The BBC has dismissed calls from Conservative Friends of Israel (CFI) to ban a leading public health expert from its programming.
Professor John Ashton, who recently appeared in an episode of Panorama to discuss the UK’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, has been accused of publishing inflammatory material about Zionism on social media.
The parliamentary group urged the broadcaster last month to remove Professor Ashton from its list of contributors and make a public statement.
Last month, a report in the Jewish Chronicle alleged the professor had made “inflammatory” comments online and compared Zionism to Nazism in material posted on social media between 2012 and 2018. According to the newspaper, one tweet posted in 2014 suggested it was “time for Jews to reflect” on the situation in Gaza.
Professor Ashton, who declined to comment when approached by Jewish News this week, has denied accusations of antisemitism. He is regularly interviewed by broadcasters and media outlets, including Channel 4.
In a letter to Conservative Friends of Israel, released by the parliamentary group on Wednesday, Francesca Unsworth, director of BBC News and Current Affairs, appeared to defend the broadcaster’s decision to include him in BBC programming.
She wrote: “I understand that Professor Ashton was eminently well qualified to speak about this subject [the Covid-19 pandemic]. He has held positions at various universities, and was regional director of Public Health for Cumbria. More recently, he was president of the Faculty of Public Health.
“Professor Ashton did not, of course, make any comments of the kind that you describe in this programme and I hope you understand that I would have grave doubts about the impact on freedom of speech, and the BBC’s ability to report freely and impartially, if we were to ban contributors from speaking on the subject of their acknowledged expertise because of the political views they have expressed, however abhorrent some members of the audience may find them. More broadly, we do not ban any contributors from our output as you would wish.”
In response to the BBC, Preseli Pembrokeshire MP Stephen Crabb and Lord Eric Pickles, both parliamentary chairmen of CFI, and Lord Stuart Polak, a CFI honorary president, criticised the letter in a statement on Wednesday.
They said: “We are disappointed with the BBC’s response, which shows a lack of self-awareness. BBC news coverage has rightly sought to hold organisations accountable for their use of individuals who are in breach of the IHRA [International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance] modern definition of Antisemitism.
“It smacks of double standards that they do not see the relevance of applying the same discipline to themselves. The BBC always have a choice of experts, all we ask is that they choose a participant that does not send an ambiguous message”.
A spokesperson for the BBC declined to comment.