Patten's record a real concern

By Alex Brummer, February 25, 2011

One of the Tory great and good, Lord Patten of Barnes, is about to be handed the chairmanship of the BBC Trust. The chance of presiding over the BBC and its £3.2 billion budget is clearly one he could not resist.

David Cameron looks ready to accept Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt's choice of Lord Patten, despite the fact that he is despised by the Tory right for his pro-EU views. The coalition with the LibDems means that being on the wrong side of the Europe debate is no longer a barrier in the Tory Party.

The Trust is essentially a regulator and arbiter. But it still has an enormously important role as scrutiniser of the BBC's content in a media where this function is largely carried out by super-regulator Ofcom.

The choice of Lord Patten will be of great interest to followers of the Middle East. Both as Europe's external affairs commissioner and as an opinion leader he has been a fierce critic of Israel.

Among his most recent interventions was an article in the Guardian last June when global eyes were trained on the blockade of Gaza. Lord Patten made the case for an EU role in the Middle East. But the language he used was less than diplomatic. He argued that the long-term failure to reach a two state solution in the region meant that "Palestine is broken up into barriered Bantustans."

He will have to work hard to convince the Jewish community he’s the man

The use of the word Bantustan might be regarded as particularly unfortunate in that it reinforced the idea – first deployed by former US President Jimmy Carter – that Israel was becoming an "apartheid" state.

Lord Patten went on to argue that the EU's self-effacement in the region damages its efforts to develop the 'Union for the Mediterranean.' This is not an entirely felicitous concept, given that included among its members were Algeria (currently the subject of rioting), Egypt (where the army is now in control), Jordan (where King Abdullah is engaged in a struggle for survival), Lebanon (where Hezbollah has seized control) and Libya, as an associate member.

The would-be BBC boss regarded the relationship with this group of misfiring autocracies as more important than Israel's presence as a democratic beacon in the region. He claimed that Europe's failure to be involved made it "complicit in outrageous and illegal acts" in the shape of the "collective punishment of the people of Gaza."

A month later, he was at it again during a visit to the West Bank and Gaza. He described Israel's blockade of Gaza as a "medieval siege" and expressed his shock at the "huge new settlements" on the West Bank. Far from there being a freeze on settlements (in place at the time) Patten charged that he had witnessed large numbers of houses and flats being built.

This and other colourful language suggests that Lord Patten may have his work cut out at the BBC Trust, where Middle East coverage has been regularly criticised and tested. The longest ever study, the famed Balen Report produced in the aftermath of the Second Intifada, was never published because of the BBC view that it was for internal use.

Another report, commissioned by then chairman, Michael Grade, in 2006, found no serious evidence of impartiality and thought balance may have tipped slightly in Israel's favour. A further study by the Trust's editorial standards board in 2009 partially upheld complaints against the broadcaster's Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen.

If the Trust were to commission a new report it might, for instance, take a look at the wide eyed reporting from Cairo where what was in effect a military takeover – amid some unpleasant violence – was hailed as 'new dawn' for the region.

Lord Patten's past writings and interviews suggest that he will have to work hard to convince the Jewish community that he is the right person in role where impartiality is paramount.

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 11:08am, February 25 2011