BBC’s Natalia Antelava shows how antisemitism can be reported accurately and impartially

We have on numerous occasions in the past criticized the BBC on these pages for its downplaying of antisemitism in the United Kingdom – see for example here, here and here.

It was therefore all the more refreshing to see three recent reports by Natalia Antelava in which the recent events in Donetsk involving a threatening letter distributed to the Jewish community by unknown persons were presented in a realistic and measured manner.

On April 18th Natalia Antelava produced a filmed report for BBC television news which also appeared on the BBC News website.  In that report she correctly pointed out that:

“….it doesn’t really matter who is behind this letter. What matters is the fact that someone has felt confident enough to write it and to distribute it…”

Ukraine 1

On April 19th another filmed report by Natalia Antelava also appeared on BBC television news and on the website. In that report too she pointed out that:

“….we still don’t know who the authors [of the letter] are but in a way it almost doesn’t matter. The very fact that someone has dared to write and distribute the letter is enough of a reason to worry.”

Ukraine 2

Natalia Antelava’s third report on the threats against the Jewish community in Donetsk is a written article titled “Ukraine crisis: Donetsk anti-Semitic leaflets stir old fears” which appeared on both the Europe and Middle East pages of the BBC News website on April 19th.

Ukraine 3

The clarity of vision and the ability to call a spade a spade as displayed by Natalia Antelava in these three reports stands in refreshing contrast to the BBC’s very patchy record on reporting antisemitism on its home turf.   

BBC silent on holiday terror attacks in southern Israel

On the morning of April 21st, as the last day of Pessah was being celebrated in Israel, missiles were fired from the Gaza Strip at communities in the vicinity of the border in several consecutive incidents.

In all, seven missiles landed inside Israeli territory, with two of them landing in Sderot but thankfully not causing any injuries and only light damage. The attacks were later claimed by the Yahya Ayyash Brigades.

In addition, on the same morning an RPG was fired at Israeli soldiers patrolling the border fence and the evening before had seen an improvised explosive device activated against another IDF patrol on the southern part of the border with the Gaza Strip.

Later in the day the Israeli Air Force responded by targeting terror-related sites in the Gaza Strip.

Here is how the Middle East page of the BBC News website looked in the late afternoon of Monday, April 21st.

Mon aft hp

Here is how it looked on the morning of Tuesday, April 22nd.

Tues morn hp

In other words, the firing of seven potentially lethal missiles in a matter of hours at civilians celebrating a holiday was deemed not newsworthy by the BBC.

 

 

BBC News produces article about man held up for half an hour

An article about Easter celebrations in Jerusalem which first appeared on the BBC News website on April 19th under the title “Easter’s Holy Fire ceremony celebrated in Jerusalem” was later turned into a blatantly political piece when an amended version was republished under the title “UN envoy and Israel in Easter ritual access row“.Serry art

Readers can view the changes made to that report here.

The report’s latest version opens thus:

“The UN’s Middle East peace envoy has criticised Israeli authorities for allegedly preventing him from reaching an Easter ritual in Jerusalem.” [emphasis added]

According to the Oxford dictionary, the word prevent means to “keep (something) from happening” or to “stop (someone) from doing something” and so readers would reasonably assume that Robert Serry was unable to take part in the Easter ritual.

In fact, as the Washington Post informs us, Mr Serry’s arrival at the ceremony was delayed for thirty minutes due to necessary security measures of the type seen anywhere in the world when a large crowd arrives in one place at the same time – and all the more essential in a city which has been the target of numerous terror attacks over the years.

“Serry spokeswoman Elpida Rouka said that the envoy and his party were trapped for about 30 minutes but that eventually the police retreated and the group, along with “an anxious crowd of worshipers,” was able to enter.”

Contradicting its own earlier assertion that Serry was ‘prevented’ from reaching the ceremony, the BBC report also later uses the words ‘delay’ and ‘held up’:

“Robert Serry said the delay was “unacceptable behaviour” and called on all parties to “respect the right of religious freedom”.” […]

“Mr Serry said that he was held up at a checkpoint along with other diplomats and dozens of Palestinians trying to make their way to the ceremony.”

Of course the general public is not as a rule overly interested in stories about people inconveniently held up for half an hour and so in order to justify the appearance of this one – and its promotion of Serry’s bizarre claims – the circumstances had to be exaggerated and audiences drawn in by means of the inaccurate use of language.  

 

BBC WS fails to clarify the credentials of an anti-Israel activist, promotes academic boycott

Readers may remember that back in October 2013 the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit reiterated “the importance of clearly summarising the standpoint of any interviewee where it is relevant and not immediately clear from their position or the title of their organisation” in accordance with section 4.4.14 of the BBC editorial guidelines.

Readers may also have already heard about the recent uproar on the Palestinian street after a professor took students on a visit to Auschwitz.

“Professor Mohammed S. Dajani took 27 Palestinian college students to visit the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland a few weeks ago as part of a project designed to teach empathy and tolerance. Upon his return, his university disowned the trip, his fellow Palestinians branded him a traitor and friends advised a quick vacation abroad.”

On April 17th the BBC World Service programme ‘World Have Your Say’ weighed in on the subject with an edition titled “Should Palestinian students go to Auschwitz?“. For reasons unknown, despite that programme’s webpage stating that “this episode will be available soon”, it is not.WHYS

What is available on that webpage, however, is a short clip from the programme which opens with an unidentified speaker claiming that:

“The reason we complained about Mr. Dajani’s initiative has nothing to do with the issue of the Holocaust or recognition of the Holocaust. We have two main reasons why we objected to his initiative. One is its ties with Tel Aviv University where he sends students, with from Tel Aviv University, and this is in violation of the boycott of Israeli universities that we Palestinian academics and all Palestinian universities have agreed to. And the second reason is that he adopted the Zionist perspective that Judaism and Zionism are the same thing and in our opinion this is an antisemitic attitude to equate Zionism and Judaism and somehow link making peace and Zionism with the issues of Jewish suffering around the world.”

So who is this unidentified Palestinian speaker who promotes academic boycott and bizarrely affords himself the right to define antisemitism?

From a podcast of a section the same programme – available for a limited period of time here – we learn that the speaker is Mazin Qumsiyeh, with the BBC presenter introducing him thus:

“And Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh is with us – professor at Bethlehem and Bir Zeit University and author of books on non-violent resistance as well.”

Those familiar with Qumsiyeh’s range of activities will appreciate that the introduction obviously does nothing to contribute to the BBC commitment to “clearly summarising the standpoint of any interviewee where it is relevant and not immediately clear from their position or the title of their organization”.

Audiences are not informed of Qumsiyeh’s involvement in provocative publicity stunts designed to delegitimize Israel such as the ‘air flotillas’, the so-called ‘Freedom Rides’ and the ‘Global March to Jerusalem’ and they are not made aware of his full range of affiliations with organisations and projects dedicated to bringing about the demise of Israel as the Jewish state.

“Mazin Qumsiyeh is a well-known Palestinian political activist. He heads the ISM-linked ‘Palestinian Centre for Rapprochement between People’ (which was involved in the organization of the 2011 ‘flytilla’), is a co-ordinator for the ‘Popular Committee Against the Wall and Settlements’ in Beit Sahour and was a co-founder of Al Awda (the Palestinian Right to Return Coalition) in the US. Qumseiyeh spoke at the 2010 Stuttgart conference which produced the Stuttgart Declaration – a call for opposition to a negotiated two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”

Defamatory claims of ‘apartheid’ and ‘Zionist collaboration with the Nazis’, along with other falsehoods, appear in Qumsiyeh’s comments posted on the WHYS Facebook page and to date have been allowed to stand by whoever moderates that page on behalf of the BBC World Service.

WHYS FB 1

WHYS FB 2

WHYS FB 3

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Had BBC World Service audiences been fully informed of Mazin Qumsiyeh’s political opinions and range of anti-Israel activities, they may have been able to judge the relevance of such comments and the context-free promotion of academic boycott for themselves. As it is, with Qumsiyeh having merely been introduced under the authoritative titles of “professor” and “author” – in contravention of BBC editorial guidelines – they are deliberately misled.  

 

The saga of three questions the BBC did not want to answer – part two

In part one of this article we noted the process which led to the BBC’s eventual response to three questions regarding its complaints system which were posed by Mr Neil Turner in April 2013.

 • How many complaints were made to the BBC over the last 5 years on a year by year basis?

• How many complaints were upheld (i.e. the BBC makes a correction) on a year by year basis?

• How many complaints were rejected by the BBC (i.e. no corrective action taken)?

So what does the information provided by the BBC tell us about its three-stage complaints system?

complaints 1

Because of the general nature of some of the complaints or comments made at Stage 1, the fact that there is no way of knowing what proportion of them related to editorial issues and the additional fact that no information is kept regarding whether changes are made to BBC content as a result of those complaints or comments, it is impossible to establish how many of the members of the public complaining about editorial content at Stage 1 were satisfied with the response they received (if at all) and how many simply abandoned the process at this stage.  

We can, however, clearly conclude that only a small proportion of those complaints were actually pursued further along the process.

At Stage 2 of the complaints process, we see that whilst the actual number of complaints made at that stage has generally risen over the past five years, the percentage of those upheld has fallen.

complaints 2

complaints 3

Seeing as all complaints going on to Stage 3 would have had to pass through Stage 2, we can also look at the number of people whose complaints were not upheld at Stage 2, but dropped out of the process at that point rather than continuing to Stage 3. Hence we see that on average, 45.2% of complainants chose not to pursue further a complaint which was not upheld at Stage 2.

complaints 4

Of those complaints which were pursued to Stage 3, we see that an average of 4.28% were upheld in full.

complaints 5

The fact that a complaint is upheld at Stage 3 indicates that the process at Stage 2 was inadequate, and thus we can see how many complaints which were rejected at Stage 2 were later found to be justified at Stage 3.

complaints 6

The information provided does not include complaints which were partially upheld at Stage 3 and thus likewise indicate that the process at Stage 2 was at least inadequate in part. It is of course impossible to know how many of the 45.2% of complaints which dropped out of the system after rejection at Stage 2 would have been upheld at Stage 3 had they reached that part of the procedure.

As we have documented here in the past (see for example here and here), even the fact that a complaint – which may have spent months or even years going through the entire long and complicated BBC complaints procedure –  is upheld at Stage 3 does not guarantee that a correction will be made to the relevant report or that the public will be informed of any amendment made. Clearly there is an urgent need for reform of that part of the procedure.

As a publicly funded body, the BBC should welcome the feedback from its licence-fee payers which comes in the form of comments or complaints. That feedback is a valuable tool for the improvement of the standard of its journalism and a way for the BBC to feel the pulse of the people for whom – after all – it exists. Instead, members of the public find themselves facing a complicated, time-consuming  and – importantly – self-regulating and therefore subjective process which, as these figures provided by the BBC show, simply causes most people to abandon the process and drop out along the way. 

 

BBC News redesigns Jerusalem’s Old City

Over the Easter and Pessah holidays, the BBC News website’s Middle East page included in its ‘Features & Analysis’ section a written report about Jerusalem published on April 17th.Jerusalem written

What makes Jerusalem so holy?” – by Erica Chernofsky - laudably avoids some of the more common errors made by many a foreign journalist by correctly pointing out the 1949 ceasefire (or armistice) line and by accurately depicting the Western Wall.

“The Jewish Quarter is home to the Kotel, or the Western Wall, a remnant of the retaining wall of the mount on which the Holy Temple once stood.

Inside the temple was the Holy of Holies, the most sacred site in Judaism.

Jews believe that this was the location of the foundation stone from which the world was created, and where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac.

Today, the Western Wall is the closest place Jews can pray to the Holy of Holies.”

However, the article also states that:

“The Muslim Quarter is the largest of the four and contains the shrine of the Dome of Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque on a plateau known to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif, or the Noble Sanctuary.”

Jerusalem written 2

The Temple Mount or Haram al Sharif – location of the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque – is of course a separate area and it is not located within the Muslim quarter any more than it is situated in the adjacent Jewish quarter, although both those quarters adjoin parts of its walls.   

 

The saga of three questions the BBC did not want to answer – part one

• How many complaints were made to the BBC over the last 5 years on a year by year basis?

• How many complaints were upheld (i.e. the BBC makes a correction) on a year by year basis?

• How many complaints were rejected by the BBC (i.e. no corrective action taken)?

Whilst none of the questions above may seem particularly controversial, the BBC refused to answer them when, in April 2013, they were presented by Mr Neil Turner – as previously explained in this article – as a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. What followed over the next twelve months will be of considerable interest to the many readers whose expressions of frustration with the BBC’s labyrinthine complaints procedures drop into our inbox every day.

With the BBC having refused to answer the questions above posed by one of its licence fee payers, Mr Turner asked his Member of Parliament for help in retrieving the information from the BBC’s director general Tony Hall and chair of the BBC Trust Chris Patten. But despite the MP’s significant help, that request was also unsuccessful, as were further communications Mr Turner then made to BBC executives.

The BBC’s refusal to release the requested information under the terms of the Freedom of Information Act cited a clause with which those familiar with the decade-long story of the Balen Report will be only too familiar: it claimed that the BBC was not required under the terms of the FOIA to respond to Mr Turner’s questions, because the corporation is only subject to the FOIA  “in respect of information held for purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature.”

In other words, the same claim used for the last decade to prevent publication of the Balen Report was again employed to avoid providing the information requested by Mr Turner.

In July 2013 Mr Turner contacted the Information Commissioner with regard to the BBC’s refusal to answer his questions under the FOIA, but the Commissioner backed the BBC’s stance, again citing the “journalism, art or literature” clause – as explained in the parts of the response reproduced below.

FOIA 1

FOIA 2

FOIA 3

FOIA 4

FOIA 5

Mr Turner’s subsequent appeal to the Information Commissioner also upheld the BBC’s stance. His approach to the Information Rights Tribunal in November 2013 was followed in March 2014 by a surprising about-turn in the BBC’s position and a letter from the BBC’s Litigation Department which included the information below.

reply complaints 1

reply complaints 2

reply complaints 3

reply complaints 4

reply complaints 5

reply complaints 6

Despite this provision of previously withheld information to him personally, Mr Turner maintained that the purpose of the FOIA is to make information available to the public at large rather than just to interested individuals.  A week later, Mr Turner was informed by the BBC that should he not withdraw his appeal, he would be pursued for the corporation’s legal costs. As a private citizen without professional legal backing, Mr Turner had no choice but to comply.

This case – in particular given the BBC’s sudden change of stance – of course once again raises questions about the BBC’s use of the “journalism, art and literature” clause of the FOIA,  as indeed does the continuing Balen Report saga.

In part two of this article we will look at what the information provided by the BBC tells us about its complaints procedure.   

 

 

 

 

 

One to listen out for on the BBC World Service

On Saturday April 19th the BBC World Service programme ‘The Documentary’ will broadcast an edition titled “Africans in the Holy Land” at 18:06 GMT. The programme’s synopsis reads as follows:Africans in the Holy Land WS

“Paul Bakibinga travels to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to explore the lives and experiences of people from three different African communities. 

Mahmoud Salamat takes Paul around the narrow alleyways of the old city of Jerusalem to the hidden African quarter and introduces a small but close-knit community, who are descendants of Muslim pilgrims or soldiers who came to the Holy Land during the time of the British Mandate. 

Paul also explores the experiences of different Ethiopian Jews who have returned to their ancient homeland, including rising star musician Ester Rada. 

And he spends time in South Tel Aviv, where the bulk of African asylum-seekers live – stuck in a legal limbo amid growing hostility from politicians and local residents. The state cannot deport them – but neither will it grant them refugee status.”

Mahmoud Salamat previously appeared in another BBC feature back in March 2010 – titled “In pictures: Jerusalem’s African quarter” by Heather Sharp.

BBC African quarter 2010

The ‘Magazine’ section of the BBC News website currently features a filmed report about Israeli singer Ester Rada which also appears on the website’s Middle East page.

Ester Rada

With Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya and Egypt of course being part of Africa, it will be interesting to see whether Paul Bakibinga also addresses the subject of the hundreds of thousands of Israelis who originate from those African countries and the reasons for their mass exodus from the countries of their birth.

The BBC World Service might care to correct the caption to the photograph illustrating this programme’s webpage which currently reads:

“Picture: A ‘Kessim’, a leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community”

The ending ‘im’ in Hebrew indicates the plural form of a masculine word: thus the two words “A Kessim” are incompatible. One religious leader of the Ethiopian Jewish community is a Kess - spelled קס or קייס in Hebrew and originating from Amharic – and the plural form of the word is Kessim קסים or קייסים.  

 

 

 

Mapping the BBC’s inconsistent use of the word ‘terror’

As we well know, the BBC’s use of the word terror and its derivatives is highly inconsistent (and has been for many years) – as it stated itself last year in a reply to a complaint from a member of the public.

“The BBC has specific guidelines on this that do not proscribe use of the term but advise editors to consider the particular circumstances. It has never been outlawed by the whole of BBC News and so there’s little we can usefully add to your comparison, which involves citing one specific story in comparison with the BBC’s Middle East coverage more generally, despite their clear differences, in your belief that our approach is inconsistent.

We can only reiterate that there is no general approach and decisions are taken on a case-by-case basis.” [emphasis added]

In previous posts we have noted here that terrorism can apparently be named as such by the BBC in Great Britain and Northern Ireland as well as in Spain. Three more recent BBC reports show that according to the BBC, terrorism also happens in Norway and in the United States and that “terrorism messages” can be sent in the Netherlands.

Terror Norway

In Kenya and in some parts of the Middle East, however, different standards have been shown to prevail, with use of the word terror or its variations more often than not presented in deliberately distancing punctuation or as a quotation and consistent adoption of euphemistic terms such as “militants”.

The BBC’s guidance on “Language when Reporting Terrorism” seems to contradict the above response to a complaint: [emphasis added]

“Our policy is about achieving consistency and accuracy in our journalism. We recognise the existence and the reality of terrorism – at this point in the twenty first century we could hardly do otherwise. Moreover, we don’t change the word “terrorist” when quoting other people, but we try to avoid the word ourselves; not because we are morally neutral towards terrorism, nor because we have any sympathy for the perpetrators of the inhuman atrocities which all too often we have to report, but because terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones.

We also need to ensure that when we report acts of terror, we do so consistently in the stories we report across our services. We have learnt from the experience of covering such events in Northern Ireland as much as in Israel, Spain, Russia, Southern Africa or the many other places where violence divides communities, and where we seek to be seen as objective by all sides, that labels applied to groups can sometimes hinder rather than help.”

Clearly, as the examples above indicate, that aspiration for consistency is not being achieved. The apparent reason for that can – ironically – be presumed to lie in another section of those same guidelines.

“The value judgements frequently implicit in the use of the words “terrorist” or “terrorist group” can create inconsistency in their use or, to audiences, raise doubts about our impartiality. [….]

We also need to ask ourselves whether by using “terrorist” we are taking a political position, or certainly one that may be seen as such.”

As has been posited here before, the BBC’s avoidance of use of the word terror in certain definable geographic areas is just as much a “value judgement” and a statement of a “political position” as is its employment in stories which take place elsewhere.

If shooting attacks by a far-right extremist in Norway justifiably get the editorial thumbs-up for description as “terror attacks” and “terrorist activity” is used to describe the actions of members of an armed group in Northern Ireland,  then it is difficult to conceive of any motivation for the markedly different description of similar attacks or activities elsewhere which does not stem from a political position regarding the perpetrators – or their victims.

A particularly interesting case study is that of the January 2013 attacks on the Amenas gas plant in Algeria. BBC coverage at the time was criticized in the UK Parliament for its choice of wording.  

“The Prime Minister said the attack that killed six Britons should be “condemned utterly” after a Conservative MP expressed “surprise and disappointment” at the broadcaster’s reporting.

The BBC, which has strict guidelines for reporters on the terms they should adopt, described the attackers as “militants” 12 times in one report on its website.

However, in the same report, the only use of the term “terrorists” occurred in a quotation from remarks by the Algerian prime minister.

During a debate on the hostage crisis in the Commons, Andrew Bridgen the Conservative MP for North West Leicestershire, asked the Prime Minister: “Are you as surprised and disappointed as I am that the BBC have consistently described the perpetrators of these heinous crimes as militants rather than the terrorists which they are?”

Mr Cameron said his colleague had made a “good point” adding: “These are terrorists and they should be described as such.

“This was a terrorist attack, it was to take hostages, to kill them, to kill innocent people and it should be condemned utterly.” “

Notably, later BBC reporting on the incident showed a reversal of policy. An edition of the BBC Two programme ‘This World’ broadcast in August, September and November 2013 used the word terror in its title and in the programme synopsis.

This World

An article which appeared in the magazine section of the BBC News website in August 2013 under the title “Algeria siege: ‘I wore a necklace bomb’” also did not shy away from clarifying to readers that the attackers were terrorists. The article opens:

“The survivors of January’s siege of an Algerian gas plant still cannot believe they are alive. Forty of their colleagues died when Islamic militants took them hostage. The Algerian army opened fire on the convoy of hostages and terrorists as they broke out of the plant. It is only now that some have felt able to tell their stories.

For BP team leader Lou Fear and his wife Lori at home in the UK, the morning of 16 January 2013 began as usual with a text message from Lou. But the content was anything but normal.

It told her terrorists were roaming around – the plant was under attack. Lou was barricaded in his office with some colleagues and hiding behind a filing cabinet. The militants were just outside.” [emphasis added]

Later it states:

Three dozen terrorists from the Signed in Blood Battalion linked to al-Qaeda had taken Algerian military police, responsible for security, completely by surprise. First they attacked a bus carrying workers just outside the compound then broke into the plant itself.” [emphasis added]

In fact, the word ‘terrorists’ – or versions of it – appears some nineteen times in that article. Clearly the claim made in the BBC’s guidelines that “we try to avoid the word ourselves” because “terrorism is a difficult and emotive subject with significant political overtones” did not apply in this case.

Whether that shift in policy was the result of the previous criticism from parliamentary sources is unclear, but certainly the BBC should not be surprised when people in other countries raise concerns similar to those expressed in the British parliament.

The topic of the double standards displayed by the BBC’s selective and inconsistent use of the term terror is one well worth continued observation and mapping.