Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The BBC, Sport and History

As the London Olympics are due to start in a few days and the past couple of weeks have seen Israel involved in two controversial issues connected to this event, namely the refusal by the IOC to hold a one-minute’s silence in memory of the Israel athletes murdered in the Munich Games of 1972 and the BBC declining to name Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the list of competing nations on its website, I have decided to rehash this piece that I found stashed away on my computer and which I originally wrote about 12 years ago and have updated.

Late one night in 1993, just after the signing of the Oslo Accords, I switched on my little transistor and tuned into the BBC World Service. I used to do this most evenings in the pre-Internet times to keep in touch with the latest football news. Before the sports reports, there was always a detailed world news programme which I normally half-listened to while waiting for the important stuff to come on. Being quite insular, I usually only paid attention if the Middle East was being spoken about. This time, however, a small item caught my ear as it involved not only the rather volatile area of the world in which I live, but also sport.

Somewhere towards the end of the news headlines, it was announced that the newly formed Palestinian Authority had been accepted by the International Olympic Committee and would be allowed to participate in future Olympic Games. This fact aroused my interest as I realised that later on in the programme there would have to be a full report of this headline. “What on earth,” I wondered “could they find to elaborate on this?” After all, the Palestinians’ international sporting record had not been too auspicious.

I proceeded to listen earnestly to the rest of the news, most of which must have been about the various parts of Yugoslavia bombing each other to smithereens. When, eventually, the newscaster reached the item that I had been waiting for, what was broadcast to the millions of listeners worldwide made my blood boil until I realised what its true implication was and what must have taken place prior to the airing of the programme.

So, before I let you in on what the newsreader said, I would like to go behind the scenes to an editing room in Broadcasting House almost twenty years ago. Realising that he was going to have to put together a piece on rather empty news item, a perturbed editor found an over-eager cub reporter (think of Jimmy Olsen, Superman fans) and sent him off on a mission to rustle up some information about Palestine and sport. He went off and sat down by his computer and got into some database. He began cross-referencing Palestine and the Olympic Games, but to no avail. I assume that he must have come across a little tidbit dated 1972, but decided that informing the world that Palestine holds the Olympic record in the massacring event wasn’t really relevant. So our intrepid reporter began feeding in other key words until he eventually came up with something that put the smile back on the face of his stressed out boss.

Anyway, the newsreader, after repeating the information given in the headline at the start of the programme, then went on to announce that the last time that the Palestinian national football team had taken part in the qualifying rounds of the World Cup was in 1938, when it lost to Egypt.  Well, dear readers, was this another example of the rewriting of history by the notoriously anti-Semitic BBC. Nope, not all. This is an indisputable fact that is borne out in all the record books and databases. However, what these sources of information neglect to tell us was that the Palestinian footballers of the time all bore Hebrew, Hebraised or eastern-European surnames. In other words, they were, in the words of Monty Python, Jews, Yids, Kikes, Red-Sea Pedestrians who were living under British rule in Mandatory Palestine. In one fell swoop, the BBC had managed to negate all the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. There has never been a Palestinian state in the land of Israel and the first “Palestinians” were actually Jews. Of course this all isn’t really important, as most of those listening did not have a proper grasp of history and, as far as they knew, the Palestinians losing to Egypt in the year before the outbreak of the Second World War, were Arabs whose descendants were to battle the Israelis in order to restore what was rightfully theirs. As these were pre-email days, I didn’t get around to writing an irate letter to the BBC, signed “pissed-off, Jerusalem”, so I had to content myself with turning this into an amusing anecdote to be told when the opportunity raised its head. Still, in these days of chaos, it doesn’t do any harm to laugh at the ignorance and prejudice of the supposed civilised world – even when they are directed against us.