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A shocking excuse for the indefensible
Accused of blaming the Jews, the BBC -- astoundingly -- does it again
The BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) has finally responded to the outrage over the broadcaster’s reporting of the antisemitic attack on a group of religious Jewish teenage boys in central London at the end of November.
The ECU report is simply jaw-dropping. With two minor exceptions, the BBC has doubled down yet again in refusing to acknowledge the disgraceful nature of its reporting of that event on December 2. Far, far worse are the justifications it now uses to defend it.
To recap, as I reported here, the teenagers who were on a trip to central London dismounted from their hired bus in Oxford Street to dance in celebration of the Chanukah festival. They were promptly abused by a group of men of Middle Eastern appearance who performed Nazi salutes, shouted “Free Palestine,” spat at the bus and hit it with their shoes (an insult in some Arab countries) as it drove the boys away to safety.
Part of this attack was videoed on a mobile phone from inside the bus. This recording, which was widely circulated on social media, was used in the BBC’s reporting of the event on both BBC London and BBC News Online. On BBC London, the reporter, Guy Lyons, said:
…we at BBC London did watch this footage and you can hear some racial slurs [sic] about Muslim people which does come from the bus… it’s not clear at the moment…what role that may have played in this incident.
The same claim of “anti-Muslim slurs” was made on BBC News Online. After protests that no such slurs could be heard, the BBC amended its News Online report to say “a slur about Muslims could be heard” — a certainty absent from its reference to the antisemitic nature of the attack as mere “allegations”.
Subsequently, members of the Jewish community who investigated the recording — as well as a forensic linguist, Professor Ghil’ad Zuckermann of the University of Adelaide, in a report commissioned by the Board of Deputies — said the only words which could be identified in the recording were the Hebrew “tikra lemishehu, ze dachuf” which mean “call someone, it’s urgent”.
In its response to the complaints, which you can read here, the ECU says that having not only watched and read the relevant output but also
watched and listened to an enhanced audio version of the disputed recording [and] examined the editorial processes which led to the inclusion of the claim about an anti-Muslim slur in both the online and broadcast items,
it “partly upheld” the complaints “in relation to accuracy and impartiality”. But the only inaccuracy it found in the reportage was that
there was insufficient evidence that it [the “anti-Muslim slur”] had happened on more than one occasion.
The only departure from impartiality lay in “failing to reflect alternative views” about the very existence of this alleged “anti-Muslim slur”. As for the comment on BBC London that it wasn’t clear what role this “slur" may have played in the incident, it says this:
As is sometimes the case in unscripted broadcasting, it is apparent that the reporter’s intended meaning was not expressed with complete clarity, but what can be said is that he did not assert that the slur had played a role, and that, at that point in time, there were elements of uncertainty about what had happened which it was appropriate for the report to reflect.
“Not expressed with complete clarity,” eh. Well, that’s one way of putting it. And so the ECU rejected the charges of victim-blaming or false equivalence.
Let’s just pause here to revisit the import of the complaints about the BBC’s reporting.
The attack on the Jewish boys was, unequivocally, an unprovoked and antisemitic attack.
The “anti-Muslim slur” that the BBC claimed “could be heard” from inside the bus was not detected by others who listened carefully to the recording, and the BBC has produced no evidence to prove that it was uttered.
The effect of alleging that this slur had been heard, plus the explicit suggestion that it might have played a role in this “incident”, was to draw the sting from the unprovoked and therefore antisemitic nature of the attack by spreading blame onto its victims.
It’s worth now looking in further detail at the tortuous and utterly disreputable way in which the ECU tries to deny the gravity of the BBC’s journalistic offence. It states:
It was on the afternoon of 1 December that it was first identified as containing an anti-Muslim slur (in the form of “Dirty Muslims”), and the recording was subsequently assessed by at least seven members of BBC London news staff and a senior editor in network news, all of whom agreed that the phrase “dirty Muslims” could be heard, before a decision to include a statement to that effect in BBC output was made.
Why were no fewer than eight journalists apparently involved in verifying this alleged slur? Does this not suggest a very high degree of doubt about a remark whose inclusion — without any such doubt being expressed — would have a potentially incendiary effect?
Appallingly, the ECU then tries to shift some of the blame for this “anti-Muslim slur” claim onto the Jewish defence organisation, the Community Security Trust (CST). Having applied to the CST for clearance to use the video recording, it says, the BBC turned to the CST for “verification”. It goes on:
Properly, however, the BBC did not rely on its own assessment alone. The claim was put by the reporter in the television item to the representative of the CST with whom he had been dealing, who replied (in a WhatsApp exchange which the ECU has seen) in terms which the BBC took as confirmation that the phrase in question had been spoken and, in the ECU’s judgement, it was entirely reasonable to take them in that sense. We should make clear, however, that we do not say the CST’s response determined the BBC’s decision to include the claim in its output — it was only one part of the decision-making process, but it does have some significance for the ECU’s view on the outcome of that process.
With hindsight, and in the light of subsequent evidence that the recording was open to another interpretation, it might be argued that even further verification should have been sought, but the situation at the time was that no alternative interpretation had been proposed, and in our view the elements of internal scrutiny taken together with the CST’s response amounted to an editorial process which we would regard as more than sufficient in any but the most extraordinary circumstances.
We therefore do not believe we can fairly find that the decision to broadcast the claim in question constituted a breach of editorial standards, even if it were accepted in the light of later evidence that the claim itself was questionable. And, in view of allegations of latent or even active antisemitism which have been made, the ECU considers it important to say it was manifest from the evidence we have seen that the decision, whether or not mistaken, was made entirely in good faith.
Note the weaselly phrase “in terms which the BBC took as confirmation that the phrase in question had been spoken”. In other words, we can reasonably infer, the CST actually said no such thing. If it had done so, we can be sure the ECU would have told us exactly what it had said. Is this dumping on the CST not utterly shameful?
Update: the CST has now tweeted:
CST completely rejects the claim in today's BBC report that CST confirmed to the BBC on 2nd December that an anti-Muslim phrase had been spoken on the Chabad bus that was attacked on Oxford Street.
It gets worse. The ECU says it commissioned a report on the mobile phone recording from a firm of translators. Three of the four translators involved “construed” the sounds in question as the words “dirty Muslims,” and one as the Hebrew for “call someone, it’s urgent”. The ECU itself watched and listened to “a version of the material” with enhanced audio, and with further enhancements supplied to the head of the ECU by a BBC sound engineer. The recording was also listened to by senior members of BBC News management and a member of staff “with a working knowledge of Hebrew,” and was also discussed with the BBC’s Jerusalem Bureau
with input from native Hebrew-speakers there (though with inconclusive results, which led to the commissioning of the firm of translators).
So after all this enhanced and non-enhanced listening by so many people, was this “anti-Muslim” slur actually proved to have been uttered?
And here, at the very nub of this affair, the ECU slips into ludicrously pretentious gobbledegook which suggests the answer to that question is “no” . It never actually says this, concluding instead that as a result of
the contesting interpretations of the material under consideration… it might not be possible to determine with certainty which of them is correct on the basis of the recording alone.
But inadvertently, in trying to dodge the answer but inescapably if circuitously implying that no such slur existed other than in the minds of those who claimed to have heard it, it also reveals the very same warped mindset of which the BBC has been accused. For it says:
In this connection, the ECU notes the suggestion, in a report commissioned by the Board of Deputies from a Professor of Linguistics, that BBC staff may have misheard the phrase as a result of the “Apollonian tendency”, which he describes as the mind’s inclination to create order or meaningfulness, especially when encountering unfamiliar information.
Although it might be observed that such a tendency might apply as much to those undertaking investigations on behalf of others as to BBC staff, it corresponded with the experience of members of the ECU, both as investigators of complaints and in their previous roles as programme-makers, in which they had encountered cases where the same audio material can genuinely be construed in entirely different senses by different listeners. The interpretation arrived at may well depend on cues which the listener is unaware of having received and, once arrived at, may be very difficult to controvert.
In that Board of Deputies-commissioned report, however, Professor Ghil‘ad Zuckermann follows up the sentence quoted by the ECU with this observation:
The problem with the Apollonian tendency in language arises from the fact that a person applying his/her Apollonian tendency only uses what is accessible in his/her brain. A Briton visiting Japan might well hear the Japanese expression for “not at all”(following”thank you”’) as Don’t touch your moustache! instead of どういたしまし て dou itashimashite. The Briton would need a lot of chutzpah, however, to jump to a conclusion that the Japanese person talking to him is alleging that he, the Briton, has too much facial hair (my emphasis).
Indeed; such a conclusion would be highly unlikely. And that’s the point. For if those eight BBC journalists really did construe what they heard as an “anti-Muslim slur” on the basis of “cues which the listener is unaware of having received,” this means that, when watching and listening to a recording of an attack upon Jews, the “cues” in their brains translated unfamiliar sounds into an attack by Jews.
Deeply disturbing, if true; but more disturbing is that the ECU thinks that this exonerates the BBC from the most serious charges of a breach of editorial standards.
Even by the BBC’s normal standards of obfuscation when it comes to complaints against it, this ECU report is a shocker. It’s good news that Ofcom is now to investigate this whole affair. The ECU report itself should be added to the charge sheet.
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