I am prompted to write to you by viewing the BBC’s featuring of Abdel Bari Atwan on Dateline London on 19 August 2022.
In this appearance, approximately 22 minutes in, Mr Atwan spoke at length about the stabbing of Sir Salman Rushdie in New York, describing his book, The Satanic Verses, as “blasphemy completely and it is offensive”.
He described Rushdie as “very, very cruel when he talked about the Prophet Muhammad and his wives, and actually, to talk about the wives of the Prophet is really very, very dangerous”. He added: “About 90 per cent of the people of the Muslim world believe that freedom of expression [is] practised only to insult Muslims.”
It was wrong for the BBC to have given him this airtime. His comments about Rushdie could amount to “glorifying terrorism” under the Terrorism Act 2006. It is absolutely unacceptable to respond to Sir Salman’s writing or comments, no matter how offensive they might seem to some, with murder or violence, and any attempt to explain or justify violence committed against him should be challenged vigorously, not least by the presenter. No direct challenge was made on the programme when Mr Atwan spoke about this topic.
A quick search of Mr Atwan’s website would reveal inter alia, this post It recounts his condemnation of Chancellor Scholz for disagreeing with Mahmoud Abbas about “50 Palestinian holocausts” and his perversion of history in accusing Israel itself of the massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics.
These statements fall within the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism and, as racist and hate speech (criminalised by statute), fall outside the limits of free speech.
The BBC must have been aware that Mr Atwan was likely to offend against the BBC’s own commitment to truth and legal speech. In preparing this programme they should have considered balance and readied themselves by adding another panellist prepared to condemn the terrible attack on Rushdie and stand up for the BBC’s own principles.
I urge you to investigate urgently Mr Atwan’s frequent appearances on the BBC, and to conduct a prompt and proper enquiry into situations where there is a likelihood that violent extremism will be aired on the BBC and what research should be carried out in order to limit this.
As a former BBC governor I am very well aware of the need to protect freedom of speech and the need to avoid cancelling anyone for extreme but legal views. These are sensitive and difficult matters, but on this occasion the limits imposed by law were clear and were breached. It follows that someone who is offending against the law and is known to be likely to do so ought not to have the privilege of airing their views on the BBC. I am sure the BBC would not give airtime to, for example, a notorious propagator of hate against black people.
The appearance of Mr Atwan is all the more problematic because of the BBC’s recent history of misreporting, in the view of many, events where Jews have been under attack.
You will of course know about the Oxford Street incident, which should not have been so difficult to resolve: https://www.bbc.co.uk/contact/ecu/oxford-street. The reporting of the dismissal of David Miller from Bristol University after his attacks on Jewish students was also less than accurate.
I therefore urge the BBC, as many others have done, to adopt the IHRA definition of antisemitism.
This would give journalists and producers an objective guide as to what is antisemitic and illegal, and what is not.
Freedom of speech is limited only by law, and it is the legal limits to which I am drawing your attention.
Baroness Ruth Deech