The former BBC chairman Michael Grade and Danny Cohen, its former director of television, have joined criticism of the broadcaster over an “unjustifiably offensive” News at Ten report that appeared to link Israel’s treatment of Palestinians to the Holocaust.
Orla Guerin, the BBC’s international correspondent, made the reference at the end of an interview with Holocaust survivor Rena Quint ahead of the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
At the end of the interview, which included images of Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, Guerin said: “In Yad Vashem’s Hall of Names, images of the dead. Young soldiers troop in to share in the binding tragedy of the Jewish people. The state of Israel is now a regional power. For decades, it has occupied Palestinian territories. But some here will always see their nation through the prism of persecution and survival.”
Jewish leaders and the former BBC executives have criticised the report as antisemitic. Cohen said he had been careful not to criticise the BBC since leaving almost five years ago, knowing the amount of unfair criticism it often receives, but that in this case he could not stay silent.
“Orla Guerin’s report on the Holocaust and forthcoming 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz should be widely condemned,” he said. “The attempt to link the horrors of the Holocaust to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is deeply offensive and upsetting. It was unnecessary, insensitive and particularly ugly in the days before Holocaust Memorial Day. Adding insult to injury, the report uses pictures of Holocaust victims in Yad Veshem during the sequence in which this link is made. This is inexplicably and unjustifiably offensive.”
The Campaign Against Antisemitism has made a formal complaint to the BBC, and threatened to refer the matter to Ofcom, which regulates the corporation. The CAA said the report broke the international definition of antisemitism, which has been adopted by the British government, which includes “drawing comparisons between Israeli policy and the Nazis”.
The BBC has denied the accusation. “The brief reference in our Holocaust report to Israel’s position today did not imply any comparison between the two and nor would we want one to be drawn from our coverage,” said a spokeswoman.
Cohen rubbished the defence that the report did not imply a comparison and further criticised the BBC for refusing to apologise for the “deeply offensive lapse in judgement”.
“The BBC has compounded the problem by refusing to apologise and claiming that the conflation of the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the report ‘did not imply any comparison’,” he said. “This is a difficult argument to sustain when the two elements appear in the very same sentence in the report.”
But others defended Guerin, arguing that when placed in context of the whole report her script was not offensive. The filmmaker Gary Sinyor wrote in the Jewish Chronicle: “One unnecessary reference in a report that reiterated the truth of the Holocaust, that addressed rising antisemitism, that movingly depicted a survivor from Belsen, that showed Israeli soldiers learning about the tragedy of their fellow Jews, that took up the last four-and-a-half minutes of the BBC’s main news bulletin the day before the actual memorial service, surely we can live with that.”
Grade criticised the corporation for not putting a senior editorial executive forward to address the issue, as BBC journalists would expect when covering a story.
“I think it was shocking,” he said. “When the BBC are under criticism they hide behind anodyne, anonymous quotes from a spokesman. Where is the senior editorial figure coming out to speak and face up to this? The BBC is operating under a complete double standard.”
Amanda Bowman, the vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said the report was “crass and offensive” and questioned Guerin’s lack of impartiality on the Israel-Palestine conflict. “It has long been a matter of concern and it is questionable why the BBC would even use her for this sensitive assignment,” she said.
In 2004, the Israeli government accused Guerin of antisemitism and “total identification with the goals and methods of the Palestinian terror groups” over a report on a 16-year-old would-be suicide bomber. In 2015, Grade filed a complaint with the BBC accusing Guerin of “directly misleading” viewers by failing to acknowledge the involvement of militant Palestinian groups in a wave of stabbings of Israelis.