BBC Responses to Criticism

The subject of the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s reporting on the Arab-Israeli conflict has long been a source of contention, but particularly so during the last decade. Given that the BBC is to a very large extent a self-regulating body and that its complaints system is self-administered, it is useful to examine the efficacy of, and adherence to, the mechanisms it has itself chosen to put in place as a result of criticism of its performance. 

In the wake of the Hutton judicial inquiry (which lead to the resignations of the BBC chairman and director general at the time), the BBC commissioned the Neil Report (June 2004) which sought to produce “recommendations and guidelines to strengthen BBC journalism in the future”. One of the report’s main recommendations was the establishment by the BBC of a College of Journalism, with the aim of “developing high competency based skills in journalism”. The college was opened in June 2005 and training is given to both existing BBC journalists and new recruits. The college’s curriculum includes a Middle East module. 

In October 2003, in response to considerable public criticism of its coverage of the second Intifada, the BBC commissioned an analysis of its domestic Middle East coverage from former BBC employee Malcolm Balen. In 2004 Balen produced his report which, whilst never made public, was the basis for further changes at the BBC including the establishment of the post of Middle East Editor in 2005 and the adoption of a journalists’ guide to key facts and terminology  which was compiled mainly by Malcolm Balen himself, together with Jeremy Bowen and the then Head of BBC Arabic Hosam el Sokkari and made partially public in 2006 upon the recommendation of the Thomas Report. 

In May 2006 the BBC published the results of an independent panel report headed by Sir Quentin Thomas which examined the impartiality of BBC coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in its domestic broadcasting.  A document prepared for the panel by BBC news management gives some indication of how the BBC approaches the subject of Middle East reporting from a practical day-to-day point of view and of the various ‘gate-keeping’ mechanisms put in place to ensure accuracy and impartiality. Those mechanisms include:

The Jerusalem Bureau Editor, The Middle East Editor, The BBC Online Middle East Editor, The Senior Editorial Advisor and The Key Facts Guide.

The Jerusalem Bureau Editor:

The document states that:

“[The Jerusalem Bureau Editor] is expected to take the editorial lead on the ground and be a source of advice and expertise on BBC coverage throughout the region.”

‘Expertise’ is, however, not defined – either in content or quality – and neither is it made clear how a Jerusalem Bureau Editor is supposed to gain such ‘expertise’. Bureau editors in fact change quite frequently (there have been three since that document was written), often arriving in the Middle East with comparatively little previous experience on the subject. Thus, for example, we see former Jerusalem Bureau Editor Simon Wilson writing in a blog entry about the BBC Key Terms Guide whilst he was still in that role:

“The civilian settlements which Israel has built on land it occupied in the 1967 Arab/Israeli war are illegal under international law. That is the position of the UN Security Council, the British government and the Geneva Convention. So it is right that we make that clear in this guide.”

Clearly, such a statement is not only factually lazy (article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 specifies a prohibition on the deportation or transfer of civilians, which is patently not the case), but it also fails to take into account the many conflicting opinions on the subject and thus contradicts another principle to which the BBC claims to adhere: 

“To try to achieve impartiality, we aim to reflect a wide range of opinion and explore a range of views so that no significant strand of thought is absent or under represented.” [Emphasis added] 

For information on the current Middle East Bureau Editor, see here.

The Middle East Editor:

Another ‘gate-keeping’ action taken by the BBC to improve the standard of its coverage was the creation of the post of Middle East Editor in 2005 as described above. According to the document prepared by the BBC News Editors:

“The challenge for our daily news coverage is to provide an appropriate balance between the reporting of a ‘spot news’ event and the analysis that might help set it in its context.

This challenge is particularly acute on the television news bulletins, where space is at a premium, and because the context is often disputed by the two sides in the conflict. To add more analysis to our output, our strategy is to support the coverage of our bureau correspondents with a Middle East editor. 

Jeremy Bowen’s new role is, effectively, to take a bird’s eye view of developments in the Middle East, providing analysis that might make a complex story more comprehensive or comprehensible for the audience, without the constraints of acting as a daily news correspondent. His remit is not just to add an extra layer of analysis to our reporting, but also to find stories away from the main agenda.”

However, many have questioned Jeremy Bowen’s own impartiality and objectivity on the subject of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The fact that he plays such a dominant role in defining BBC attitudes as a whole towards it (both as Middle East Editor and contributor to the ‘Key Terms Guide’, as well as one of the main people responsible for the content of the BBC’s College of Journalism’s Middle East module) makes Bowen’s approach to the subject necessarily one of public interest. More on that can be read here

The Middle East Editor, BBC Online:

The same BBC News Editors’ document cites the appointment of a Middle East Editor of its news website as part of the mechanism employed to ensure balanced coverage. 

“Similarly, Tarik Kafala has been appointed as Middle East editor of BBC News Online in order to add extra authority to our website.”

 “Among the requests from both sides in the conflict is that we should more frequently recount its history in our daily journalism. We do not think daily news journalists have the time in their reports to go into such a level of detail, not least as there are two versions of the history. Instead, our strategy is to supplement our news coverage by providing detailed background on BBC News Online. It has the space to carry more information than broadcast news programmes, helping readers to understand the political, historical or economic background to an event.” [Emphasis added]

“There are two key sections. Detailed Middle East news can be found in a dedicated site which is accessed from the BBC News home page. This site carries three or four main news stories, and a score of links to further Middle East reports, features or analysis.

Here, there is a link to a Country Profile site, which provides in-depth background on Israel and the Palestinians. It contains archive material, facts and figures, background information and analysis. It also carries two comprehensive histories of the conflict – as a timeline and in maps. There is also a ‘have your say’ section so that web-users can make their views known. BBC News Online aims to react to events by demonstrating a depth of understanding and a commitment to explanation, so it will publish ‘guides’ to specific issues that are in the news – for example, the holy sites in Jerusalem or the West Bank barrier. “

Although the credentials behind the claim of ‘extra authority’ provided by Tarik Kafala are not made clear (beyond the fact that he lived in Libya until the age of 10), some of Mr Kafala’s writing from the period prior to his appointment to the role would suggest a less than factual approach. More on that subject can be read here.

The Senior Editorial Advisor:

The BBC News Editors’ document further states:

“In addition to the checks and balances provided by our editorial structure, we now monitor our output through regular reports, partly quantitative but mainly qualitative, from the senior editorial adviser, Malcolm Balen.”

The Key Points Guide:

As ‘senior gatekeeper’, Malcolm Balen is one of the authors of the BBC’s ‘Key Points Guide’ which, as mentioned above, came about as a result of his appointment in 2003 and subsequent report. 

“The choice of language in covering this part of the world is often seen as a determinant of impartiality, or its failure, so we have written a ‘key points guide’ to help inform staff.

It has been circulated to all of them via an e-mail link to the BBC News Analysis and Research website. The guide contains information on the appropriate language that producers might use, and some historical background on the conflict.”

 Despite this existing system of checks and balances, one of the Thomas Report’s findings was that:

“The Independent Panel takes the view that impartiality also requires a full and fair account and in that regard found the BBC’s coverage to be inconsistent, not always providing a complete picture and in that sense misleading.”

However, as continued criticism of the BBC’s accuracy and impartiality indicates, no amount of reviews and reports can lead to the implementation of effective checks and balances until the paradigms of the basic approach to the Middle East conflict in an organization which is mostly self-regulating, and which exhibits a marked lack of diversity of experience and opinion among those operating the BBC on a daily basis and those entrusted with overseeing and auditing its performance, have also been addressed.  The Thomas Report’s recommendations, for example, were based upon its panel’s members’ definition of “the nature of the conflict”.   

“2.3 There is another point about the nature of the conflict: namely that the two sides are not on equal terms. Indeed it is arguable that the most obvious and important feature of the present situation is its asymmetry. This is not a question of the respective merits of the two sides. It is simply a matter of fact that Israel is a functioning state with established democratic institutions, an advanced economy and a highly effective diplomatic, defence and intelligence capability. None of this is true of the Palestinian side. (This point is not invalidated by the fact that the Palestinians recently conducted elections widely accepted to have been free and fair.)

2.4 The asymmetry is most strikingly manifested in the fact of Occupation. One side is wholly under the occupation of the other and, however reluctantly, necessarily endures the indignities of dependence. As  some of our witnesses noted, this fact itself poses a challenge to a media organisation like the BBC committed, as our terms of reference make clear, to fairness, impartiality and balance. (While fairness and impartiality are legal requirements, balance is a concept adopted by the BBC in seeking to give effect to them.) These objectives, especially balance, work most naturally where the parties to a dispute are on an equal footing. Indeed, without care, a formulaic application of these doctrines, and in particular that of balance, to  the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could produce coverage which misleads from the outset.”

Among the many obvious problems with this definition of the ‘nature of the conflict’ (beyond the fact that it was published after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and Areas A&B  and therefore the claim that ‘one side is wholly under the occupation of the other’ is patently inaccurate) is the fact that the panel members elected to view the conflict in extraordinarily narrow terms. In the modern era of terror wars by non-state actors, conventional views of asymmetry are of limited use. 

Further, the panel clearly chose to view the conflict as ‘Palestinian-Israeli’ rather than the more accurate ‘Arab-Israeli’. The involvement of foreign-funded terror groups such as Hamas and Hizbollah as well as terror-hosting and supporting countries in the region clearly renders the panel’s conclusions of asymmetry redundant. 

But the even more worrying aspect to this ‘building block’ of the Thomas Report is that it appears to hold Israel to different standards than those expected of the Palestinians, simply by virtue of the fact that Israel is a modern, developed, democratic and successful country. That premise is deeply problematic in itself, but when it forms the basis for standard-setting on issues of accuracy and impartiality, even more so. It does, however, go a long way towards explaining why – despite the considerable efforts made by the BBC – criticism of its accuracy and impartiality still abound.