Tuesday, 21 June 2011

Has the BBC gone to the dogs?

The BBC was one of many news organisations - but perhaps the most high-profile - to carry an amusing/outrageous report about a rabbinical court in Jerusalem sentencing a dog to death by stoning.

Even more shockingly, the penalty was to be carried out by children.

The mutt's offence?

It reminded a judge of a curse passed on a now deceased secular lawyer about 20 years ago, when judges bid his spirit to enter the body of a dog.

The animal is said to have escaped before the sentence was carried out.

Embarrassingly, it turns out that the entire story - which came complete with a statement from the court declaring that the sentence was "an appropriate way to 'get back at' the spirit which entered the poor dog" - was an almost total fabrication. Something of a shaggy dog story, in fact.

There was a dog. But -- as the Jewish Chronicle clarifies - "all that had happened was that the city dog catcher had been called to remove the stray." From from regarding the punishment as appropriate, the court official stressed that "there is no basis for stoning dogs or any other animal in the Jewish religion, not since the days of the Temple or Abraham."

So what did happen? It seems that a stray dog wandered into the courtroom, found a comfortable spot in the corner and wouldn't leave. It amused some local children. The court officials rang the local animal welfare officers who took it away. "There was no talk of reincarnation, a lawyer has never been mentioned, either now or 20 years ago, and there was no stoning."

Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if someone - perhaps not a senior court official - did compare the dog to the "secular lawyer" who used to annoy the Ultra-Orthodox patrons of the Beth Din. Something along the lines of "He's as difficult to shift as Whatsisname was"; or "Looks like Whatsisname's come back as a dog". Hilarity ensued. Says another, "You kids, make yourselves useful and throw a few rocks at him!" "Serves him right, the apostate swine". Etc, etc.

The story had to start somewhere.

In its defence, the BBC website protests that the report was "based on sources usually regarded by the BBC as reliable." That's not good enough, though. The story - involving a judge who claimed to have mystical power to transfer a man's soul into a dog - was never remotely plausible, even if it did come from a usually reliable source. Its plausibility could easily have been ascertained, perhaps by ringing up a rabbi.

This is an example of churnalism at its laziest worst. Or is it something more sinister? The statement from the court suggested that "Such inventions are a kind of blood libel, and we wonder why the inventor of the story did not continue to describe how we collected the blood of the dog to make our matzah." That might be going too far. But it says a lot about BBC journalism that they imagined that stoning reincarnated dog lawyers to death was the sort of thing Orthodox Jews get up to.