As we have previously noted, the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee recently upheld an appeal regarding a complaint about a report by the BBC Jerusalem Bureau’s Kevin Connolly which was broadcast on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme in June 2011.
As reported by The Times in mid-March:
“The BBC Trust has upheld a complaint which alleged that a five-minute report on Radio 4’s Today programme about the Six-Day War was misleading and biased, The Times has learnt. […]
The latest complaint relates to an item which aired on the Today programme in June 2011. The report, by Kevin Connolly, one of the BBC’s Middle East correspondents, examined the legacy of the 1967 conflict between Israel and several neighbouring states.
According to the trust’s findings, which were obtained by The Times, a listener alleged that the Today report wrongly gave the impression that Israel occupied land three times its original size as a result of the war, when it had given 90 per cent of the land captured in 1967 back to Egypt. The programme also, the complainant alleged, gave a misleading impression that Israel was not willing to trade land for peace, when it had reached peace deals with Jordan and Egypt that included transfers of conquered territory.
The trust found that the Today report had been inaccurate on both points and that the complaints should be upheld.”
As previously noted here, this complaint took a shocking two and a half years to make its way through the BBC’s complaints procedure and one of the interesting features of the ESC’s report on the topic (pages 9 -23 here) is the documentation of the sudden about-turn in the BBC’s stance regarding the complaint after input from “the News Division and from the BBC correspondent [Kevin Connolly]”.
“On 3 December 2012 the complainant received an undated letter from the Head of the ECU [Editorial Complaints Unit], advising him of the Unit’s provisional finding. The ECU said that by drawing attention to the original extent of the territory occupied by Israel in 1967 without referring to the return of Sinai, the item may have created the impression that Israel remained vastly larger as a result of the war and that land for peace remained an untested option. It had therefore provisionally decided to uphold a breach of accuracy in this respect. [emphasis added]
Following an inquiry by the complainant in March 2013 about whether the decision had been finalised, the complainant was advised that the last letter he had received telling him of the provisional finding, had been sent to him in error; it had been intended as a draft for internal consultation.
As a result of representations from the News Division and from the BBC correspondent in response to the internal circulation of the provisional finding, the Head of the ECU had now altered his view and had decided not to uphold any aspect of the complaint. He said the point had been made to him that the return of Sinai to Egypt following the Camp David Accords was not an instance of “land for peace” as envisaged in those Accords. An integral part of the Accords had been a commitment to “negotiations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects” and a staged progression towards full autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza and a final status agreement. Because the ECU was now satisfied that the return of the Sinai did not constitute “land for peace” the significance of any incorrect impression as to the extent of territory Israel had withdrawn from was much reduced and the ECU decided it would not therefore have affected listeners’ understanding of the question under consideration in the report.” [emphasis added]
In other words, the Head of the ECU – who had previously been inclined to uphold the complaint – was persuaded to completely reverse his position by the specious claim of Kevin Connolly et al that Israel’s return of the Sinai peninsula to Egypt within the framework of the peace treaty between the two countries did not constitute ‘land for peace’. Many of us might simply have given up in the face of such contorted logic, but the complainant did not. Instead, he persevered with a reply to Connolly’s claims.
“The complainant responded to the revised provisional finding on 13 April 2013 with a detailed rebuttal of the ECU’s conclusions, challenging the ECU’s interpretation of the contents of the Camp David Accords.”
Whilst that detailed rebuttal did not prompt the Head of the ECU to change his mind about rejecting the complaint, it was taken into consideration by the Editorial Standards Committee which eventually did uphold the complaint.
BBC Watch contacted the complainant, Sam Green, who kindly agreed to share with us details of his rebuttal of the claims produced by Connolly. Sam’s account below makes fascinating reading for anyone who has ever waded into the BBC complaints procedure and raises serious questions about the workings of that procedure as a whole.
“The lowest point in the grinding slog of my BBC complaint was probably receiving the Editorial Complaints Unit proposed final ruling. This was the final stage within the Corporation before I appealed to the BBC Trust, the semi-detached oversight body.
It was so demoralising because, on top of the delay (I was strongly suspicious they were trying to use delay as a tactic to bury the complaint), the logic in this finding was so flawed, so tortuous, so surreal that this letter made me doubt the bona fides of the organisation. The important thing was not the journalism; it was preventing a complaint succeeding.
The second response came after they had previously said they were planning to partly uphold the complaint, and then said I’d been told that by mistake.
Here is their reasoning on why my complaint didn’t hold water:
“…the return of Sinai to Egypt following the Camp David Accords was not an instance of “land for peace” envisaged in those Accords, an integral part of which was a commitment to “negotiations on the resolution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects” and a staged progression towards full autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza and a final status agreement. Put simply, the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai could be regarded as an instance of “land for peace” if that outcome had been achieved, but it has not been.
…Kevin Connolly’s report was concerned with “land for peace” in the same sense – a peace settlement among all parties on the basis of agreed borders…”
I had a problem in how I was going to respond to this; one of the tactics the BBC used was to layer on complication; the more complication they layered on the easier it was for them to say how complicated it all was and they couldn’t possibly hope to deal with all of that. I needed to focus on the internal logic of the report rather than a history of the Middle East. However I did need to engage with their argument, so I dealt with both. It was a long letter.
I started by signposting the attempt to overcomplicate in their response:
I will not be drawn into a line-by-line dissection of the Camp David Accords; it is a diversion from the question of whether your listeners heard an inaccurate and misleading report. They are for the most part not expert in the history and politics of the Middle East, and nor am I. Nor should there be any expectation that we have such specialist knowledge.
If the BBC starts from the expectation that its listeners ought to have postgraduate level knowledge of all the topics it covers it would not benefit your listernership.
I went on to differentiate between the two treaties that made up Camp David, to outline elements of the Egypt Israel Peace Treaty, summarising;
It is called a Peace Treaty. It establishes a state of peace between Egypt and Israel. It links the establishment of that peace with the exchange of territory.
I engaged with the term “land for peace” (their inverted commas) and my efforts to find out where their singular usage they claimed for the phrase had come from. It was not in the other Camp David accord; the Framework for Peace, it was not in the Egypt Israel Peace Treaty. A Google search took me to Security Council Resolution 242 which itself did not contain the phrase, was not raised in the report or previously in the complaint and did not contain a meaning claimed in the ECU provisional ruling.
I moved on to the contradictory and ever fluid meaning of ‘peace’. In the statement from the ECU there was no peace for which land had been traded because the “staged progression to full autonomy for the West Bank and Gaza and a final status agreement” did not come to pass, and, at the same time it meant “…a peace settlement among all parties on the basis of agreed borders…”. That’s quite an unexplained stretch for a concept. It shows just how desperate the BBC was to retrofit plausible meaning on their report.
I spent quite some words addressing this; if it was about peace with the Palestinians why talk about Syria so much?
The Camp David Accords were between Israel and Egypt. There were no other regional parties who were signatories to those accords or, as far as I understand, who accepted it.
And which parties do you mean? The states involved in the 1967 Six Day War? Syria was excluded from the Camp David accords, Jordan was not a party. And what about Iraq and the Arab League? The PLO, or Fatah, and what about Hamas? Other Arab states? Who are “all parties”? Why is there an assumption that Egypt spoke for and signed on their behalf when they explicitly rejected it?
It was at this point I mentioned the Jordan Peace Treaty of 1994 which also included territorial concessions. Land as part of a peace deal.
And the withdrawal from Gaza in 2005; more complex but still relevant in terms of willingness to withdraw from conquered territory.
In terms of the extent of territory under Israeli control, the ECU had this to say;
“…the significance of such an incorrect impression is much reduced if the resulting inference that ‘land for peace remained an untested option’ is not viewed as misleading; and, on balance, I don’t think it would have affected listeners’ understanding of the question under consideration in the report to the extent that I would regard it as a breach of editorial standards.”
To me it seemed blindingly obvious:
a listener without specialist knowledge would naturally infer that in the absence of any statement to the contrary Israel remains triple the size (or controls territory triple its original size).
After travelling much further into the complex history of the region than I wanted to, I had moved to my real point; the importance in not losing sight of what the listener heard and the natural meaning they would associate with that.
Turning to the question of land for peace. I again suggest it is appropriate for you to rely on natural meaning… the impression your listener would have been left with by the report that went out was one of intransigence and unwillingness to trade territory for peace. An impression that required context.
…on any natural meaning, as understood by a reasonable listener, trading more than 90% of the territory captured in the context of peace treaties, for peace, constitutes land for peace; land pursuant to peace. Trying to use semantics to argue otherwise smacks of casuistry.
This made no impact on the ECU which rejected the complaint. It is only because the complaint managed to reach the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee that these points (along with later submissions) were properly considered, and the Trust ruled that the report was inaccurate and misleading; that it was bad journalism.
The question now is; why didn’t Kevin Connolly understand that? Does he get it now? Does he accept it? Why didn’t the Today programme producers and Editor understand that? Why didn’t the people dealing with the initial complaint understand that and why, for all their lengthy and reflective deliberations didn’t the ECU understand that?
And what are they all going to do about it?
They haven’t said – and I think we can all have a pretty good guess at the answers to all of those questions.”