Friday, April 23, 2004

The BBC Interviews Tommy Lapid

I've just finished watching BBC Hardtalk host Tim Sebastian's interview with Yosef Tommy Lapid, Shinui leader and Justice Minister in the current Sharon cabinet. I learnt about the interview by following this link, which I in turn discovered in the comments section of a post by Jonathan Edelstein.

I have to say that as interviews go, that really was something. For sheer confrontation, aggressiveness and for the number of leading questions, Sebastian's interview goes down in my book as one of the most unpleasant I've seen in a long time. Having said that, I think Lapid handled himself excellently under the circumstances, giving well-thought out answers and keeping his cool where less even-tempered individuals might simply have thrown the microphone and walked out of the studio.

Contrary to what most Israelis and Americans might think, however, I'm not willing to attribute Sebastian's confrontational style entirely to anti-Israel bias on the part of the BBC, which isn't to say that such bias doesn't exist; anyone who's seen Orla Guerin in action either in Jenin or while covering the case of Hassam Abdu (the retarded 16-year-old boy caught on camera with explosives strapped to his body) will know that the BBC's reporters often display a level of identification with the Palestinian cause that makes them little than al-Jazeera for those seeking a more objective take on events.

Getting back to the Lapid interview, however, I think that one has to have an appreciation of British coverage of politics to understand how an interviewer can operate in a manner that so flagrantly seems to imply that the interviewee must be guilty of every sin under the book. The fact is that this sort of relentlessly sceptical questioning of politicians is nothing new on British television, and it certainly isn't out of the ordinary either. British current affairs programmes and news shows take it as a matter of course that politicians are "lying bastards", and as long ago as 1997, Jeremy Paxman, the exemplar of this school of TV journalism, was to be seen on Newsnight submitting Michael Howard, then home secretary, to an interrogation so searching that it has gone down in infamy; Paxman asked Howard if he'd ever overruled Derek Lewis, the Director General of the Prison Service, and when Howard failed to answer to his satisfaction, Paxman repeated the same question over and over again a total of 14 times.

This British penchant for interrogation-style interviews is one that I can see no American politician tolerating, but British public figures come in for it as a matter of course, and the British public laps it up; I daresay that American television could certainly use a touch of this gloves-off style as well, though I suppose the sheer competitiveness of the American TV market and the much less cynical nature of the average American* by comparison with Her Majesty's subjects makes this unlikely ever to happen. Still, I can see how it must seem like a blatant attempt at denigration in the eyes of those who aren't used to this sort of aggressiveness on their airwaves. The true test of bias in a situation like this would be to see whether or not Sebastian softballed his questioning of those on the Palestinian side of the conflict.

UPDATE: Here's a transcript of an interview Tim Sebastian had in Beirut with Khaled Meshaal, the new leader of Hamas. To my eyes at least, the transcript doesn't seem at all to bear out the notion that Sebastian's confrontational interview with Lapid was a manifestation of anti-Israel bias on his part. Read the following excerrpt and judge for yourself: better yet, read the whole transcript and then decide.

TIM SEBASTIAN - Khaled Meshaal. A very warm welcome to the programme. In the wake of the Israeli assassination of Sheikh Yassin, is Hamas planning yet another cycle of pointless revenge violence?

KHALED MESHAAL- In the name of God the Compassionate, the Merciful. Bloodshed in Palestine is going on because of the Israeli crimes before and it didn't begin after the assassination of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. The Zionist crime requests a Palestinian response. This is something very ordinary. This reciprocity is acknowledged by all human and spiritual laws and legislations.

T S - Where does it get you? Where does it get you, this retaliation? It doesn't change anything. It doesn't get you anywhere does it? More people die. More of your people die, more Israelis die. No progress is made. Haven't you got anything else to offer to the process?

KM: Our goal is to end the occupation and not kill people. If the world was able to be fair with us and give us back our land and rights, we won't need anymore fighting and resistance

TS- And when you take this revenge and you see the bodies of Israeli women and children on the streets, does that make you feel better?

KM: We feel better when the occupation ends. We hope that no blood will fall in Palestine but the one who began with aggression is the one to be held responsible for it. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin was a religious cleric paralysed and despite that, he was targeted by Zionist missiles which are American weapons. The Palestinian people have the right to respond to this aggression.

TS- Sheikh Yassin is a man who ordered killings of civilians - Israeli civilians. You can hardly complain when in a war he himself is killed can you?

[............]

TS- Mr Meshaal, you're not defending anybody are you. Your tactics are not defending your people at all. There is not one single Palestinian you can defend against Israeli attacks from F16's and from tanks, can you?

KM: We are defending our people even if the balance of power is unequal, even if the Israeli weapons are much ore superior. The Israeli occupying enemy must understand that each crime from their end would bring a Palestinian response.

TS- You target women and children. That is terrorism of the most brutal kind.

KM: We are not targeting civilians and we are not targeting children. From the beginning the Palestinian resistance was focusing on military targets and on settlers

TS- So the suicide bombs on buses aren't for civilians? The children and women who die on buses? I don't notice the suicide bombers allowing civilians off the bus before they blow it up.

And on an on it goes in the same accusatory and condemning manner. I don't see the slightest trace of respect here on the part of Tim Sebastian for his interviewee, and this despite the fact that the interview was being conducted on Hamas' own turf, in a location neither Sebastian nor his bosses in the BBC could have been pinpointed, were his life to have been threatened. Examples of BBC bias there are aplenty, and as I've said, the Lapid interview was quite unpleasant in tone at many points, but as far as bias goes, in this case at least, the charge must be regarded as without foundation.

UPDATE 2: Here's an article dating back to 1998, written by a BBC journalist while she was serving as a Neiman Fellow at Harvard, in which much the same point about the difference between British and American TV journalism is made. Watching televised coverage of political interviews or press conferences in America can often be a deadly dull business, so earnest and deferential is the tone most of the time. American television journalists seem to confuse the concept of objectivity with that of "niceness" and a false neutrality, and I think it's largely by doing away with this charade that Fox News** has risen in popularity so high and so quickly. What's the point of watching Larry King or Paula Zahn verbally genuflecting before some politico as if he were God's representative on Earth?

*I know Americans reading this will feel like scoffing, but it really is true; to British eyes, American manifestations of patriotism through flag-waving and anthem-singing seem like so much simple-minded hokum, while the American failure of Anne Robinson's Weakest Link is said to have owed in large part to American viewers' distaste for her sarcastic putdowns of losing contestants. The US reception of American Idol's Simon Cowell is another example of this difference in attitudes at work.

**Note that I'm not making the obviously false claim that Fox News is in any way "objective"; the point is that none of the news broadcasters are objective (CNN, for instance, has a liberal bias that is rather obvious to me), but at least Fox News does away with excessive politeness towards (liberal) interviewees in pursuit of a facade of objectivity.