Why I had to come out against the BBC, former corporation boss reveals

Everything changed after October 7, says former Controller of BBC1 Danny Cohen


Danny Cohen

For years after he left the BBC in 2015 — having served as Controller of BBC1 and director of television — Danny Cohen made a point of not criticising it in public. Like others who have occupied senior corporation posts, he tells the JC, he shared “the prevailing feeling that it’s vital to protect the institution”.

Occasionally, he has felt uneasy about the way it has dealt with complaints involving Israel or antisemitism. He picks out the infamous incident during Chanukah 2021 when a bus carrying Jewish children was attacked in London’s Oxford Street and the BBC wrongly reported that someone inside had voiced an “anti-Muslim slur”.

But it wasn’t the fact that the BBC made a mistake that concerned him, he says, “but the awful intransigence about the way it dealt with it”. It continued, he says, to defend the erroneous report in the face of evidence that eventually prompted Ofcom to conclude there had been “a significant failure to observe editorial guidelines”.

During his own BBC career, he says, he did not encounter prejudice — though, he adds, “when you do a very senior job at the BBC, everyone is nice to you. There were times when I found out that someone I considered to be a nice person was actually a bully,” he says.

After October 7, Cohen says, everything has changed. “No BBC show now seems safe from the scourge of antisemitism” read the headline on his column in Monday’s Telegraph, in which he pointed out that a contestant in the current season of The Apprentice claimed all Zionists looked like “ogres”, but had not been fired. It was the latest blistering critique of his former employer. “I was one of the first to call out the BBC’s refusal to call the massacre an act of terrorism,” he says. Since then, his list of BBC errors and instances of bias has grown very long. In one article he cited ten examples, but “there have been many more”, such as the false claim that Israel destroyed Gaza’s al-Ahli hospital in a missile attack.

“You can’t look at a list this long and say there isn’t a fundamental problem, that it’s not just a few bad people, but the BBC won’t acknowledge it.”

As with the Chanukah bus attack, Cohen says what  appalled him was the BBC’s reluctance to accept it got the al-Ahli story wrong. That was especially visible in international editor Jeremy Bowen’s comment that he didn’t “regret a single thing” about his report. “What an example of institutional arrogance! Incredible,” says Cohen. Yet when such complaints came in, the BBC liked to say it had “listened”, and was “dealing with them. “There’s a sense they’re ticking boxes,” he says. Despite this, the bias continues: “When the BBC reported Netanyahu’s ‘no’ to a hostage deal, they didn’t make clear that Hamas had already rejected one and was making unreasonable demands.”

Cohen also says several former colleagues at the BBC he has spoken to have expressed “serious concern” about Gary Lineker’s posts on social media, which they fear have also compromised the BBC’s impartiality.

As for BBC Arabic, whose antisemitic broadcasts are frequently exposed by the JC, Cohen says: “Whatever warnings the management may have issued, they don’t seem able to address it. This level of racism would not be tolerated against any other ethnic group.” Recently broadcaster Andrew Neil commented that Jewish BBC staff were living in an atmosphere they found “grim and frightening”. Many, Cohen says, have been in touch with him, and endorsed Neil’s assessment: “They’re deeply upset and hugely frustrated, and some are so anxious.”

One of the most obnoxious things he has heard are managers who have “lectured Jews on what isn’t antisemitism”, such as chants of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”.

“I can’t get my head around that,” says Cohen, “how can you say that’s not antisemitic, a call for racist genocide? And because people won’t confront it, they are encouraging it.”

Lately, says Cohen, there has been evidence that BBC has been making “some efforts” to deal with these issues. But “they don’t recognise the scale of the problem, and the scale of the mistakes they have made so far. Nor do they understand the depth of anger and disconnect from the BBC within the Jewish community. And there’s also this claim that if both sides complain, that must be OK. But as [incoming BBC chair] Samir Shah told MPs, it’s just not good enough.”

Meanwhile, among other former and serving BBC grandees, the sense that the most important thing is to protect the institution, warts and all, still prevails. To Cohen’s dismay, the veteran correspondent John Simpson published a post on X last week saying that while he liked and admired him, Cohen “should realise that attacks on ex-colleagues are being used by people who want to destroy the BBC for political reasons”.

“I afraid I don’t think the BBC matters more than antisemitism or racism against any other minority,” says Cohen. “And I would be very happy to stop writing about it — but only if it were no longer a problem.” Unfortunately, that doesn’t appear likely any time soon.

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