Before I started blogging, from time to time I would send letters to newspapers. Always in retaliation to intense provocation you’ll understand.
In 2007 I wrote to the then TV editor of the Sunday Times to question a headline in that paper’s preview of an upcoming programme. The headline was: “Right Rant.”
Can you guess what it was yet?
Don’t blame you, unless you’ve been reading the Daily Mail. Yup. It was about Richard Littlejohn’s programme on C 4 about antisemitism in the UK. The War on Britain’s Jews, broadcast in July 2007.
I hadn’t seen the programme when I wrote my message to the editor of the Sunday Times. My objection was merely to the way it was being described, so I wrote something like this:
”As so many pro-palestinian programmes have been broadcast on TV recently, why do you have to dismiss the forthcoming programme about antisemitism in your critics choice page as ‘Right Rant.’Obviously I haven’t seen the programme yet, but this begs the question, does anything in the British media that might not concur with the usual anti-Israeli postulation deserve to be sneered at in this way?Yours,
(Yes, I did use the word ‘postulation’.) I was surprised that the editor responded promptly, and at length:
“Hopefully, you have now seen the programme and can understand why our critics dismissed Littlejohn's programme as an incoherent rant from an extreme right-wing perspective. He had some valuable facts, but was shoehorning his tired old polemic on top of an argument that raised disturbing matters about which every sane person in the country should be alarmed. Should we really blame the left-wingers for the BNP painting swastikas on synagogues?
Simply put, Littlejohn does not have the credibility or authority to convince in a television programme arguing against violence towards one community when he himself has been guilty of prejudice towards other communities (have you ever read some of the things he has said about the Roma people, for example?). A serious journalist would have been able to put up an argument that was not simple bias riddled with holes. That's not Littlejohn, though, is it?
I, too, deplore the rising incidence of attacks on Britain's Jews, and on any other community, but none of our critics wanted to be accused of siding with Littlejohn. The fact is, in the television section, it is our jobs to rate the programmes as such, not to support or attack their polemics. Littlejohn's record as a television and radio presenter is pretty atrocious, I think it was obvious for all to see why last night. What might pass for intellectual debate in the pages of the Mail or Sun does not necessarily pass muster over an hour on Channel 4.
Compare our previews of the "pro-Palestinian" programmes broadcast and you will see we judge them on their merits as documentaries, not on the thrust of their arguments. The Rod Liddle film, for example, was made by a supporter of Israel and a journalist with a laudable record, and we did not snear at it. The fact that Liddle has become exasperated by certain aspects of Israeli actions in the Middle East was not our concern as long as he presented his case in a manner that was good and responsible television.
I look forward to a serious film about the alarming growth of intolerance and prejudice in Britain, and I hope it is made by serious and responsible reporters.Yours sincerely,
By that time I had seen the programme. I could see why the Sunday Times wished to distance itself from Richard Littlejohn, but I still thought the label “Right Rant’ was poor. My reply went something like this:
Thank you for replying to my e-mail.
I did watch the programme and I agree that it was a bit of a disaster.
I still think the way your preview was phrased simply revealed an anti-right wing bias, and wasn’t related to the failings of the programme. You allowed the right-wing label to obliterate your capacity to judge on merit.
If Richard Littlejohn had set out to make a film sympathetic to Jews he failed. The intention was sabotaged by the editing and the camerawork. Take the way they chose to disguise the rabbi’s identity. Normally the speaker’s image is pixellated or blurred. I’ve never seen identity concealed by filming from inside someone’s nostril, but this is how they chose to disguise the identity of a rabbi who had been attacked. The malicious camera angle was tantamount to another attack.
All the Jews in the film came across as stereotypical and alien. Only the non Jews looked normal, particularly the kindly policeman in Manchester. More ammunition then for the Israel-bashing majority. The subject of Israel was sidelined altogether. Although most Brits, left or right do not like to think of themselves as antisemitic, the vilification of Israel that has swept through the media is inextricably linked with the public’s attitude to Jews. (Obviously if it wasn’t for historical worldwide anti-semitism there would be less of a case for a Jewish state as a haven for the persecuted.)
Until recently the world was wondering how ordinary people could have gone along with Hitler. But the way the British media has allowed itself to be manipulated recently explains that very well.
Rod Liddle, supporter of Israel or not, was perfectly entitled to become exasperated with the actions of Israel. But dwelling on the victimhood of individual Palestinians without any balance as he did in his documentary just fueled the viewer’s sense of injustice and took advantage of our natural inclination to side with the perceived underdog. I have never seen a sympathetic portrayal of an ordinary Israeli - not a settler or other fanatic - on British TV.
This is an absolute travesty - when its obvious that there are far more fanatics and Jew haters amongst the Islamic community dating back from time immemorial.
Rod Liddle is certainly allowed to criticise Israel’s political strategies, it’s a free country. (As is Israel) But you as journalists know you have tremendous power to influence public attitudes, and you bear some responsibility for the consequences if you turn a blind eye time and time again to the other side of the story, merely to suit a preconceived agenda.
The media has broadcast mountains of ill-informed and slanted material over many years which has culminated in the recent calls to boycott of all things, Israeli academic institutions. The press has published reams of ill-researched and blinkered nonsense and has allowed itself to be used by propagandists and has itself become a propagandist. Journalists are also calling for a boycott of Israel and nowhere else.
I too would like to see a credible programme on the rise of anti-semitism which also included discussion of the media’s portrayal of the conflict in the Middle East. But I doubt it is likely to happen.Yours,
Then this came:
I agree with pretty much every word you say here - and I am going to spend much of today trying to think of a programme that has focused on an ordinary Israeli - I'm pretty sure there must have been at some time in the past 50 years of documentaries, but it wouldn't take too long to run up a list of anti-Israeli films (made by people who would argue passionately that they were not anti-semitic). Something in the back of my head says there was one a couple of years ago about a boys football team with both Muslims and Jews, and that we gave it a positive review ... I could be wrong.
The general consensus this week appears to be that our header was wrong, our preview was fairly accurate, the programme was either not very good at all and nobody wants Richard Littlejohn on their side, or perfectly balanced and presented by a terrific journalist, and that I am an idiot. All fair comment. And with that I shall go back to trying to appease all the people who wrote in to say we shouldn't have reviewed Dexter because it was on a channel we don't list ... Best wishes,”
Well, if you’ve ploughed through all of that, well done. Go and have a fag and/or a beer. Can you cast your mind back to that programme? The War on Britain’s Jews? I can’t, but I can refer to a message I tried to send to RL at the time (edited)
“Your film could have been a pleasant change from endless tales of Palestinian hardship. Clearly the media’s vilification of the Jewish state has gone so far that this topic would indeed have to be for another, hypothetical, future time. We wait with unbated breath. Israel was alluded to in your film; you did point out its size on a map but frustratingly failed to develop the argument.
The general assumption, made by almost everyone who learned that you were making this programme, that you “must be Jewish” was the most striking thing that the viewer will learn from this programme. It was memorable for that alone, if nothing else. Who else but a Jew, they implied, would be interested in tackling this distasteful subject?
Sadly, most of the Jews chosen to appear in the programme were a bit weird, and the peculiar way they were filmed made matters worse. I see why the poor rabbi who had been beaten up wanted to disguise his identity, but was it necessary to make him look utterly repulsive to do so? Who could sympathise with a disembodied mouth?
The media is fond of showing Orthodox Jews wandering around in the distance in their weird garb. Sometimes it’s done as a deliberate way of making them more ‘other‘ - both sinister and alien. The decision to use ‘the same old’ footage of “Jews in Stamford Hill” was clearly counterproductive in a programme supposedly decrying anti-semitism.
In fact you managed to film all Jews so that they looked stereotypically Jewish. Almost cartoon Jews to amuse the viewers. The Jewish school, not a child in sight, looked like a mysterious fortress, the subliminal implication being that something nasty lurked within. A few cute Jewish children might have done wonders, image-wise, in terms of sympathy and empathy, as it has for the Palestinians.
Only the non-Jews in your film looked normal, especially the personable and sensitive policeman in Manchester. The brevity of the interview with the two nice-looking Israeli professors was another conspicuous flaw.
What coverage did you give to the premier league Jew-haters, our fellow countrymen, with their megaphones preaching the word of Islam? Blink and it was gone. You probably had incriminating footage but I guess the threat of reprisals had to be taken into account.
Criticism of the extreme left and the extreme right might be regarded as part of the knockabout of politics, but criticism of ‘the Muslim Fanatic’ is a different story. Better not to annoy him.
The fact that the left has shown support for terrorist organisations was stated, but why wasn’t it put to a credible spokesperson from the left for comment? That subject needs to be aired.
It’s pretty obvious that the Sunday Times TV editor had a low opinion of Richard Littlejohn, and that none of his colleagues would disagree. with that view. However, the recent article in the Daily Mail by the man himself adds another element.
“Back in 2007 I made a film for Channel 4 exposing the rise of anti-Semitism in this country. One of the most profoundly depressing interviews I conducted was with a Jewish student who intended to emigrate to Israel because he thought there was no long-term future for the Jews in Britain.The idea was originally pitched to the BBC after a producer approached me to present a documentary on a subject close to my heart. Ever since 9/11, I had become aware of a growing sense of disquiet among my Jewish friends and neighbours and wanted to investigate the root causes.I proposed that the programme should be broadcast to mark the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Cable Street.
[...]When the BBC learned of the direction I wanted to take the programme, they ran a mile. It was later picked up by Channel 4 but missed the Cable Street anniversary.
Now, was the BBC’s decision not to commission the programme because of Richard Littlejohn’s “atrocious reputation as a broadcaster and a journalist” ? Not if they really did entertain his proposal until they realised what it was going to be about.
Was it really an incoherent rant from a right wing perspective? Even if so, would that automatically put it beyond the broadcastable pale?
If Richard Littlejohn is so crap, why not commission someone who has sufficient credibility to do it. If Theresa May acknowledges that antisemitim exists, why not give it a whirl?
As for Rod Liddle, I can’t remember his film, but it seems he fell for the usual Palestinian propaganda in quite a big way. I wonder if he would still stand by it.