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Ofcom's ruling on Channel 4's "UK Israel Lobby" program: Not in Breach

Ofcom received 50 complaints about Channel 4's program on the UK Israel Lobby for which openDemocracy published the pamphlet. It was alleged that the program was biased, anti-semitic and poor journalism. Ofcom found none of these complaints to be grounded. We reproduce the ruling below.
openDemocracy Opendemocracy
23 March 2010
Ofcom received 50 complaints about Channel 4's program on the UK Israel Lobby for which openDemocracy published the pamphlet. It was alleged that the program was biased, anti-semitic and poor journalism. Ofcom found none of these complaints to be grounded

Not In Breach

Dispatches: Inside Britains Israel Lobby
Channel 4, 16 November 2009, 20:00

Introduction

This edition of Dispatches waspresented by journalist Peter Oborne. It sought to establish the extent of the alleged influence of the pro Israel lobby on British politicians and asked what effect this influence had on the Middle East policies of the Conservative and Labour parties in particular. The presenter began the programme with the following:

“Dispatches reveals the activities of the most effective lobby working inside British political parties….we investigate the Israel lobby’s bankrolling of British politicians.”

He then said:

“I resolved to ask questions. How does the pro-Israel lobby in Britain work? Who runs it? And how does it get results?”

The programme was an investigation into several individual organisations, and the people who ran them. The programme said that these groups formed part of the pro-Israeli lobby in Britain and sought to demonstrate how they “bankrolled” some British politicians. The programme also questioned the attitude of some lobby groups to elements of the British press, describing what it said were aggressive methods of complaint to the Press Complaints Commission against “anti-Israeli reporting”.

Ofcom received 50 complaints about certain aspects of the programme. These complaints fell into four groups:

a) the programme was biased against Israel and/or the Israeli government;

b) it did not adequately explain fully the background to the current situation in the Middle East;

c) it was anti-Semitic; and

d) it was overly critical of certain lobby groups.

Ofcom viewed the programme in light of these complaints. We examined the material under the due impartiality rules in Section Five of the Code; and the rules on offensive material in Section Two.

Decision

a) Due Impartiality

Complainants believed that the programme lacked balance and was one sided.

In exercising its functions Ofcom must take account of the right to freedom of expression. This encompasses the broadcasters’ right to transmit and the audience’s right to receive creative material, information and ideas without interference but subject to restrictions prescribed by law and necessary in a democratic society. This right is enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights. The rules in the Code seek to balance this right to freedom of expression against the need to apply restrictions. These restrictions include such statutory duties as the requirement for broadcasters to preserve “due impartiality” on certain matters. Ofcom recognises that Section Five of the Code, which sets out how due impartiality must be preserved, acts to limit, to some extent, freedom of expression. This is because its application necessarily requires broadcasters to ensure that neither side of a debate relating to matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy is unduly favoured.

Ofcom also acknowledges that Channel 4’s statutory remit requires it to provide “…a broad range of high quality and diverse programming which, in particular ….exhibits a distinctive character.”

Ofcom considers it of paramount importance that broadcasters, such as Channel 4, continue to explore controversial subject matter. While such programmes can polarise opinion, they are essential to our understanding of the world around us.

Section Five states that due impartiality must be preserved by the broadcaster on “matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy.” The Code explains in summary that these are “political or industrial issues on which politicians, industry and/or the media are in debate…”

Ofcom had first to establish whether Dispatches, Inside Britain’s Israel Lobby contained subject matter requiring the application of the due impartiality rules. We noted that several complainants considered this programme was biased against the Israeli State and its policies. However, we considered that the programme was not a discussion about arguments for and against Israeli policy. Rather, it was clearly an ‘investigation’ into the activities of organisations and individuals who allegedly lobby UK political parties from a pro-Israeli perspective to influence political debate and public policy.

In this case, taking into account all the circumstances, and bearing in mind the context of the programme described in the Introduction above, Ofcom concluded that on balance the programme was subject to the due impartiality rules. This is because an issue of political controversy was being discussed. This was not the politically controversial debate surrounding the policies and actions of the Israeli State in the Middle East and beyond. Rather the issue of political controversy was: the alleged effect of political lobby groups, supportive of the state of Israel, and its policies; and the methods of those lobby groups, and their attempts to influence political debate and public policy in this country.

Given that the programme’s investigative format, looking into activities of certain individuals and organisations, the editorial narrative of the programme reflected what the reporter had discovered. It focussed on the methods of these lobby groups and the effect these organisations had on the policies of particular political parties. Such investigative programmes will always take on a certain editorial approach to the subject matter, but nevertheless, such programming must always ensure that due impartiality is maintained.

For example footage was shown of the Conservative Shadow Foreign Secretary, William Hague, describing the Israeli response to attacks from Hezbollah as “ disproportionate”. The programme then sought to demonstrate what it saw as pro-Israel lobby groups’ over reaction to Hague’s criticism. It described how Mr Hague’s “ moderate” comment met strong reaction from the Conservative Friends of Israel (“CFI”): a letter was published in The Spectator magazine strongly criticising his remark; there was a cessation of donations to Mr Hague by the CFI; and the director of the CFI (according to the programme):

 “…had a meeting with David Cameron at which it was understood that terms such as ‘disproportionate’ are not the sort that Conservatives should use to describe Israeli military action.”

Another example of this approach by the programme occurred when the presenter, seen at the Conservative party Conference, said:

“the longer I’m here, the more I’m beginning to feel that the CFI’s purpose is to make sure David Cameron’s Middle East policy is in step with the political agenda of the current Israeli government.”

In this , the programme, although not offering a view on Conservative policy on the Middle East, expressed a view on what certain lobby groups would like that policy to be. In demonstrating, in its view, the lobby groups’ attempts to influence political process and public policy, we considered that it was incumbent on the broadcaster to maintain due impartiality in this case.

Given the above, Ofcom considered whether the programme complied with Rule 5.5, which states that: “Due impartiality on matters of political or industrial controversy and matters relating to current public policy must be preserved on the part of any person providing a service…”.

We noted that during the programme where allegations were made against particular lobby groups or individuals, the viewpoints of those groups or individuals were included in the programme. For example, the programme included statements from: the CFI; and Poju Zabludowicz, an individual who the programme alleged was connected to an organisation called Britain’s Israel Communications and Research Centre (“BICOM”). In addition, the programme included an interview with Lorna Fitzsimons, Chief Executive of BICOM.

Overall the reporter set out a series of legitimate questions. Such as:

“How does the pro-Israel lobby work? Who runs it? And how does it get results?

The programme then aimed to answer these questions by gathering evidence. However, importantly it did so while still ensuring that opposing views were also recognised.

Given the above, we considered that the programme included views from the organisations and individuals highlighted in the programme as being active as lobbying in sympathy to the Israeli State. In Ofcom’s view this was a legitimate investigation into the activities of lobby groups, which approached the subject with “due impartiality” in accordance with Rule 5.5.

Several complainants were also concerned that groups featured in the programme – notably the CFI, Labour Friends of Israel and BICOM – were treated unfairly. Others objected to the broadcast of footage of the residences of individuals connected to these organisations. In Ofcom’s view these complaints were related to fairness and privacy. Ofcom will normally only consider such complaints when they are made by a “person affected” by a programme, for example a member of one of the organisations concerned or someone authorised by them. We have not received any such complaint and so did not to investigate these concerns further.


b) The Middle East

Some viewers complained that the programme did not fully explain the background to the Middle East situation. However, what areas a programme does and does not cover is purely an editorial decision for the broadcaster and not a matter for Ofcom (so long as the programme complies with the requirements of the Code).  In any event, it should be noted that this programme was an investigation into the alleged influence of the Israeli lobby on British politics and did not seek to examine the Middle East issue.

c) and d) Offence

Some complainants were offended by the programme because they believed it was anti-Semitic. Ofcom considered these complaints under Rule 2.3 of the Code which requires that material which may cause offence is justified by the context. Under “meaning of context” the Code lists a number of factors. These include the editorial content of the programme and the service on which it is broadcast.

It is inevitable that a programme of this nature will include frequent references to Israel and Judaism. It can also be expected to refer to prominent figures in the Jewish community and portray groups that are pro-Israel. Given the editorial content of this programme described above, and the way the programme sought to expose what it said was the way pro-Israel lobbyists use financial means to gain political influence, it is almost inevitable that many of the references to prominent figures and groups would be critical. However, such a critical analysis does not, in Ofcom’s view, constitute anti-Semitism. Importantly, Ofcom found that these references, and the programme overall were directed towards individuals or organisations because of their alleged actions and activities and not because of their religion. In this case generally accepted standards were applied by the broadcaster and there was no breach of Rule 2.3.

Not in Breach of Rule 5.5 and Rule 2.3


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