BBC sets up Mideast monitor

From the www.monabaker.com archive (legacy material)

Bernard Josephs | Jewish Chronicle | 14 November 2003

The BBC's appointment this week of a top broadcasting figure to oversee its Mideast coverage was welcomed by Israeli and Jewish community leaders as a recognition of their protests over alleged anti-Israeli bias. In and unprecedented move, the corporation name Malcolm Balen, a former editor of the "Nine O'Clock News," to monitor its coverage of the region. A BBC spokesman said Mr. Balen, appointed by head of news Richard Sambrook and World Service chief Mark Dyford, would "build our relations with all people in the Middle East." He would also be a "point of contact" for viewers and listeners. The move came in the wake of a series of meetings in recent months, in both London and Jerusalem, involving Israeli officials, figures from the British Jewish community, and top BBC representatives. Relations have been increasingly strained amid accusations that BBC coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iraq war, and other Middle East issues has been slanted against Israel. Relations hit a low earlier this year when BBC representatives were barred from briefings during Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's London visit, and Israeli leaders refused to appear on BBC programmes. Mr. Balen said this week that he was eargerly anticipatin his new challenge. "It is right and proper that our audiences feel passionate about the BBC's Middle East coverage. It's too important not to care," he said, adding that his toughest challenge would be to persuade people that he was fair-minded. Welcoming the BBC move, an Israeli embassy spokesman declared: "It seems that the character of our recent relations with the BBC has had its impact. Maybe it means that they understand that there is something in our claims of bias and that they really need to monitor what they do." Lee Petar, acting director of the Britain-Israel Communications and Research Centre, said: "It seems the BBC has finally acknowledged the coverage issue. It is a positive first step." Board of Deputies director-general Neville Nagler termed the appointment of Mr. Balen "interesting, but overdue." In his view, the BBC "must have been rattled by the criticism they have received." Zionist Federation director Alan Aziz supported "any move that could lead to more accurate reporting" of the Middle East. Meanwhile, there appeared to be further evidence of thawing relations. A BBC World TV inteview with Deputy Premier Ehud Olmert last week was the first time that an official Israeli spokesman had appeared on the BBC since Israel announced it was "withdrawing co-operation" four months ago.