A veteran BBC journalist has defended the corporation against charges of it having an “ingrained, institutional” anti-Israel bias.
Robin Lustig, whose father Fritz fled Europe for Britain during the Holocaust, retired in December from his regular slots on Radio 4’s The World Tonight and Newshour on the World Service.
Looking back on his career, which included a stint as Middle East correspondent for the Observer between 1985 and 1987, Mr Lustig said: “No other subject I reported on ever engendered such passions on both sides”. Although he never faced claims that, as a Jewish reporter, he was secretly lobbying for Israel — the experience of some, including Tim Franks and the late Michael Elkins, both BBC Middle East correspondents — Israel is always the first topic raised when he fronts a debate.
“It is absolutely impossible to write anything about the Middle East that will not be controversial for somebody,” he said, adding: “In 23 years at the BBC, I never came across any deliberate bias, on Israel or anything else. That doesn’t mean they don’t get things wrong, it doesn’t mean there aren’t unconscious biases, of course there are.
“I just don’t think there is an ingrained institutional bias, either anti- or pro- Israel.”
In Jenin in April 2002, he said that the reporting of an apparent massacre of Palestinians by the Israeli army was “simply a sign of inaccurate information, which was later put right when the truth became known”.
A prolific Tweeter who believes “the more information the better,” Mr Lustig observed: “A lot of what people report in the instant turns out to be wrong; it’s the nature of the beast.”
When he was based in Jerusalem, covering the Lebanon civil war and the Iran-Iraq war, he could not phone into Israel from any of its neighbours. “The PLO was banned. Palestinians who spoke openly to Israelis ran the risk of being assassinated,” he said. “The big change is now the recognition of a Palestinian political identity, which was unheard of then.”
Pessimistic about the momentum for peace in Israel or in Washington — “When I’m in an optimistic frame of mind I think of Northern Ireland, where after 300 years they seem to have found a way” — Mr Lustig said: “The big issue in Israeli politics isn’t what to do with the Palestinians, it’s what to do with the strictly Orthodox.
“Even 20 years ago, the Charedi issue was already being talked about. It’s an issue that they fudged right from the start, the role of the religious establishment in the state.”
January’s was the first Israeli election in 20 years he did not cover. But, having interviewed Muslim Brotherhood members, Mr Lustig concluded that “one has to make a difference between the rhetoric and the reality. They [the Egyptians] know that to break the terms of Camp David would result in a huge break with the US, and they need the West for cash. It’s as simple as that, I don’t think they have any love for Israel.”
And he did not predict immediate progress in the region. “Revolutions are messy. Look at the French, Russian, the American — they all took a decade or more to settle. It’s a bit unreasonable of us to expect the overthrow of Arab dictatorships to result overnight in a miraculous flurry of democracy.”