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Ofcom’s slap on the wrist over BBC anti-Semitism


LAST WEEK Ofcom issued what it calls ‘an opinion’ based on a detailed investigation about a controversial BBC news item, one in only a handful in its five years of regulating the Corporation, even though in that period the BBC has received more than 1.2million complaints.

It’s about the BBC’s handling of an attack by a group of men on some 40 Jewish youngsters celebrating Hanukah in Oxford Street, central London, last December. The ‘opinion’ graphically illustrates just how ineffective are Ofcom’s powers over the Corporation. It underlines yet again that the whole BBC/Ofcom complaints process is not fit for purpose and should be overhauled in the current BBC Mid-Term Review, as has been argued in submissions to the DCMS by News-watch. 

The 46-page Ofcom document – which inexplicably took a battery of executives no less than 284 days to prepare – amounts to no more than a mild slap on the wrist.

The penalty for what Ofcom describes as ‘serious editorial misjudgment’? No sackings, no sanctions, no fines (although they, of course, would come out of the long-suffering licence fee-payers’ pockets) nothing tangible at all – just hot, agitated air and an assertion that the BBC reporting broke the Corporation’s own editorial guidelines. The report does not even rule that the offending broadcast and related online news article broke the Ofcom Broadcast Code. Could that be because the majority of figures on Ofcom’s Content Board (eight out of 14) have strong BBC connections? 

Yet the bias and editorial judgment failings involved were pretty crass. A report broadcast on BBC Radio London on December 6 last year claimed that a vicious racist attack by Muslims on the Jewish teenagers in a bus in Oxford Street – classified almost immediately by police as a ‘hate crime’ against the Jewish youths and triggering a failed manhunt to find the perpetrators – was perhaps provoked by racist chants emanating from the bus.

The report’s accusations against the youths and an associated online article, together with the BBC’s subsequent customary stonewall response, caused uproar in the UK Jewish community.

It transpired subsequently in a BBC internal report by the Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) that a phalanx of BBC journalists and more senior editorial figures concluded on the day of transmission that something spoken in Yiddish on an amateur recording of the incident was a remark from one of the Jewish youths about ‘dirty Muslims’. A subsequent thorough investigation by a language expert hired by the Jewish community concluded that far from an insult, the phrase in question was a frightened member of the contingent on the bus saying that they urgently needed to call for help.      

All the BBC staff on the day and subsequently must have known that such claims against a group of Jewish teenagers – coming after years of Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Semitism – were sensitive, grave and likely to cause offence. If they did not, they ought to have done. The reality is that the Jewish community in the UK has suffered years of anti-Semitic attacks to the extent that Samuel Hayek, chairman of the leading Jewish charity the Jewish National Fund (JNF) UK, warned in 2021 that he found it increasingly hard to believe that they had a future in the country. 

Community leaders believe that continuing BBC bias against the Jewish perspective – on top of the excesses of the Labour Corbyn regime – is a significant factor in generating anti-Semitic opinion. Another thread in this saga is that on November 3, the BBC apparently grudgingly admitted that complaints to the Corporation by the Jewish community have been very poorly handled, with long delays and many receiving no replies at all. 

Lord (Michael) Grade, the Ofcom chairman since May, was interviewed by the Daily Telegraph in February when he made it public that he was in the running for the chairmanship, specifically mentioned that complaints handling in the BBC domain was a big problem. 

He said: ‘The biggest crime in BBC journalism is that they never own up quickly. They think it’s a sign of weakness that they’ve got something wrong, but you will get things wrong when you cover so much news on so many outlets.’

Lord Grade then referred to the bus incident and the BBC ECU findings about the report, issued on January 26. He said: ‘The weasel nature of that apology was shocking – the defence of the indefensible. They dance on the head of a pin to avoid saying, “You’re absolutely right, it shouldn’t have happened, we apologise and we’ll put it right”.’

The BBC’s reaction to the Ofcom ‘opinion’? ‘While Ofcom has found that our reporting was not in breach of the Broadcasting Code, the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit ruled in January this year that more could have been done sooner to acknowledge the differing views about what could be heard on the recording of the attack. The BBC apologised at the time for not acting sooner to highlight that the contents of the recording was contested.’ 

In other words, not an ounce of contrition or recognition of the offence they caused to the Jewish community. 

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David Keighley
David Keighley
Former BBC news producer, BBC PR executive and head of corporate relations for TV-am. Director of News-watch.

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