UK Jews: Replace BBC Mideast editor

Zionist Federation head says editor blames Israel for crumbling of PA society.

A British Jewish community leader is demanding that BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen be replaced following contentious remarks about Israel made in a BBC memo. Andrew Balcombe, chairman of the Zionist Federation of Britain and Ireland, has written to the chair of the BBC Trust, Dr Chitra Bharucha, following a leaked e-mail Bowen sent last month that questions Bowen's impartiality as he appears to put the onus of blame for the violence in the region on Israel. The Middle East editor blames the "fragmentation of Palestinian society" on the "death of hope" citing Israel as the reason for this. The e-mail, with the subject title, Mini briefing on the Israeli and Palestinians, was sent to senior BBC staff including BBC Director-General Mark Byford, head of the BBC's Jerusalem bureau, Simon Wilson, the BBC Editorial Board and the editors of the BBC's world bureaus. "What is new in the last year, and will be one of the big stories in the coming 12 months, is the way that Palestinian society, which used to draw strength from resistance to the occupation, is now fragmenting," the e-mail read. "The reason is the death of hope, caused by a cocktail of Israel's military activities, land expropriation and settlement building - and the financial sanctions imposed on the Hamas-led government which are destroying Palestinian institutions that were anyway flawed and fragile. "The result is that internecine violence between Hamas and Fatah is getting worse. On Thursday six people were killed in clashes between them in Gaza. The death of a major figure on either side would spark something much more serious." He continues, "Israel's major military incursion into Ramallah on Thursday, killing four Palestinians after a botched arrest operation, was a reminder of the non stop pressures of the Israeli occupation." In his letter to the BBC, Balcombe cited the press briefing released by the BBC when Bowen was appointed as Middle East editor in June 2005. "The new role is designed to enhance our audience's understanding of the Middle East; and to provide extra commentary, focus and analysis to an increasingly complex area of the world," the briefing said. "Recent events indicate that Bowen is unable to perform this role to the standard required," Balcombe insisted. "This simply does not represent balanced reporting and does not contribute to BBC viewers' understanding of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In this way Bowen is doing a disservice to the BBC's customers." Balcombe cited two respected journalists who question Bowen's stance. Speaking about the memo, respected author and journalist Stephen Pollard said: "Israel is to blame for almost everything. The Palestinians are not responsible for anything; Israel is the culpable party...If this is what passes for high-level analysis at the BBC, is it any wonder its reporting is so poisonous?" Daniel Finkelstein, columnist and Comment Editor of The Times, said: "...beyond the question of balance, what is striking about the memo is how poor the analysis is. There's no hint for instance of anything deeper...If this is the best that the Middle East Editor can do, how can correspondents with less specialist knowledge do better?" In an article in this week's Jewish Chronicle, Bowen said that writing such memos is part of his job and is designed to give an idea of future stories and developments. He strongly denies that he had singled out Israel for criticism. Balcome also cited a BBC radio programme in which Bowen conducted five interviews, three with Palestinians who were critical of Israeli policies, one with a radical Israeli lawyer who calls his country's policies "apartheid" and only one Israeli attempting to explain Israel's position. "Thus, in a report lasting six minutes, an Israeli-supportive viewpoint was expressed for a total of 17 seconds," said Balcome. Balcombe said that Bowen is a hugely experienced and accomplished journalist and certainly the BBC can use his talents in another international location but suggested that an experience in 2000 has "colored" Bowen's view of Israel. "In May 2000, Bowen's driver Abd al-Rahman Taqqush was mistakenly killed by an Israeli tank shell during fighting in South Lebanon. Bowen was only several metres away and no matter his professionalism, this disturbing incident may have colored Bowen's views about Israel ever since," Balcombe said. "The BBC is rightly considered one of the world's most prominent news organizations and its Israel and Middle East coverage is viewed by millions. Therefore, it is urgent that you appoint a new Middle East Editor who can better direct the news coverage of this critical region." "Israeli policies towards the Palestinians create hardship and tough, critical reporting is legitimate, though it may make uncomfortable viewing for Israel supporters," said Gavin Gross, campaigns director of the ZF. "However, equal time and emphasis must also be given to presenting Israel's viewpoint and the threats it faces, or else it is bad journalism. Sadly, the BBC's coverage does not meet this test, which is why we are calling for Jeremy Bowen to be replaced as Middle East editor," he said. Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, added that: "the ZF's move clearly reflects the concerns of many in the community. Recent reports by Jeremy Bowen bear out the suspicions raised by his recent leaked internal BBC memo that he is unwilling or unable to shake off his preconceptions about Israel. This does nothing to give any confidence in the impartiality of the BBC on this issue." Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, a spokesman for the BBC said that "the memo was a mini briefing on the situation in the Middle East sent out to an internal informed audience; these are issued on a regular basis. The memo looks at what stories could come up in the year ahead." "We acknowledge receipt of Mr Balcombe's letter which we are taking very seriously and a response will be sent in due course," he added.