When Al Jazeera became the news

When Al Jazeera became the News

The Qatar-based broadcaster Al Jazeera has just been cleared of antisemitism and breaching impartiality rules over an undercover operation which exposed an alarming threat by an Israeli Embassy official in London threatening to “take down” MPs in the British Government who he viewed as being hostile towards the Zionist State.

The ruling by the media watchdog Ofcom will have come as a huge blow to Tel Aviv as well as a huge relief to the under fire broadcaster which has incurred the wrath of many powerful lobbies both East and West in recent months.

A handful of complaints rolled in to the Office of Communications, commonly known as Ofcom, which regulates TV, radio and video-on-demand broadcasters in Britain, when Al Jazeera screened The Lobby. Using all the dark arts of investigative journalism, it set about exposing the political influence exerted by the Israeli embassy in the UK during the four-part series.

Having previously worked as both an investigative journalist and as a Senior Editor for Al Jazeera I can tell you these sort of operations are never easy to deliver; they are time consuming and often have little to show for the man hours invested in trying to deliver a newsworthy outcome. The expense and time spent is often disproportionate to the result which is why few media organisations have investigative units.

One of the finest media investigations units, believe it or not, operated at the News of the World where very often the rich, famous, powerful and influential would be targeted for a take down. Yes, some did get caught up as collateral damage, but the closure of ‘The Screws’ as it was affectionately known, was a sad day for journalism.

However, all credit to Clayton Swisher, the director of investigative journalism at al-Jazeera, and the rest of his team, who have been (in his words) “fully and completely vindicated.”

Apart from Australian-born Mark Regev spitting out a few tacks on the handwoven rugs inside the London embassy, the news will also have caused immense displeasure in other corridors of power – especially in Tel Aviv where Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu has accused the broadcaster of inciting violence. Riyadh also joined in the anti-Aijaz chorus after Saudi Arabia earlier this year demanded that the Emir of Qatar shut down the TV station.

The volley of criticism came hot on the heels of the airing of The Lobby in January when embassy official Shai Masot was caught on a hidden camera boasting how he would take down MPs who aired their support for a Palestinian State. That he singled out Sir Alan Duncan, a foreign office minister, was shocking to say the least.

The broadcast was a horribly embarrassing moment for Israel – they do not like being caught red-handed with their fingers in the cookie jar. Masot was forced to quit his post and an unprecedented apology emerged from the Israeli Embassy. One would have thought it best to try and move on from the exposure but there were those who were reluctant to let the matter drop.

Very soon a small flurry of complaints were made against Al Jazeera accusing the station of anti semitism on the basis that the targets of its investigation were Jewish. The anti semitism charges were backed up by more allegations accusing the Arab-based station of impartiality.

Having been on the receiving end of an Ofcom complaint (and survived with a written warning) I can tell you it is an enormously intrusive and exhausting procedure with no stone being left unturned. So I can imagine the relief in Doha tonight after Ofcom ruled that Al Jazeera had not been anti semitic nor breached the rules of impartiality.

The regulatory body concluded the documentary had not targeted individuals for being Jewish and that it had included the view of the Israeli government in the programme.

The regulator said in its nine page ruling: “It was the view of some complainants that The Lobby fuelled harmful stereotypes about Jewish people controlling or seeking to control powerful organisations. These complainants considered this was antisemitic and offensive.

“We considered that the allegations in the programme were not made on the grounds that any of the particular individuals concerned were Jewish and noted that no claims were made relating to their faith. We did not consider that the programme portrayed any negative stereotypes of Jewish people as controlling or seeking to control the media or governments. Rather, it was our view that these individuals featured in the programme in the context of its investigation into the alleged activities of a foreign state – the state of Israel acting through its UK embassy – and their association with it.”

Of course what should happen now is that the British Government should haul in the Israeli Ambassador and ask Mark Regev for assurances that the sorts of threats made by their man in The Lobby was purely a one off, nothing but the work of a rogue employee. Firstly we know that this will not happen and secondly I’d love to be a fly on the wall if it did … with strategically placed camera and parabolic microphone of course!

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