In March 2009 the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee upheld a number of clauses in complaints made about an article written by Jeremy Bowen on the BBC Online website and a radio broadcast. Bowen went on record as stating that the Trust’s decisions were made “wrongly” and accusing the complainants of being “the enemies of impartiality”.
Although there were no practical consequences to the decision, it is notable that among those rushing to defend Bowen were known figures on the anti-Israel circuit such as Antony Lerman of the anti-Zionist organization ‘Independent Jewish Voices’ and veteran anti-Israel ideologue Robert Fisk of the Independent, who were later joined by Peter Oborne. Fellow BBC journalist Jonathan Dimbleby claimed that the BBC Trust’s decision to uphold parts of the complaints “undermined” the broadcaster’s international status, opining that:
”…millions of Palestinians, other Arabs and Muslims will by now have been confirmed in their…. belief that the BBC is yet again running scared of Israeli propaganda. And that really is damaging.”
However, as the Chairman of the BBC Trust at the time Sir Michael Lyons pointed out in an article responding to criticisms of the findings against Bowen:
“The day the BBC accepts reporting that is mostly true is the day we no longer deserve the licence fee.”
Misgivings regarding Jeremy Bowen’s suitability to act as one of a very select group of people charged with the helm of BBC policy, education and editing on the Middle East are based primarily on his own record as established by his writings. A report published in December 2009 by Asserson, Kalms and Stamler (‘Jeremy Bowen and the Gaza Conflict‘) noted that during Operation Cast Lead, the overwhelming majority of Jeremy Bowen’s reports on the conflict portrayed Israel in a negative manner.
Upon being appointed to the post of Middle East Editor, Bowen stated that:
“[The BBC is] not anti-Israeli. Unfortunately many Israelis seem to assume that if you are not a cheerleader for a country you are automatically against them. It is not true. We do a fair and balanced job of reporting both sides, who are both legitimate players on the scene.”
This comment again seems to indicate that Mr Bowen’s capacities for self-criticism and objectivity are somewhat limited: he has already decided that the BBC is beyond reproach. Of course nobody expects the BBC or any other media outlet to “cheerlead” for Israel, but people do expect to get what (in the case of the BBC) they are legally entitled to: accurate and impartial reporting.
In May 2000, whilst covering the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon, Jeremy Bowen witnessed the death of his friend and colleague Abed Takkoush. There can be no doubt that the event had a profound effect upon Bowen, shaping his viewpoints and affecting his career.
Prior to that incident, Bowen had spent five years as head of the BBC’s Jerusalem bureau. According to his own accounts, his career as a foreign correspondent working in dangerous regions of the world was ‘addictive’.
“I found it tremendously exciting. There were terrible moments but the whole process of reporting from all these lawless states gave me a feeling that I was living on the edge,”
“When I was a young bloke without responsibilities driving with my pals towards a city which was so much on fire that the skies turned black with smoke and you could hear the guns getting louder, it was a buzz”.
In 2004 Bowen wrote:
“No job in journalism is more difficult or more satisfying than war reporting…
War reporting is exciting, upsetting and stimulating. Sometimes it is a lot of fun. Bearing witness to the world’s evils beats going to work on the tube any day. Successful war reporters, going back to Richard Dimbleby in the second world war, become stars.”
(Indeed, like many ‘stars’, Bowen and some other BBC journalists have agents.)
After the death of Takkoush, however, Bowen returned to London to become a breakfast show presenter whilst dealing with the effects of Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Bowen – and the BBC as a whole – blamed Israel for Takkoush’s death, with the head of BBC News-gathering even going so far as to accuse Israel of violating international law by deliberately targeting civilians and to press Israel to compensate the driver’s family even before an IDF investigation into the incident had been completed. Reportedly, the BBC also had its lawyers investigate the legal possibility of accusing Israel of war crimes under the Geneva Convention. Israel (along with the USA) has even been accused – on more than one occasion – by one prominent BBC presenter of deliberately killing journalists in order to shut down reporting.
Despite the fact that the area close to the Israeli border in which Bowen and his crew were operating was still very much a war zone, with imminent threats of Hizbollah terror attacks, Bowen and others appear to believe that the IDF should have been capable of distinguishing between them and Hizbollah guerillas on the basis of their appearance.
“I was in sight of the Israeli settlement [Manara]. I thought it would be fairly quiet. I even waved my arms over my head to show we were civilians. I had no helmet and was wearing a pink shirt”.
Jeremy Bowen’s full account of that day can be read in his book ‘War Stories’.
In 2006, in collaboration with the BBC’s charity the BBC World Service Trust, a training placements scheme was established by the BBC in memory of Abed Takkoush.
After such an understandably traumatic personal experience, can a journalist remain impartial? In a 2006 interview with the Independent Bowen said:
“We all come from somewhere; we all have a prism through which we see the world; we all have an education, and views and experiences. It’s a false objective to be objective.”
“But I think I can be impartial by trying to disentangle all the threads that make up a story. That’s an ambitious thing to do in two and a half minutes on TV. You have got to be aware of what your own prejudices and principles are and put them to one side in a box.”
Of course what is or is not deemed impartial is also a product of the culture in which the journalist works and particularly when that culture is self-regulated, an institutional consensus is liable to develop which may not necessarily be identical to the definition of impartial or accurate as perceived by those outside the organization – the following 2007 radio broadcast by Jeremy Bowen being but one example.