This is a guest post by Jonathan Sacerdoti
On Friday 12th June, as Iran went to the polls, a group of around 50 people got their own taste of Iranian ‘democracy’ and ‘free speech’ right here in London, in a TV studio in Chiswick. Nobody the recording of Alan Hart’s discussion programme for Press TV on the causes of the rise of antisemitism to be even handed. The channel is sponsored by the government of Iran, and regularly gives a platform to people whose views are troubling and disturbing; some would argue that this is in fact the channel’s main purpose. The fact that Alan Hart was presenter, chairman and organiser of the ‘debate’ (he selected the panel and even the audience) only added to the sense of foreboding surrounding the programme. You’d be forgiven for not knowing who Hart is — by his own admission, whatever TV career he had ended quite some . But a quick web-search will tell you all you need to know about his unconventional views on Israel and Zionism, and how they cannot possibly be rooted in antisemitic sentiment because he has a Jewish accountant.
As a TV producer I am aware of how programmes like this are normally put together. What made observing the techniques of the people behind this particular show so interesting, was seeing how they veered from the normal practice of keeping every element as balanced as possible so as to encourage an interesting and respectful debate. Sure enough, Hart’s choice of panellists for the programme made it clear before anyone said a word that the project was nothing more than a thinly disguised hate-fest. He was joined by his regular sidekicks, Ilan Pappe and Hajo Meyer (both Jews, he boasted), in arguing that ‘Zionism’ was to blame for antisemitism. The estimable Jonathan Hoffman and Carol Gould represented the ‘other side’ as the cameras recorded what was to be one of the more surreal and amateur television productions I’ve experienced.
Alan and his regular helpers continued their desperate ongoing attempts to be recognised as ‘revisionists’, rewriting history and current thought as they see fit, while Hoffman and Gould were clearly intended to act as nothing more than fig leaves for this brazen, three-pronged attack on Israel, reason, and polite debate. With the dice weighted against them, it wasn’t easy, but Jonathan Hoffman, the co-Vice Chairman of the Zionist Federation, and Carol Gould, an author with an informed and authoritative perspective on the Middle East, held their ground well in the face of unrelenting bullying tactics.
Hart had made a point of inviting the audience members personally. I’m not sure if they all got the same ‘PS’ added to their invitations as I did, but its threatening and defensive tone had certainly given me a clue as to what the debate would be like. Just in case I was thinking of calling him an antisemite, he had suggested that such a thing was impossible, because he owns a signed photo of Golda Meir which she apparently dedicated to him personally:
“So I don’t take kindly to false and malicious accusations of anti-Semitism. I hasten to add that I am not in any way suggesting or implying that you would make such a charge. My point is only that I am short and sharp with those who do.”
Hart, it seems, is a man with a pronounced fear of being criticised, despite his frothing tirades against the Jewish state of Israel and its right to exist. His aggressive manner and apparent inability to form a logical line of argument don’t help his case.
From start to finish, the programme was a stitch-up.
The audience was packed mostly with those hostile to Israel and Jews, and the terms of debate were never clearly defined or well argued by Israel’s accusers. Pappe ranted about how Diaspora Synagogues had been turned into ‘Israeli Embassies’ because some of them displayed Israeli flags, as if that somehow made acceptable. Hart himself insisted on having the final word when it came to discussing the BBC’s Jeremy Bowen, whom the BBC trust recently found to have been inaccurate in his on Israel; according to Hart, there is a group of people who try every three months or so to get Bowen fired, and that’s all there is to it. Oddly enough, he gave no evidence whatsoever for this conspiracy theory.
For a man whose pre-show audience warm-up included telling a couple of tasteless middle-east themed jokes, and warning us that he would not accept any assertions made without the provision of evidence, Hart appeared to have missed the biggest joke of all: his fanatical assertions were usually backed up (if at all) by reference only to his own absurd books, while anything that Hoffman and Gould said was shouted down as ‘propaganda’, even when they gave accurate and specific references and figures. Instead of engaging with them, Hart threatened to chuck out Hoffman from the room.
It was Hart’s impotent and repeated threats to have Hoffman removed from the studio that really laid bare the true, absurd nature of the programme, and indeed of the channel that will soon broadcast it. Any reasoned debate on a contentious topic will always cover a range of views, and might even provoke heated arguments. But no chairman interested in facilitating such a debate would ever invite guests to participate, only to shout over them, repeatedly cut them short, fail to offer them a chance to answer questions, and threaten to have them ‘evicted’ simply for expressing the views they had been invited to express in the first place. In truth, the appearance of fairness is all that mattered to Press TV. This is a deliberate strategy designed to mask an actual total absence of impartiality and even-handedness. The Iranians clearly apply the same techniques to producing TV debates as they do to elections: do all you can to make things look fair from the outside, but do what you like behind the scenes to get the result you wanted all along.
Half way through the programme Kamal Al-Helbawy (of the Muslim Brotherhood) sitting in the front row of the audience fell off his seat with a crash as he accused the Jews of stealing the word “antisemitism” from the Arabs (now they’re even stealing words!). It was no wonder he fell to the ground: he probably couldn’t believe that such distilled hatred as this can be broadcast as a ‘debate’ programme, for viewers at home to be hoodwinked into thinking it was anything other than formalised bullying. In the meantime, some of the more reasonable attendees (myself included) chose to vacate our seats by more peaceful means, walking out early to escape the overriding stench of pitiful hatred that was choking up the room.