The unstated connections of a BBC R4 Middle East ‘expert’

Readers may have noticed a link titled “Who supports whom?” – with the subheading “Comedian Dom Joly explains Syria in three minutes” – appearing in the ‘Features & Analysis’ section of the BBC News website’s Middle East page over the past few days. 

Who supports whom

That link leads to a brief film clip in which Joly appears to confuse even himself with his ‘analysis’, drifting from “more supportive of” to “couldn’t bring themselves to support” whilst barely stopping for a breath.

“I mean obviously Assad and Israel very old foes but ironically they’re [Israel] probably more supportive of Assad than anything like Al Qaeda or even a secular….I mean they might be dodgy on secular, definitely anti Al Qaeda and sort of don’t know about Assad. Yeah, they couldn’t bring themselves to support him.”

Joly & Jones

The programme promoted at the bottom of the synopsis to that film clip – “OBJs Guide to the Middle East” – was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on September 23rd and can be heard here

OBJs guide to the ME

Contrary to the impression given in the synopsis, Sherard Cowper-Coles does not appear in the programme – Robert Fox of the London Evening Standard takes part instead. Owen Bennett Jones’ other guests are Dom Joli and Baroness Haleh Afshar who is described merely as having “a very international background”.

If listeners can manage to get past Afshar’s incessant, inane giggles without hitting the ‘stop’ button, they will be able to hear the Muslim Brotherhood’s Yusuf Qaradawi described at 13:14 as “an Islamic cleric” and “a well-known man”. They will, however, hear nothing about Qaradawi’s infamous homophobia, misogyny or antisemitism.

Further on, at around 14:47, Owen Bennett Jones introduces the subject of weapons of mass destruction into the discussion. At 15;24 he says:

“And of course now we’re left in a situation – if Syria does dismantle its chemical weapons – where one Middle East country, it’s widely believed, will be left holding weapons of mass destruction and it’s a point made here in a discussion on the Today programme between two formers – it was a former British foreign secretary Jack Straw and a former advisor to the Israeli prime minister Dore Gold – it’s all about Israel’s supposed nuclear weapons arsenal.”

The programme then cuts to a clip from the said programme in which Jack Straw says:

“Israel has the most extensive nuclear weapons capability”

Presenter John Humphrys then says:

“Let me put that to Dr Gold. You can’t argue with that, can you Dr Gold?”

However, that clip has in fact been manipulated by the BBC. As noted here at the time, the actual interview went like this:

Straw interview

Bizarrely, the producers of this programme apparently did not consider it necessary to inform listeners that the clip had been edited.

The discussion continues with Bennett Jones saying at 16:48: [all emphasis added]

“But – Haleh Afshar – surely the Israelis would say that they are a very small country, they are uniquely vulnerable..”

Dom Joli: “They’re still not signed up to the nuclear…err…proliferation treaty.”

OBJ: “No, but they’re uniquely vulnerable because …”

DJ: “They’re exceptional.”

OBJ: “Well because they are surrounded by countries that are very hostile and many people don’t think they should exist.”

Haleh Afshar: “But they also have a very long history of invading their neighbours and it seems to me that for them to say they won’t use their nuclear weapons is another assertion as they always said…”

OBJ: “But there’s no suggestion that they would use it for anything other than national survival?”

HA: “Well, I have no idea…they’re expansionist…”

Later on, at 19:09, listeners will hear Afshar saying:

“The difficulty is that the Israeli lobby in America is far too strong and too many presidents depend on it far too heavily.”

Listeners might be tempted to dismiss Afshar’s jaundiced remarks as the inept ramblings of someone shoe-horned into the pose of ‘Middle East expert’ on the basis of having been born (and spent a few childhood years) in that region, but one aspect of Afshar’s background – about which the BBC does not bother to inform its listeners – puts those remarks in quite another light.

BBC editorial guidelines on impartiality clearly state that: [emphasis added]

“We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives of charities) are unbiased and we may need to make it clear to the audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their contribution is made.”

In addition, the BBC’s previous ‘Key Terms’ guide stated:

“Some “experts” may have a history of sympathising with one cause or another even if they have no overt affiliation. CASMII poster

It is preferable, where time and space allow, to provide a lengthier indication of the contributor’s views on past issues so that the audience might calibrate his or her statements for themselves.

In all reporting we should avoid generalisations, bland descriptions and loose phrases which in fact tell us little about a contributor or event. The phrase “Middle East expert” implies the BBC thinks this person’s views have weight and independence. If we can defend that judgement – that’s fine. If not it may be better to avoid the phrase. 

Overall, we should seek a precise description – for example, what job does this person hold? Who employs them? Where do they stand in the debate?”

In other words, there are mechanisms in place to ensure that BBC audience’s are not subjected to partisan opinions disguised as impartial expertise, but those mechanisms cannot be effective if the BBC ignores them – as it has done in this case and others

It is completely unacceptable that the BBC does not inform its audiences of the fact that Baroness Afshar has a history of activity with CASMII – the Campaign Against Sanctions and Military Intervention in Iran – which is linked to (and conducts a public relations campaign on behalf of) the Iranian regime. 

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