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PBS Ombudsman

For Some, a Mystery About Masterpiece

On Sunday evening, Nov. 6, many PBS member stations around the country aired a new feature-length espionage drama titled "Page Eight." It is part of what is called the "Masterpiece Contemporary" series and, not surprisingly, it is very, very British. The film was written and directed for the BBC by English author David Hare and takes place largely within Britain's MI5 intelligence agency. All the main characters are unmistakably British except one—a beautiful and sophisticated woman who also appears to be British but, we are told, is Syrian-born.

I'm not a film critic. But as a viewer, I thought this was superb theater; a brilliant cast that captured—through wonderful acting performances, dialogue that didn't waste a word, and photography that enhanced both—a dark underside to Her Majesty's government and secret service.

It is fiction, say the film's producers. But is it? Is it just a movie, or is it propaganda? Is it, as some have asked through the ages, "good for the Jews?" Almost certainly not. Will it be far more controversial on public broadcasting screens in the United States than it was in the United Kingdom, where it first aired last summer and where criticism of Israel is more routine? For sure.

Those are some of the questions—along with hundreds of e-mails and calls from outraged PBS viewers—that bring this film to my attention.

As with intelligence matters, much of what is going on here isn't clear. The film is, in one sense, a fictionalized extrapolation of some events that we know actually took place in the aftermath of 9/11. This is combined with a fictionalized account of another event that we think might actually have happened, or can imagine it happening, but never did happen in the way the film portrays it.

The film, as entertainment, is very much worth watching if you click on the video below.

Watch Page Eight on PBS. See more from MASTERPIECE.

The plot is impossible to summarize in a very short space, so here's a synopsis provided by Masterpiece. In the shortest short-hand, here is what is at the heart of the controversy.

The main character, Johnny Worricker—a wise, experienced and senior MI5 analyst dedicated to telling it like it is, and his similarly wise but older and sickly boss, discover that the British Prime Minister has known, all along, about the secret U.S. operation to transport suspected terrorist prisoners to other countries where they can be tortured for information. But the Prime Minister did not share this with his own intelligence agency and so this top-level British dedication to U.S. secrecy about the operation may have cost British lives in the battle against terrorism. The boss dies and it is up to Worricker to surface the truth in the face of a British political-intelligence axis determined to stop him at any cost. Some of this, at least the stuff about overseas prisons and torture, is right out of yesteryear's headlines.

But where the film takes an unusual turn is when Worricker meets his next-door neighbor, the beguiling Nancy Pierpan—Syrian-born and with a famous father who is an Arab scholar. She is distraught because, as she explains to Worricker, her brother, a peace activist, was killed by the Israeli military in the occupied territories. He was waving a white flag and trying to stop the Israelis from knocking down a house.

"The Israelis were trying to build a wall through the occupied territories and the wall went right through the house," she said. "My life was changed when my brother was killed. He was killed by the Israeli Defense Force. Nothing they say makes any sense. I don't believe a word of the official inquiry."

There is more, later in the film, about how the Israelis suppressed the report on the death.

A Subplot That Becomes the Main Plot for Many

The segments dealing with the Israeli Defense Force are a subplot but play a key role in how the film ends. And they were clearly enough to cause a fair number of viewers to come out of their chairs and rant at PBS about showing a film that they consider anti-Israeli propaganda.

Again, I'm not a film reviewer, and I don't want to spoil things, so don't read the rest of this paragraph if you want to be surprised. But in the end, Worricker, the impeccable seeker of truth, leaks a report about the alleged Israeli cover-up of the alleged shooting to the BBC, and dumps the report of the presumably more deadly prime ministerial cover-up—that may have cost many British lives, although we are never told how—in the trash. That, to me, seemed out of character for the MI5 analyst, although his future in the UK would have been endangered, he had a bag full of money, and a knock-out, Syrian girlfriend who just might follow him out of the country.

Some really bad things have been happening routinely to both sides, Arabs and Jews, in the Middle East for what seems like forever. There have been some peace activists killed—none that I'm aware of who were waving a white flag—and the overseas prisons usage was for real. So when you watch this film it comes across as very engrossing fiction made more powerful by the adroit use of events that either did happen or that we probably think happened. Most of the reviews I read do not even mention the Israeli subplot.

The impact of the film is to slam U.S. and British leadership, as well as the Israelis. Alessandra Stanley, writing in the New York Times, was one of the few that went after the substantive impact. "It could be that just this once," she wrote, "the wise and world-weary British spy has it all wrong, and C.I.A. brutality actually prevented a terrorist attack. Maybe, just maybe, Israeli soldiers didn't deliberately kill an unarmed pro-Palestinian demonstrator.

"Of course not," she continued."None of those scenarios are possible because 'Page Eight' was written by the British playwright and filmmaker David Hare, and his feelings about the West Bank and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq supersede his storytelling: he cares too much to give a surprise twist to this oft-told tale of American perfidy. And it's a shame because 'Page Eight,' a BBC film that will be on PBS on Sunday, is a moody modern-day espionage tale with flawless performances by the likes of Bill Nighy, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Judy Davis and Ralph Fiennes."

Program Ends, E-mails Begin

I watch these programs as a viewer but the ombudsman's alarm is always in my head and it went off as I was watching because one has to know that the portrayal of the Israelis, whether fictional or not, is going to alienate a segment of the PBS audience. So I was not surprised when the first sharply critical e-mails arrived. I asked Masterpiece to respond.

At first, publicist Ellen Dockser replied: "The Masterpiece Contemporary series often touches on current world events about which there are varying points of view."

When I asked which current events they were referring to, I was told that: "Although Jake Pierpan [the activist who was killed when waving the white flag] is an entirely fictional creation within a fictional drama, a memory of the news story of Tom Hurndall lingers for British viewers." Hurndall, Dockser explained, "was a British peace activist who was shot in the Gaza strip by the IDF, and he was the subject of a recent TV drama [on British television], so his story is quite widely known here."

Hurndall, from what I read about the case, was a UK citizen, not of Arab descent, who volunteered for the International Solidarity Movement. He was shot in the head by an Israeli sniper in 2003 in the Gaza Strip. He was not waving a white flag.

The initial Israeli inquiry was routine and concluded Hurndall was shot accidentally. But largely because of British pressure, a subsequent investigation, and a change of testimony by the sniper, brought a manslaughter conviction and eight-year prison sentence by an Israeli court.

When I asked if the Hurndall story did influence the "Page Eight" story line, and also about Masterpiece's decision to air this film in the U.S., Steven Ashley, senior producer of Masterpiece, explained that Hurndall was a UK citizen and that the author, David Hare, did not reference him. But, he pointed out, Hurndall is referred to in a subsequent BBC explanation of the subplot of "Page Eight." The BBC mentions that the fictional story of Jake Pierpan is not unlike the story of Hurndall and that of Rachel Corrie, a young American member of the same protest group. She was also killed in 2003 in the Gaza Strip by an Israeli military bulldozer in an episode that an Israeli investigation described as an accident but was highly controversial nonetheless.

On the broader question, Ashley went on to say: "MASTERPIECE is a co-producer of the film with Heyday Films, Runaway Fridge TV, Carnival and NBC Universal for the BBC. We, of course, were aware that this and several other plot points could be provocative to segments of the audience. As befits its definition, Masterpiece Contemporary frequently exhibits dramas drawn from modern themes: in this case, an international espionage thriller taking place in politically-charged times where everything and anything can be a flash point of tension.

"There are several story-lines and many potentially controversial points of view in this film - the American senator's disclosure of UK complicity in torture; the UK prime minister's effort to cover up the scandal; the story of the British man shot by the Israeli army. They are linked together by the plot of PAGE EIGHT, as well as by first-class, intelligent writing and acting. We think it would be wrong to shy away from a program because it might be provocative to a segment of an audience.

"Sir David Hare is a respected and honored writer and director of dramas featuring international and political issues. Mr. Hare was awarded an Honorary Doctorate from Tel Aviv University for his play 'Via Dolorosa,' an examination of the Israel-Palestine conflict."

My Thoughts

However open this film is to criticism, it is, in my view, "a grabber," meaning it grabs your attention right away and doesn't let go for almost two hours. It cleverly uses things we know or think we know to add credibility to what is a smart, fictional drama. I agree with Steven Ashley that it would be wrong to shy away from such a program because it might be provocative to a segment of an audience. And I also think that unless viewers have been in a cave for half-a-century, most have formed an understanding of what happens in the Middle East and who is responsible for what atrocities.

On the other hand, I can't blame those viewers who feel outraged and wonder why PBS needs to broadcast this nationwide. PBS will probably pay a price for this.

The subplot is obviously one-sided and sympathetic to the Arab or anti-Israeli side as personified by the perfect Nancy Pierpan character, her dignified father and the slain brother/son who, one would assume from the film, is of Arab ancestry. But Tom Hurndall was a Brit and there was no white flag being waved, and the described circumstances of the fictional Jake Pierpan's death contain the worst, yet most sympathetic, of possible activities: killed by the Israelis while waving a white flag for trying to stop them from knocking down a house because the wall they were building through the occupied territories went right through the house.

Here Is a (small) Sampling of the Letters

Having been a fan of Masterpiece Theatre and PBS, I watched in horror, on Nov. 6, David Hare's "spy thriller." Mr. Hare certainly left no doubt as to where his sympathies, or on the other hand his animosities, lie. To portray the IDF as villains and to portray America as torturers is pure propaganda. Incidents happen, but overall the Israelis do not murder defenseless persons and the Americans are trying to protect themselves and the world, actually. I really resent the fact that PBS aired this program. I certainly will not punish myself by not watching Masterpiece, but I certainly will not support PBS financially. Shame on them.

Mignon Rosenthal, Baltimore, MD

~ ~ ~

Over the years, PBS's Masterpiece Theatre has well lived up to its name, by presenting numerous excellent BBC dramatic productions. "Page Eight" decidedly is not among them. Very roughly based on a couple of highly controversial incidents, and wholly informed by an extremely tendentious reading of those events, it is an extraordinarily crude piece of anti-Israel agitprop. It is unworthy of the BBC that produced it and, even more so, of PBS, for inflicting it on an unwary American public.

Creating a wholly fictitious denouement of official British government condemnation of Israel is particularly offensive, representing the stretching of dramatic license well beyond the breaking point. Demonization of Israel was total and unrelenting throughout. Needless to say, your audience, not to mention the truth, was very ill-served by this appalling presentation. It deserves an abject official apology for an extremely poor programming decision.

Future broadcasts of this defamatory material, particularly on the internet, ought, in fairness, to be accompanied by a statement explicitly noting its entirely fictional character and emphasizing that the views expressed therein are solely those of its producers.

Richard Wilkins, Syracuse, NY

~ ~ ~

Regarding David Hare's "Page Eight," I have never seen such a rabid piece of anti-Israel - and actually given its basic dishonesty, blatantly anti-Semitic - propaganda shown on MPT. I'm still reeling and can 't believe that Maryland Public TV could have shown it. Essentially it blames Israel for whatever axes Hare has to grind, and Israel is scapegoated throughout while not being in any way central to the play's central themes.

This kind of balderdash only limits the effectiveness of those like myself who for years have been critical of both sides: Israel for its settlements policies; the Palestinians for their continuing peace-precluding terrorism. And to think that this British Jew-hater cites as authoritative the report of the Iranian secret service…or that even an unjust killing is in any way commensurate with the huge numbers of innocent Israelis, many of whose funerals I've covered, who have been slaughtered…such as at the S'barro Pizza Restaurant in downtown Jerusalem, whose perpetrators have just been released in the large prisoner swap for one kidnapped Israeli soldier who was held for five years.

You'll forgive me. Perhaps I could make my case a bit more eloquently, but I'm still in a state of shock after seeing this program, which as few others I've ever seen on your channels deeply violates not only my sense of balance but so very deeply my very sense of truth. I would be deeply grateful if you would pass this letter on to the Director of MPT.

Jack Eisenberg, Baltimore, MD

(Ombudsman's Note: A Maryland Public Televisison official, in response to Eisenberg, said, "We are not planning to rebroadcast this film.")

A Rejection Slip?

I have just watched the online Masterpiece presentation of "Page Eight" and was highly offended by much of the subplot and politicized theme of the show. It was basically an anti-Israel diatribe and distorts reality by not expressing any of the alternate perspective of what has been happening in and about that country with respect to the Palestinians. Your production staff should have refused to broadcast despite the fact that you have a time slot to fill! You accepted this airing as a channel receiving public tax supported donations and have an obligation to be "politically balanced" in dealing with controversial subjects.

Dr. Stephen Kollins, Las Vegas, NV

~ ~ ~

Last Sunday, Nov 6, I settled down to enjoy Masterpiece Theater. The show was called "Page Eight." Frankly, I've long had great affection for Masterpiece presentations. I love Inspector Lewis, the Swedish fellow Wallender, and Detective Poirot. But, as I watched Masterpiece Theater's "Page Eight" unfold, I grew sick.

Here in the States we are well aware that police shows, such as Law and Order, will take stories that emerge in the news, and build on them narratives that closely follow the plot lines of actual events. I often smile as I recognize the events the writers have used to create their stories. But, what I haven't seen recently—and maybe I don't watch TV enough— is where writers create propaganda and suggest that it is based on what we already know to be true. Propaganda is what you do when you're at war. It was true during the Cold War. It was true during the Vietnam conflict. No war is propaganda-free. But, is that what we are to take away from this Masterpiece presentation? Are we to see ourselves at war with Israel, the only country in the Middle East that extends civil rights to its women, to its minorities, to gays, and to anyone else regardless of their religion? This nation, Israel, that observes the laws of war and the treatment of prisoners more scrupulously than any other country in the world? Those of us who follow world events have long been aware of Britain's Jewish problem. But for Public Television to bring such hatred of Israel to the U.S. is unconscionable.

Harry M. Mahn, Bellmore, NY

~ ~ ~

While watching the program below, I noticed important, disguised or perhaps just plain overt anti-Semitism. The "Masterpiece" theme revolved about an aging British spy. The injured person was the actress Rachel Weisz, who in real life is a Jew. Rachel's role was that of a distraught person because the IDF had killed her husband/friend [brother] while showing a white flag, and of course she then hated Jews (= Israel). She meets Nighy (spy) who at the end decides to help, no less than to vindicate the name of her brother. The vindication was needed because the IDF had not spoken the truth about the man with a white flag. I do not understand a) the role of Jews in this type of film and b) the reason to use Israel or Jews as the bad people. What was the purpose? I thought that the Merchant of Venice, etc, were things of the past.

Pablo Nankin, MD Beverly Hills CA

~ ~ ~

PBS was always about classics and education. Is airing "Page Eight" in the public interest? A fictional, one-sided piece with bias against an ally? If you have traveled to England recently you will know that it is becoming an extension of Arabia and that television such as "Page Eight" will more and more be part of the fabric of local programing. Please don't bring this crap to the U.S.

Riverwoods, IL

~ ~ ~

Your decision to air "Page Eight" is reprehensible. Why don't you just air the Protocols of the Elders of Zion? PBS should not air such a canard. What is the next fictional show you are going to air—one where Jewish adults kill a Muslim child to make Matzah? The blood libels continue and you help promote them.

Marten Hirsch, Wynnewood, PA

~ ~ ~

I write to protest the egregious anti-Israel hit piece "Page Eight" that aired last Sunday on Masterpiece (KQED). We see [none of this is shown] allegedly brutish Israelis killing an innocent peace-loving protester intent only on halting the Jews' callous seizure of land and the construction of a wall through an Arab home. No mention of terrorism or threats from Hamas or other Palestinian militants, suicide bombings, killing of Israeli civilians. I am a long-time admirer of Masterpiece (Theater) but using this venue to present a one-sided demonization of Israel is disgraceful.

Lewis Glenn, Danville, CA

~ ~ ~

My wife and I saw "Page Eight" on Channel 13 last week and were appalled by its trumped up and totally unnecessary anti-Israel propaganda fiction disguised as drama. BBC's anti-Semitism is repellent, and there is absolutely no good reason for our Public Broadcasting Corporation's stations to pass swill like this along to American audiences.

J.B. Russell, Danville, CA

On the Other Hand

Please can we have more programs like "Page Eight," which was on Masterpiece Contemporary last week. It was superb!

Fort Collins, CO

(Ombudsman's Note: Many of the letters may have originated with a Nov. 11 "alert" to subscribers of CAMERA, which stands for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America. But the program aired on Nov. 6, and several people wrote prior to the CAMERA alert.)

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