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Foreign Ministry furious at BBC over Vanunu interview

By Anat Balint, Haaretz Correspondent
Haaretz, May 30, 2004

The arrest of British journalist Peter Hounam, and the apparent smuggling of the Mordechai Vanunu interview to London, have sparked more tensions between Israel and the BBC.

Foreign Ministry officials charge that the BBC is a "communications organization whose goal is to undermine the legitimacy of the state of Israel. It promotes hostile coverage of Israel... and the Vanunu affair proves that the BBC is a communications entity which shows complete disregard for journalistic standards and ethics. Their journalistic culture can be compared to that of media outlets in Arab states, or in the Palestinian Authority."

One Foreign Ministry source said the ministry will now reevaluate Israel's relations with the BBC. For five months, leading up to November 2003, Israel boycotted the BBC.

The Foreign Ministry is furious about what it regards as the BBC's shirking of responsibility for an interview with former nuclear technician Mordechai Vanunu, who was convicted of treason and recently released from prison. An exclusive interview with Vanunu is to be broadcast by the BBC this evening (and there was a report about the interview this morning in The Sunday Times).

"The BBC baldly lied to us after Vanunu's release," says the ministry official. "It lied when it denied having any connection with the apartment which was about to be rented for him in Jaffa. [Journalist Peter] Hounam worked for the BBC, and they are simply lying on this matter."

The same ministry official charged that the BBC failed to submit the recorded interview to Israeli censors, even though it is obliged to do so under Israeli law. The BBC's official statement about this charge is that the film of Vanunu was produced by an independent outfit, Magnetic North, for the BBC.

Gideon Meir, who heads the Foreign Ministry's public relations (hasbara) efforts, commented on Saturday: "Whoever reads Lord Hutton's report [the British report that charged the BBC with broadcasting biased information prior to the war in Iraq] and inserts the name 'Israel' instead of 'Iraq' will find that the things written in the report equally apply."

Speaking on the condition of not being named, BBC representatives unleashed a series of counter-charges. "It's not true that we lied," they say. "Hounam has never worked for the BBC. He works for the Sunday Times and for a private company that sold us the film, and what he does as an independent journalist is of no concern to us."

Andrew Steele, head of the BBC's bureau in Israel, said: "The state of Israel demonstrated a lack of judgment when it arrested a journalist [Hounam]...I am stunned by the way Israeli security forces acted in this affair."

Israeli Foreign Ministry officials are also angry about Hounam's detention for one day last week, which was carried out without notification given to Israel's diplomatic corps. Yet the ministry appears to be more incensed by the BBC's behavior, and its unhappiness stems from a long, complex history with the British Broadcasting Corporation.

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