Which is the more professional broadcaster when it comes to investigative reporting — the BBC or Al Jazeera? That’s the intriguing question that’s going to be answered by Ofcom’s forthcoming ruling on the BBC Panorama programme Is Labour Anti-Semitic? In January 2017.
Al Jazeera broadcast an explosive four-part series called The Lobby. Both The Lobby and Panorama revolved around Britain’s Jewish community. Al Jazeera used an undercover reporter to examine Israel’s clandestine attempts to use domestic Jewish pressure groups to influence British political parties. Panorama examined claims that anti-Semitism was causing widespread dismay among Jewish members of the Labour Party and that Jeremy Corbyn had not done enough to root it out.
In October 2017 Ofcom rejected complaints that the Al Jazeera series breached its impartiality rules. Now it’s the BBC that will come under the Ofcom microscope. Labour called the July 10 Panorama programme an “authored polemic” by reporter John Ware and “an overtly one-sided intervention in political controversy by the BBC.” The BBC rejected Labour’s complaint saying it “stands by its journalism” and completely rejects “any accusations of bias or dishonesty.” The BBC also rejected the complaints of nearly 1,600 viewers who felt the programme was “biased against Labour.” Of these, 49 took their complaint to the Corporation’s second stage Executive Complaints Unit which rejected their appeals. So far 18 of these have now asked Ofcom to examine the issue. The Labour Party is likely to join the list.
Until April 2017 the BBC was, effectively, judge and jury in its own case. But after that date Ofcom, which has always (under various incarnations) regulated ITV and Channel 4, became the BBC’s watchdog. Ofcom is the UK’s most powerful media regulator — a statutory body whose Broadcasting Code is based on the 2003 Communications Act. Ofcom also has teeth when it comes to rogue programmes: in 1998 Ofcom’s predecessor, the ITC, fined ITV franchise holder Carlton (head of public affairs: David Cameron) £2 million for a largely faked documentary on cocaine smuggling. Should Ofcom find Panorama in breach of its code, the maximum fine is £250,000 — chickenfeed for the BBC — but the damage to the Corporation’s worldwide reputation would be enormous.
Given the status of the Labour Party — Britain’s official opposition which polled 12.8m votes in 2017 — Ofcom probably has no choice but to accept its complaint and the other 18 so far received. If it does, then there’s no question of a result before the general election on December 12: the verdict won’t be delivered until next year.
Labour have not released either their complaint or the BBC’s rejection but the outlines of both are reasonably clear. The party’s original BBC complaint was based on the Corporation’s Editorial Guidelines but this will now have to be recast in terms of Ofcom’s own Broadcasting Code. There’s little difference between the two except that Ofcom’s is based on the Communications Act of 2003 which means its decisions are open to judicial review. That may prove to be an important point given Labour’s deep anger at the BBC’s decision to broadcast — and then defend — the Panorama programme. This is, then, an issue that could end up in the courts …
Labour’s case is likely to be that Panorama breached section 5 of the code “Due impartiality and due accuracy”. Section 5.12 states
“In dealing with matters of major political and industrial controversy and major matters relating to current public policy an appropriately wide range of significant views must be included and given due weight in each programme or in clearly linked and timely programmes. Views and facts must not be misrepresented.”
Labour will say that Panorama breached this condition because of its “overtly one-sided” portrayal of the problem of anti-Semitism in the party — claiming Panorama set out with an agenda that made it impossible for Labour to get a fair hearing. As a result, Labour’s main figures declined to take part in the programme leaving shadow communities secretary Andrew Gwynne MP to appear on the programme. The BBC’s response to this will be that it was scrupulously fair, putting a long list of questions to the party and reflecting its replies and Gwynne’s responses at length. On this narrow point, the BBC will probably be able to satisfy Ofcom.
The Corporation may have a more difficult task persuading Ofcom it was impartial in the way that it dealt with the issue of anti-Semitism in the party. Labour says Panorama focused on the views of the Labour-affiliated Jewish Labour Movement (JLM) to the total exclusion of all other narratives. The JLM claims the problem of anti-Semitism in the party is serious and that Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to root it out means Labour is “institutionally anti-Semitic”. The JLM was one of the bodies which submitted a dossier requesting the Equalities and Human Rights Commission to investigate the party over its anti-Semitism policies. The JLM also opposed Jeremy Corbyn in the Leadership elections of 2015 and 2016. The JLM recently made it clear it will campaign in the General Election only for what it calls “exceptional candidates” — candidates who support Corbyn will not get its support.
Of the 21 people who were interviewed in the Panorama programme, at least 9 are, or have been, senior figures in the Jewish Labour Movement — an affiliation, Labour say, Panorama deliberately concealed. Moreover, by not identifying eight of them on screen the programme gave viewers the impression that these were ordinary Jewish members of the party who had no wider political axe to grind. Labour say viewers were left with no alternative but to conclude that Labour no longer welcomed Jewish members.
Labour will also say there is a counter-narrative which Panorama totally ignored. This is represented by groups like Jewish Voice for Labour (JVL) a group set up after Corbyn was elected to represent Jewish members who support the Labour leader. Its position is diametrically opposed to the JLM insisting that, although there is anti-Semitism in the party, the problem is relatively small. The number of complaints concerns a fraction of one per cent of the membership. JVL also believes the Jewish Labour Movement is close to Israel and grossly exaggerates the anti-Semitism problem in order to damage Corbyn, a long-term supporter of Palestinian rights.
Jewish Voice for Labour say that not only did Panorama ignore their views but also carried segments criticising its members as alleged anti-Semites without making it clear they were both Jewish and JVL members — and without giving them the right of reply. Labour will argue that, by secretly advancing the position of one interest group, the BBC broke Ofcom’s requirement (section 5.13) which requires the “prevention of undue prominence of views and opinions on matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy.”
Labour’s case will also allege a lack of impartiality on the part of reporter John Ware who presented the programme. In 2017 he wrote in the magazine Standpoint that Corbyn’s “entire political career has been stimulated by disdain for the West, appeasement of extremism, and who would barely understand what fighting for the revival of British values is really all about.” Ware has strong links with Britain’s Jewish community: his ex-wife is Jewish and their children were brought up in the Jewish faith. His current partner is also Jewish. In 2015 Ware was awarded a Commitment to Media Award by the Women’s International Zionist Organisation for “being sympathetic to Jewish concerns.” Labour will allege that Ware used the Panorama as an opportunity for an “authored polemic” against the Labour hierarchy. Labour will also make allegations that Panorama gave inaccurate accounts of the party’s attempts to deal with anti-Semitism.
In 2017 Ofcom considered two complaints that the Al Jazeera series The Lobby breached impartiality rules. The identity of the complainants has not been revealed. The Lobby used an undercover reporter to follow the activities of Shai Masot, then Senior Political Officer at the Israeli Embassy, as he tried to influence British politics. Masot talked of MPs he wanted to “take down,” including the Tory MP Sir Alan Duncan, a critic of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. The programme led to the sacking of Shai Masot and a public apology from Israel’s UK Ambassador Mark Regev to Sir Alan Duncan. Ofcom ruled that The Lobby did not breach impartiality rules.
Remarkably, there are similarities between the Panorama programme and Al Jazeera’s investigation. Panorama’s Is Labour Anti-Semitic? broadcast starts with a 42-second clip of an unnamed young woman talking directly to the camera and telling viewers about the traumatic anti-Semitism she had experienced in the Labour Party. It later turned out that she’s Ella Rose, a former Public Affairs Officer at the Israeli Embassy in London who went on to become the first full-time Director of the Jewish Labour Movement. Panorama did not name her or reveal her employment history leaving viewers with the impression she was an ordinary Jewish party member.
Ella Rose also makes an appearance in Al Jazeera’s The Lobby. She was filmed by an undercover reporter complaining about journalist Asa Winstanley of the Electronic Intifada website who exposed her as a former Israeli Embassy official. She was also filmed saying she would “take” the Labour activist Jackie Walker, a party member who is highly critical of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians. Rose said she would “take” Walker using martial arts techniques developed by the Israeli military. (Walker also appears in the Panorama programme as someone who, according to John Ware, “seems to have a blind spot when it came to anti-Semitism” — the fact that she’s Jewish was not mentioned.) Ella Rose complained to Ofcom that The Lobby had been unfair and infringed her privacy. These complaints were not upheld.