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25 October 2023

My role in the BBC’s Hamas controversy

Also this week: Margaret Thatcher’s candour and the loss of a wise friend.

By John Simpson

“You f***ing coward – you and your like are too chicken to take a stand for civilisation against barbarism.” That was one response to my efforts to explain why the BBC, like many other respected news organisations, prefers not to call Hamas a terrorist group, even after the unthinkable cruelties it committed in southern Israel. Other responses were blunter: “You utter twat,” “You NAZI c**t.” Well, if you can’t take the occasional insult, you shouldn’t venture on to social media, of course. Or be a broadcaster. But over the years I’ve had to deal with the professionals in the threat and accusation game: the IRA, the bewildering variety of Arab revolutionary groups, the Taliban, Hezbollah and Hamas itself. I can cope with a few four-letter words.

Critics on every side

Each day when I come to the BBC’s headquarters, New Broadcasting House in London, I pass the area where several thousand people gathered on 16 October to accuse the BBC of being biased against Israel; and then I go through the doors a pro-Palestinian group sprayed with red paint in protest about what it called the BBC’s pro-Israeli reporting. You’d hope that someone might reflect on this particular double jeopardy, wouldn’t you? Or notice that the many complaints to the corporation about its being biased towards or against Israel have been almost exactly balanced in number? Still, accuracy isn’t really the issue here. People rail at the BBC because they hope they can force it to come down on their side; and when that doesn’t happen – and it’s not going to – they get angrier still.

Of course, some newspapers and politicians have a vested commercial or political interest in doing down the BBC. There is nothing new or surprising in any of this, but it’s strange that few people seem to remember how often it has happened in the past. When I was the BBC’s political editor I had to take Margaret Thatcher’s full fury about our steady refusal to call the IRA “terrorists”. After a press conference in Venice, where she launched yet another attack about the way we referred to groups that used violence, I approached her and asked if she needed me to explain the BBC’s policy. She laid her hand on my arm and said, “My dear – you are sensitive. Don’t you realise it’s all part of…” And then her voice died away. I think she might have been going to add “the game?”.

[See also: Cutting through the fog of war]

I’m certainly not suggesting in the slightest that it’s a “game” for those people demanding that the BBC use the word “terrorist” when describing the appalling murders carried out by Hamas. But there are quite a few people in the press and in politics who relish the possibility of attacking the BBC in the hope of doing it real damage.

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The heat of the moment

I’m really proud of my colleagues – people such as Lyse Doucet and Katya Adler and Jeremy Bowen and Clive Myrie – who report from the front line and take so much of the heat. The difficulty of choosing every single word, in the certainty that everything they say is likely to be examined and used against them, is immense. And it all has to be done live, in the heat of the moment. If mistakes are made, and they have been, the only thing to be done is to correct them quickly and honestly. I’ve been proud, too, of the way the BBC has done this.

[See also: The Labour revolt over Keir Starmer’s Gaza policy is spreading]

Dear counsel

I’ve lost plenty of friends by backing the BBC’s principles publicly. At least four have taken to the press to say things like, “I have the greatest respect for John Simpson, but…” As my wife Dee points out, you must never take any notice of the first half of a sentence that starts this way: it’s just there to set up the second half, which is invariably an attack of some kind. I do so wish my closest friend, the leading arts administrator Nicholas Snowman, whom I first met and bonded with at university 60 years ago this week, was here to listen to my side and offer me his thoughts. As a Jew, he would have had his own approach to the issue, but his answer would have been honest, supportive and shrewd. This is the first big problem I’ve had since 1963 that I haven’t been able to consult him on: Nicholas died as a result of a fall in the street seven months ago, and my life has been far emptier as a result.

At the moment I’m packing to go to Lebanon, where I’ll do some reporting and filming for my BBC Two programme, Unspun World. Nicholas never missed an edition of Unspun, and always gave me his considered comments on it. I’ll make sure to put a photo of him in my suitcase, so he’ll still be with me.

John Simpson is the BBC’s world affairs editor. His programme “Unspun World” is on BBC Two at 11.15pm on Wednesdays

[See also: Can anyone save the BBC from itself?]

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This article appears in the 25 Oct 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Fog of War