Thursday, February 04, 2021

04-Feb-21: The BBC is sorry they showcased a terrorist. But do they actually grasp the problem?

The presenter of BBC Arabic's Trending tribute to Ahlam Tamimi
introduces the fugitive terrorist [Image Source: Screen Capture] 

Arnold Roth writes: 

I’m not a broadcaster, not a journalist, not a policy-shaping official. But I have things I feel ought to be heard and known about one of the world's most important media platforms, the BBC. 

I am writing now because there is an important, sober and factual expose of the problems there in today's edition of a British weekly ["Shame of BBC Arabic as systematic bias revealed | A JC investigation shows a pattern of anti-Israel bias and inaccuracies", Jewish Chronicle, February 3, 2021]. 

I am quoted briefly there but want to raise some larger aspects of the deeply disturbing affair.

On November 9, 2020 I took part in an intense meeting with senior executives at the BBC. The subject was a complaint I had published some weeks earlier [see “Why does BBC‏ ‏promote my daughter’s murderer?” Arnold Roth/Palestinian Media Watch, October 13, 2020] about a Jordanian woman, a fugitive from US justice, being given the celebrity treatment before a global audience tuned in to a BBC show that has a huge following among Arabic speakers.

The meeting, by video conference, was at my request. 

I was and continue to be impressed that the senior executive at BBC World Service responded positively to me and without hesitation. He could easily have ignored or deflected what was clearly an uncomfortable proposal. That’s pretty much what the vast majority of media organizations and their editors and management with whom I have tried to engage have done during the past four years.

Is this because I am rude? Nasty? Perhaps, but I believe it has more to do with how I bring disturbing messages with me.

* * *

But first some needed background.

My daughter, Malka Chana Roth, a beautiful high school student with a sunny disposition, was one of 15 innocent people murdered in a pizzeria attack carried out by Islamist terrorists in the center of the city where we live, Jerusalem, on August 9, 2001. A sixteenth victim remains in a coma all these years later.

That Islamist terrorist, who was 21 years old at the time and responsible for selecting the target and planting the bomb, was a part-time news-reader at a Palestinian Arab TV station and personally reported the news on camera some hours after engineering the massacre. She went on to publicly call the savagery “my operation”. She has been explicit about how she wanted her victims to be children and took pains to ensure that is what happened. In this she succeeded on a monstrous scale.

My wife and I are battling to see the woman whom the BBC so generously profiled in its October 2020 broadcast, Ahlam Tamimi, locked up for life in a maximum-security prison. Dedicated investigators, prosecutors and agents in the US Department of Justice are too.

This is a battle we have waged – in the literal sense, a fight for justice – since February 2012. There have been meaningful achievements along the way, most notably the unveiling of terror charges against Tamimi on March 14, 2017. 

But what counts is that Tamimi remains free. She’s based in Jordan’s capital, living a life of privilege, influence, public adulation.

Jordan is a monarchy with friendly ties throughout the Western world. It happens also to be a tightly controlled state with famously unfree media. Despite the restrictive policies and willingness to silence the regime's critics, it has extended a rare degree of generosity to Tamimi. Most notably this has extended to the privilege of allowing her to host her own television program devoted to promoting terror and terrorists. 

That show, distributed and watched globally via Hamas satellite TV from a studio in Amman every week for five years, allowed Tamimi’s unique incitement to terror to reach Arabic-speaking audiences in virtually every country on earth.

The Jordanian woman not only spearheaded the atrocity and has never stopped boasting about it. She boasts on camera of slipping into Jerusalem multiple times by means of her media credentials, of selecting the target with great care; of personally planting the bomb. And in due course she celebrated the many deaths and injuries with manifest glee. On any reasonable view, this is a monster.

That along with her years of exposure via frequent public appearances – live and via television – in large parts of the Arab world have made her a global celebrity.

I can barely type those words. 

It’s a crushing reality made much worse by foolish political decisions and the moral cowardice of a long line of public and media figures. In practice, the outrage tends to be somewhat muted largely because, unless you are fluent in Arabic, you probably have had no idea till now.

* * *

This is not how we thought things would turn out.


Malki was just 15 years old - a lovely almost-young-woman brimful of musical talent, sweetness, empathy - when she stood with her lifelong friend Michal Raziel at the counter of the Sbarro pizzeria in the center of Israel’s capital on a hot school holiday afternoon in the summer of 2001.
Sbarro immediately after the attack [Image Credit:
Avi Ohayon and Israel Government Press Office]

The human bomb (a term I urge people to think about and use), a religious zealot in his twenties from a family of well-off Palestinian Arab restaurateurs, was brought right up to the shop’s entrance by Tamimi. She fled the scene before he walked in.

Had anyone stopped the young ordinary-looking man at the door to check the contents of the guitar case slung over his shoulder (but guards were not posted in those more innocent days), they would not have found a musical instrument.

Instead, it was filled with kilograms of tightly packed explosives, grotesquely augmented with a large quantity of human-flesh-ripping nails.

The explosion that ensued was thunderous. The outcome was utter carnage. An Israeli court convicted Tamimi on terror charges after she admitted to all of them.

But eight years later she walked out, thanks to a deal made by Israel with Hamas for the freedom of an Israeli hostage, Gilad Shalit, held by the terrorists for more than five years.

Tamimi returned to Jordan and her family and was received there as a conquering heroine and role model. Her wedding less than a year later was a live TV event.

For us, things then went downhill quickly. From bad to worse to literally unbearable.

In March 2017, the US unsealed terrorism charges against Tamimi. They had been issued in 2013, but at the request of the prosecutors they were kept confidential and secret by order of the court.

The charges were based on a Federal law that applies to acts of terror committed outside the territory of the US that cause the death of American nationals like my Malki.

The Jordanian was added to the FBI’s Most Wanted Terrorists list the same day and is still there – the second female ever to be on the list - along with a multi-million-dollar reward for her capture and conviction.

The Hashemite Kingdom response came, to our astonishment, just six days later.

Jordan’s highest court handed down a ruling that the extradition treaty signed by the late King Hussein -- the widely admired father of the current king -- with the Clinton Administration in 1995 was invalid. It was therefore unenforceable, the judges declared, and had been since the day it was signed.

Jordan, as a result, not only would not, but could not, hand Tamimi over for trial. So said the highest tribunal in the land.

For their part, King Abdullah II and his diplomats and ministers found it unnecessary to say a single public word. With two small exceptions, they have remained silent ever since. A handful of news stories blandly reported the legal decision. But no questions were ever asked by any reporters – questions like: how could Jordan protect an admitted mass murderer and, in the process, thumb its nose at its American benefactor? And what about the string of fugitive terrorists whom Jordan had in fact extradited to the US when so requested?

And that was that.

The woman who confesses happily (the videos show how literally true this is) to blowing up children in a fast-food place morphed into arguably the most protected fugitive alive.

* * *

With all its exhausting frustrations, the situation is not static.

Tamimi learned this past September that Jordan intended to deport her husband, Nizar Tamimi. He is a convicted murderer who was released in that same deal as Ahlam Tamimi despite having been sentenced to a life term.

On October 1, 2020 he appears - though the matter is not clear - to have left Jordan to take up residence in Qatar.
The US State Department posted a $5M reward, still in effect,
in January 2018 [Image Source]

It appears he went alone. His wife, the FBI’s Most Wanted. fugitive -- has said noisily and repeatedly that she calls Jordan home and will not leave. Let’s note that Qatar has no extradition treaty with the US or, as far as I can tell, with any other country. The Tamimis have both visited Qatar several times in the past few years and have said to the media that each of them was given residential rights there.

Ahlam Tamimi quickly embarked on a campaign demanding the restoration of her right to live in Jordan with her husband. The female fugitive who has boasted for years of spearheading a slaughter of children says her entitlement to have him back is enshrined in Jordanian law. That it’s a matter of elementary human rights.

With a perfectly straight face, she presents herself as the victim of an incomprehensible injustice.

It’s a message she delivered personally by calling-in to various Arab media outlets, including a high-profile talk-radio station in Jordan’s capital, Amman, called Melody FM.

On October 6, she phoned the presenters of a popular program there and managed to start explaining that she wanted to address Jordan’s king over the airwaves so he would know about the abridgement of her rights and would restore them.

The presenters, claiming there was an audio problem, abruptly cut her off.

The barely-disguised silencing of one of Jordan’s best-known voices instantly became a major issue. On social media, an Arabic hashtag meaning “Your voice is loud and clear, Ahlam Tamimi” got tremendous traction.

* * *

Which brings us to the United Kingdom.

Some 48 hours later, the daily edition of a prime-time current affairs TV show called Trending produced in London went to air on BBC Arabic, amplified by global distribution via YouTube.

The Trending program included a six-minute segment overviewing some of what I have just written. The core message was Tamimi’s demand for her infringed rights to be restored, delivered by the $5 Million woman herself speaking straight into the camera.

In a disturbing example of ill-conceived advocacy, what was conveyed is that here was a Jordanian woman, deprived of something fundamental, deserving support, sympathy, intervention.

A brief video clip overviewing the back-story then drove home to viewers the notion of Tamimi as a victim of cruel injustice, a detainee (that’s a key word) eventually released from imprisonment… and now, being victimized all over again by her own royal majesty!

What possessed the BBC reporters and producers to put this abomination to air? [1]

Screen cap from the Palestinian Media Watch
English translation of the Ahlam Tamimi appeal
promoted 
in the BBC Arabic program
From senior levels of the world’s largest broadcasting organization [2]the BBC has expressed its apologies. The media, including Britain’s major Jewish news platforms, have duly reported this. The Jewish News, another British-Jewish weekly gave this front-page coverage in October: "22-Oct-20: Whose business is it if BBC engages in advocacy journalism?"

It’s my opinion that the apologies mis-state what’s happened here. They are not directed at the actual problem and fail to adequately deal with how the problematic sequence of events presages a problematic future. The one carried in the UK Jewish News weekly put it this way:

“Following an editorial review, we found that this segment was in breach of our editorial guidelines and we removed the clip from our digital platforms last week. We accept that the segment should not have been shown and apologise for the offence caused.”
By my count, to this point the BBC has issued at least five Tamimi/Trending apologies. All of them are framed as a breach of the BBC’s editorial guidelines, as a failure to meet the BBC’s own standards, as a mistake.

All are inadequate because, failing to identify the problem they therefore do not address it.

Not one of them details Tamimi’s crime. Or her explicit and repeated admissions of guilt. Beyond that, they fail to ask what the British public needs to know: Given the BBC’s history, scale, standing and massive resources, how could this have happened?

BBC Arabic is a very serious media business with a weekly audience, according to the BBC’s own dataof some 43 million. Its Twitter account alone has 7.7 million followers. It broadcasts programs and hourly news bulletins 24 hours a day, 7 days a week on radio and via cable, satellite, streaming video and BBC News Arabic television. It has an impactful web-based presence on YouTube, Twitter and Facebook.

Far from being some minor add-on to a mainstream media operation, BBC Arabic is a full-blown world-class competitor to the likes of Aljazeera, SKY News Arabic, Al Arabiya, Iran’s Alalam, and Arabic channels from France and Russia. Friends familiar with the Arab world have told me it’s considered the most credible and least problematic of the pack.

Then there’s the matter of public resources that have been placed at its disposal. In October 2017 (according to a BBC media release: “BBC Arabic launches Trending), the British Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office – the UK’s foreign ministry – handed £291 million, equivalent to US $387M at today’s rate, to BBC management as part of the biggest expansion of BBC World Service since the 1940’s when all it did was radio.

BBC Arabic is the largest beneficiary of that funding. And the Trending program is singled out for special focus in the media advisory.

With more than 250 staff (some estimates say 400) in London and bureaus in (at least) Cairo, Baghdad, Ramallah and Washington DC, it’s seen as having a serious role in British foreign policy and projecting British influence into strategically important demographics.

Now zoom down to the BBC’s October apologies and you are left wondering how one of the world’s most important Arabic-language media platforms, controlled and funded by Her Majesty’s Government, could have thought it right to give the world’s most wanted female fugitive a sympathetic platform so as to portray her as a victim.

* * *

Some aspects that bear on that question:

  • The BBC Arabic Trending show’s presenter introduced Tamimi, the confessed bomber and fugitive murdering terrorist, by calling her “the Jordanian prisoner of Palestinian origin [who] has returned to the headlines.” That’s it – the entire description.
  • A subtle but related point: the Arabic word usually translated as prisoner is more accurately rendered as detainee – meaning a person captured or held for one reason or another. And maybe for no reason at all.
  • They made no mention of the death toll. Deaths don’t even get a mention in this report. The production people could have framed this as being about fifteen innocent people, Israelis and tourists, adults, children and infants, murdered by the Jordanian. And that more than 130 others were injured, some horribly. That the dead included a mother and a father and three of their children under the age of ten – five members of a family, leaving young, orphaned children at home. Instead, they breezily air-brushed all these realities out.
  • They did not say Tamimi specifically chose a pizzeria filled with children. Or that, based on previously checking out the area to plant a different bomb the previous month, she decided this was the most child-rich target to be found that day (school holidays) at that hour (lunch time) in Israel’s bustling capital.
  • They concealed how, for Tamimi, this attack, from the outset of its planning, was all about murdering Jewish children and mutilating (think of those nails) as many as possible.
  • That she has no regrets: “You know how many casualties there were? This was made possible by Allah. Do you want me to denounce what I did? That's out of the question. I would do it again today and in the same manner.” [Source: An earlier published interview]
  • With absurd delicacy, Trending whitewashes Tamimi as someone “accused of participating in the bombing”. Accused? Tamimi confessed to the Israeli court that tried her for terrorism, admitting all the charges against her and denying none of them. She was then convicted and sentenced. In a different context, calling her accused might be disingenuous. Here, it’s simply an attempt to deceive.
  • Tamimi has gone on to publicly admit, to boast about, to regale in the celebrity that comes with being the cause of so many horrific deaths.
  • This, along with her current freedom – a finger in the eye of the Zionists -  is what has made her the figure of adulation that she has become,  without any doubt.   
  • BBC Arabic did not say that Tamimi, speaking to a documentary film maker, framed the massacre as part of a religious struggle between Islam and the Jews.
  • They did not say Tamimi is currently the most wanted female fugitive in the world with a State Department reward of $5M for her capture and conviction.
  • They did not say that an Extradition Treaty was signed by the present king’s father and the Clinton State Department in 1995. That the US says it is perfectly valid today - despite a Jordanian court ruling that cites a dubious technical defect (and suggests no other basis) for its finding.
  • That no court in Jordan goes so far as to claim Tamimi is innocent or “accused” or suspected – only that, whatever she is, Jordan is not obliged to do anything. No legal source outside Jordan has supported the logic of the Jordanian judges.
  • The Trending people did not spend even a moment telling viewers about the unremitting misery that the destruction of so many lives – mostly of children and infants – inflicted on ordinary Israeli, American, Australian, French, Brazilian and Dutch families. Or that Tamimi smiled happily into the camera when informed by an interviewer how many children (eight) perished at her hands.  
  • They did not name Malki or Michal or any of the other luminous lives this beast snuffed out. For those packaging and marketing it, they don’t advance the tale of Tamimi’s victimhood. So, who cares?

It’s simply stunning that, in the considered judgement of BBC’s leadership, what happened here amounts to a mere breach of guidelines, some kind of technical error. As if they were saying, “Perhaps a rule or two may have been infringed. But now leave it to us to see it doesn’t happen again,” et cetera.

* * *

Totally missing in the BBC’s public statements on this scandal is any sign of introspection.

What, you might want to ask, is wrong with the BBC staffers who put this to air? Were they brought up to think this way? Is this what they learned in journalism school? Is this how the BBC trained them?

Malki, of blessed memory

I don’t know where the foreign ministry of the United Kingdom stands on any of this, though I wish I did. While they are the channel through which large slabs of tax-payer money are poured into BBC Arabic, giving it a voice of unmatched authority and tremendous reach, they have deferred to the providers of “Sorry, we’ll do better next time” to handle the flack.

The BBC incomprehensibly handing one of the world’s most powerful megaphones to a terrorist isn’t a procedural issue. It’s not a marginal disciplinary matter. And it is surely not some trivial search to find the most efficient words.

Reasonable observers making an honest assessment would see, I believe, that the Trending show and its well-funded staff have just served up an unblinking validation of Tamimi’s demand to be heard and supported. This blood-drenched celebrity jihadist, on the run from Interpol and the FBI, is promoted as an icon of resistance. The unimpeachable BBC brand is there to seal the credibility of the framing.

* * *

But there’s more.

While rejecting the steps my wife and I urged them to take in our meeting, BBC management in mid-November sent me a video clip along with an Arabic-to-English translation of what it says. It’s one more apology – but this time, one they told us went to air on the Trending program itself at the end of October.

As reported in today's 
Jewish Chronicle UK cover story
(Though they were good enough to email me the actual video of the on-camera Arabic-language apology, I am unable to find it found online now and I believe it's not there - not anywhere. There is also no mention of it on Twitter, Facebook or elsewhere in BBC’s social media world. I certainly believe the BBC when they say it went to air. I’m just not sure how impactful it could have been and wondering how much impact they wanted it to have if they made it disappear the instant after it was delivered on-air. In any event, I have it because they gave it to me, and I plan to ask for permission to publish it.)

This apology has some odd features. 

It’s devoid of any on-screen headline. It has no photo of Tamimi or of the massacre or of anything else that would catch an audience’s attention. There's no visual link to convey that this is important. No sign other than the rapidly spoken flat-toned words of the cold-faced presenter herself that it’s about Tamimi. Or about anything else of significance.

On the positive side, it’s delivered by the same journalist who was the program’s presenter when they showcased the Sbarro monster a few weeks earlier. That on its own is important. But her tone is monotonous and uninflected, and her brief recitation lasts just a minute.

I showed the BBC’s transcript along with the video clip to an expert Arabic-to-English translator who pointed out some problems. The biggest was in the opening words. On screen, the TV presenter speaking Arabic says this:

Our viewers, I read you a message from the BBC”.

The transcript that the BBC gave me does not have those words or anything like them.

The omission leaves me feeling that the non-Arabic speakers at the world’s most important broadcast enterprise, including its top management, don’t realize that this (now expressed in my words, not hers) is what their audience heard from Trending’s presenter:

Friends, what I’m about to say is not me speaking but something the BBC people have obliged me to say. So here goes and we’ll get this out of the way in a minute and get back to our show.”

In the wake of a searing experience, watching incredulously as the killer of my child (roll those words around in your own minds) is presented to millions of viewers as if she were the overworked head of some worthy charity in need, the pro forma apology underscores how, sorry to say, I fear BBC management has lost the plot.

The professionals who formulate and deliver BBC Arabic content don’t need more rules, guidelines or direction. Whatever may be called for, it’s surely not another apology.

What’s just happened and what it says about a precious British resource is far too serious for that. Getting the world’s most important broadcaster to understand this ought to be at the top of some senior UK government official’s list of things that - once and for all - need to be gotten right at the BBC.

UPDATE February 6, 2021: If you have read this far, we want you to know of an update post ["05-Feb-21: The Sbarro savagery: The on-air apology BBC Arabic broadcast to its viewers [Video]"] with additional revelations that expose unacknowledged dysfunctionality at the BBC..

Footnotes

[1] I amplified my criticisms of what the BBC did in several other published pieces during October 2020. See  “‘BBC lost its moral compass’ by giving mass murderer a platform” [Jewish News UK, October 21, 2020]. And “Father of murdered daughter condemns BBC for giving platform to Ahlam Tamimi” [Jewish News Syndicate, October 14, 2020]. And via a televised interview with SKY News Australia [“Father of murdered child ‘nauseated’ BBC gave terrorist killer a platform”, October 18, 2020]

[2] 22,000 staff of whom 16,000 plus are in public sector broadcasting). Add in part-time, flexible, and fixed-contract staff and it’s 35,402 [Wikipedia]

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