Trevor Asserson, a lawyer of British origin practicing in Israel, has considerable experience in complaints against the BBC. For years, he has been occupied with demonstrating that the BBC’s coverage of Israel and of its conflict with the Palestinians is biased. He began his Sisyphean battle more than two decades ago, during the Second Intifada. This was shortly before he immigrated to Israel and founded an international law firm here, and also before the series of rounds of fighting in the Gaza Strip, which helped to fix the narrative of the conflict, and a long time before the slaughter of October 7, the subsequent war, and the shock waves it set off in the international media.
These days, Asserson is dusting off the legal arguments, and reinstating round-the-clock monitoring of BBC broadcasts. He and his team are beginning to catalogue erroneous reports by the BBC as part of a new mission that cries out to be performed: to file a well-grounded complaint, in accordance with the BBC’s own Guidelines. The trigger for this work was the evident breaches of the Guidelines in the reporting of the explosion that occurred in the parking lot of the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza City, a week into the war, and the BBC’s failure, even now, to correct its error in blaming Israel.
The BBC’s correspondent, Jon Donnison, rushed to determine, in a live broadcast, that "it is hard to see what else this could be, really, given the size of the explosion, other than an Israeli airstrike or several airstrikes." There were those who blamed the BBC, and particularly its Arabic service which echoed these claims, for the outbreak of disturbances in the Arab world and in European capitals. Just a few hours later, it emerged that a misfired rocket of Islamic Jihad was the cause of the explosion. It took the BBC days to publish the findings, and even then it avoided apportioning responsibility for the blast as much as it could and - unlike most media outlets - failed to declare that the evidence conclusively pointed to it not having been an Israeli attack.
Breach of Editorial Guidelines
Asserson believes that the chances are that the complaint against the BBC will expand beyond the hospital explosion story. This is in view of what looks like a series of erroneous reports, anti-Israeli expressions, negative coverage of Israel, the unreserved faith placed in Hamas declarations, and the anti-Israel framing, that the BBC has accumulated so far in the seven weeks of reporting on events in Israel and in the Gaza Strip. Among the Israeli public there is a consensus that the broadcasting network is biased, which found expression two weeks ago in a skit on Israeli satirical television show "Eretz Nehederet" ("A Wonderful Country") that immediately went viral: "Thank you, Yahya Sinwar," says the BBC presenter at the conclusion of a mock interview with the Hamas leader. "No, Rachel," Sinwar replies, "Thank you!".
"I think the BBC has a deep problem of bias against Israel," says Asserson, who relates that he fought for many years to demonstrate empirically and legally how, in its Middle East coverage, the network flouted the principles enshrined in its Royal Charter and in its own Editorial Guidelines concerning accuracy and impartiality. "The BBC continually and consistently failed in its duty to be journalistically accurate, and also in its duty to be impartial and objective," he says.
On the face of it, there is no shortage of examples. The hasty and one-sided reporting of the explosion at the Al-Ahli Hospital was followed by a blatant error last week, when the network’s presenter reported that IDF troops had entered Shifa Hospital, also in Gaza City, "targeting medical teams and Arab speakers." This was instead of reading verbatim the release by the IDF spokesperson, which stated that the troops entered the hospital "accompanied by Arabic speakers and medical teams" to assist patients. The BBC did broadcast an apology.
Israeli military intelligence claims that the hospital, and tunnels dug underneath it, served as a Hamas base, a claim backed by US intelligence. But Jeremy Bowen, who is responsible for the BBC’s Middle East coverage and is one of the network’s most senior reporters and editors, tried to downplay the importance of the Kalashnikov assault rifles found in the hospital basements, saying that they may have belonged to the hospital’s internal security staff. "Wherever you go in the Middle East, you see an awful lot of Kalashnikovs," Bowen said smilingly in a live broadcast.
"It seems that Bowen is always quick to attack the Israelis, and very slow in finding negative things to say about the Palestinians," says Asserson, who has followed Bowen’s reporting for years.
The BBC also devoted a special investigative report to the video clips that the IDF published from Shifa Hospital in which it cast doubt on every detail that the videos showed. Concerning the recent publication of photographs from a tunnel under the hospital precincts , a BBC reporter said, "Israel believes it's starting to build up a compelling case to justify its operation at al-Shifa hospital."
"This bias exists because in organizations with a specific world view, the senior management clearly prefers to employ and promote journalists who have the same world view. If the more junior journalistic ranks don’t share that world view - for example in connection with the Israel-Palestinian conflict - those who work in them tend not to be promoted. When this approach continues for many years, the result is institutionalized bias," is how Asserson analyses the situation, choosing his words carefully.
The British press is highly political. Newspapers are fairly clearly identified with the major political parties, and they have no qualms about recommending their readers which one to vote for. That has been the situation for hundreds of years. There are left-wing newspapers (such as "The Guardian"), and newspapers of the Conservative right (such as "The Daily Telegraph"), and the same applies to the commercial television channels. Somehow, all the media boast that their journalistic standards are of the highest level, but each manages to create a different reality, in accordance with its political outlook. The BBC, however, is a public body, Asserson says, financed by the taxpayers to the tune of billions of pounds, and it is prohibited from exhibiting any political affinity or from covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, in a biased manner. "In the present state of affairs, anyone with right-wing views will not last long at the BBC," he says.
Asserson puts to one side the journalists and other workers employed by the BBC’s Arabic service, an important arm of the organization that most Israelis are not even aware of, but which the Arab world watches ("There are documented instances of workers who celebrated the slaughter by Hamas in recent weeks," he says), and focuses on the journalists who work in television in English. "It’s no secret that almost everybody at the BBC has The Guardian on their desk, metaphorically and in fact, and so the employees have a leftward bias. In Britain, the left tends to be more anti-Israel, as part of an outlook that it sees as progressive," he says.
Therefore, Asserson explains, BBC journalists tend to ignore stories that are inconsistent with the narrative of victimhood in the Gaza Strip, and to focus on stories that confirm it. This is manifest in the use of verbs like "killed" instead of "murdered" when the victims are Israeli, and in the many questions marks that the network places around Israeli claims and reports, by contrast with the faith it places in Hamas. "It seems that the network casts more doubt on Israeli assertions than on those of Hamas," he says.
All in a day's work
Feelings and anecdotes are not enough, however, and the bias has to be demonstrated using legal tools, he says. "I concentrate on checking the facts, and in my studies of the BBC, the bias emerges very clearly." To accomplish this, he says, his current team "monitors what is said on the BBC over a period, checks what is broadcast, which stories receive a platform and which don’t, how many times opinions are expressed, ‘errors’ occur, and so on. That way, bias can be exemplified, and thus it is possible to submit a justified complaint," he says.
Asserson, who immigrated to Israel from the UK more than three decades ago, is the founder and senior partner of Asserson Law Offices, Israel’s largest international law firm, with some 60 lawyers. The firm, located in Tel Aviv, advises on all aspects of UK commercial law, and also US litigation law. As part of the firm’s work, Asserson explains, he also represents the Jewish and Israeli community in Britain in various matters.
For example, the current examination of the BBC, which is expected to mature into an official complaint, was commissioned by the Campaign Against Antisemitism, a non-government organization in the UK founded by members of the British Jewish community. The organization produces regular surveys of the British public’s stance towards Jewish issues, and in the past initiated a successful claim to UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission concerning anti-Semitism in the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, who is currently leading the demonstrations calling for a ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.
Although it’s a long time since his initial campaign, Asserson is not giving up. He says the reason that the bias goes so deep, and that no changes have been made to uproot it, is that the BBC is perceived as above criticism. Beyond internal audits, there exists no political or legal mechanism for monitoring the corporation’s activity or for imposing sanctions on it.
"In the past three decades, there have been only two serious investigations of the BBC. One was at the initiative of then prime minister Tony Blair, and the second was initiated by the royal family. Both found significant shortcomings in the BBC’s coverage. The BBC has not starred in investigations by independent committees, to say the least."
These investigations did not, however, bring about change. "The problem is that the BBC controls the department responsible for complaints against it," Asserson explains. "It spent about half a million pounds on a legal battle against publication of an internal report on a probe of its Israeli coverage during the second intifada that it still refuses to reveal.
"I certainly don’t call for politicians to supervise the BBC," Asserson says, "but it’s necessary that people independent of it - former judges and public representatives, for example - should rule objectively about its conduct. The BBC should be exposed to complaints that are examined independently."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 29, 2023.
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