BBC responds to complaint about Jeremy Bowen’s ‘Holocaust card’ Tweet

Readers no doubt recall the Tweet below which was sent by the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen whilst he was covering the Israeli prime minister’s speech to the US Congress on March 3rd 2015.

Bowen tweets speech 1

A member of the public who made a complaint on that matter has received a response from the Complaints Director at the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit – Richard Hutt – which includes the following:

“You have said that this was profoundly offensive and served to trivialise the Holocaust. Reviewing the tweet it did not seem to me that Mr Bowen was referring to the Holocaust as a mere political card to be played, but rather suggesting this is what Mr Netanyahu was doing. I would accept that this is a fine distinction, and one which the medium may not be best suited to convey. However, the sense I took from it was that Mr Bowen felt Mr Netanyahu had introduced the Holocaust in reference to Iran as a means of influencing the decisions of America’s policy makers about that country. Earlier in Mr Netanyahu’s speech he had drawn direct parallels between Iran and Nazi Germany and in his acknowledgement of Elie Wiesel he returned to that comparison – referring to “dark and murderous regimes” and saying that:

And I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned. I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

The characterisation of those references and that comparison (between Iran now and Nazi Germany in 1938) as the playing of a card does not itself serve to demean the Holocaust or reduce it to a political tool. In fact, accusing another of doing so might suggest quite the opposite.

Some who complained about the tweet have said that it offers evidence of bias, and that the facts regarding Iran support Mr Netanyahu’s decision to bring the holocaust [sic] into the discussion. I appreciate that it might be argued that the denial of the Holocaust by some in Iran, coupled with their belligerence regarding Israel, makes Mr Netanyahu’s reference appropriate. Conversely, some have pointed to profound differences between Iran now and the Nazi state in 1938. It is not, however, for me to pass judgement on the extent to which this reference was apposite, but only on whether Mr Bowen’s characterisation of it amounted to a breach of the BBC’s standards. I cannot say I think it was. The BBC’s guidelines do not prevent correspondents from using their judgement in characterising events and offering their knowledge and experience to offer informed perspectives on them – and this, it seemed to me, was what happened here.

I would accept that this might have been better worded. However, this was not an in-depth article but a single tweet, one of many published over the course of a live event, and the necessary brevity of that format makes extra background impossible – a limitation which I think audiences understand and a context in which it must be judged. I don’t think anyone would look to the tweet for a full understanding of the nuances of the situation in Iran or the speech as a whole but rather a (live) shorthand summary of one aspect of it, as analysed by Mr Bowen. His analysis reflected his particular interpretation of Mr Netanyahu’s comments but as I say such interpretation is allowed and indeed expected of correspondents, particularly from their own Twitter accounts. I don’t therefore believe this amounted to bias.

The BBC’s guidelines do not promise that content will never offend. They do however require that where it might, some editorial justification exists. In this case, I think the informed analysis I describe above would offer that justification, and as I say I do not think this served to belittle the Holocaust in any way. While I recognise and regret that you found this offensive I do not believe it is in breach of the BBC’s standards.”

As was noted here at the time:

“The accepted definition of the idiom ‘play the card’ is to exploit a specific issue for political advantage. In other words, Bowen is accusing Netanyahu of cynically making use of the memory of six million murdered Jews for his own political gain and his use of the words “once again” indicates that Bowen is of the opinion that this is a regular practice on the part of the Israeli prime minister.”

The BBC, it seems, would have us believe that is an ‘informed perspective’ which has “editorial justification”.

Related Articles:

BBC audiences get Israeli PM’s Congress speech through the Bowen filter – part one

Commentary on BBC ME editor’s ‘Holocaust card’ Tweet widens

Examining Lyse Doucet’s claim that she reported new Hamas tunnels on BBC

The BBC’s chief international correspondent Lyse Doucet recently engaged in a Twitter conversation on the subject of her organisation’s reporting of the topic of Hamas’ cross-border tunnels. Some threads from that conversation can be seen here, here and here but readers will get the gist from the screenshot below.

Doucet tunnels twitter convo

Quentin Sommerville’s two reports (previously discussed here) actually related more to the subject of PIJ rearmament than to the reconstruction of tunnels. As for Doucet’s claim that she “mentioned tunnels in many live broadcasts” – that is true as long as one sticks to the dictionary definition of the word ‘mention‘.

In one of her filmed reports from February 25th Doucet said:

“Six months ago there was a welcome, there was a celebration among Gazans, among Israelis – particularly in southern Israel – that a ceasefire had been reached. But look at this now. It’s like a wasteland. You could be forgiven for thinking there’d been a natural disaster here. But this was the result of 51 days of war as Israeli forces entered on the ground and carried out airstrikes and artillery fire looking for the network of underground tunnels in what they had described as a Hamas stronghold.”

In her other filmed report from the same day Doucet said to Hamas’ Ghazi Hamad:

“But there are reports – credible reports – that Hamas is again digging tunnels, that Hamas has been test-firing missiles in preparation for the next war.”

As we noted here previously, Doucet displayed “no interest whatsoever in questioning Hamad about where the money and materials for rehabilitation of Hamas’ military capabilities are coming from”.

In an item for the February 25th edition of BBC Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme (available here from 2:45:28) Doucet said:

“….where I’m speaking to you from – I’m essentially standing on a huge mound of rubble with slabs of concrete and twisted wire rods, fragments of children’s clothing threaded through these stones and rubble and dirt. But this is what most of Shuja’iya looks like. It still lies in ruins six months after that ceasefire was reached. It lies very close to Gaza’s border with Israel. It bore the brunt of Israeli airstrikes, artillery fire and the ground offensive as Israel said it was searching for Hamas tunnels and Hamas military targets.”

In an audio report for the February 25th edition of BBC World Service’s ‘Newshour’ (available from 30:00 here), Doucet introduced an extended version of this item as follows:

“Well there’s a warm winter sun today in Gaza after days of cold rain but I have to say it’s one of the few bright spots – the only bright spot really – you’ll find here in Gaza. I’m in Shuja’iya which lies very close to the border with Israel. And this was a place which bore the brunt of Israeli airstrikes and artillery fire as well as the ground invasion as Israeli forces came into this area to destroy the underground tunnels of Hamas and to target – they say – Hamas targets. But the devastation is all around us: the witness to what really happened here around the Gaza Strip.”

So yes: Doucet did “mention” tunnels. She did not, however, present BBC audiences with the comprehensive picture of the threat those tunnels posed to Israeli civilians in the summer of 2014 which would have enhanced their understanding of the actions taken by Israel and the scenes Doucet now reports with so much pathos. Given that most of the reporting produced by Doucet and her colleagues on that subject whilst the conflict was ongoing was similarly lacking – see examples here, here and here – that omission is obviously very significant.

But no: Doucet did not provide BBC audiences with anything which can seriously be described as meaningful reporting on Hamas’ reconstruction of tunnels since the end of the conflict in any of her many recent reports (see related articles below) from the Gaza Strip.

Related Articles:

BBC’s Lyse Doucet does ‘reporter in the rubble’ redux – part one

BBC’s Lyse Doucet does ‘reporter in the rubble’ redux – part two

BBC’s Lyse Doucet does ‘reporter in the rubble’ redux – part three

Lyse Doucet’s blatant political propaganda on BBC WS WHYS – part one

Lyse Doucet’s blatant political propaganda on BBC WS WHYS – part two

 

 

Hamas PR department invokes BBC’s Bowen

Readers may have heard about the Hamas social media campaign which recently invited Twitter users to ‘#AskHamas’. It is safe to say that the results of that PR drive did not exactly meet the terrorist organisation’s expectations and the topic was picked up by the mainstream media – see for example here, here and here.

Whilst Hamas did not answer most of the Tweets sent its way, here is one which did receive a reply:

Hamas tweet Bowen

Clearly the BBC Middle East editor’s efforts to whitewash Hamas’ use of human shields during last summer’s hostilities did not go unnoticed by that internationally recognised terrorist organisation.

The civilian population of the Gaza Strip might, however, be somewhat less appreciative of that politically motivated reporting from the man supposedly responsible for ensuring the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s Middle East content. 

 

Commentary on BBC ME editor’s ‘Holocaust card’ Tweet widens

Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, Professor Alan Johnson comments on Jeremy Bowen’s recent “holocaust card” Tweet sent during the Israeli prime minister’s speech to the US Congress.Bowen tweets speech 1

“Mr Bowen’s idea is that when an Israeli leader mentions the Holocaust he is being tricksy, manipulative, acting in bad faith, “playing a card” to get narrow advantage in contemporary politics, not really expressing a genuine thought about the Holocaust itself or a genuine fear about a second, nuclear, Holocaust.

And that idea, of the Bad Faith Jew, is unmistakably dripping in the assumptions and myths of classic antisemitism.

Mr Bowen did what only the antisemitic extremists used to do, reduce the invocation of the Holocaust to a common sense indicator of ‘Zionist’ bad faith and something to disdain.

Well, the Holocaust happened. It happened to the Jews. And now the Jews are threatened again by a genocidal regime. These are facts.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Update:

Via the Guardian we learn that Jeremy Bowen has responded to criticism of his Tweet – without addressing the actual issue.

Bowen tweet reaction to tweet

We also learn that the BBC has officially elected to address the issue by means of wilful miscomprehension.

“A BBC spokesperson said: “Jeremy was using Twitter and journalism shorthand whilst live-tweeting PM Netanyahu’s speech. The context of his comment is that a major part of PM Netanyahu’s critique of the proposed Iran deal was based on the spectre of another holocaust. Jeremy’s tweet was designed to reflect that context. He absolutely refutes any suggestion of antisemitism.””

The phrase “plays the holocaust card” is not “Twitter and journalism shorthand” for ‘mentions the Holocaust’. The BBC’s official response is an insult to its funding public’s intelligence.  

 

 

BBC audiences get Israeli PM’s Congress speech through the Bowen filter – part one

Regular readers would of course have had few expectations of receiving a wholly impartial report on the Israeli prime minister’s speech to the US Congress on March 3rd from the BBC’s Middle East editor but even they might have been surprised by the tone and content of some of the comments made by Jeremy Bowen as he live-tweeted the speech to his 121 thousand followers – especially in light of the fact that BBC editorial guidelines – including those on accuracy and impartiality – also apply to its staff’s Twitter accounts.

Bowen tweets speech 1

So what did the man who only the day before had alluded to himself as a “serious student of the Middle East” mean by that (small H) “holocaust card” jibe? The accepted definition of the idiom ‘play the card’ is to exploit a specific issue for political advantage. In other words, Bowen is accusing Netanyahu of cynically making use of the memory of six million murdered Jews for his own political gain and his use of the words “once again” indicates that Bowen is of the opinion that this is a regular practice on the part of the Israeli prime minister.

Netanyahu’s actual words were as follows:

“My friend, standing up to Iran is not easy. Standing up to dark and murderous regimes never is. With us today is Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel.

Elie, your life and work inspires to give meaning to the words, “never again.”

And I wish I could promise you, Elie, that the lessons of history have been learned. I can only urge the leaders of the world not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

Not to sacrifice the future for the present; not to ignore aggression in the hopes of gaining an illusory peace.

But I can guarantee you this, the days when the Jewish people remained passive in the face of genocidal enemies, those days are over.”

Clearly any real “serious student of the Middle East” would have an understanding of the place of the Holocaust in Jewish collective memory just as he would be familiar with the Iranian regime’s record of anti-Israel rhetoric and practical support for terrorist groups seeking the destruction of the Jewish state. Bowen, however, put whatever knowledge he may have aside – instead allowing his personal political prejudices to dictate his commentary.

The same practice was evident in other tweets:

Bowen tweets speech 2

In fact, Netanyahu did not “conflate” Iranian Shiism with Sunni Jihadists as Bowen claims. What he actually did was point out that both those separate and competing ideologies are equally important problems.

“Iran’s regime is as radical as ever, its cries of “Death to America,” that same America that it calls the “Great Satan,” as loud as ever.

Now, this shouldn’t be surprising, because the ideology of Iran’s revolutionary regime is deeply rooted in militant Islam, and that’s why this regime will always be an enemy of America.

Don’t be fooled. The battle between Iran and ISIS doesn’t turn Iran into a friend of America.

Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. One calls itself the Islamic Republic. The other calls itself the Islamic State. Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire first on the region and then on the entire world. They just disagree among themselves who will be the ruler of that empire.

In this deadly game of thrones, there’s no place for America or for Israel, no peace for Christians, Jews or Muslims who don’t share the Islamist medieval creed, no rights for women, no freedom for anyone.

So when it comes to Iran and ISIS, the enemy of your enemy is your enemy.”

Bowen also commented:

Bowen tweets speech 3

He neglected to clarify that – unlike Iran – Israel is not party to the NPT and of course failed to note that Iran was declared non-compliant to the treaty it did sign as long ago as 2003.

Another Bowen tweet read:

Bowen tweets speech 4

If readers are wondering what Bowen meant by “politics of fear”, that point is clarified in his ‘analysis’ included in two subsequent BBC News website reports on the topic of Netanyahu’s speech.

“The speech was classic Netanyahu. He mixed the politics of fear with the politics of bravery in adversity. Iran was gobbling up Middle East states – a reference to its influence in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Yemen – while Israel stood strong, never again allowing the Jews to be passive victims.”

Of course Iran’s active role in the Syrian civil war and its supply of funding and weapons to terrorist organisations such as Hizballah means that it has rather more than just “influence” in those locations and others throughout the Middle East. However, Bowen’s intent is clearly not to inform audiences of the objective facts, but to persuade them that the Israeli prime minister uses unfounded threats to elicit the political response he seeks by means of emotion.

Bowen’s jaundiced and openly disdainful view of the Israeli prime minister’s speech to Congress was not only communicated to BBC audiences via Twitter. As we will see in part two of this post, BBC reports on the issue were notable for similar inaccuracies, half stories and lack of impartiality. 

A Tweet from the ‘accurate’ and ‘impartial’ BBC’s Paul Adams

On February 13th the BBC’s world affairs correspondent Paul Adams sent this Tweet to over ten thousand followers.

Adams tweet 13 2

As readers can see for themselves, the video purporting to show the “West Bank barrier” is in fact a loop of the same footage shown over and over again in which the same graffiti appears repeatedly every few seconds.

Over 90% of the anti-terrorist fence is exactly that: a fence constructed from wire mesh. Only a small proportion is constructed from concrete slabs of the type shown in Adams’ manipulated video.

Those familiar with the reports produced by Paul Adams when he was ‘parachuted’ into the Gaza Strip during last summer’s conflict will not be very surprised by this inaccurate, misleading and context-free representation of the anti-terrorist fence. Apparently a previous Twitter gaffe by Adams in which he hastily promoted inaccurate information to his followers, leading them to believe that the son of a BBC employee in the Gaza Strip had been killed in an Israeli airstrike, did not prompt him to refresh his knowledge of BBC guidelines on the use of social media.

“Impartiality is a particular concern for those working in News and Current Affairs. Nothing should appear on their personal blogs or microblogs which undermines the integrity or impartiality of the BBC.”

The BBC’s reputation for integrity and impartiality is not strengthened when, apropos of nothing, a BBC correspondent decides to upload to his Twitter account intentionally edited video footage bereft of any context and misrepresenting a politically contentious issue.  

Related Articles:

Does BBC reporting on Israel’s anti-terrorist fence meet standards of ‘due impartiality’? – part 3

 

 

 

 

 

Recommended viewing from the BBC’s Jerusalem Bureau chief

Following publication of the news that veteran CBS ’60 Minutes’ correspondent Bob Simon had died in a car accident in New York, the head of the BBC’s Jerusalem Bureau sent this tweet:

Colebourn tweet Simon

The report recommended by Richard Colebourn to his Twitter followers is titled Christians of the Holy Land and it dates from 2012. Rather than being “unusually nuanced and robust”, it in fact includes basic inaccuracies such as this:

“Israel built the wall over the last 10 years, which completely separates Israel from the occupied West Bank. The wall was built to stop Palestinian terrorists from getting into Israel. And it’s worked. Terrorism has gone down 90 percent.

At the same time, the wall completely surrounds Bethlehem, turning the “little town” where Christ was born into what its residents call “an open air prison.” ” [emphasis added]

A critique of Simon’s report by CAMERA’s Dexter Van Zile can be seen here.

If it seems odd that Richard Colebourn’s tribute should highlight that particular piece of reporting out of all Bob Simon’s work, it is worth remembering that the BBC has produced its own similarly distorted reporting on the same topic. Perhaps that is why the corporation’s Jerusalem Bureau chief seems to have difficulty differentiating between “robust” and inaccurate, “nuanced” and partial. 

BBC News, impartiality and the Israeli elections

Since its brief – and revealing – dabble with the topic of the pending general election in Israel at the beginning of December, the BBC has to date refrained from producing any further content on that topic.elections

However, we can of course expect that as the date of the election (March 17th) approaches the BBC will be producing no small number of reports on the subject. We can perhaps also assume that its Hebrew-speaking staff based in Israel will have a part to play in helping their colleagues who do not speak the language in which the election is being conducted to make sense of it all, and that those understandings will then be passed on to BBC audiences worldwide.

As Israeli readers cannot have failed to notice, one election-related topic currently featuring prominently in the country’s media is that of assorted allegations concerning the wife of the current prime minister and among the plethora of articles, reports and op-eds on that subject is a scathing item written by Israeli journalist Ben Caspit which appeared in Ma’ariv Online on January 26th  under the title “Silence of the lambs: when the truth about Sara Netayahu will come to light”.

BBC News producer Michael Shuval saw fit to promote that article to his followers on Twitter in Hebrew on January 28th, together with the added comment:

“An important document, and if there is no truth in it, let the prime minister’s office sue Ben Caspit and the paper Ma’ariv Online.”

Tweet Shuval Netanyahu

BBC Editorial Guidelines on impartiality state:

“Presenters, reporters and correspondents are the public face and voice of the BBC – they can have a significant impact on perceptions of whether due impartiality has been achieved.  Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC output the personal prejudices of our journalists or news and current affairs presenters on matters of public policy, political or industrial controversy, or on ‘controversial subjects’ in any other area.  They may provide professional judgements, rooted in evidence, but may not express personal views in BBC output, including online, on such matters.”

It will be worth remembering that Tweet when we read, watch and hear the ‘impartial’ BBC coverage of the Israeli elections just around the corner. 

BBC response to Willcox complaints: he sent a Tweet

Below is the response received by a member of the public in reply to his complaint concerning remarks made by Tim Willcox during the BBC’s coverage of the January 11th march in Paris. Others have informed us that they have been sent the exact same reply.

Response Willcox complaint

It is worth noting once again that the majority of the millions of people who watched that BBC broadcast do not follow Tim Willcox on Twitter.

One of the problems with the response from BBC Complaints – and with Willcox’s Tweet – is that he was not asking a “poorly phrased question” at all. He in fact interrupted his interviewee to make a statement. And whilst Willcox may indeed have had “no intention of causing offence”, he did just that because the notion he found it so urgent to promote to viewers is based on the antisemitic premise that Jews anywhere in the world hold collective responsibility for the perceived actions of the State of Israel.

If Tim Willcox and the BBC do not understand why his statement – and the thinking behind it – constitutes a problem and why an apology in 140 characters or less repeated in a generic e-mail from BBC Complaints is unsatisfactory, then obviously there are considerably deeper issues here. 

Willcox’s Twitter apology does not abrogate the need for an on-air statement from the BBC clarifying the issue to audiences who watched that programme.

Should BBC News allow its agenda to be dictated by social media?

December 28th saw the appearance of a filmed report in the technology section of the BBC News website (also apparently shown on that day’s edition of BBC Breakfast on BBC One and the BBC News channel) under the title “What news event got us tweeting and posting in 2014?“.

Regarding what he described as “the top three news events shared on social media this year”, presenter Graham Satchell told audiences:

“At [number] three, the month-long bombardment of Gaza: a conflict with Israel seemingly without end.”

Those words were presented with a background of two images: notably both black and white photographs whilst the rest of the report is of course in colour.

Satchell filmed image 1

Satchell filmed image 2

No further context was provided. Probably much like the Tweets and posts which made this topic the third most shared of the year, Satchell’s report made no effort to inform audiences that “bombardment” of Israeli villages, towns and cities also took place throughout the fifty days of the conflict or that what led to its outbreak were over 280 incidents of missile fire by Gaza Strip based terrorist organisations at Israeli civilian targets between June 14th and July 8th and the later discovery of cross-border tunnels constructed for the purpose of terror attacks.

Social media is of course by nature both superficial and easily manipulated to create a level of ‘noise’ way beyond the actual significance of a story by focusing on its eye-catching sound-bites alone. How many of the Tweets and posts which placed the “bombardment of Gaza” in third place actually originated from a small number of political activists and how such activism serves the interests of Hamas’ PR war is not a topic which Satchell saw fit to address.

Satchell stated:

“What we like, share is now influencing everything – including the news.”

That of course can only be the case if news services allow social media to influence their agenda. Among the questions BBC audiences may be asking is why they even need the mainstream media to act as an intermediary between them and what they can already discover for themselves (for free) and do they actually want the content provided by their news service to be dictated by the Tweets and Facebook posts of interest groups and anonymous subscribers to those services and others.

The BBC’s contract with its funding public obliges it to “inform, educate and entertain“. The issue of whether context-free amplification of topics popular on social media – as seen in this report – can be said to meet the terms of that remit is one which readers are invited to discuss in the comments below.