Thursday, April 25, 2013

The BBC's News Challenge

by Yaakov Ahimeir

There's no reason to envy James Harding, the man recently chosen to head the BBC's news department. Harding is going to fill the most senior position at the most important channel in Great Britain, and perhaps in the world. You can't overstate BBC's status and power. The company has enjoyed long-lasting prestige throughout the decades (for the sake of full disclosure: I am a former BBC employee in London and learned to appreciate Harding's broadcasting culture).

The man with the new job, who was selected to shape the channel's news policies, is a Jewish supporter of Israel. Over the past six years, Harding has also held the coveted position of editor in chief of The Times of London.

And why doesn't Harding deserve our envy, despite the prestigious appointment? Because after taking office he is going to be put immediately under not only the U.K. Jewish community's watchful eye, but the entire country's as well. Polls have shown that the BBC is the main source of news for most of Britain's Jews. It is no surprise, therefore, that this appointment has raised a great deal of interest.

There are already voices calling on Harding to abandon his "pro-Israel" views at a time when Israel is most often associated with terms like "boycott," and when the BBC has been regularly blamed for taking a blatant anti-Israel stance.

But if the company's chief executives decided to leave this senior, highly sensitive position in Harding's hands of all people, it's a sign that he has been blessed, among other attributes, with a great deal of integrity as well as exceptional journalistic talents.

The BBC's coverage of our region has never been too indifferent. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is traditionally seen as the most sensitive and fragile issue in the eyes of the British, news-consuming public, with the Jewish community among it.

The following are a few unflattering statistics pertaining to the BBC's image in Britain's Jewish community, among which no less than four out of five people (who either listen to the news on radio or watch on television) believe that the BBC portrays Israel negatively. Thirty-six percent of those surveyed say its news coverage is clearly anti-Israel, and 43% feel the BBC is "somewhat" anti-Israel. In other words, nearly 80% of the Jewish news consumers didn't trust that the BBC's coverage was equitable with regards to the Middle East.

To the BBC's credit, the company is sensitive to this type of negative opinion and has appointed an ombudsman, a veteran journalist, to examine the claims of slanted news coverage against Israel. This journalist, Malcolm Balen, wrote a detailed report on the matter nine years ago, but the company's chief executives chose to conceal it and fought any legal demand to have the report published. The legal battles, which reached the House of Lords (the upper house of the British Parliament), came at a steep cost in legal fees for the BBC. The different rulings supported preserving secrecy, although part of the report was leaked and proved that certain claims of an anti-Israel bias were true.

No one should expect the newly appointed head of the BBC's news department to rally the entire news team to the Zionist cause. However, he should be expected to instill in reporters an ethical framework that will provide consumers, Jews and non-Jews, with a truthful dose of fair news coverage. This is Harding's litmus test. In the meantime, he deserves the best of luck ahead of the nearly impossible mission he's been given.

Yaakov Ahimeir


Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

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