Tensions over media coverage of the Middle East reached new heights this week with Israel’s decision to boycott the BBC after it re-aired a controversial documentary.
The head of Israel’s Government Press Office, Danny Seaman, described the BBC as having a “biased and hostile coverage policy.” He condemned the decision to rebroadcast the documentary, “Israel’s Secret Weapon,” on the international channel BBC World.
The decision by Israeli officials to sever ties with the world’s largest broadcaster is seen as a final step in an ongoing dispute over BBC reporting on Israel, which Israeli officials increasingly see as infused with anti-Israel and anti- Semitic sentiment.
In response, the British media organization said it stands behind its decision to broadcast the film.
Israel chose not to respond when the film first was shown here in March. By airing the program a second time, however, the BBC was allowing “ridiculous false assertions” to be broadcast, Seaman said.
The documentary focuses on Israel’s non-conventional weapons program and claims that Israel used unspecified nerve gas against the Palestinians — a claim unsupported by any evidence, and which Israel strenuously denies.
The film also compares Israel to the former Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein, saying double standards exist with regard to Israel’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction.
Before the documentary was broadcast, trailers ran asking: “Which country in the Middle East has undeclared nuclear weapons? Which country in the Middle East has undeclared biological and chemical capabilities? Which country in the Middle East has no outside inspections? Which country jailed its nuclear whistle-blower for 18 years?”
Calling the broadcast “the last straw,” Seaman maintained that Israel had no choice but to take action against the broadcaster.
“We decided that we had to draw a red line rather than just complain about a consistent attitude in which successive BBC programs attempt to place us in the same context as totalitarian, axis-of-evil countries such as Iraq and Iran,” Seaman said.
Practical steps Israel will take against the British state broadcaster include sparing issuance of press credentials and a refusal to honor BBC requests for assistance in passing military roadblocks into the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
BBC journalists will be allowed to attend news conferences and cover news freely but will not be given access to official spokesmen, and restrictions on their visas will be rigorously enforced.
According to reports, Israel repeatedly asked the BBC not to rebroadcast the contentious documentary. The decision to impose sanctions on the organization was reached by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry and the press office.
Commenting on what Jerusalem sees as the litany of anti-Israel reportage by the BBC, Seaman said the overall attitude of the broadcaster was “verging on anti-Semitic.”
“There is no recognition inside the corporation of the sensitivity of a people who faced attempted annihilation,” he said. “The attitude of the BBC is more than pure journalistic matter; it is dangerous to the existence of the State of Israel because it demonizes the Israelis and gives our terrorist enemies reasons to attack us.”
A BBC spokesperson, however, said no official complaint had reached the corporation in London or its six-person Jerusalem bureau.
“Once we are notified we will respond, but we regret anything Israel might do to hinder BBC journalists. We would like to continue our excellent relationship with all parties in the country,” the spokesperson told JTA.
Richard Sambrook, director of BBC News, said the corporation “stands behind the veracity of the film.”
Previously, Israel has lodged complaints against a number of individual reporters and programs. These include the BBC’s June 2001 episode of the investigative program, Panorama. Entitled “The Accused,” the episode focused on the alleged role of Israel’s then-defense minister, Ariel Sharon, in the 1982 massacre of Palestinians by Lebanese Christians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps.
The program, which implied that Sharon should be placed on trial for crimes against humanity, ignored material that exonerates him.
The Israeli government also has taken the BBC to task for describing groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad as “militants” rather than terrorists — even though Britain’s own government deems them terrorist groups.
The Board of Deputies, the umbrella organization that represents most British Jews, complained to the BBC earlier in the year about inaccuracies in Israel’s country profile on the BBC Web site. The site suggested that Israel was solely responsible for the failure to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
The Board declined to comment to JTA about Israel’s recent step.
Meanwhile, Seaman told the London Times, “The BBC will discover that bureaucracy can be applied with goodwill or without it. And after the way that they have repeatedly tried to de-legitimize the State of Israel, we, as hosts, have none left for them.”
Some members of the UK media were puzzled by Israel’s actions. A former freelance news reporter and producer for the BBC told JTA that despite the perception that the BBC indeed is prone to anti-Israel sentiment, Jerusalem is harming itself with the boycott.
“It is a very British thing to side with the perceived underdog, and in this case the Palestinians take that role,” said the reporter, who asked not to be named. “The BBC is reflecting that widespread public opinion.”
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.