Two senior BBC executives have utterly rejected the accusation that the broadcaster was “institutionally antisemitic” —with one, David Jordan, the BBC’s director of editorial policy and standards, telling a South Hampstead Synagogue audience member who made the challenge that if he thought that were true, he would not be working for the Corporation.
Jordan and Rhodri Talfan Davies, the Director of Nations at the BBC (which covers the output of 2500 local and regional journalists), were facing an at times hostile and heckling crowd in a unique event, under the auspices of the Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA).
During the evening, moderated by CAA chief executive Gideon Falter, numerous complaints about the BBC’s reporting were put to both men. The issues ranged from fury at the “speculation” by Jon Dennison about who was responsible for the bombing of the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, to what sounded like near-universal loathing of the BBC’s former Middle East editor and now International Editor, Jeremy Bowen.
Gideon Falter began the evening by reminding the packed audience — which included at least a dozen Jewish BBC staff — that “the BBC is not monolithic and it is not in the Jewish community’s interest to be in a permanent stand-off with it”. Among those present was Noah Abrahams, the BBC Radio Derby reporter who quit his job over the BBC’s refusal to designate the Hamas attackers as “terrorists”.
Falter said that the genesis of the event lay in a fractious dispute between the Jewish community and the BBC over the reporting of an antisemitic attack on a busful of Orthodox Jewish children and teenagers on Chanukah 2021. An audio recording had emerged, in which the BBC maintained “anti-Muslim slurs” could be heard, though Jewish sources strongly disagreed. Both Ofcom and the BBC had conducted their own investigations into the incident.
Though there continued to be disagreement about the content of the audio, Falter said that conversations had been initiated between the CAA and the two BBC executives, which had led to Wednesday night’s event.
Davies and Jordan spent considerable time talking about the role of the BBC and the importance of “trust” between the broadcaster and its audience. But, despite Davies saying repeatedly that the BBC should always acknowledge when it made mistakes, particularly in the heat of war reporting, there were some passionate exchanges between the two BBC men and the audience. One woman complained that the BBC did not understand the impact of what its incorrect reporting did to the Jewish community, leading to a climate of anxiety and fear.
Davies said: “The reason the BBC is trusted is because we give the audience the clearest possible view of what has happened. Our job is to hold up our hands when we get it wrong”.
There was lengthy discussion of why the BBC would not use the word “terrorist” to describe the Hamas attackers, except when quoting an institution or an individual. It was clear that the audience did not accept the explanation of necessary neutrality — and there was near uproar when David Jordan pointed out that terminology changed over time, with leaders such as Nelson Mandela once being designated as a terrorist and going on eventually to become leader of his country.
It was also clear that some members of the audience believed — mistakenly — that he was going to cite the example of Menachem Begin — also once described as a terrorist by the British government, and becoming Israel’s prime minister.
Davies said that one of the problems the BBC faced was the complex “verification” process, which was often too slow. Steps were being taken, he said, to “spend more resource in improving the verification process”.
Among the more predictable questions, such as why the BBC had still not released the findings of the 20-year-old Balen Report — an internal review of its Middle East coverage which the Corporation spent thousands of pounds in court defending its right not to publish, there were some more nuanced issues raised.
One pre-submitted question asked why the BBC had not, so far, covered the stories of the repeated rapes which had taken place during the Hamas attacks, particularly at the music festival at Kibbutz Re’im. Davies said he was not aware of the BBC not reporting on the rapes, but promised to ask his colleagues as soon as possible.
Both men acknowledged that it was not possible for the BBC’s output to be perfect, but claimed that since 7 October changes had been, and continue to be made. One such change is that casualty figures from the Gaza Ministry of Health are now prefaced with the reminder that the ministry is Hamas-controlled. “And now we give the source [of the information] before the claim”, Jordan said, “before, we gave the claim and only then the source”. The reversal enabled the viewer or listener to assess the claim more objectively.
A CAA spokesperson said: “We wish to thank Rhodri Talfan Davies and David Jordan from the BBC’s executive team for joining us for this unprecedented event. It is the first time BBC executives have spoken to the Jewish community, and it is the product of an ongoing relationship between CAA and the BBC to try to build trust between our nation’s broadcaster and British Jews.
“That relationship involves the frank exchange of views, and the challenges that it faces were in evidence at this event. British Jews have strong feelings about the BBC and its coverage of matters of Jewish interest, antisemitism and Israel, and the BBC’s representatives were left in no doubt about the strength of that feeling, which was on show in the audience questions and reaction.
“It is a credit to these senior BBC figures that they came before the community in an effort to listen to the hurt and fear that British Jews feel. We hope that they will report these sentiments back to the newsroom, and we look forward to continuing this relationship with the BBC in the knowledge that building trust on behalf of the Jewish community will be a long but essential process.”
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