The BBC, choice of interviewees and impartiality

Earlier this week, while appearing before the House of Lords Communications and Digital Committee, the BBC Director General Tim Davie was asked about an interview late last year with a person the BBC subsequently acknowledged had not been “a suitable person to interview as an impartial analyst”.

Nevertheless, in an item aired the following week (from 45:06 here) on BBC World Service radio’s ‘Newshour’ programme on January 8th , the BBC again elected to host an interviewee who was clearly not impartial.

In that item about the release and deportation of a person detained for two and a half years by the Egyptian authorities, the sole interviewee chosen to provide information on the story to BBC audiences around the world was the detainee’s own father.

Presenter Julian Marshall introduced the item as follows: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Marshall: “The Egyptian authorities have released the Egyptian-Palestinian rights activist Ramy Sha’ath from almost three years [sic] in detention after forcing him to renounce his Egyptian citizenship. He was arrested in June 2019 and held in pre-trail detention, alongside other activists, on accusations of aiding a terrorist group. Ramy is the son of the prominent Palestinian politician Nabil Sha’ath.”

Sha’ath: “I am very happy he was declared innocent by the court three days ago and the court ordered the Egyptian government to release him. So he was released and he was brought in by our people in Cairo to Amman and from Amman he took the plane to Paris where his wife is.”

Marshall: “So you say that he’s been cleared of accusations of aiding a terrorist group which was why he was arrested in the first place?”

Sha’ath: “Yes, the court very clearly and very frankly ordered the government to release him immediately and criticised the government for not producing any proof that he was involved in terrorism by any chance.”

At no point throughout the entire item were listeners informed that the organisation defined as a terrorist group by the Egyptian authorities is the Muslim Brotherhood.

Marshall: “Why do you think he was arrested in the first place?”

Sha’ath: “It’s very clear that [laughs] they did not prove to the court anything that he has done. It’s just that the Egyptian law forces the government after two years to either release him immediately or to take him to a court that will condemn him by any chance. So they were six months late in going to court. The court was absolutely clear and definite that the government had to release him immediately. Whatever he’s done it was simply expressing his point of view among his friends and in other places, criticising the government. It’s a question of freedom of thought, of freedom of expression, that was violated by the government by putting him in jail for two years and six months.”

Notably, Marshall refrained from asking Nabil Sha’ath about the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority’s similar practices.

Marshall: “I mean he didn’t just express opinions, did he? I mean he played a part in the 2011 Egyptian uprising that toppled President Mubarak and he also co-founded Egypt’s branch of the pro-Palestinian boycott movement against…eh…Israel.”

Listeners were provided with no explanation of the agenda and aims of the anti-Israel BDS campaign in general or its Egyptian branch before Sha’ath referred to his son (previously described by Marshall as a “rights activist”) as “defending the rights of his own people”.

Sha’ath: “He does not deny that. He was outspoken defending the rights of his own people.”

Listeners were not informed that his family had claimed at the time that one of the reasons for Ramy Sha’ath’s arrest related to Egyptian policy concerning Israel:

“According to his father and wife, however, Ramy was arrested for his activism on behalf of the Egyptian branch of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which he founded in 2015, and for publishing and disseminating anti-Egyptian slogans following Egypt’s participation in the “Peace to Prosperity” economic workshop in Bahrain in June.

Ramy opposes Egypt’s continued normalization process with Israel and had been very active in anti-Israeli societies and activities. He has also been a vocal opponent of the American “deal of the century” peace initiative.”

The interview concluded:

Marshall: “It’ll obviously be a source of regret to him therefore that he had to give up his Egyptian citizenship as a precondition of his release.”

Sha’ath: “Yes, he resisted for a year but finally he gave up. He didn’t want to spend the rest of his life in that jail. And actually the judge asked him with a big exclamation mark ‘why did you give up your Egyptian nationality?’. The judge said there is no proof that you’ve done anything that’s against the law. And the lawyer of Ramy answered but that was the requirement of the government that he cannot go to court unless he gives up his Egyptian nationality. The law does not allow the government to send away from Egypt any Egyptian national and so he had to give up his nationality to allow the Egyptian government to send him away from Egypt.”

Marshall: “The prominent Palestinian politician, Nabil Sha’ath.”

It should surely have been possible for the BBC to report accurately and impartially on internal Egyptian affairs while at the same time providing an accurate picture of the ideologies and actions of the person at the centre of the story that does not rely solely on one far from objective interviewee. 

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