The BBC, Bell and the Blood Libel
by Hadar Sela
On January 29th 2013 the Radio 4 ‘Today’ program brought in Stephen Pollard – editor of the Jewish Chronicle – and Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell to discuss the subject of Gerald Scarfe’s cartoon which was the subject of much objection when it appeared in the Sunday Times on Holocaust Memorial Day, and for which the paper’s owner Rupert Murdoch has personally apologized, as has its acting editor.
At 1:38 in the podcast Steve Bell says:
“I think apologizing for this cartoon, which in fact, for once, wasn’t a bad cartoon…I think Stephen Pollard invokes terms like ‘the blood libel’ and kind of genocidal hate rage, he’s attributing this to a cartoon which is actually, it’s sort of like a mirror image of the cartoon that Scarfe did the week before which was about President Assad doing exactly…I think it was clutching the head of a baby the week before which is even considered to be more offensive. Not a squeak about that.”
Not a squeak from the programme’s presenter either – who apparently saw no problem in Bell’s attempt to compare a cartoon of a dictator waging a civil war – which has claimed more lives in under two years that the entire Arab-Israeli conflict – with one of a democratically elected prime minister. Crucially, as Stephen Pollard pointed out on his Editor’s blog:
“It’s a fair point to say that the previous week Scarfe depicted Assad in a similar way, and he’s entitled to his view of Netanyahu, just as the Sunday Times are entitled to print it.
But there’s never been an anti-Alawite blood libel, and the context matters. The blood libel is central to the history of antisemitism.”
Bell goes on: [emphasis added]
“Ahm..the problem with the State of Israel and the – if you like – Zionist lobby is that they never acknowledge the crime of ethnic cleansing upon which the state was founded and that’s a permanent problem. It’s always going to be a difficult issue. It’s always going to set people at odds like this…”
No intervention from the presenter in the name of accuracy or impartiality there either.
“If you use the term blood libel as loosely and as ridiculously as that… the blood libel refers I think to a medieval belief that the Jews actually ate their own children – or ate Christian children – which is not actually a current..ahm…idea that’s abroad. Nobody’s actually saying…”
So now we learn that Bell, whom the BBC invited to talk about a cartoon judged by many to be offensive because it invokes the blood libel, does not actually know what the blood libel is. Needless to say, the presenter did not bother to correct Bell’s erroneous assertions on that point and neither did he trouble his audience – many if not most of whom will not have a clue as to what the blood libel is – with a factual explanation of its historic roots and modern interpretations. The BBC’s written ‘explanation’ of the term here also leaves much to be desired.
Later on Bell says: [emphasis added]
“The problem with this argument is, it’s extraneous notions like ‘blood libel’ and.. err.. are dragged in and sensitivities are talked up when there actually don’t….the very word antisemitic – it becomes devalued. They throw it around with such abandon and if there is real antisemitism, it’s actually getting ignored.”
Of course the audience is not informed who “they” are, but we do not need a cartoonist’s imagination to understand Bell’s intentions.
So what did Radio 4 audiences learn from Bell’s participation in this discussion? They found out that there’s a “Zionist lobby” that ignores “ethnic cleansing” of which Israel is guilty and that there is something called the blood libel which involves beliefs about Jews eating children. They also learned that “they” accuse people falsely of antisemitism, which may or may not be real, by invoking the term blood libel.
Had Radio 4 actually tried to get as many erroneous and offensive notions about Jews and Israel as possible into a seven minute item, it would have had difficulty topping this. And yet, the ‘Today’ presenter allowed Bell a free rein, at no point stepping in to correct his distortions.
This broadcast yet again raises the subject of BBC interviewees who use the platform provided to them to promote untruths – either due to ignorance or as deliberate politically motivated propaganda.
Can the BBC shirk its obligations concerning accurate and impartial broadcasting by hiding behind the defense that these are an interviewee’s opinions – no matter how wrong or offensive? Or does the BBC have an obligation to correct misleading assertions presented as ‘opinion’ in order to meet its own standards of accuracy and impartiality?