Head to head? Al Jazeera’s Marc Lamont Hill vs the BBC’s Steven Sackur

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 14, 2023
The Up Front episode addressed a difficult issue: Are Israel and Hamas guilty of war crimes?
A generic studio. Photo by Luis Morera on Unsplash

Today was the first time I watched/heard Up Front on Al Jazeera, a hard-talking programme hosted by Marc Lamont Hill and my first thought was, the BBC’s Steven Sackur had better watch out.

Mr Hill, an academic, appears to think on his feet and has a forensic ability to slice into waffle and blancmange masquerading as rational argument. He also seems to relish the chance to call out his interviewees for hypocrisy, dishonesty, cruelty, perverseness and other such unattractive traits.

While it is Mr Hill who works his magic as programme host, one must  salute Al Jazeera for giving him the space to do so.

The Up Front episode I watched addressed a difficult issue: Are Israel and Hamas guilty of war crimes?

As every journalist would know, it’s the sort of issue that will win you few friends. For, no one will cheer you wholeheartedly after the discussion; both sides will be dissatisfied in some way and everyone will blame you for either asking the “wrong questions” or being too blunt, or biased, or blind or anti-Semitic or anti-Palestinian or something else.

Mr Hill’s problems went beyond the bitterly contested nature of the topic. His guests were no picnic. It fell to him to interview the Hamas senior spokesperson Osama Hamdan and former Israeli deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon.

Both offered their own self-serving arguments. Both were skewered – politely, persistently – by Mr Hill. He was able to show the immoral nature of Hamas’s worldview – its refusal to accept that the Israelis slaughtered by Hamas on October 6 were innocent civilians. And he was able to show that Israel didn’t care a whit about Palestinian civilians and simply wanted them to leave and vanish into Egypt. Why don’t you let them into Israel, asked Mr Hill. When Mr Ayalon smiled, the presenter countered: you may smile but why don’t you answer. It led the enraged Israeli politician to snap back that he wasn’t smiling, he was crying inside, after which he began a tirade about how the world supported Israel in its current endeavours and it would not stop bombing Gaza.

The two interviews were a tour de force and a reminder of how much paler is some of the output of my old employer, the BBC. While still solid in so many ways (its giant new department called BBC Verify, for instance) the BBC is increasingly being forced to bite its lip at all hours of the day, every day, and to adopt a low tone that strains to please. Or, at least, to not annoy.

The BBC’s Hard Talk, which I regularly listen to on the radio, may be a case in point. While Mr Sackur, an excellent and plainspoken journalist, has long done an excellent job, his programme is nothing like Al Jazeera’s Up Front. It’s just not that hard-edged. And that’s a problem.

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