It is an issue which has been raised here on many occasions in the past, but on May 4th the BBC once again demonstrated that its commitment to the obligation laid down in its editorial guidelines to “clearly describe the ideology” of organisations from which stories are sourced and/or to which interviewees are linked is not only selective and blatantly lacking in consistency, but also appears to be influenced by political considerations.
As readers are no doubt already aware, the BBC’s editorial guidelines on impartiality state in section 4.4.14:
“We should not automatically assume that contributors from other organisations (such as academics, journalists, researchers and representatives of charities) are unbiased and we may need to make it clear to the audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint, if it is not apparent from their contribution or from the context in which their contribution is made.”
In 2013 the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit reaffirmed “the importance of clearly summarising the standpoint of any interviewee where it is relevant and not immediately clear from their position or the title of their organization”.
According to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign’s Amena Saleem, the statement below appeared in a 2014 email from the BBC in response to a PSC complaint to the effect that the organization to which an interviewee on BBC News belongs was not adequately described to viewers as stipulated in the BBC’s editorial guidelines.
“We apologize for this and would like to assure you that the matter has been raised with the relevant editorial staff at the BBC News Channel, who have been reminded of the need to clearly describe the ideology of such organizations in our coverage.”
How then did the BBC News website describe the foreign funded Israeli NGO ‘Breaking the Silence’ – described by Amos Harel in Ha’aretz in 2009 as an organization which “has a clear political agenda, and can no longer be classed as a human rights organization” – when it published an article on May 4th titled “Israeli military ‘fired indiscriminately’ in Gaza” which is based entirely on a report put out by that NGO on the same day?
“An Israeli activist group has accused the military of employing a “policy of indiscriminate fire” that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians during last year’s Gaza war.” [emphasis added]
“Breaking the Silence, a group of serving and ex-soldiers, said its report contained interviews with more than 60 unnamed active duty and reserve Israel Defense Forces (IDF) personnel who took part in Operation Protective Edge.” [emphasis added]
Clearly those anodyne descriptions do nothing to inform BBC audiences of the political motivations and agenda behind the “viewpoint” and “ideology” which underlie this latest addition to ‘Breaking the Silence’ campaigning on the subject of last summer’s conflict between Hamas and Israel.
Similarly, listeners to the May 4th edition of the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newshour’ (from 00:45 here) heard presenter Tim Franks introduce his ‘Breaking the Silence’ interviewee Avichai Stoller thus:
“Today, an Israeli activist group has accused the military of using a policy of indiscriminate fire which caused the deaths of hundreds of Palestinian civilians. Indeed the group – which is called ‘Breaking the Silence’ – says that the rules of military engagement for the seven week war were – in its words – the most permissive it had seen.” [emphasis added]
Obviously that introduction – like Frank’s closing description of the organization as an “Israeli advocacy group” – fails to clarify to audiences the political aims behind ‘Breaking the Silence’ and notably Tim Franks made no effort to challenge Stoller with regard to his claim that “we are not subcontractors of anybody” despite the group’s considerable foreign funding.
Another interesting aspect to the BBC’s multi-platform promotion of the claims made by ‘Breaking the Silence’ is the fact that its booklet of testimonies was published on the same day that the two above BBC reports appeared and yet as of the morning of May 4th, the booklet was only available in Hebrew. Despite that fact, the BBC managed to produce a written report in English within a matter of hours and to arrange World Service radio interviews not only with Stoller but also with the ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda and with the IDF spokesman with similarly impressive alacrity.
No less remarkable was Tim Franks’ promotion of the notion of ‘war crimes’ on two occasions during the twelve-minute segment. Franks asked Stoller:
“If you’re imputing that war crimes were committed – and it sounds as if you are – isn’t that the province of the International Criminal Court?”
He later asked Bensouda:
“In terms of the allegations that have been made today, how far would they constitute war crimes if they could be substantiated?”
The BBC’s clear flouting of its own editorial guidelines on impartiality by failing to inform audiences of the underlying “ideology” of the group which supplied the source material for these two reports – as well as for further opportunistic BBC promotion of the notion that Israel committed ‘war crimes’ during the summer 2014 conflict – is yet another example of the way in which political motivations repeatedly trump editorial standards in the BBC’s coverage of Israel.