Why are Jews protesting the BBC? Unpacking the Hanukkah bus incident

At issue is a BBC report that alleges anti-Muslim slurs were used by a group of Jewish teenagers celebrating Hanukkah in central London, there's no independent evidence that supports this claim
Hundreds of protesters gathered outside of the headquarters of the BBC Monday, December 13, 2021, in response to their coverage of an attack on a group of Jewish teenagers celebrating Hanukkah. (Courtesy: Campaign Against Antisemitism)

The video took social media by storm: a bus full of Jewish teenagers celebrating Hanukkah in central London was attacked by a group of men spitting and shouting antisemitic slogans and giving Nazi salutes.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson described the video as “disturbing” and police have launched a hate crimes investigation.

The disturbing pictures made the news in the U.K., with the BBC picking up the story– and this is where the controversy comes in and why people are protesting.

There are two main issues with the BBC’s first report. First the report starts off calling the attack on the teens “allegations of anti-Semitic abuse.” (Even under the strictest of journalistic standards you are allowed to say displaying Nazi salutes in front of Jews is antisemitism.) 

Screen shot of social media video of a group of men displaying Nazi salutes at a bus full of Jewish teenagers in central London. (Source: Twitter)

Furthermore the report goes on to state “police were treating the incident as a hate crime.” In journalism if an official states something like this you are allowed to say it with attribution, it is no longer an allegation. It’s an odd choice of words especially since the prime minister of the country called it racism.

And second, the original report alleged some “racial slurs about Muslims” were heard on the bus during the attack.

Cached screen grab from the original BBC report citing “some racial slurs.” (Courtesy: Archive.org)

That report has since been edited to say: “A slur about Muslims can also be heard from inside the bus.”

Editor’s note on a BBC article on the London Hanukkah bus incident.

It’s unclear if the BBC acquired any additional video other than the ones that have been shared widely on social media, but our own analysis of the videos available did not reach the same conclusion.

The video above appears to show the incident starting while the teens were off the bus near an intersection. The men enter the frame and start shouting and using vulgar gestures and attempt a physical altercation. 

Organizers then quickly try to get the teens back on the bus (multiple “bos” or come in Hebrew can be heard). Once the teens are back on the bus the incident heats up with the perpetrators physically attacking the bus.

The BBC doubled down on the claim in a separate report saying on the BBC London Evening News that it was “’not clear” what role the supposed “anti-Muslim slurs” may have had in the incident.

A screenshot conversation then emerged on Twitter with the reporter of the BBC article that appears to show the editorial process behind the reporting.

We are unable to independently verify the authenticity of the screenshots but if they are accurate the issue is the video on the bus that was shared widely on social media. We analyzed the video, running it through multiple audio filters to enhance it. In the end we amplified the audio by 15 decibels and ran it through a high pass filter to fade out the background noise in order to get the best results.

The first second is unintelligible with background noise. The next second starts out with either “bo bo bo” or “go go go.” 

The third second is unintelligible without enhancing. In our enhanced edit we clearly do not hear the word “dirty” or any other slur. The next seconds are filled with more background noise and a “yallah.”

Following the fall out over the reporting, BBC Nations Director Rhodri Talfan Davies issued the following statement to the Jewish News: 

Our story was a factual report that overwhelmingly focused on the individuals the police want to identify. In the eighth paragraph of the article, there was a brief reference to a slur, captured in a video recording, that appeared to come from the bus. The slur was expressed in English and can be heard in the recording. Our report reflected this.

The brief reference to the slur was included to ensure the fullest account of the incident was reported. The idea it was included to ‘balance’ our coverage is simply untrue. Nor was it included to diminish the trauma suffered by those on the bus or justify the actions of those shouting abuse. We have never repeated the actual words of the slur, as has been suggested.

Finally, our subsequent reporting of ‘allegations of anti-Semitic abuse’ reflects the fact that the events are now part of a live police investigation. Our intentions have been misrepresented. We strive to serve the Jewish community, and all communities across our country, fairly.

Rhodri Talfan Davies, BBC Nations Director

The reporting has been condemned widely by the British Jewish community and a formal complaint has been lodged against the BBC. The chief rabbi of the United Kingdom also reportedly expressed his concerns privately to the head of the BBC.

The chairman of the BBC also weighed in on the controversy saying that the allegation should be proven or an apology should be issued.

The Campaign Against Antisemitism claims that police have dropped their investigation into anti-Muslim slurs being used, however a spokesperson for the police declined to comment citing an ongoing investigation.

“We understand that police investigating the antisemitic attack on Jewish teenagers celebrating Chanukah on Oxford Street have found no evidence of the supposed ‘anti-Muslim slur’ from the victims that BBC London has said could be ‘clearly heard’ and now that part of their investigation has been closed down. The BBC must immediately release whatever evidence they have based their reporting on or apologise fulsomely and publicly.”

Campaign Against Antisemitism (CAA) 

On Monday around 250 demonstrators led by the CAA demonstrated outside of Broadcasting House, headquarters of the BBC, demanding a retraction to the claim of anti-Muslim rhetoric being used.

A spokesperson for CAA said in a statement: “Tonight’s rally sends a message to the BBC that the Jewish community has had enough of years of the BBC victim-blaming Jewish people for anti-Semitism, downplaying racism towards Jews, platforming anti-Semites and fuelling anti-Semitism in Britain.”

Meanwhile the suspects involved in the bus incident remain at large.