Biased Broadcasting Corporation?

Israel-based British lawyer Trevor Asserson has waged a long campaign to keep the world's most influential news organization, the BBC, honest in its reporting of Israel. He tells how, despite warnings from on high and threats to sue, he stuck to his guns.

The phone rang just after teatime in the Asserson household. On the line, Basil Feldman cleared his throat. Baron Basil Feldman. Lord Feldman is a Jewish businessman who made his fortune in plastic toys in Britain. As a member of the Upper Chamber of the United Kingdom Parliament, in the Conservative interest, he is well-acquainted with the forces at play in British society. "Next week, I will have my annual lunch with the head of the BBC," Lord Feldman intoned. "Because of you, Mr. Asserson, the conversation is likely to be highly embarrassing."

A short time before that telephone call, Asserson had published his fourth study. This time too, as in the three previous studies, the successful Jewish lawyer sought to demonstrate that the world's strongest broadcaster, the British Broadcasting Corporation, had a hostile bias in its reporting of Israel. With a meticulousness inspired by his goal, Asserson collated every report, every word, every nuance, of the BBC's output, and revealed to everyone the corporation's true colors. Feldman demanded that the lawyer should immediately stop publishing his "problematic" reports. When he refused, the baron called at least twice more, and politely suggested a meeting. Asserson agreed, but said from the outset that nothing would come of such a meeting.

"They sent his lordship to silence me," Asserson related in the conversation we held in his office in Jerusalem. "It was clear to me that he had spoken with people at the BBC, and that they said to him: 'You have to make that man stop.'" Four years have gone by since that phone call. Asserson has already published his seventh report. All attempts to stop him, threats of lawsuits against him, and sour looks in the Jewish community, have made no difference. Asserson continues on the path he set himself.

Sweeping prejudice

Trevor Asserson, 53, a kippah-wearing English Jew, was on the British primrose path to success. After his studies, he joined one of the country's leading law firms, and later went to work at the London office of a US firm.

"The first round against the BBC was twenty years ago. As a young lawyer, I acted for two of the English political parties who felt they were not on BBC television often enough. I was part of a group of lawyers who sued the BBC, and brought evidence to show that the BBC was in breach of its own regulations. Now this has nothing to do with Israel."

Ten years later, the second intifada broke out. Asserson, like many Jews in Britain, was glued to his television set. He could not bear what he saw. "The BBC's prejudice against Israel was sweeping," he says. "I tried to persuade members of the Jewish community to do what I knew could be done, which was to sue the BBC."

The community gave him the cold shoulder, but Asserson decided to do something decidedly un-British. He set out on a passionate campaign against the institution most identified with Britain, after the Queen, and started to compile a report.

In 2001, he asked a British student to record all reports of the Middle East conflict and analyze them. "I deliberately took a very left-wing student, because I wanted to be absolutely sure that this student would be pushing me to prove that what I was doing was fair," he explains. I didn't want a right-wing mind or approach. I wanted to analyze the evidence. I took all Middle East stories over a period of about three months. I would look at the "New York Times", I would look at "The Guardian", I would look at "Haaretz", and I would look at the "The Jerusalem Post". On the basis of that information I tried to establish what genuinely happened. Then we compared that to the BBC's coverage. I found that when the BBC was not balanced, it was almost always biased against Israel. In most of my studies, the percentage has been between 80% and 90%."

Four years ago, at the height of his campaign, he immigrated to Israel with his wife and two daughters. One reason, he explains, was the weather. But he does not deny that in the American firm at which he worked, as at the British firm beforehand, they were not happy to be identified with his public role. So Asserson decided to open a firm in Israel. Today, Asserson Law Offices numbers fourteen lawyers, providing English legal services at Israeli rates.

"This is the BBC. We are not biased"

One of Asserson's assets is his moderation. Despite his dogged pursuit of his goal, he has at the same time carved out a successful career, and his manner is calm and pleasant. He has never sued the BBC. "Suing the BBC is very, very difficult," he admits. "First of all, you need, probably, a million pounds. If you lose, they will ask for their costs, which is another million. Also, when you do finally win, they apologize, but it doesn't change the organization. So I decided to prepare my report as though I were bringing a claim. I prepared the evidence, I prepared a convincing case, and I let the public see my evidence by putting it on the Internet."

For its part, the BBC actually did want to go to court, and threatened to sue Asserson. "The head of the network's news department called me in for a chat, and suggested I should stop," he recalls. "He said, 'Surely there's some better way of expressing a stance; this isn't helpful.' I said, 'Fine. Give me your proposals for creating a system that will help to end this kind of reporting - and I'll stop.' It was a pleasant conversation, until I told him that his reporters were biased. 'This is the BBC,' he said angrily, 'We are not biased.'"

Later, the two exchanged letters. Asserson complained that the BBC was refusing to use the word "terrorist" for those carrying out attacks in Israel. "He said they did not use the term in places where the moral legitimacy was a matter of controversy. So I said, that on that basis I concluded that he did not think that killing Israeli children was illegitimate. Then he threatened a lawsuit, that has not come to this day. Pity."

How did this anti-Israel agenda come about there?

"I've deliberately not tried to get inside the minds of the people in the BBC. If I were to say why they do it, then I would be speculating. What I can tell you is, they do do it. What I can also tell you is that they have no mechanism for preventing themselves from doing it. I've asked the BBC, do you have a method for telling what your journalists think? It seems to me obvious that on a subject like the Middle East, it is sensible to have some knowledge of what your journalists think."

I dont know of any news organization that asks its journalists what they think

"I know that it's a very sensitive question, but where you have a constant record of prejudice and inaccuracy, you need some mechanism for ensuring compliance with the law that applies to you, if you have a legal obligation to be fair. Media that are not public have a moral obligation to maintain fairness, but they can choose their own agenda and write as they see fit. The BBC has no option to be unbalanced. It has a legal obligation to be balanced."

Everyone has an agenda. Why can't the BBC?

"The BBC receives four billion pounds a year from the government. It receives this money for historical reasons, because initially it was set up by the government, and it has a duty to be fair If you say it's not possible for people to be fair, because all human beings have an agenda, which I believe is correct, stop giving the BBC all this money and let it fight to find its place in the market. Don't give them an unfair advantage."

A dangerous weapon

The BBC's image of fairness and responsibility is what infuriates Asserson. "97% of the British public are exposed to the BBC every month," he explains. "That's an astonishing number. Even the "Sun" (a popular tabloid British daily, L.A.) reaches maybe 12%."

So they are educating the public to hate Israel?

"Right. In the intifada I examined 30-minute programs. A program like that is a very dangerous weapon, because it looks like an in-depth analysis of some subject. They show it, repeat it, put it on their website, and sell it to the world. During the three and a half years of the intifada, about every four to six weeks, a documentary attacking Israel was broadcast. Every six weeks, the British public was exposed to a film that said that Israel was a terrible place in which to live, and explained why Hamas was attacking Israelis."

Where do think it comes from?

"I think that London has become, decades ago, a place that is very favorable for Muslims, very free, and very slow to arrest people who break the law who disseminate views that are anti-Semitic and racist, homophobic, or injurious to women. The Muslim extremists found a safe haven in Britain. They found a place in which to develop their ideology. It may be a desire not to trample privacy laws, but it also means that Britain has become a refuge for destructive, anti-Western forces."

Do you see a connection between arrest warrants for prominent Israelis and the BBC's approach?

" No. What we have with Tzipi Livni is a concerted Hamas-supported group of people who are being paid to use international law in a particular way. And this could be done in other countries unless the law is changed. The law on international jurisdiction in principle is a good law. If somebody massacres a million Hutus and they come to England, its not a bad thing that they can be arrested. The question is what controls do you put on using it, and at the moment, England has failed to put adequate controls, so it is being abused."

A conservative community

Perhaps you are misplacing the blame? Perhaps the BBC is only a symptom of a broader phenomenon in Britain?

"It's possible. I think that the BBC has been a significant element in poisoning the minds not just of English people but people around the world, and the strength of its message is hugely increased because it is the official, fair, balanced reporter. If it was an independent reporter it would have much, much less attention."

Do you think that the BBC represents the voice of Britain?

"I doubt that the BBC properly represents the British mood. I think it represents the state of mind of a group of people from the educated, left-wing middle class. It's a very small proportion."

Why does nobody from the Jewish community want to help you?

" I think the English Jewish community tends to be very conservative. They are living in Europe. They are very overwhelmed by the traditions of European debate, which is to be very quiet and very calm and never say what you feel in a loud way. It's English, it's European, maybe it's Jews in exile, I don't know - its not Israeli. There is room for quiet diplomacy, sitting in meetings with senior people, there is a place for that, but there is also a place for standing up and speaking your mind in a more clear way."

100% against Israel

I am struck by the constant Israeli message that any other country in the world would do the same. Would they? (Jeremy Bowen, January 13, 2009)

Trevor Asserson's seventh and most recent study, which he presented at the Ariel Conference on Law and Mass Media, focuses on one man Jeremy Bowen, head of the BBC's Middle East desk. "I found in my latest study for Jeremy Bowen that he has reached the highest record 100% against Israel," Asserson says. In the course of the study, Asserson's students reviewed Bowen's reports from Operation Cast Lead. "He kept a diary. The first problem is that it is against the rules, the protocols, of the BBC to express a journalist's personal opinion. The diary is described as a personal view."

It's very common today for journalists to write a blog.

" Fine. If you don't work for the BBC and you wish to express your personal views, that's fine. But not if your job is to ensure that there is balance in the richest broadcasting corporation in the world, and your special job is to be head of balance in the Middle East, and particularly between the Israeli and the Palestinian narratives, and you're forbidden under the protocol of your organization to express your personal views. If you want a blog, find yourself another job."

According to the study, out of 22 days on which the diary was published, only two days included balanced reports. "A soldier in the IDF spokesperson's unit told me that during an inspection of humanitarian aid going into Gaza, they found night vision equipment that was meant to help Hamas see IDF soldiers. It was hidden among the food. They called Bowen and said to him, 'Look, that's why Israel is suspicious of the humanitarian aid.' He refused to broadcast it. He said there was no story. There can be no explanation for that other than that he is biased."

In this war, the main problems journalists face stem from Israels desire to control the news agenda. (Jeremy Bowen, January 12, 2009)

Asserson relates that Bowen has a Palestinian driver who was killed by Israeli soldiers in Lebanon several years ago. "He claims that that has not changed his views," Asserson explains. "I think that's true - he hated Israel beforehand."

Can things change?

"There are improvements. When I did my report on three and a half years of 30 Minutes documentaries, it just happened that within a few weeks of doing this report I was approached by the Chief Rabbi, and four or five very senior people. They all happened to contact me and say, Trevor, I'm going to see the head of the BBC next week, can you send me a copy. So I know the senior people in the BBC saw my report five times from five different people. These documentaries stopped within a few weeks of my report."

When you get home in the evening, do you immediately switch on the BBC?

"I almost never watch the BBC. I pay other people to do that. I don't think this is an obsession; it's an area of interest. The Bowen report was the first for two years. I did it because I said that Gaza would be a big story, and I don't think they covered it properly. If there were another event like that, I would do it again."

"Globes" asked the BBC for a response but received no reply.

Published by Globes [online], Israel business news - - on May 5, 2010

Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2010

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