC, thereby trying to suggest to listeners and viewers that Hamas has perhaps been wrongly accused of such attacks (even though Hamas itself has proudly and repeatedly claimed responsibility for them in mass celebratory rallies in Gaza, Jenin, and elsewhere.)

Two Palestinian gunmen opened fire indiscriminately in the heart of the northern Israeli town of Afula, killing two young Israeli civilians and wounding over 50 others. They themselves were then shot dead by Israeli policemen. The headline on the BBC website read: “Four Die in Israel Shooting Rampage,” suggesting that four innocent people had died, possibly at the hands of the Israelis.

Again, when suicide bombers killed 26 Israeli civilians in attacks on Jerusalem and Haifa, the word “terror” was used by the BBC only when describing Israel’s retaliatory (and largely non-lethal) attacks on Palestinian military targets. (By contrast, the BBC didn’t hesitate to use the word “terrorism” last week, when one of its own correspondents, Frank Gardner, was shot and badly wounded by an al Qaeda gunman in Saudi Arabia.)

Some of the foreign BBC staff are quite open about their sympathies for Hamas. The senior BBC Arabic Service correspondent in the Gaza Strip, Fayad Abu Shamala, told a Hamas rally on May 6, 2001, (attended by the then Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin) that journalists and media organizations in Gaza, including the BBC, are “waging the campaign [of resistance/terror against Israel] shoulder-to-shoulder together with the Palestinian people.”

The best the BBC could do in response to requests from Israel that they distance themselves from these remarks at the time, was to issue a statement saying, “Fayad’s remarks were made in a private capacity. His reports have always matched the best standards of balance required by the BBC.”

Indeed, today, three years later, the BBC is continuing to use Abu Shamala as much as ever. He was, for example, one of the BBC reporters in Gaza last month, who contributed to the BBC’s highly slanted reporting (on both the BBC English and Arabic services) of Israel’s operation to root out Hamas bomb-makers in Rafah in the southern Gaza.

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. 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, 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–who among other things has 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 AMPTUTATION

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 wrote 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 wholly 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 both blatantly biased and incendiary.

Kilroy-Silk–whose article appeared just a few days before 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 which described him as a “hero,” and “an icon,” and spoke of him as having “performer’s flare,” “charisma and style,” “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 July 5, 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, 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 U.K., 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, BBC staff were a little more careful in their 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 U.S. 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 also 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 typically concern itself with the rights and aspirations of persecuted Kurds in Muslim-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 Haaretz, 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.

Footnotes

[1] For more on these and other quotes, see here and Steven Stalinsky’s “Kingdom Comes to North America” (after which the Canadian government rescinded al-Sudais’ visa request).

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

Tom Gross is a former Middle East correspondent for the London Sunday Telegraph and the New York Daily News. Among his previous pieces for NRO are “All The News That’s Fit to Print? The New York Times and Israel” and “Jeningrad. What the British media said.”



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