Borderline views: Bring back the BBC

The BBC is not a tabloid channel like CNN, Sky or FOX – many of which, especially the right-wing FOX News channel, have their own political slants.

BBC Microphone (photo credit: REUTERS)
BBC Microphone
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I will be ending my subscription to the YES TV network this week. Not that there is much to choose between YES, HOT or the other cable TV companies – the packages are fairly similar, as are the prices.
I watch two types of channels – sports and in particular the English premier league, and a diverse range of foreign news channels. Like everyone, I have my favorites. Due to the monopoly exercised by a limited number of cable companies I, like most other Israelis, am forced to purchase the entire package even though I never watch 80 percent of the channels.
But rather than offer diversity, YES have decided to censor the news that its viewers can watch and without any prior warning has cut out the world’s premier news channel, the BBC. Its spokespeople have refused to offer any reason for this decision, although it is obvious to anyone who watches the news that this is yet another step in Israel’s move toward silencing or punishing those voices which may be even the slightest bit critical of its government policies. The anti-BBC campaign which has been pursued in the past few years has clearly had its impact – regardless of the fact that the BBC remains the most professional, most balanced and most authoritative of any of the global news channels that we receive here in Israel and throughout the globe.
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The BBC is not a tabloid channel like CNN, Sky or FOX – many of which, especially the right-wing FOX News channel, have their own political slants. The coverage provided by the BBC is by far the most in-depth and professional of all news channels and it is for this reason that its prestigious World Service Radio channel which, until 20 years ago was one of only two news channels to be heard throughout the globe in a pre-satellite and pre-cable era, has succeeded in surviving and adapting itself to modern media technology, in the face of all the new competition.
It is also the reason why its World Service TV channel has, despite its more conservative and less dramatic way of presenting the news, succeeded in retaining its status as the No. 1 news channel for millions of people throughout the world. The BBC is not a news channel for people interested in seeing a five second headline or witnessing 10-second “horror” coverage of a massacre or a natural disaster.
It is a channel for people who desire greater depth for their news coverage and, as such, may not have the mass following enjoyed by the other cable news channels. It is therefore not surprising that the BBC remains high on the global list of news channels enjoyed in almost every country on the face of the globe.
No survey of viewers or subscribers was taken prior to the decision. No warning was given to subscribers to give them the chance of protesting or switching their allegiance to another company which does carry the BBC before it was removed from the screen. And worst of all, no adequate reason was offered for the decision to remove the channel from the subscription package when challenged by some irate viewers.
The question as to whether the BBC has a political bias with respect to Israel or not is open to debate, but it is a myth which has been on the top of the right-wing agenda for a number of years. It is certainly far more balanced in its coverage of world affairs than FOX News with its blatant right-wing positions, but there is no chance that this would ever be removed from the package – nor should it be.
Israeli TV viewers are also fortunate in that they have an international flavor of channels to provide news coverage for people with a diversity of mother tongues – Hebrew, Arabic, Russian, French or English – linguistically more diverse than almost any other country in the world. The cable news diversity in Israel is far greater than anything to be found on North American TV – despite the fact that they have 10 times as many channels – and to a great extent than most European countries.
This is especially important for Israelis, given the very poor quality of the local Hebrew news channels and their almost total lack of coverage of any global news beyond Israel or the Jewish world.
One of the few exceptions to this is probably the global news hour on Channel 1 TV presented by Oren Nahari and David (Dudu) Witztoum, a rare Israeli news program which actually recognizes that there is a world outside of Israel. It is a weekly program which provides an educated, intelligent analysis of global issues for those Israelis whose linguistic skills are limited but are nevertheless interested in knowing what is happening in that small 99.99 percent of the world which is beyond our borders.
Not only is YES guilty of practicing political censorship, it has given in to the strong right-wing pressure which has set out to delegitimize the BBC in recent years by so called NGOs which have been set up to monitor and analyze media coverage of Israel and the Jewish world. A good news channel must display balanced coverage of world affairs if it is to be respected, which is probably why the BBC remains one of the most important global news outlets. But if the Israel Media Watch NGO, for example, which has set itself up to provide analysis of the way in which Israel is portrayed in the media, is only ever concerned with one half of the political spectrum, the one with which its right-wing analysts disagree, it is as guilty of bias as the media outlets it covers.
The same is true of the coverage of NGOs which engage in political and social issues.
Here too there is a need to ensure that, across the spectrum, there is balance and that all such grass roots organizations operate within the legal borders of a democratic society which allows, and even promotes, diversity of opinion and the fullest expression of free speech. There is a real need for an NGO Monitor in Israel, given the huge number of NGOs, many of them blatantly political (ranging from pro peace and human rights to pro settlement and annexation) but if they only examine, and criticize, one half of the political spectrum (left-wing NGOs which are funded by European donors – never right-wing NGOs and never American donors), it is hard to take their reports seriously – even in cases where they have legitimate criticism of some activities.
What is most disturbing is that, unlike any other period in Israel’s almost 70-year history, these so called monitors and media analysts now have direct access to the right-wing government ministers, themselves lacking any serious analytical tools for determining balance, diversity or political bias. These ministers are intent on passing legislation to silence any alternative or critical voices, thus threatening the very basis of Israel as a democratic and open society and its deteriorating image as such throughout the world.
YES has now joined these right-wing critics.
Whether direct government pressure was brought to bear on the company is not clear in the face of the wall of silence that has greeted anyone who has attempted to find out why the BBC has now been banned and boycotted by the Israeli cable channel.
The BBC remains by far the highest quality news channel on the face of the globe. Many other TV channels – both news and drama – take their cue for quality from the BBC. The blatant attempt to exclude them from the Israeli market place is unacceptable.
I will be switching to another cable channel, one which does not believe in political interference or censorship. I strongly recommend that all readers who are equally dismayed by the actions taken by YES do the same.
The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University. The views expressed are his alone.