I never felt welcome in the BBC club

Rabbi YY Rubinstein writes exclusively for the JC on why he quit the BBC after 30 years

January 04, 2022 15:33

My association with the BBC started a long time ago in the mid-eighties. As is often the case, I started off appearing on local BBC radio, in my case, Greater Manchester Radio. 

 Northern accents abounded and most program hosts were about as far removed from Radio Four and its Oxbridge elite as you could imagine. 

 On one occasion I was invited onto a Sunday morning show where the co-presenters were quintessential Lancashire men who each wore matching tracksuits. 

 The local Jewish community had applied to erect an Eruv and there was much opposition across the city. My task was to explain exactly what was an Eruv is and why the good citizenry had nothing to fear if one went up. 

 The presenters and I hit it off straight away and there was much laughter before they asked me to explain exactly what an Eruv is and crucially, what it would look like? 

 It was hard to convey this verbally and so I produced a book I had brought with me that contained pictures of Eruvim, opened it at one of the pages and explained to the listeners that I was now holding a picture of an Eruv up to the microphone for them to see. 

 My two new pals looked horrified as it dawned on them they had invited a lunatic onto their show.  I quickly added, “Now listeners, if you are having difficulty seeing the Eruv I’m showing you…that’s exactly what will happen when it’s up!”

 The presenters breathed sighs of relief that I want made after all and my career in GMR was firmly established. 

 From there National BBC Radio heard of me and I became a regular on Radio 4’s Today Program and its “Pause for thought”.  

 The thing about media in general and the BBC in particular, is very incestuous. If one show has found a Rabbi who can broadcast, all the programs want to use him. I was soon appearing regularly on BBC World Service with its average 156 million listeners. I became a regular on Radio 2’s Terry Wogan and Don McLean Shows and countless other news programs to comment on the News or review the papers or speak on behalf of the community when Princess Diana died.

 TV came next and I soon found myself helping with the writing and scripts for shows I appeared on. 

 The people I worked with in Beeb-Land were among some of the most talented and kind I ever met. They were extremely professional and almost always generous with their time and experience. Occasionally there were cantakerous types, but they were the exception rather than the rule.

My skills as a broadcaster and a writer were honed and polished by scores of different producers and editors and as I am nearing the end of writing my thirteenth book, I am aware how much better they are for the years of training I received from “Aunty”.

Yet all through my years at BBC Manchester, Broadcasting House in London and Media City in Salford I was aware that despite my many friends there, I was never quite part of the club. 

The BBC is in fact exactly that; a club and there are rules to belonging. Like all societies, members share certain core values and rules. Breaching any of those is likely to cause your membership to be curtailed or removed. As shake-ups and staff culling happen not infrequently at the Beeb, that means staff are very scared about straying too far from accepted views and attitudes.

A producer of mine, who is a practicing Christian, trusted me enough to tell me in a whisper (this is true) that there was a secret group of his fellow Christians who met once a week to… pray together!  

They knew that if this got out their chances of promotion were zero and when the next staff cull came along, they would be gone.

Also, like many societies, there are symbols or tokens of membership like Masonic handshakes. At the BBC the most of common of these is to carry a copy of the Guardian newspaper. Staff can be seen reading the Times, but I honestly think a Telegraph reader wouldn’t last ten minutes.

Many of those I worked with over the years who are now retired felt able to “come out” at the last general election and declare the blindingly obvious, they are Labour Party Members but not just that, Corbyn supporting Labour Party members.  

Those ubiquitous folded copies of the guardian under so many BBC arms, rather like the presence of certain markers that appear in blood tests, point towards something more worrying, in this case, the widespread cancer of anti-Semitism. 

The first time I became aware of this was through a certain BBC Star who was losing his show. Being booted out of the club, he felt freed of loyalty to it and happily told me about a producer I had worked with for ten years and whom I considered a friend. 

“You know she hates Jews, don’t you?” My eyebrows flew up, “After 9/11 she declared loudly and angrily in the busy BBC canteen where the star was sitting, “It serves the Americans right. They have been arming the Jews for decades!”  

 She did not say arming the Israelis he pointed out, it was arming the Jews. 

Then there was the time I sat in a studio helping to edit a program I had been involved with making for the UK’s first National Holocaust Day. One of my tasks was to produce the English translation that would run along the bottom of the screen while the Cantor of Jerusalem’s Great Synagogue sang the “Kel Malei Rachamim”.  

The problem occurred when I translated the word Yisrael as Israel.  That simply could not be allowed, it would offend Muslims!

One of my colleagues (Jewish father and probable Times reader) protested, “But that is the translation!”  A fierce argument ensued.  I suggested we kept it as “Yisrael” which seemed to satisfy everyone. I have scores of such stories. 

When I moved to America, I still wrote scripts and broadcast for the BBC from their studios right across from the 9/11 monument in Manhattan. 

I was supposed to write and broadcast six scripts for Radio 2 in February and then the attack on the Jewish kids on that bus in Oxford Street occurred and the BBC’s journalists blamed the victims and in so doing exonerated the perpetrators.

I believe, the Board of Deputies has proven the lie of the BBC’s claim. The Simon Wiesenthal Centre has cited the BBC in its Anti-Semitic, top ten for this and numerous other anti-Semitic violations.

After thirty years of great times and great programs, I was really quite proud of what I achieved there. Yesterday, I wrote and sent my resignation. Well, I was never really part of the club in any case. 

Rabbi Y Y Rubinstein was the Student Chaplain for the North West of England for 23 years. He moved to New York in 2011 from where he travels to speak throughout the Jewish world. He is the author of thirteen books and a columnist for Hamodia and the Jewish Press.

January 04, 2022 15:33

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