BBC Watch submission to the DCMS BBC Charter Review consultation

Written evidence submitted by the BBC Watch project of the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting.

BBC Watch – an independent project of CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting) – was established in 2012 with the aim of monitoring the accuracy and impartiality of BBC coverage of the Middle East.

Over three years, we have undertaken a range of analysis relevant to the “significant concerns” raised by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee and in particular, the matter of the BBC’s governance and the mechanisms for holding it to account, in line with the expectations of those who fund it.

While BBC Watch has a singular geographical focus, the way that the debate over the Middle East conflict (especially the Israeli-Palestinian sub-conflict) plays out in the UK (and other parts of the world) has a profound impact on domestic and social issues. Whatever the validity of any given view on the conflict might be, the rise in antisemitic attacks during the resumption of major hostilities cannot be ignored nor dismissed. According to the Community Security Trust, monthly antisemitic incidents rose by 500% during the conflict between Israel and Hamas in July and August 2014.

1) The accuracy of Historical Record

The BBC’s unparalleled outreach and its reputation as a reliable source mean that its news and current affairs output is frequently used by the public and by researchers seeking information, as well as by teachers and educators in the UK and further afield. The BBC itself relates to its online archive content as “permanent public record”[1] and “historical record”[2] and hence the accuracy of that content is vital. No less crucial of course is the accuracy and impartiality of BBC material produced specifically for educational purposes.

Furthermore, the BBC’s guidance document relating to online content [3] states that “[h]owever long ago our online content was first published, if it’s still available, editorial complaints may legitimately be made regarding it”. However, archive material often does not meet the requirement for accuracy and hence may potentially lead to a waste of publicly provided resources by becoming the subject of editorial complaints.

Historical accuracy is clearly an issue of prime importance in dealing fairly with complaints from the general public. However, legitimate complaints are sometimes rejected due to an inaccurate perception of history.

Examples:

a) The BBC’s ‘Learning Zone’ website (a resource for secondary school educators) described [4] the Yom Kippur war as follows:

“During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Egypt and Syria acted pre-emptively against Israel at the Suez Canal.” [emphasis added]

Following an article by BBC Watch [5], that inaccurate claim was removed.

b) Despite the BBC having been alerted [6] to an inaccurate presentation of Israeli casualty figures during the Yom Kippur war (some three times higher than the actual number), archive material, including a backgrounder, still available online continues to carry that inaccurate information.

c) Numerous BBC reports still available online to anyone conducting a search for information on Jenin carry inaccurate information relating to a ‘massacre’ in that place in 2002 [7]. Despite the background to the battle in Jenin having been clarified long ago – including the fact that no ‘massacre’ took place – none of those reports have had a footnote added to reflect the fact that the information they carry is inaccurate.

d) BBC backgrounders on the topic of the Second Intifada, as well as numerous additional articles available online inaccurately inform readers that the conflict broke out as a result of a visit by Ariel Sharon to Temple Mount [8]. The pre-planned nature of the Second Intifada has been revealed by many Palestinian figures in the decade and a half since it began but the articles have not been updated to carry that information.

e) The BBC consistently refuses to acknowledge that Israel’s capital city is Jerusalem. A number of complaints on that topic were rejected by the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee [9] in 2013 on the grounds that:

“The Committee noted that while there is no expectation that in a two-state solution West Jerusalem would become Palestinian territory, a UN resolution passed in 1947 has not been rescinded. It calls for the whole of Jerusalem to be an international city, a corpus separatum (similar to the Vatican City), and in that context, technically, West Jerusalem is not Israeli sovereign territory. ” [emphasis added]

That UN resolution (181 – also known as the Partition Plan) of course has no legal standing whatsoever. Like most General Assembly resolutions it was non-binding and in fact it was no more than a recommendation – the implementation of which depended upon the agreement of the parties concerned. As is well known, whilst Jewish representatives accepted the proposal, the Arab nations rejected the Partition Plan en masse and even threatened to use force to oppose it. The recommendation hence became a non-starter and its various clauses – including the corpus separatum proposal – irrelevant. The fact that the BBC’s highest arbitrator of complaints cites Resolution 181 as the basis for rejection of complaints is an astounding example of historical inaccuracy.

Proposals:

i) A mechanism for ensuring the standard of historical accuracy of BBC reporting must include better training than is obviously currently provided by the BBC College of Journalism’s Middle East module. The implementation of a new, compulsory study course for all staff covering Middle East issues in order to ensure an acceptable level of historical knowledge and current affairs is urgently needed.

ii) Management of online content over time should include the requirement to avoid materially misleading users. Articles promoting information subsequently shown to be inaccurate (e.g. claims of a ‘massacre’ which did not take place) should be clearly labelled in a manner which clarifies to readers that they do not represent historical record. In addition, the current BBC content management system does not enable members of the public searching online to receive all content on a particular topic or the newest content first. Hence, whilst more up to date content may already have been produced, users are likely to encounter out of date material which still remains on the BBC’s website but does not alert them to the fact that a replacement has been published. For example three different BBC profiles of Hamas produced between 2000 and 2014 are currently available online and the earlier ones do not direct users to the latest version.

iii) Historical inaccuracies in BBC material are sometimes the result of reliance on politicized sources. Whilst the BBC recognizes the fact that “some ‘experts’ may have a history of sympathising with one cause or another, even if they have no overt affiliation”[10], it frequently uses contributions from academics with a record of anti-Israel political campaigning and even consults with such sources when dealing with complaints. Clearly the BBC needs to ensure that all ‘experts’ consulted are neutral and impartial.

iv) The BBC News website currently has no dedicated corrections page of the kind seen in reputable newspapers [11]. Hence, when corrections are made to online articles users remain unaware of the fact that information they previously read was inaccurate. Relatedly, the use of footnotes informing the public that a correction has been made to an article is erratic and amendments are sometimes made without notification. A dedicated corrections page would make corrections more visible and accessible, increase the likelihood that people will receive the corrected information and contribute to the BBC’s transparency as well as reducing the likelihood of waste of public funding on unnecessary complaints.

2) The BBC complaints system

Members of the public find the BBC complaints system unnecessarily complicated and frustrating. When a particular issue is the subject of a high volume of complaints the BBC complaints department produces a template ‘one size fits all’ response which frequently does not address the points made in individual complaints [12].

The BBC has been known to apply the ‘expedited complaints procedure’[13] according to which the ability of a member of the public to make complaints can be limited by the BBC for a certain period of time. The BBC can apply that procedure, inter alia, if complaints:

“(d) are shown on investigation to have no reasonable prospect of success; or

(e) after rejection of the complaint at an earlier stage (eg Stage 1), are persistently and repeatedly appealed unsuccessfully to the next stage (eg Stage 2).”

Of course the body which rules whether or not a complaint has a “reasonable prospect of success” and which rejects or accepts an appeal is the BBC itself.

The concept of stakeholders in an organisation they are obliged to fund by law being subjected to limitations on complaints on the basis of arbitrary decisions made by that same self-regulating organisation is one which many members of the public find highly objectionable.

Examples:

a) Complaints of the type which have been “shown on investigation to have no reasonable prospect of success” include, for example, those relating to the BBC’s presentation of civilian/combatant casualty ratios in the Gaza Strip during the summer 2014 conflict. Despite the fact that the BBC used figures sourced from Hamas and statistics produced by the UN (which were based on information provided by Hamas and Palestinian NGO sources sympathetic to Hamas [14]) and even though the BBC succumbed to political pressure [15] to amend an article on the topic produced by its own head of statistics in August 2014, it has carried out no independent verification of those highly disputed casualty ratios since the conflict ended and has rejected all complaints on the topic.

b) BBC Watch was contacted by a member of the public who is registered with the RNIB and hence unable to use the online complaints procedure or to complain in writing. His telephoned complaints to the BBC were deemed to be of too high a volume and the expedited complaints procedure was applied.

Proposals:

i) The handling of complaints relating to BBC editorial content must be simplified, streamlined and made more accessible to members of the public – including those with disabilities.

ii) There is a need to introduce independent handling of complaints, particularly at the more advanced stages. In relation to complaints concerning Middle East content, the appointment of an independent and impartial expert as a final arbiter would contribute greatly to guaranteeing the BBC’s impartiality and accuracy and would improve transparency.

iii) The connection between the BBC complaints department and editorial teams needs to be strengthened. Complaints must be treated as legitimate feedback which can be an aid to improving BBC content and should therefore be presented at editorial meetings – as indeed used to be the case.

iv) As noted above, timely, transparent and clearly visible handling of inaccuracies in online content is vital in order to avoid the waste of public resources on unnecessary complaints concerning archive material.

3) Antisemitism and extremism

As Prime Minister David Cameron noted in his July 2015 speech outlining the UK’s counter-extremism strategy, challenging conspiracy theories and antisemitic tropes is a key part of dealing with extremism. Unfortunately, BBC content is not free of such issues.

Examples:

a) One of the priorities defined by the BBC Trust in its interpretation of the public purposes defined by the Royal Charter and the Agreement [16] is to:

“Enable individuals to participate in the global debate on significant international issues.”

The practical expression of that priority is “chatrooms and websites where people can debate and engage in dialogue” and that includes online articles opened to comments from the public and Facebook accounts belonging to certain programmes (e.g. ‘World Have Your Say’) which actively solicit comment from audiences.

BBC Watch has recorded many instances of antisemitic comments, hate speech, incitement to violence and disinformation [17], [18], [19], [20], [21] left standing on BBC managed message boards – despite the existence of a moderation policy – with the end result being that the BBC enables the spread of antisemitic discourse.

b) The spread of anti-Semitic discourse is also seen in BBC content itself with one of the recurring themes (also noted in the February 2015 Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism) being promotion of the notion of a ‘Jewish lobby’ which controls British and/or American politics [22],[23]. The BBC’s response to complaints concerning that issue has repeatedly been unsatisfactory [24],[25],[26].

c) An additional antisemitic theme seen in BBC content is holding non-Israeli Jews collectively responsible for the perceived policies and actions of Israel. One recent example (again noted in the February 2015 Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism) was seen during BBC coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015 [27]. The BBC’s initial response to the very high volume of complaints received on that issue was to claim that an apology on social media sufficed [28]. Members of the public who pursued their complaints further ultimately had them dismissed on the grounds of the inaccurate claim that the EUMC Working Definition of Antisemitism had been “withdrawn”[29].

Proposals:

i) The need for the BBC to work according to an accepted definition of antisemitism in order to ensure that complaints are handled uniformly, objectively and accountably is obvious. In addition the absence of adoption of an accepted definition of antisemitism means that – as in the case above – public funding is likely to be wasted on dealing with complaints from the general public which, if a definition were available, might not have been submitted.

Clearly the compilation of such a definition is neither within the role nor the expertise of the BBC and common sense would dictate that the definition adopted by Britain’s public broadcaster should be the one already used by the All Party Parliamentary Group Against Antisemitism and the College of Policing Hate Crime Operational Guidance (2014) [30] – i.e. the EUMC Working Definition [31]. That definition was also recommended to media organisations as an industry standard by the Global Forum for Combating Antisemitism in May 2015 [32].

ii) The BBC also needs to commit to mandatory education for its staff – including producers, journalists, handlers of complaints and message board moderators – on the issue of recognizing and identifying antisemitism.  The issue of propagation of antisemitic discourse on BBC message boards and social media must be tackled vigorously through improved moderation and the promotion of antisemitic tropes in BBC content should obviously be entirely unacceptable.

We very much appreciate the opportunity to present this document to the Committee in order to contribute to its vital work.

[1] http://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/page/guidelines-accuracy-managing-content-online

[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/aboutthebbc/entries/90151d0f-ae5f-3c11-8ae4-858f67454ed1

[3] http://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/page/guidance-removal-bbconline-content

[4] https://bbcwatch.org/2013/09/15/bbcs-educational-resource-website-describes-yom-kippur-attack-by-syria-and-egypt-as-pre-emptive/

[5] https://bbcwatch.org/2013/09/18/bbc-removes-claim-of-pre-emptive-yom-kippur-strike/

[6] https://bbcwatch.org/2013/10/07/bbc-yom-kippur-war-accuracy-failure-perpetuated-over-years/

[7] https://bbcwatch.org/2012/12/20/myths-and-lethal-narratives-on-the-bbc-website/

[8] https://bbcwatch.org/2013/09/30/bbc-second-intifada-backgrounders-sharon-started-it/

[9] https://bbcwatch.org/2014/04/13/why-does-the-bbc-trusts-esc-pretend-that-the-1947-partition-plan-is-a-thing/

[10] http://www.bbc.co.uk/academy/journalism/article/art20130702112133696

[11] http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/the_case_for_the_corrections_page.php?page=all

[12] https://bbcwatch.org/2015/07/20/bbc-defends-its-use-of-template-replies-to-complaints/

[13] https://bbcwatch.org/2014/10/01/the-catch-22-clause-in-the-bbcs-complaints-procedure/

[14] https://bbcwatch.org/2014/07/13/bbc-watch-uncovers-the-sources-of-jeremy-bowens-cited-casualty-figures/

[15] https://bbcwatch.org/2014/08/12/vital-statistics-stealth-changes-made-to-the-bbcs-gaza-casualty-figures-article/

[16] http://www.bbc.co.uk/corporate2/insidethebbc/whoweare/publicpurposes/world.html

[17] https://bbcwatch.org/2015/07/11/hate-speech-lies-and-antisemitism-on-bbc-news-facebook-page/

[18] https://bbcwatch.org/2014/02/18/nazi-analogies-and-apartheid-defamation-on-bbc-world-have-your-say-facebook-account/

[19] https://bbcwatch.org/2014/11/09/antisemitism-on-bbc-ws-world-have-your-say-facebook-page/

[20] https://bbcwatch.org/2014/12/10/antisemitic-comments-again-on-bbc-whys-facebook-post-about-show-on-antisemitism/

[21] https://bbcwatch.org/2015/01/15/bbc-ws-whys-facebook-moderation-fails-again/

[22] https://bbcwatch.org/2014/11/06/bbc-radio-5-live-mainstreams-an-antisemitic-trope/

[23] https://bbcwatch.org/2014/11/10/more-bbc-promotion-of-the-jewish-lobby-trope/

[24] https://bbcwatch.org/2012/11/12/bbc-defends-employees-use-of-term-jewish-lobby/

[25] https://bbcwatch.org/2013/12/18/bbcs-hardtalk-featured-in-cst-report-on-antisemitic-discourse/

[26] https://bbcwatch.org/2014/11/13/bbc-doubles-down-on-presenters-mansion-tax-comment/

[27] https://bbcwatch.org/2015/01/11/bbcs-tim-willcox-in-paris-a-new-low/

[28] https://bbcwatch.org/2015/01/13/bbc-response-to-willcox-complaints-he-sent-a-tweet/

[29] https://bbcwatch.org/2015/02/23/bbc-ecu-rejects-complaints-about-tim-willcoxs-jewish-hands-remarks/

[30] https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/390904/Government_Action_on_Antisemitism_final_24_Dec.pdf

[31] http://www.european-forum-on-antisemitism.org/working-definition-of-antisemitism/english/

[32] http://mfa.gov.il/MFA/AboutTheMinistry/Conferences-Seminars/GFCA2013/Documents/GFCA2015Booklet.pdf