On May 2nd and 3rd 2013 the BBC World Service programme ‘Hardtalk’ – hosted by Stephen Sackur – interviewed the Chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten.
The interview is worth listening to in full, but particularly from around 16:06 in the audio version above when Sackur says:
“One other editorial issue that I want to put to you and it concerns James Harding – the new chief of news here at the BBC. He was the editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Times newspaper and when he was at The Times, James Harding said this at a Jewish community centre debate in London in 2011. He said – quote – “I am pro-Israel and I haven’t found it hard because The Times has been pro-Israel for a very long time”. Now, James Harding is now the head of news at the BBC. Are you comfortable for him to pronounce himself pro-Israel as head of news of the BBC?”
Chris Patten replies:
“I’m sure he wouldn’t pronounce himself as pro-Israel or pro any country or part of an argument.”
SS: “But his problem is that he already has.”
CP: “Yeah, but look..”
SS: “I mean he won’t have changed the spots, I don’t suppose…”
CP: “You know perfectly well that I’ve expressed views on the Middle East in books and in articles and you know very well that I used to be in a past life – in a previous incarnation – chairman of the Conservative Party.”
SS: “Sure but..”
CP: “I’ve managed…”
SS: “You’re not head of BBC News and you never have been.”
CP: “No, but I’m chair of the BBC Trust.”
SS: “James Harding is self-declared pro-Israel. Do you have any problem with that? Do you think that it might create problems for you and for the BBC when one considers that perhaps the most contentious issue we all in BBC news and current affairs have to deal with on a daily basis is reporting the Middle East?”
Whether or not the BBC’s record for accurate and impartial reporting from the Middle East will improve under James Harding remains to be seen, but hopefully one practice he will be able to eradicate in the BBC news and current affairs department is that of cherry-picking quotes and then using them to promote a particular agenda.
Here is a report of Mr Harding’s April 2011 remarks: note Sackur’s apparent addition of the word ‘very’ to the part in his “quote” which says “..because The Times has been pro-Israel for a very long time”.
“Harding stressed the need for balanced journalism. “We say we’re pro-Israel but we’re also pro the Palestinian state… the question a journalist should always ask himself is are you making the case before opinion is dressed up as reportage?” “
James Harding does not specify what being “pro-Israel” means as far as he is concerned but frankly, these days it often means simply being convinced of Israel’s indisputable right to exist. One does have to wonder therefore what kind of interpretation Stephen Sackur attributes to that phrase.
The fact that Sackur appears to have no qualms about suggesting publicly that being pro-Israel is or should be “a problem” for a senior BBC employee, and that if James Harding had “changed his spots” that ‘problem’ would disappear, perhaps reveals more about the institutional culture at the BBC than Stephen Sackur and Chris Patten appear to realise.