To restore public trust, the BBC must apologise

Flawed reporting was bad enough, but the corporation’s response made things worse

December 30, 2021 10:30

During Chanukah, our community was deeply disturbed by video footage of an antisemitic attack in the heart of our nation’s capital. We saw Jewish men, women and children innocently celebrating a festival commemorating our deliverance from a force that sought to crush our way of life. And then we saw them attacked; forced to flee by individuals verbally abusing them, spitting at them, and in at least one case, apparently performing a Nazi salute.

Listening to the video, you can hear the anguish of those victims. You can feel their sadness. Our entire community shared that hurt — a pain many of us have experienced before — of being targeted by antisemites while others stand by doing nothing.

Until that hurt was transformed into rage, as the BBC poured fuel on the flames.

Unless you have been living in a vacuum for the past month, you will be aware of some of the subsequent chain of events. How the BBC claimed “anti-Muslim slurs” could be heard from inside the bus. How a BBC London report then went as far as to hypothesise that those attacking the Jews might have been provoked into doing so. How our national broadcaster subsequently revised its claim, to say that only one slur could be heard. How it has subsequently rejected the mounting evidence that it is completely wrong.

Today, an independent report, commissioned by the Board of Deputies, has been published. It proves exactly what we and many others have said all along. The supposed slur, which the BBC insists is there, is nothing but fiction. What is actually said, in Hebrew, are the words “Tikra LeMishehu, Ze Dachuf”, which translates as “call somebody, it’s urgent”.

That misreporting is a colossal error on the part of the BBC. It has added insult to injury in accusing victims of antisemitism of being guilty of bigotry themselves. Others will have to judge whether the corporation has a legal case to answer here.

But what takes this from an egregious failure to something far more sinister is the BBC’s behaviour when confronted with its mistake. Instead of admitting it was wrong, it has doubled and tripled down on insisting that a Hebrew cry for help must be an anti-Muslim slur, despite the concerted outcry from our community. Given the reports suggesting the allegations about anti-Muslim slurs were added to the original piece by more senior editors, this raises serious questions about deep-seated biases within the BBC towards Israelis, and towards Jews in general. It further calls into question the BBC’s much-vaunted impartiality when it comes to our community.

It should not have been left to us, a Jewish communal organisation, to commission an independent report to prove this point. The BBC should have done this itself, rather than apparently conducting an internal investigation and finding no wrongdoing. To us, this apparent attempt to mark its own homework is reminiscent of the behavioural pattern the corporation has displayed amidst past scandals. Instead of approaching a potential error with an open mind, its default response appears to be to circle the wagons and deny everything.

This is a calamitous approach to retaining the public’s trust.

At the very least, the BBC should apologise publicly to the victims of the incident in Oxford Street. But it does not end there. Representatives from the Board of Deputies will be meeting the Director General of the BBC and other senior corporation staff in the New Year. Apart from a full and frank discussion of this issue, we will be raising ongoing concerns with reporting in other areas of the corporation’s output and providing clear recommendations as to actions the BBC should take to address these problems.

Despite the time and place of the incident being clear, and the fact that Oxford Street is one of the most CCTV-monitored streets in the western hemisphere, those responsible have not yet been located. We sincerely hope that in the coming weeks, the police will find the perpetrators.

In the meantime, the BBC now needs to publicly admit it was wrong. Continued failure to do so will leave British Jews with little choice but to conclude that the problems within the corporation are even more deep-seated than we had feared.

Marie van der Zyl is President of the Board of Deputies

December 30, 2021 10:30

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