Saturday, 18 September 2010

Exchange with BBC re Norwegian divestment from Israeli firms

Here's an exchange with the BBC regarding their questioning of Norwegian government official Gro Nystuen. The Today programme's Steven Evans had asked her why Norway's Ministry of Finance had decided to divest from two leading Israeli companies operating in the West Bank.

In my initial letter, I raised five points of concern over the interview, which the BBC's Sean Moss here addresses.

17 September, 2010

Dear Mr Hilley,

Thank you for your email of August 27 to Helen Boaden which she has sent to me. Please accept my apologies for the delay in responding. For future reference, we would ask you to send any complaints via the webform at As I think you are aware, the BBC has an established complaints procedure to ensure that correspondence is directed towards the appropriate journalist or programme. In this way, complaints are handled in the speediest, most efficient and effective way for our audiences and for our programme-makers.

In this case your complaint concerned the Today programme and I forwarded your concerns to the programme and to the presenter.

With regard to your first point, Today's online team hope they can clear up any confusion. They explain that the 'Listen Again' facility on the BBC 'Today' programme website is not comprehensive. Only highlights are included. The iplayer, on the other hand, is a complete version of the whole programme - available up to seven days after the transmission date. That would seem to be the most likely explanation for you finding the interview was available on one platform but not the other. I hope this is useful information.

With regard to the other points you have raised, Today's business news presenter Steven Evans has offered the following replies in response to your concerns.

On point 2, he says that it seems to be completely relevant to ask why a fund should boycott some Israeli companies on ethical grounds while not shunning Chinese companies which may well have close relations with a Chinese government criticised as repressive. Indeed, the interviewee indicated that relations with Chinese companies were also being examined.

On point 3, Steven Evans believes it was unnecessary to do as you suggest and "caveat .... remarks with an acknowledgement that Britain and most other Western countries actively engage in trade with China " . He felt that this would be stating the obvious and and, arguably, was not a relevant factor here anyway.

In his response to your point 4, Steven Evans says: "There is a left of centre government in Norway and some on the Right argue that the Left in parts of Europe is more critical of Western behaviour than it is of what might be deplorable behaviour by non-Western countries: the Left criticises European and American malfeasance more than it does, say, Cuba's or China's or South Africa's or Zimbabwe's behaviour, is the argument. I didn't endorse that view - I simply raised the point because I felt it was editorially legitimate to do so."

And to your point 5, the programme believes it to be a perfectly valid question to ask whether a fund financed from the production of oil is well placed to take the ethical high ground.

BBC journalists point out that it is the role of an impartial broadcaster to raise issues and different perspectives so that audiences can form their own judgements. To ask a question is not to endorse an opinion. It is to test a position - and that is a legitimate role for journalists and interviewers.

I hope this addresses your concerns and thank you for taking the trouble to write.

Yours sincerely,


Sean Moss
Complaints Adviser
BBC Complaints

Dear Sean

Thanks for responding and forwarding the views of Steven Evans. (I did also send my letter via the BBC complaints format.)

On point 1, I can only take your word for this, but it seems odd that the particular segment wasn't deemed worthy of inclusion by the Today team. It would be interesting to know why.

The argument by Steven Evans at point 2 is bogus. His entire line of questioning was framed around this contrived and drawn-out assertion of 'double standards', a selective diversion which disallowed any examination of the Israeli companies in question and the nature of their business in the illegal West Bank settlements. I'm reasonably sure that listeners would have been much more interested in that and the primary context within which the Norwegian divestment took place.

Likewise, on point 3, any question over Norway's dealings with Chinese companies (also now, as noted, under review) should, indeed, acknowledge that British and other Western governments deal enthusiastically with China. Indeed, why single out China's human rights violations when Evans could have cited the UK's own repressions in Iraq and elsewhere and the British arms companies (Norway has already divested from certain UK arms firms ) who help support such suffering?

On point 4, I'm not sure the Left have, in fact, been slow to criticise South Africa (see Pilger's excellent critiques of the neoliberal incorporation of that country, for one), Zimbabwe or, indeed, China which, to my leftist understanding, is a super-growth capitalist economy offering no credible model of a socialist, sustainable society. Why has Evans held it up as some 'special exception', supposedly close to the hearts of 'leftist' governments?

As for Cuba, please tell me how a non-aggressive country crippled by years of US sanctions and still able to run one of the best health services in the world should receive the same critical treatment as Israel, with its murderous occupation and apartheid oppressions?

Evans may claim that he's merely putting the point as seen from the Right, but he has a seeming blindness to the more staggering levels of carnage visited by America, with European compliance, around the world, even aside from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Regarding point 5, yes, it's fair to ask about the moral credentials of a Norwegian fund derived from oil royalties. The question was whether Evans or any other BBC presenter would ever put such a point to a UK minister about this country's oil money.

You conclude:

"BBC journalists point out that it is the role of an impartial broadcaster to raise issues and different perspectives so that audiences can form their own judgements. To ask a question is not to endorse an opinion. It is to test a position - and that is a legitimate role for journalists and interviewers."
There is, in reality, no impartial balance or equal testing of different perspectives at the BBC. Differing views may - within a limited and controlled spectrum - be allowed. But, as countless examples of loaded reportage, language and interviews suggest, the questioning of leftist voices or/and those opposed to Western or Israeli actions invariably works on core assumptions of benign, if sometimes 'mistaken', Western conduct. It's a set of understandings hard-wired into the BBC's very own reporting guides - for example, Hamas (democratically elected) "rule", "run" or "control" Gaza, while the ConLibs "govern" Britain.

This interview by Steven Evans is a fine example of how that selective set of codes and intonations work in practice.


John Hilley

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