Why we need to talk about the BBC’s promotion of Middle East conspiracy theories

Here is David Aaronovitch – who knows a thing or two about conspiracy theories – writing in The Times (£):

“It’s the late morning, two days ago. And I’m sitting in a BBC studio to discuss the death of the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, in 2004.” […] 

“[….] one of my fellow panellists is a veteran Palestinian journalist, Abdel Bari Atwan, and Atwan is in no mood to examine the alternatives. His first jump is to assert without qualification that the scientists have concluded that Arafat was murdered with polonium-210. His second leap is to state, unequivocally, that Israel did it. No question.

And then he pulls a fact out of his sleeve. Only three countries have access to polonium-210: Russia, the US and you-know-who. Russia couldn’t have done it, America wouldn’t have and that leaves only one possibility. When I get home I look this “fact” up and I can find only one source. An article by Abdel Bari Atwan, and it isn’t true.

Too late for correction. And in any case Atwan has a Twitter audience of nearly 300,000, mostly in the Arab world. The thing is already inscribed in stone.”

Aaronovitch is right, of course. Conspiracy theories tend to fall on particularly fertile ground in the Middle East, not infrequently morphing into lethal narratives.

The question is though, how can a publicly funded organization which has its entire raison d’etre set out in the charter and agreement which are its constitutional basis and which define its public purposes – including “promoting education and learning” and building “a global understanding of international issues” – justify  the provision of a platform for the amplification (and legitimization, through the stamp of BBC respectability and its unrivalled outreach) of conspiracy theories? 

It is difficult to imagine the BBC inviting ‘Elvis is alive’ or ‘the moon landing was faked’ conspiracy theorists to participate as regular panel members on its current affairs programmes, and yet BBC editors and producers apparently cannot grasp that Abdel Bari Atwan at best falls into the same genre. In fact, Atwan’s promotion of conspiracy theories is fuelled by his political motivations, putting him into an altogether less eccentric category. 

Last week the BBC covered the recent publication of a report from the EU’s Fundamental Rights Agency showing that antisemitism in Europe is once again on the rise. One of the many topics addressed in that report is that of antisemitism stemming from perceptions of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which of course the majority of Europeans learn about through the mainstream media.

Members of the media in general would do well at this point to devote some thought to the subject of the trickle-down effects of irresponsible, inaccurate coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict as a catalyst for increased antisemitism both in Europe and beyond.  

But another of the BBC’s public purposes – going under the title of “sustaining citizenship and civil society” – obliges BBC management in particular to consider this subject very seriously, with its recent amplification of Arafat-related conspiracy theories (by no means limited to the programme in which David Aaronovitch took part) being a good place to start.

Related articles:

Myths and lethal narratives on the BBC website

Another lethal narrative on the BBC website

BBC Arafat binge continues to promote conspiracy theories

BBC goes into Arafat overdose mode – again

After effects: BBC accuracy failure used to promote hate

After effects 2 : BBC accuracy failure again used to promote hatred

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