Broadcast watchdog Ofcom has cleared Al Jazeera following complaints that its series investigating Israel’s influence in British politics was antisemitic and lacked impartiality.
Ofcom said complainants had also believed the four-part documentary was misleading, but rejected all the complaints in a 60-page ruling published on Monday.
The Lobby was aired by the Qatari-owned channel in January and used hidden cameras to secretly record staff from Jewish and pro-Israel groups meeting politicians, diplomats and youth groups.
Among those to complain was Ella Rose, director of the Jewish Labour Movement, and Russell Langer, who was filmed in his role as public affairs manager at the Jewish Leadership Council.
When the objections were sent to Ofcom in March, Simon Johnson, JLC chief executive, confirmed the JLC had been among those to file a formal complaint in relation to Ofcom’s code on fairness, privacy and due impartiality.
In its defence, Al Jazeera hired law firm Carter Ruck, and told Ofcom: “The fact that the programmes uncovered evidence of inappropriate behaviour by those acting on behalf of the Israeli government, or by those belonging to a small number of organisations that promote Israeli policy, does not mean that they were antisemitic.”
The station said its programme was “classic undercover journalism” and contained “nothing that could conceivably be viewed as offensive”, and that it did “not generalise about Jews or make any stereotypical comments”.
Ofcom said it had taken into consideration the IHRA definition of antisemitism when making its ruling, and while accepting the documentary had been “controversial”, it did not believe the criticisms of Israel had constituted antisemitism.
Ruling that Al Jazeera had not breached rules on due impartiality, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the watchdog concluded: “We considered that the programme had included a range of viewpoints on this matter of political controversy.”
Ella Rose, a former UJS president, was filmed by a hidden camera and shown being moved to tears following repeated clashes with anti-Israel activists.
Ofcom said her “contribution” to the programme had not been unfairly edited and that statements made about her “did not amount to significant allegations of wrongdoing”.
Al Jazeera’s right to freedom of expression and “the public interest” was sufficient for Ofcom to dismiss her claims about being filmed without her knowledge.
“Ms Rose’s privacy was not unwarrantably infringed,” Ofcom concluded.
In its ruling, Ofcom said the accusations of antisemitism against the Labour Party heightened the public interest in Al Jazeera exploring the issue.
Mr Langer complained he had been treated unfairly and that his privacy had been invaded by the secret filming. The broadcast watchdog disagreed. Al Jazeera said Mr Langer was “a reasonable subject for investigation”.
Luke Akehurst, director of the grassroots We Believe in Israel campaign group, who was also filmed surreptitiously, had his complaint – made on similar grounds to Mr Langer’s - rejected as well.
Jonathan Hoffman, a pro-Israel activist who also complained to Ofcom, said: “The ruling, while disappointing, does not change the fact that an 'investigation' which cost millions failed to find anything untoward about the conduct of the Israel embassy.”
An Ofcom spokesperson said: “We carefully investigated whether this documentary breached our rules on offence and due impartiality, after receiving two complaints.
“We found the programme’s focus was to investigate the alleged activities of a foreign state, acting through its embassy in the UK, and that the allegations made in the programme were not in relation to the Jewish faith.
“The programme also included statements from a number of representatives of the Israeli government and other groups and individuals, which provided sufficient balance.”
The episodes featured recordings of a junior employee at the Israeli embassy in London joking about “taking down” MPs who were critical of Israel, prompting questions in the House of Commons. Speaker John Bercow described the issue as one of “serious concern”.
Mark Regev, Israeli ambassador to Britain, apologised to Sir Alan Duncan, the Foreign Office Minister, who was one of those referred to in the programme.