Politicians and stars write incendiary open letter to ‘biased’ BBC

The signatories hit back at the corporation’s insistence on using Abdel Bari Atwan as a commentator.


London, United Kingdom - January 17 2021: Broadcasting House, BBC headquarters in Central London, exterior view.

The BBC faced another crippling onslaught this week as 36 peers, MPs, Jewish leaders and public figures signed a letter slamming its lack of impartiality in covering Jews and Israel and calling on the Director-General to sack a pundit who has expressed support for terrorists.

In a powerful letter to Tim Davie, the signatories — including former Tory leader Lord Michael Howard, former BBC governor Baroness Ruth Deech, the former Labour minister responsible for the World Service, Lord David Triesman, and Lord Alex Carlile, the Government’s former terror czar — hit back at the corporation’s insistence on using Abdel Bari Atwan as a commentator.

They also demanded that the corporation “urgently take cogent and coherent steps” to reverse a tendency to “depart from its own impartiality guidelines on the Israel-Palestine conflict” and seriously address its “contentious reporting” on the Oxford Street chanukah attack.

Alongside the parliamentarians were the distinguished historians Professor Andrew Roberts and Simon Sebag Montefiore, playwright Steven Berkoff, journalist Douglas Murray, actress Tracy-Ann Oberman and Neil Blair, JK Rowling’s influential agent.

A host of community groups, including the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Community Security Trust, the National Jewish Assembly and the Campaign Against Antisemitism also signed. The Chief Rabbi was “watching with concern”, the JC understands.

Last week, the JC revealed that crossbench peer Baroness Deech, a former BBC governor, had written to Mr Davie saying that giving Abdel Bari Atwan airtime on its flagship Dateline London show “could amount to glorifying terrorism”.

Atwan, who recently expressed sympathy for the Rushdie assailant’s extremism on the BBC, wrote in a recent article: “I support [Mahmoud Abbas’s] refusal to apologise for the killing of 11 Israeli participants at the 1974 Munich Olympics (sic), and his use of the term ‘holocausts’ to describe the many massacres to which Palestinians have been subjected by Israeli forces.”

He also has a history of honouring terrorists as “martyrs” and has described the murder of three Israelis by a Palestinian gunman in Tel Aviv earlier this year as a “miracle”.

But in a move that sparked further outrage, a BBC spokesperson insisted that it was “editorially justified for Abdel to appear”, echoing its previous position when the JC has exposed his inflammatory comments in the past.

The open letter landed in Mr Davie’s inbox on the same day that he appeared before MPs to defend his organisation against a string of other impartiality controversies.

These included comedian Joe Lycett mocking incoming Prime Minister Liz Truss on its top political show, and Match of the Day host Gary Lineker’s social media activity. But the BBC’s lack of impartiality on Jews and Israel was not mentioned, causing disappointment in the Jewish community.

Former government independent reviewer of anti-terror legislation Lord Carlile said: “I am surprised that we feel we have to write to the BBC about this, but they really should not broadcast the views of extremists who appear to support or praise terrorism.
“Due impartiality does not require presenting the ‘other point of view’ when that defends or encourages terrorism.”

Lord Triesman, Labour’s principal spokesperson on foreign affairs in the House of Lords, told the JC: “I love the BBC and I used to be the minister responsible for the World Service.
“Our national pride flowed from the global understanding of the BBC’s strong impartiality.

What on earth has happened to that reputation? It’s been squandered and many leading journalists have quit the mother ship.”

He added: “I applaud balance but it can’t be achieved by placating notorious bigots. If there’s genuinely another side to a story, get someone credible and trustworthy to tell it.”

Fellow peer Lord Stuart Polak, director of the Conservative Friends of Israel, told the JC:

“This sort of shoddy and deeply one-sided reporting brings the BBC into disrepute. There is clearly a deep flaw in an organisation that permits such biased reporting to be broadcast.”

And Marie van der Zyl, President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said she regretted taking such action.

“It is long past time for the BBC to ensure that its regular contributors do not engage in such utterly toxic behaviour,” she said.

“We regret that, despite regular news articles about this individual’s behaviour, there has been the need to send this letter to the corporation.”

Mark Gardner, chief executive of the Community Security Trust, said: “Abdel Bari Atwan is well known for expressing inflammatory and extreme views over many years.

“He is entirely unsuited to appear as a commentator for the BBC or anyone else, and it is astonishing that the BBC still uses him.”

A spokesperson for the Campaign Against Antisemitism said: “The revelations must surely now force the BBC to drop him as a regular contributor.

“This man has no place on our television screens and it is shameful that the BBC has yet to recognise that. We shall be writing to the BBC and considering legal action over Mr Atwan’s possible glorification of terrorism.”

A BBC spokesperson said: “Apologies, but we won’t be sending our response this evening. We’ll get something to you in due course.”

Abdel Bari Atwan has been approached for comment.

The full letter is available here.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive