As long-time readers of BBC Watch know, we have frequently highlighted the fact that BBC Editorial Guidelines apply to all BBC content – including social media. Twitter – being fast-moving ‘instant’ messaging and cutting out the editorial ‘middle-man’ between the journalist and the public – is of course particularly susceptible to breaches of those guidelines.
Last November Mr Stephen Franklin submitted a complaint to the BBC regarding two Tweets sent during ‘Operation Pillar of Cloud’. One of those Tweets originated from the BBC World News account and the outcome of the complaint was documented here. The other Tweet originated from the account of the then BBC Jerusalem Bureau correspondent Wyre Davies and the BBC’s Editorial Standards Committee published its findings with regard to Mr Franklin’s complaint of inaccuracy on August 29th 2013 – on page 21 here.
Although Mr Franklin’s complaint related only to the accuracy of the Tweet – not its impartiality – the committee nevertheless saw fit to publish the following finding:
“Finding: Partially upheld with regard to Accuracy. Not in breach with regard to Impartiality.”
The committee’s report states:
“BBC News correspondent Wyre Davies reported from Gaza during the operation. On 15 November 2012 at 7.25am Mr Davies sent the following tweet from his Twitter account:
In this “limited operation” at least 13 Palestinians and 3 Israelis have been killed – nearly all civilians. #Gaza.
This message was re-tweeted by @BBCWorld at 7.54am.”
Here is a screenshot of the Tweet with its local time time-stamp rather than the GMT time-frame cited by the committee.
Whilst accepting that the Tweet breached BBC Editorial Guidelines on accuracy (the Palestinians killed at that point were not “nearly all civilians” as we pointed out at the time), the committee makes much in its findings of the circumstances in which it was written.
“The Committee noted that Mr Davies was tweeting about the situation while working as a BBC correspondent in Gaza..”
“The Committee considered that the lack of due accuracy in the tweet which was the subject of this complaint likely arose from the particular, fast-paced and chaotic circumstances in which the correspondent was reporting.”
“The Committee did not regard this breach as reflecting anything other than the extreme pressure under which Mr Davies and other journalists in Gaza had been working, and it commended the overall quality and integrity of his reporting across various media during “Operation Pillar of Defence”. ”
“The Committee considered that readers would have been aware that Mr Davies was working in a conflict zone and would have understood that this was a chaotic, very fast-moving situation and that figures would be changing.”
However, at the time that Tweet was sent – some 18 hours or so after the beginning of the operation – Wyre Davies was not in Gaza, but in Israel – as one of his earlier Tweets shows and as documented at the time by BBC Watch.
According to his own Twitter timeline, Davies entered the Gaza Strip nearly an hour and a half after sending the Tweet concerned.
The findings also state:
“In this case, the Committee noted that Mr Davies said his information had come from health officials in Gaza who had told him that “more than half” of the 13 Palestinian deaths were of civilians. This was clearly a source which it was appropriate for journalists to cite. However, there had been no attribution to the source in the tweet itself. The Committee noted the practical considerations specific to Twitter of including attributions within 140 characters.”
This is not the first time that the BBC’s reliance upon information obtained from “health officials in Gaza” has proved to be an issue and unfortunately, the BBC Trust does not appear to be sufficiently aware of the problematic aspects of that practice.
The committee’s findings also include the following:
“The Committee recognised that, as in any fast-moving story of conflict, the true picture became apparent only over time with reports emerging piecemeal from different sources, and they noted Mr Davies’ comments that:
“It is not surprising that few agencies or broadcasters had exactly the same figures at exactly the same time, because the number of casualties rose quickly and some of us would have been aware of ‘new’ additions, simply because we either witnessed those deaths or were quickly on the scene. The ‘fog of war’ is also something that armchair critics at home rarely experience – we were not covering the State opening of Parliament but a brutal and confusing conflict at the end of which, by common consent, more civilians than combatants were killed on both sides.””
Of course Wyre Davies’ claim that “by common consent more civilians than combatants were killed on both sides” is also inaccurate and it is regrettable that the ESC chooses to repeat such an inaccuracy in an official document.
Neither he nor the Editorial Standards Committee appears to have taken note of the fact that two of the Palestinian casualties included in the numbers Davies cited in his Tweet – one of them the son of a BBC employee – were later shown to have been killed by a short-falling terrorist rocket. In its uncalled-for ruling on the impartiality of that Tweet, the ESC has obviously not taken into consideration the fact that by the time it was sent, Davies’ colleagues had begun an extensive campaign of emotion-fuelled promotion of those deaths as having been caused by Israel – despite having no factual evidence for that claim – thus creating a climate of ‘group think’ which may well have influenced the composition of the Tweet, and with neither Davies nor any other members of the BBC team in Gaza at the time having shown any evidence of questioning that false narrative.
Wyre Davies has since moved on to pastures new, leaving those whom he condescendingly belittles as “armchair critics at home” to continue living in the “fog of war” which is for some of us a permanent state of affairs rather than a mere temporary assignment. He and his other colleagues who have likewise since relocated elsewhere also leave us to deal with the fall-out of unprofessional, inaccurate and partial reporting by correspondents who do not appear to appreciate the consequences of shoddy journalism. Unfortunately, the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee’s appreciation of those consequences appears to be little better.