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BBC ‘non-apology’ over anti-Semitic attack will not be the end of the affair

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FOOTAGE which circulated on social media last month of an anti-Semitic incident on London’s Oxford Street appalled not only the Jewish community, but the wider public. Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said it was a ‘chilling and shocking scene on London’s streets’. Mayor of London Sadiq Khan similarly condemned the assault. Even the Prime Minister weighed in, calling the clip ‘disturbing’.

As early evening shoppers went about their business, a group of orthodox Jewish teenagers were celebrating the festival of Chanukah. Having chartered a bus to central London, the teenagers were dancing when three men of Asian appearance approached them in a threatening manner. ‘F*** Israel’ was amongst a raft of expletives hurled the group’s way, prompting the shaken youngsters to seek refuge in their bus. Once they were on board the abuse continued. The men aggressively banged on the windows as the vehicle departed.

BBC reports which followed caused outrage in the Jewish community. The broadcaster referred to ‘anti-Muslim slurs’ which it claimed had been ‘clearly heard’ inside the bus, an accusation that was amended to the singular ‘an anti-Muslim slur’.

Because of the poor quality of the sound it was nearly impossible to provide a definitive interpretation of what had been said, and Jewish groups suggested the terrified youngsters had been speaking in Hebrew, and that possibly the words translated to ‘Call someone, it is urgent.’

 Despite this consideration, the BBC reported the ‘anti-Muslim slur’ as fact, but though the footage clearly showed the three men shouting abuse, the Corporation spoke of an ‘alleged’ anti-Semitic incident.

What really irked groups, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was the way in which the BBC appeared to be implying some sort of equivalence: that the incident was little more than a tit-for-tat exchange. Yet the three men had approached the Jewish group first, the teenagers had been forced to seek sanctuary inside the bus; even then the assault had continued from the outside. The teens had been terrified.

It seemed perverse in the extreme that the BBC would seize upon a contested phrase uttered inside the bus long after the attack had started and suggest that this was provocation.

Casual observers might have been forgiven for concluding that when it comes to anti-Semitism, the burden of proof appears to be higher at Broadcasting House in comparison with certain other faiths.

Stung into action by the sheer volume of criticism, the BBC accelerated a formal complaint straight to its Executive Complaints Unit (ECU). This is the broadcaster’s internal yet ‘independent’ watchdog whose judgements invariably uphold those of their colleagues. Sure enough, the ECU’s analysis does just that: apart from a few minor points, the report, released on Wednesday, pretty much exonerates BBC reporting of the incident.

Typically, where it should have excoriated, the judgment seeks merely to absolve. In so doing the ECU simply digs the BBC into a deeper hole. For example, it airily dismisses the concern that BBC reports sought to equalise horrific anti-Semitic abuse witnessed on video footage with a contested ‘slur’ as defined by a handful of BBC editors and reporters. The ECU asserted that the ‘slur’ had been verified by the Community Security Trust, a charity which provides help and guidance to the Jewish community. However, the CST has categorically denied supporting the BBC position. 

The Campaign Against Anti-Semitism has denounced the judgment as a ‘whitewash non-apology’. Ofcom has now stepped in, but given its track record of almost always finding in the BBC’s favour, that might do little to soothe the various Jewish groups.

The longer this saga continues, the greater the collateral damage must be to the corporation. Indeed, now that the probity of the ECU – supposedly the last word in BBC integrity – is under scrutiny, questions must be asked about the entire culture of the BBC. This is one row that will not be brushed under the plush carpets of Broadcasting House as per usual.

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Stockton Heath
Stockton Heath
Stockton Heath is an author and critic who blogs at www.stocktonheath.net. His latest book is a true crime thriller entitled ‘Imagining A Murder: the Cartland Case Revisited.’ His forthcoming book is to be entitled ‘Is that True or did you Hear it on the BBC?’

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