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Antisemitism on Oxford Street: A BBC shocker

Updated: Jan 29

Footage which circulated on social media in early December 2021 of an antisemitic incident which had occurred days earlier on London’s Oxford Street appalled not only the Jewish community, but the wider public. Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, said it was a ‘chilling and shocking scene on London’s streets.’ Mayor of London Sadiq Khan similarly condemned the assault. Even the Prime Minister weighed in, calling the clip ‘disturbing.’


As early evening shoppers went about their business, a group of orthodox Israeli children had been celebrating the festival of Chanukah. Having chartered a bus to central London the teenagers had been dancing and handing out sweets when three men of Asian appearance had approached them in a threatening manner. “F*** Israel” was amongst a raft of expletives hurled the group’s way prompting the shaken children to seek refuge in their bus. Once on board the abuse continued. The trio of men proceeded to aggressively bang on windows as the vehicle departed.


BBC reports which followed caused outrage in the Jewish community. For the broadcaster was reporting what it referred to as ‘anti-Muslim slurs’ which it claimed had been ‘clearly heard’ inside the bus, an accusation that was amended to ‘an anti-Muslim slur’ in the singular thereafter. However, such was the quality of the audio, deciding what had been actually said would prove no easy task: Jewish groups suggested the children had been speaking in Hebrew, not English and that possibly the words translated to ‘Call someone, it is urgent.’


The point was that owing to the poor quality of the sound it had been nigh on impossible to provide a definitive interpretation of what had been said at the point in the clip – at the 3 second mark. Despite this consideration, the BBC reported the presence of an ‘anti-Muslim’ slur as de facto truth. In stark contrast, and though the footage clearly showed the three men abusing the children, BBC reports spoke of an ‘alleged antisemitic incident.’


What really irked groups, which included the Board of Deputy of British Jews, was the way in which the BBC appeared to be implying some sort of equivalence, that the incident was little more than a tit-for-tat exchange. Yet the Asian men had approached the Jewish teens first; the abuse had become so extreme (Nazi salutes had been reputedly made) the children had been forced to seek sanctuary inside the bus; even then the assault had continued from the outside. The teens had been terrified.


It seemed perverse in the extreme that the BBC would seize upon a contested anti-Muslim smear uttered from inside the bus and therefore audible only to fellow passengers. If the smear had indeed been uttered as described by the broadcaster i.e. a single muffled comment – and it was a big if – it would have been a retort to an unprovoked and sustained racist attack of the worst kind imaginable.


BBC behaviour was thus already causing concern: was the corporation attempting to minimise some forms of abuse while exaggerate others, and if so, why? Casual observers might have been forgiven for concluding that when it comes to antisemitism, the burden of proof appears to be that much higher down at Broadcasting House in comparison to certain other faiths, indecipherable ‘slurs’ against whom are invariably not reported as allegations but as fact.


Stung into action by the sheer volume of criticism the BBC accelerated a formal complaint straight to its Executive Complaints Unit (ECU). For those unaware, the ECU is the broadcaster’s internal yet ‘independent’ watchdog whose judgements invariably uphold those of their colleagues. Sure enough the ECU’s analysis does just that: apart from a few minor points, the report, released on 26 January, pretty much exonerates BBC reporting of the incident.


Typically, instead of apologising, owning its mistakes, where it should have excoriated the judgment seeks merely to absolve. And in doing so the ECU simply digs the BBC into an even deeper hole. For example, it airily dismisses the very real concern that BBC reports sought to equalise horrific antisemitic abuse witnessed on video footage with a contested ‘slur’ heard by a handful of BBC editors and reporters.


Tautologies aside, the smoking gun might be found in the ECU’s assertion that the presence of the ‘slur’ had been verified by The Community Security Trust, a charity which provides help and guidance to the UK’s Jewish community. Lacking support outside its own circles, the BBC badly needed third party verification. However, just days ago the CST categorically denied supporting the BBC position.


Meanwhile, The Campaign Against Anti-Semitism has denounced the judgment as a ‘whitewash non-apology.’ Ofcom has now stepped into the fray, but given its track record of almost always finding in the BBC’s favour, that might do little to assuage the various Jewish groups pursuing what they now term ‘justice.’ Yes indeed, this is one row the broadcaster will not be brushing under the plush carpets of Broadcasting House as per usual.


As it stands, the longer this saga continues, the greater the collateral damage must be to the corporation. Indeed, now that the probity of the ECU itself is under scrutiny – supposedly the last word in BBC integrity – questions must be asked about the entire culture of the BBC. And who knows to where this particular line of questioning may lead?