Friday, February 05, 2021

05-Feb-21: The Sbarro savagery: The on-air apology BBC Arabic broadcast to its viewers [Video]

This screen cap comes from the October 8, 2020 edition of BBC Arabic's hugely popular, five-nights-a-week news and analysis show, Trending. This edition contained a segment of about 6 minutes devoted to explaining the 'predicament' of FBI Most Wanted Fugitive Ahlam Tamimi, a boastful bomber of children including ours, whose husband, it was claimed, had been forcibly deported from Jordan on October 1, 2020. Outrage against the BBC's judgement soon followed.

How they do apologies at the BBC is almost as interesting as how they consistently and systematically get certain things wrong a lot.

In October 2020, we (Frimet and Arnold Roth who write this blog) protested what we see as the inexcusably disgraceful way the BBC's BBC Arabic unit aired a fawning and - in our view - completely misleading news segment about the Jordanian woman who killed our daughter Malki.

The details are laid out in these earlier reports (listed chronologically):

How the BBC handled the Ahlam Tamimi matter is also the subject of a front-page expose (photo on the right) in the current (February 3, 2021) edition of the London-based Jewish Chronicle
It's also at the heart of an incisive column, "Terrorism, Malki Roth’s murder and questions to answer for the BBC’s Arabic service" by Chris Blackhurst, published in Reaction. We have an extract from it below.

We mentioned in our February 4, 2021 post that BBC management, responding to the public outrage over what the clever people at BBC Arabic did when they sympathetically showcased the world's most wanted female fugitive Ahlam Tamimi, arranged for one of the BBC Arabic Trending program's presenters to deliver an on-air apology. This was broadcast on October 29, 2020.

There's much criticism we want to share about the apology's content and style. (To understand how we feel about what's said - and how it's presented - we urge you to pause now and read our previous post: "04-Feb-21: The BBC is sorry they showcased a terrorist. But do they actually grasp the problem?")

One of the puzzling aspects was that the apology itself was not stored away as video-on-demand on any of the BBC's media platforms. In other words, if you didn't see it in real time, there was no way to review it or draw your own conclusions afterwards. Once delivered, the apology immediately disappeared. (A few more words about that below.)

So this week, we asked BBC management to allow us to republish their highly problematic October 29, 2020 apology here on our blog. To their great credit, they didn't hesitate to give their explicit permission. 

Here it is:

As you see, it comes with no English sub-titles. But in sharing the on-air apology video with us, the BBC also sent us their translation of the Arabic. 

Here it is below - unedited, unchanged. The speaker is BBC Arabic’s Rania ‘Attar; one of Trending’s regular presenters since it got started in 2017.

On 8 October, BBC Arabic’s Trending programme item on social media reactions to a phone call made by Ahlam Tamimi to a Jordanian radio station. Trending then broadcast a short clip recorded with Tamimi.

This item was in breach of the BBC’s editorial guidelines. Tamimi was convicted on terrorism charges and sentenced to multiple life sentences in Israel for an attack that killed 15 civilians including eight children, she is on the FBI’s most wanted terrorist list and is a member of an organisation proscribed by the UK and  several international governments.

Therefore, any contact with her should have been approved in advance by senior editors in the BBC, as per our editorial guidelines. That approval was not sought and would certainly not have been given.

This item should not have been shown.  It was a clear breach of our editorial guidelines and we apologise for it.

As we wrote in our February 4 post, this apology has some troubling features. 

  • It’s devoid of any on-screen headline. There is no photo of Tamimi or of the massacre or of anything else that would catch a viewer's attention. In fact, there's no visual link to convey that this is important. All that the audience experiences is the rapidly spoken flat-toned speechlet of the cold-faced presenter herself saying that it’s about Tamimi. There's simply no indication that this has any special 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. 
Arnold Roth 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 Trending presenter, Rania ‘Attar, speaking Arabic says this:
“Our viewers, I read you a message from the BBC”.
The transcript that the BBC gave us does not have those words or anything like them.

The omission leaves us feeling that the non-Arabic speakers at the world’s most important broadcast enterprise, including senior BBC management, don’t realize that this (using our words and not hers) is what their audience actually 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. We’ll get this out of the way in a minute and then return to our show.”

Image source: REACTION screen cap
And one more important thing to know about this on-air apology.

As CAMERA Arabic points out [here in Arabic] all of the Trending program's segments for October 29, 2020 were stored on the BBC website for some time after they went to air. But not the apology. 

If you go now to BBC Arabic's YouTube channel, you can still see all of those October 29, 2020 Trending segments today. But (and we hope BBC senior management see these words) you will not see the apology that went to air the same night. It alone is missing

As we noted above, Chris Blackurst, who served as editor of the UK's The Independent in the recent past, published a powerful takedown today in his first column for Reaction (background here)

Since his excellent comments are behind a paywall, here's a brief extract:

Even though [Malki] died 20 years ago, [Arnold Roth's] pain at her loss is obvious and still raw. It does not diminish. Imagine, then, in October last year, him turning on theBBC Arabic TV programme, Trending, to watch the mastermind of her deathbeing interviewed and treated respectfully... 

Listening to Roth and observing his anger and hurt, you do wonder. One man’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter and all that... This isn’t about IRA versus Britain or Palestine versus Israel; it is about grief and torment. Here, there was not even an attempt at balance, no account of what happened, and Tamimi’s role. That one-sidedness was then compounded by the robotic, distanced apology.

Perish the thought that the BBC’s Arabic service is pursuing a political agenda at the expense of the Corporation’s mission statement: “To act in the public interest, serving all audiences through the provision of impartial, high-quality and distinctive output and services which inform, educate and entertain.”

Shame on you, BBC.

[From "Terrorism, Malki Roth’s murder and questions to answer for the BBC’s Arabic service", Reaction, February 6, 2021]. 

As we keep saying, and as respected voices like Mr Blackhurts's are reiterating, there is a serious problem here. Arnold Roth expressed it this way in his interview this week with the Jewish Chronicle:

There's a toxic culture at BBC Arabic... This isn’t journalism. It’s the advocacy of pushing their own hateful views. She confessed to all the charges in court and is unabashedly proud of what she has done. Yet BBC Arabic wants to treat her like Joan of Arc. I believe in senior management’s good faith but fear they don’t fully grasp the BBC Arabic agenda. The language barrier leads, I suspect, to the Arabic producers and reporters playing BBC senior people for fools.[Jewish Chronicle. February 4, 2021]

Since you are here at our blog, you likely know that we are in the midst of a years-long battle to see justice done. We want the woman who boasts - boasts! - of killing the children inside the pizzeria brought to justice in Washington. We believe the US Department of Justice wants to see her stand trial and we are doing all we can to expose the obstacles (about which we have never been explicit) and get them removed. 

What the BBC allowed to be done in shamefully platforming Tamimi and what she stands for is a microcosm of what we personally have encountered over and over again. And still do. 

The media part of this is particularly painful. Faced with a news story involving pure unadulterated evil in a very specific political setting, a broad spectrum of editors, reporters and commentators prefer to stay silent. 

Or, as the BBC did in October, put lipstick on a pig rather than deal with the crucial matters (of terrorism, justice, malfeasance, cover-up) at hand. 

Tamimi's years of illicit freedom and the fact that Jordan breaches its own extradition treaty with its most powerful and important ally in order to keep her safe and out of the reach of law enforcement is a time bomb. Failing to deal with terrorism, with those who do it and with those who ensure it endures and thrives has real consequences. 

And so does lethal journalism.

UPDATE February 9, 2021: And another valuable contribution on holding the BBC to account comes today from Jake Wallis-Simons in The Spectator: "What’s the problem with BBC Arabic?". A brief extract: should come as a cause for concern – if not necessarily surprise – that a Jewish Chronicle investigation has uncovered evidence of shameful and systematic bias at the channel. The idea for the investigation came after a conversation with an Australian-born Israeli called Arnold Roth, 69, whose teenage daughter Malki was one of 15 people killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in 2001. The female terrorist who masterminded the attack, Ahlam Tamimi, was released from jail in a prisoner exchange in 2011 and went to live in Jordan, where she became a celebrated media personality.

Last year, BBC Arabic broadcast a fawning interview with the convicted terrorist. Incensed, Roth complained and won an apology from Jamie Angus, head of the World Service. Roth suspected, however, that this was not an aberration but a symptom of a rotten culture at the heart of the licence-fee-funded Arabic channel.

The investigation appears to confirm this view.

We're waiting to see where, if at all, this attention goes and who steps up to propose actual next steps. 

UPDATE June 30, 2022: A British news report today [here] says Jamie Angus, head of the World Service at the time and the official who issued an apology on the BBC's behalf has now left the BBC. In the words of the MailOnline article, he

is understood to have left the corporation in favour of a top role with Saudi Arabia's state broadcaster. Jamie Angus quit his position as BBC News's senior controller of output and commissioning in April for an unspecified new post, after failing to be appointed BBC director of news... [He] has secured a top job at Al Arabiya News, part of the Saudi conglomerate MBC Group, The Times reports. His position is not known but sources have speculated he could serve as the station's chief finance officer or chief operating officer... But his new job is not viewed favourably by BBC bosses due to ethical concerns around Saudi Arabia's human rights abuses.

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