The BBC and the need for a definition of antisemitism

Readers may recall that in February 2015 the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit rejected complaints concerning remarks made by Tim Willcox during a broadcast from Paris the previous month following the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices and the Hyper Cacher supermarket.

Included in the response from Fraser Steel was the following:

That the question was offensive and anti-Semitic in that it suggested that all Jews were responsible for the actions of Israel

Many complainants argue that the question must be regarded as anti-Semitic because it falls foul of a definition of anti-Semitism which includes “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel”, and which they attribute to the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC).  That, however, seems to me an unduly harsh construction of what Mr Willcox said.  In the light of the opening reference to “Israeli policy”, it seems to me more natural to construe “Jewish hands” as referring to Israeli Jews (insofar as they might be responsible for the formulation or execution of Israeli policy), rather than to Jews collectively.  I would accept that it was inept to use a form of words which was even open to the first construction, but I would regard that as an aspect of the poor phrasing already acknowledged, rather than a manifestation of anti-Semitism.”

As was noted here at the time:

“It is worth noting at this point that Steel’s rejection of the classification of Willcox’s statement as antisemitic is based on the following claim inserted as a footnote:

“In fact the phrase isn’t part of the EUMC definition, but is one of a number of examples provided of what might be considered anti-Semitic under the definition, subject to “taking into account the overall context”.  The EUMC definition was withdrawn in 2009 by its successor organisation, the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, which has published no definition of its own.”

This of course is not the first time that the BBC has exploited the fact that the European Agency for Fundamental Rights has not put out its own definition of antisemitism because its mandate does not include such activities. Whilst the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism was indeed removed from the FRA’s website along with other EUMC documents in 2013, it has not been “withdrawn”.”DCMS consultation

Among the proposals included in BBC Watch’s submission to the DCMS public consultation on the renewal of the BBC’s charter was the following:

“The need for the BBC to work according to an accepted definition of antisemitism in order to ensure that complaints are handled uniformly, objectively and accountably is obvious. In addition the absence of adoption of an accepted definition of antisemitism means that – as in the case above – public funding is likely to be wasted on dealing with complaints from the general public which, if a definition were available, might not have been submitted.

Clearly the compilation of such a definition is neither within the role nor the expertise of the BBC and common sense would dictate that the definition adopted by Britain’s public broadcaster should be the one already used by the All Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism and the College of Policing Hate Crime Operational Guidance (2014) – i.e. the EUMC Working Definition. That definition was also recommended to media organisations as an industry standard by the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism in May 2015.”

Last week Sir Eric Pickles MP wrote an article addressing the issue of a definition of antisemitism within the framework of the UK government’s efforts to tackle that particular form of racism. The example he provided was the one used by the UK’s College of Policing – i.e. the EUMC Working Definition.

The efforts being made to counter antisemitism in the UK must clearly include the country’s media. It is abundantly obvious that the definition of antisemitism used by the British Police Force and cited by a senior UK government official is equally suitable for use by Britain’s publicly funded broadcaster. All that remains is for that requirement to be included in the terms of the new BBC charter. 

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