BBC forced to deny octopus toy is 'antisemitic trope' following right-wing attack on TV quiz show

BBC forced to deny octopus toy is 'antisemitic trope' following right-wing attack on TV quiz show
The BBC was forced to deny allegations that an octopus soft toy's appearance was a coded attack against Jewish people on the popular TV quiz show University Challenge.
4 min read
23 November, 2023
Oxford University’s Christchurch college were playing against Emmanuel College of Cambridge University to compete for a place in the quarter-final of the show [GETTY]

A popular BBC quiz show has found itself tangled in controversy over unfounded allegations that a team's toy mascot was an antisemitic symbol.

The BBC was forced to deny claims that a contestant on University Challenge made a coded attack against Jewish people after social over Oxford University's Christchurch College team's octopus mascot.

Some social media used pointed out that the octopus has been used as an antisemitic trope in the past, but the BBC firmly rejected any link to this with the cuddly toy.

They also claimed that Oxford University contestant Melika Gorgianeh chose a jumper with the same colours as the Palestinian flag, again something the British broadcaster was forced to deny, pointing out the episode was filmed in March - months before the current war broke out.

It comes as the Israel-Gaza war enflamed tensions in the UK, particularly regarding accusations of antisemitism and Islamophobia, with some right-wing social media users targeting Gorgianeh over her clothing.

A BBC statement said that the octopus "is one of many chosen by the team during the course of the series and is one of their favourite animals", and said that Gorgianeh's navy blue, orange, pink, and green jacket was from a high street retailer and "has no relation to any flag".

"We are aware of a number of inaccurate claims being made online in relation to last night’s episode of University Challenge and we utterly condemn the abuse that has been posted and shared," the BBC spokesperson said.

Oxford University’s Christchurch College competed against Emmanuel College of Cambridge University for a place in the quarter-final of University Challenge, one of the UK’s longest-running TV quiz shows.

Teams of five students from the UK’s top universities compete in a series of famously challenging general knowledge quizzes hosted by BBC journalist and presenter Amol Rajan.

Author and commentator Marc Owen-Jones wrote in a post on X that Gorgianeh's hijab was probably why some viewers interpreted dress and cuddly toy as having anti-semitic meanings.

"Some BBC viewers are apparently complaining of antisemitism due to the combination of a stuffed octopus, and the colours black, green, white and red being warn by a contestant. 100% they wouldn't care if they didn't think she was Muslim," Owen-Jones wrote.

Journalist Kevin O'Sullivan, from right-wing news channel Talk TV, called the BBC’s denial ‘rubbish’ saying the octopus was "a well-known antisemitic trope", although it is unlikely the average person on the street would make this connection.

"What do you think we were, born yesterday?" Sullivan said on his daily TV show.

The allegation is just the latest in a series of baseless claims over public displays of antisemitism since the outbreak of the Israel-Gaza war on 7 October.

In October, environmental activist Greta Thunberg was also accused of antisemitism over a toy octopus in the background of a photo she posted on social media when she voiced support for a Gaza ceasefire.

Thunberg was forced to retract the image to crop out the octopus after the backlash, despite the toy having nothing to do with antisemitism. She said the soft toy is often used by autistic people "as a way to communicate feelings".

The octopus-antisemitism link derives from a Nazi-era propaganda poster depicting a blue octopus with its tentacles wrapped around the world. The political cartoon showed then-British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as the octopus, with the Jewish Star of David above its head.