On Richard Sharp, the BBC and Israel/Palestine Coverage
Former GoldmanSachs banker Richard Sharp is the new chairman of the BBC chairman. John Mitchell asks: will Richard Sharp the new Chairman of the BBC pursue ‘impartiality’ in the Israel/Palestine coverage?
Richard Sharp the BBC’s newly appointed chairman, begins his incumbency this month against the background of concern over equal pay, the increasing commercial competition from various online streaming companies and brings into focus the question of the licence fee. Whilst not at the forefront of these immediate issues there is a long-standing controversial one which Sharp will no doubt influence – coverage of the Israel/Palestine question.
The Chair of the BBC is a governmental appointee and, not unexpectedly, reflects the will of the present Tory administration given his political patronage and financial résumé.
The new chairman of the BBC, Richard Sharp, gracefully dancing around the fact he donated over £400,000 to the Conservative party pic.twitter.com/IchFKl4DxV
— Lowkey (@Lowkey0nline) January 15, 2021
Sharp, a multi-millionaire, worked in the banking sector like his predecessor Sir David Clementi and played various economic advisory roles in high level financial institutions. He was once Rishi Sunak’s boss and became an economic consultant to the Chancellor prior to his appointment to the BBC.
In the past, Sharp donated over £400,000 to the Conservative party and was on the board of the right-wing think-tank, Centre for Policy Studies founded by Margaret Thatcher and Sir Keith Joseph.
His £160,000 salary is being donated to charity through his Sharp Foundation, which recently, gifted £35,000 to Quilliam a ‘counter-extremist’ think-tank targeting Islamic organisations. Led by co-founder Maajid Nawaz (who has been associated with Tommy Robinson the far right English nationalist), the Palestine issue is only emphasised within context of Jihadis support and not Israel’s occupation. The Jewish Chronical wrote approvingly:
‘The terrible irony of Quilliam’s predicament is that it has always resisted offers of generous funding from “enlightened” figures from the Gulf. The reason? The think-tank was not prepared to shift to a more critical position on Israel.’
Sharp’s support to Qulliam alludes to the decades of BBC’s bias in favour of Israel which has been documented by academic scholars in media and journalism.
In the book, Publish it Not…The Middle-East Cover-Up by Christopher Mayhew and Michael Adams (1974), correspondence from Jim Norris, the then BBC Head of Secretariat, to Christopher Mayhew MP displayed the admittance of imbalance:
‘Meanwhile one must acknowledge that journalists doing an honest job in this country have to take account of the fact that Israeli or Zionist public relations activities are conducted with a degree of sophistication which those on the other side have rarely matched, and that supporters of Israel in this country represent a much more vocal and powerful minority than supporters of the Arab cause. In other words, an accurate reflection of publicly expressed attitudes on the issue may well inevitably reveal at times a preponderance of sympathy for the Israeli side.’
The continuing debate over BBC reporting on the Israeli/Palestinian chapter led to the commissioning of the Balen Report in 2004 which was never published despite court action by the Israel supporter, Steven Sugar.
In response to the continuing and increasing volume of criticism on its reporting of the issue, the BBC commissioned a panel headed by Sir Quentin Thomas in 2006 to investigate and to make recommendations. Its conclusion stated;
‘There are, in particular, gaps in coverage, analysis, context and perspective. There is also a failure to maintain consistently the BBC’s own established editorial standards, including on language. There are shortcomings arising from the elusiveness of editorial planning, grip and oversight. In summary, the finding is that BBC coverage does not consistently constitute a full and fair account of the conflict but rather, in important respects, presents an incomplete and in that sense misleading picture.’
Contributing to the report’s findings, the Panel had commissioned a qualitative and quantitative statistical analysis from Loughborough University which showed, ‘That a disparity (in favour of Israelis) existed in BBC coverage’ when it came to interviews between actors of both sides. They also found that more coverage was given to Israeli fatalities than to Palestinian. Despite the report’s recommendations, the BBC did not invoke the necessary criterion upon which a more balanced and impartial approach could be implemented.
In 2011, Prof. Greg Philo and Mike Berry of the Glasgow University Media Group stated in their media research publication, More Bad News from Israel:
“While the broadcast media give a clear account of the Israeli perspective on this conflict, many journalists and especially in the BBC still find great difficulty in doing the same for the Palestinians. This is in spite of the report originally commissioned by the BBC Governors, which made clear the weaknesses in the BBC’s approach to presenting the history of the conflict and the nature of the military occupation imposed by Israel on the Palestinians.”
One example of the sparsity of historical context is the description of Gaza as being ‘one of the most densely populated areas in the world’. Out of a population of 1.8m, 1.2m are Palestinian refugees and their descendants who were evicted from their homes by Zionist para-militaries in Palestine in 1948 to make way for the establishment of the state of Israel.
The use of linguistics conditions the cognitive understanding of the issue which the BBC has determined by editorial guidelines and strictly applied in the BBC Academy where journalists are trained. BBC journalists are confined by the strategic straitjacket of BBC reporting which was exemplified by Jerry Timmins, when head of the BBC Africa and Middle-East Region, said,
‘We will train you as a journalist. We will give you guidelines you must read and understand. We will empower you to go and report what you see in a way that conforms to our overarching editorial ambition.’
In their critique of BBC news Prof. Leon Barkho and John Richardson wrote,
“BBC‟s discursive practices, regardless of the intentions of its social and institutional actors, tend to reinforce the discursive claims of the most powerful side in the conflict…BBC journalists are then expected to reproduce, and disseminate, this ideological vocabulary in their reporting irrespective of their own views of its legitimacy.”
The use of ‘terrorism’ has always been used to describe actions by Palestinians. The crux of most definitions of terrorism describes the intentional killing of innocent civilians but the BBC have never applied that term to ‘security operations’ by the IDF.
The guidelines have now substituted ‘terrorism’ with the words, ‘bomber’, ‘attacker’, ‘gunman’, ‘kidnapper’, ‘insurgent’, and ‘militant’ and the use of the word, ‘liberate’ (which infers a ‘denial of freedom’) is discouraged:
‘We should not adopt other people’s language as our own; our responsibility is to remain objective and report in ways that enable our audiences to make their own assessments about who is doing what to whom.’
What kind of ‘assessments’ would viewers hold after hearing reports using such a derogative lexicon? Certainly, some Palestinians have killed innocent Israeli civilians but these words are never used in describing Israel’s actions when Palestinians are killed.
Despite the evidential contributions made by official and non-official institutions, the BBC continues to fail in abiding by its own editorial guidelines and the BBC Charter on impartiality which weakens the BBC’s responsibility to its viewers.
The conflation of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism was widely propagated in the media including the BBC that the specious belief that criticism of Israel is ostensibly racist. The predilection of the BBC to invite proponents of Israel, whether they be Israelis or not, to appear on television with people who were less forceful or capable of presenting the opposite view was all too clear.
The failure to present ‘the other side of the debate’ particularly on the accusation of anti-Semitism in the Labour Party, was conspicuous. There was another side of the argument out there and to end reports by saying, ‘The Labour Party was invited to appear but refused.’ was uncredible. There are many advocates, including Jews, who would be more than willing to take part and present the argument of how anti-Semitism was being exploited by right-wing members of the Labour Party and the Israel lobby.
But it’s not only what the BBC says but what it doesn’t say. Margaret Hodge MP made accusations against Jeremy Corbyn for being anti-Semitic but was never seriously challenged by interviewers. In 1987, Islington Council tried to sell a historic Jewish cemetery to property developers and was opposed by Jeremy Corbyn who successfully campaigned against the sale – and who was the council leader? It was Margaret Hodge. This story has been out there for some considerable time so why was she not questioned on this?
In the Al Jazeera exposé of how the Israeli embassy planned to ‘take down’ the junior government minister, Sir Alan Duncan because of his Palestinian sympathies, Newsnight did not report on it. Had it been Iran the likelihood would have been a never-ending story.
Perhaps the greatest public reproval the BBC has ever faced was their decision not to broadcast the DEC Gaza appeal in 2009 when every other broadcaster obliged. The late journalist, Robert Fisk, wrote,
“And this, remember, is the same institution [the BBC] which said that to broadcast an appeal for medicines for wounded Palestinians in Gaza might upset its “neutrality”. Legless Palestinian children clearly don’t count as much as the BBC’s pompous executives.”
The recent (19th Jan) BBC Radio Scotland show, The Kaye Adams Programme discussed the issue of Israel’s vaccination distribution. She started by saying that the ‘political’ issue would not be raised. That issue was Israel’s decision to deny the Palestinians receiving the vaccine.
The BBC’s Jerusalem correspondent did raise the issue and Kaye again censored it by saying, that she did not want to ‘diminish’ the issue but did so by not allowing any discussion of it.
The issue of the vaccine and the virus has always been political as to how it could have been done better as it is debated in Westminster and Holyrood. Had this government denied an ethnic group the vaccine wouldn’t that have been important enough to discuss? You can’t isolate an issue when it has major health and wellbeing consequences for a section of the population. Kaye Adam’s decision to not allow the ‘politics’ to be discussed was in itself – political. This was clearly an editorial decision to censor any criticism of Israel.
The creation of BBC editorial tenets and practices stem from the interaction of human discourse. Some of those interlocutors have manifestly shown their allegiance and sympathy for Israel.
James Harding – Director of News & Current Affairs, BBC News (2013–2018) and past editor of the Times said at a Jewish Chronical event,
“I am pro-Israel,” he said. “I believe in the state of Israel. I would have had a real problem if I had been coming to a paper with a history of being anti-Israel. And, of course, Rupert Murdoch is pro-Israel.
Danny Cohen – Controller of BBC 1, 3 and Director of BBC television (2007-2015) wrote a letter while still a BBC executive condemning the Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) movement which campaigns to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian West Bank and Gaza.
James Purnell – BBC Director of Radio and BBC’s Director of Strategy (2013-2020) was the chairman of Labour Friends of Israel during his parliamentary career.
Raffi Berg – BBC online News Middle-East Editor (2013-) had written emails to his BBC staff asking them to be more lenient towards Israel in their reporting on Gaza.
As Richard Sharp begins his leadership of the BBC alongside Tim Davies the BBC Director General (a previous Conservative Party member) the public broadcaster would, unsurprisingly, start leaning to the right. In his interview with the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee impartiality was raised, Sharp gave an example of how the Conservatives were maligned in a programme.
Impartiality is considered the paramount maxim of BBC broadcasting but it is impossible to claim impartiality when the senior executives in BBC management are political appointments which will inevitably reflect their ideological outlook. Left, right or centre reporting is partial and can never be anything else. What can be achieved is an equal balance of viewpoints something that has been denied to the Palestinians.