BBC denies Israel influenced coverage of conflict

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The Independent Online

A senior Israeli official publicly boasted yesterday that Israel has influenced the editorial policy of the BBC in its coverage of the Middle East conflict.

The claims have caused anger at the BBC, which has been fending off allegations, first published by The Independent, that it was pressured by Israeli diplomats into softening its language towards Israel – notably by describing the assassinations by Israeli death squads of suspected Palestinian militants merely as "targeted killings".

One allegation is that the Israeli embassy in London, which has mounted a huge drive to influence the British media, has pressured the BBC to take a tougher line during interviews with Palestinians in the past year.

The claims were made by David Schneeweis, the Israeli Embassy's press secretary, who has a wide range of contacts at the highest levels of the British media, during a taped interview with the Jerusalem Post's internet radio service.

In it, he states that the BBC, of which he is scathingly critical, is a vast organisation, like the Coca-Cola corporation, and is "very difficult" to influence.

But, he adds: "London is a world centre of media and the embassy here works night and day to try to influence that media. And, in many subtle ways, I think we don't do a half-bad job, if I may say so ... We have newspapers that write consistently in a manner that supports and understands Israel's situation and its dilemmas and challenges. And we have had influence on the BBC as well.

"The rigour of the questioning of Palestinian interviewees is nowhere what it should be, but it is vastly improved over the past 12 months than what it was before."

The claims were met with an angry rebuttal from the BBC. "To suggest that either the Israelis or the Palestinians have had any influence on our rigorously independent coverage of events in the Middle East or that there has been any change in the way we cover events in the past 12 months is complete rubbish," a spokesman said.

Yesterday, Mr Schneeweis wrote a letter to the BBC attacking two correspondents in Jerusalem, Orla Guerin and Barbara Plett, for saying on air that television footage of Palestinians celebrating after the US atrocities did not reflect the sentiments of most Palestinians.

This interpretation was substantiated by many other correspondents in the region. But Mr Schneeweis said the reporting went to "great lengths to put the pictures 'in context'" and were "blatant and apparently co-ordinated attempts to guide the British audience away from making its own judgements". He suggested the two BBC reporters had succumbed to Palestinian intimidation or had chosen to "champion the Palestinian cause".

His letter, which was leaked to the Jerusalem Post, caused fury at the BBC. Its Middle East editor in Jerusalem, Andrew Steele, has written a letter to the newspaper denying that its correspondents were either biased towards, or intimidated by, the Palestinians, and pointing out that it is a reporters' job to put events into context.

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