Gloves are off in the BBC’s battle for the licence fee

Change and reform at the BBC has been the theme of quite a few recent media reports – including some coming from the BBC itself.

Although it has yet to be approved by the BBC Trust, a proposal has been put forward to close down BBC Three television in the autumn of 2015 and to move its content online.  The future of BBC Four is apparently also up for discussion. 

“BBC Four could be the next television channel to be scrapped, after the corporation confirmed that BBC Three was to become available on the internet only.

Danny Cohen, the director of television, said that he was unable to guarantee the future of BBC Four, the highbrow art and culture channel, as the organisation sought cut costs.

He warned that if the next license fee settlement was not sufficiently generous, the channel could be next in the firing line. He was speaking after the BBC unveiled plans for the youth channel, BBC Three, to be moved online, to save £50 million a year.

Asked on Richard Bacon’s 5Live radio show if he could guarantee the future of BBC Four, Mr Cohen, a former controller of BBC Three, said: “The honest answer to that is ‘No, we can’t say for certain what will happen to BBC Four in the future’.”

He added: “For BBC4, that means if future funding for the BBC comes under more threat then the likelihood is we would have to take more services along the same route.” “

As The Telegraph points out:

“The comments will be seen in the context of the charter renewal and license negotiations with ministers, due to be completed by the end of 2016.

They serve as a warning to the government and other opinion formers that another settlement considered harsh by the BBC will put other services at risk, including BBC Four – a favourite of the political and chattering classes.”

Concurrently, some MPs are proposing to decriminalise non-payment of the BBC licence fee whilst the BBC’s director general recently promoted the idea of extending it to cover BBC iPlayer.

“Hall used a speech at the Oxford Media Convention on Wednesday to mount a robust defence of the BBC and the licence fee, saying it was “one of the finest broadcasting organisations in the world” and “great value for money” reaching 96% of the population ever [sic] week.

Far from the licence fee being abolished, as some critics have argued, Hall said it should be extended to take account of the different ways in which people consume TV and radio in the digital age, on their computer, iPad or smartphone.”

Seeing as the licence fee is currently obligatory payment for anyone watching television in the UK even if they do not actually view BBC-produced content, Tony Hall’s comments obviously raise the interesting question of whether the same principle would, under his proposal, be applied to owners of computers, tablets or smartphones regardless of whether they in fact access BBC iPlayer or not. 

In its own report on Tony Hall’s proposal to extend the licence fee to BBC iPlayer, the BBC devoted considerable column space to the amplification of a recent report produced by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

“Speaking at the Oxford Media Convention on Wednesday, however, Lord Hall said the “flexible” nature of the licence fee allowed it to adapt over the years to encompass changing patterns of viewers’ behaviour.

His comments come amid renewed calls for the licence fee to be shared with other broadcasters and for it to be cut in response to the BBC’s alleged mismanagement of its financial affairs.

They also coincided with the publication of a new study that claims cutting the BBC licence fee will limit consumer choice and value for money.

The report suggests the BBC would be “reduced to a minor sideshow” if so-called “salami-slicing” continues.

Without BBC television, it claims, most viewers would “have a greatly reduced choice of programmes they wanted to watch”.

The report, by Oxford’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, is entitled What If There Were No BBC Television?: The Net Impact on UK Viewers.

Its authors, the academics Patrick Barwise and Robert G Picard, say that without BBC TV there would be less revenue in the TV industry and as much as 25% less investment in content.

The latter, they write, would be “a severe blow to British production companies” of the kind that generate “first-run UK content”.

The report assumes that commercial broadcasters would increase their investment in content if they were no longer “crowded out” by the BBC.

Despite this, it insists there will be less overall investment – and that most UK households would “suffer detriment”.

It says they would either be “paying slightly more for slightly less choice” than they currently do with the licence fee, or “paying slightly less for much less choice”.

“The onus should now be on those arguing for a smaller BBC to provide some kind of evidence and argument about why they believe it would lead to a better outcome for the UK public,” the report continues.”

However, this BBC article neglected to inform readers that the organisation which produced the seemingly objective, academic report on “the net impact” of potential changes to the BBC – the Oxford University-based ‘Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’ – was, according to its 2012/13 report (see page 51), a recipient of funding  from the BBC College of Journalism, BBC Global News, BBC Media Action and the BBC Trust and that its advisory board (which, inter alia, gives “advice and guidance on general research directions”) is chaired by Chris Patten, who is also of course the Chancellor of Oxford University and chairman of the BBC Trust.

Clearly the gloves are off in the BBC’s battle to keep – and even extend – the licence fee, but it will be interesting to see whether the funds provided by BBC licence fee payers will also be used to enable them to read, watch or hear alternative views on the subject and how the BBC will handle the rather glaring conflict of interests when it comes to reporting the debate surrounding its own funding. 

BBC’s Sackur suggests being pro-Israel should be a problem

h/t FB

On May 2nd and 3rd 2013 the BBC World Service programme ‘Hardtalk’ – hosted by Stephen Sackur – interviewed the Chairman of the BBC Trust, Chris Patten. 

Hardtalk Patten

The interview can be heard for a limited period of time here, or as a podcast here. A clip from the programme can be viewed here.

The interview is worth listening to in full, but particularly from around 16:06 in the audio version above when Sackur says:

“One other editorial issue that I want to put to you and it concerns James Harding – the new chief of news here at the BBC. He was the editor of Rupert Murdoch’s Times newspaper and when he was at The Times, James Harding said this at a Jewish community centre debate in London in 2011. He said – quote – “I am pro-Israel and I haven’t found it hard because The Times has been pro-Israel for a very long time”. Now, James Harding is now the head of news at the BBC. Are you comfortable for him to pronounce himself pro-Israel as head of news of the BBC?”

Chris Patten replies:

“I’m sure he wouldn’t pronounce himself as pro-Israel or pro any country or part of an argument.”

SS: “But his problem is that he already has.”

CP: “Yeah, but look..”

SS: “I mean he won’t have changed the spots, I don’t suppose…”

CP: “You know perfectly well that I’ve expressed views on the Middle East in books and in articles and you know very well that I used to be in a past life – in a previous incarnation – chairman of the Conservative Party.”

SS: “Sure but..”

CP: “I’ve managed…”

SS: “You’re not head of BBC News and you never have been.”

CP: “No, but I’m chair of the BBC Trust.”

SS: “James Harding is self-declared pro-Israel. Do you have any problem with that? Do you think that it might create problems for you and for the BBC when one considers that perhaps the most contentious issue we all in BBC news and current affairs have to deal with on a daily basis is reporting the Middle East?”

Whether or not the BBC’s record for accurate and impartial reporting from the Middle East will improve under James Harding remains to be seen, but hopefully one practice he will be able to eradicate in the BBC news and current affairs department is that of cherry-picking quotes and then using them to promote a particular agenda. 

Here is a report of Mr Harding’s April 2011 remarks: note Sackur’s apparent addition of the word ‘very’ to the part in his “quote” which says “..because The Times has been pro-Israel for a very long time”. 

“Harding stressed the need for balanced journalism. “We say we’re pro-Israel but we’re also pro the Palestinian state… the question a journalist should always ask himself is are you making the case before opinion is dressed up as reportage?” “

James Harding does not specify what being “pro-Israel” means as far as he is concerned but frankly, these days it often means simply being convinced of Israel’s indisputable right to exist. One does have to wonder therefore what kind of interpretation Stephen Sackur attributes to that phrase. 

The fact that Sackur appears to have no qualms about suggesting publicly that being pro-Israel is or should be “a problem” for a senior BBC employee,  and that if James Harding had “changed his spots” that ‘problem’ would disappear, perhaps reveals more about the institutional culture at the BBC than Stephen Sackur and Chris Patten appear to realise.

Myths and lethal narratives on the BBC website

As we all know, nothing disappears from the internet – for better or for worse. That fact raises questions about the responsibility of the BBC to ensure that archive material accessible via its website meets the same standards of accuracy as are demanded of contemporary reporting. 

The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines include a sub-section entitled Managing Online Content which, inter alia, states:

“Unless content is specifically made available only for a limited time period, there is a presumption that material published online will become part of a permanently accessible archive and will not normally be removed.

For news stories, the archive is intended to act as a permanent public record.”

But what happens when that “permanent public record” is inaccurate or misleading? Should the BBC be obliged to clearly label it as such or even to remove the webpage? 

One example of such BBC material still available on the internet are its many reports on the Jenin Massacre that never was. 

This article from April 6th 2002, for example, (also available at another URL) states that:

“Residents at the Jenin refugee camp said they feared a “massacre” was taking place, and one Palestinian fighter said he had counted 30 dead bodies.”

And:

“Palestinians said there had been intense bombardment through the night by Israeli tanks and helicopters.

“I myself counted 30 dead bodies. There are a tremendous number of injured people. The international community will be shocked at the number of injured people,” a Palestinian fighter named Abu Irmail told Reuters news agency.”

This report by Tarik Kafala – currently the Middle East Editor of BBC Online – from April 12th 2002 states:

“Palestinians have called on the United Nations to investigate what they claim is an Israeli massacre of Palestinians.”

And:

“Palestinians say there were extra-judicial executions in the camp – an accusation strongly denied by the Israeli Defence Force (IDF).”

And:

“According to Palestinian sources, the IDF buried the bodies of dozens of Palestinians killed in fighting in a mass grave and used bulldozers to cover them up – again a charge vehemently denied by the Israeli army.”

Reporting on April 11th 2002, the BBC’s Alan Johnston repeated unverified allegations from a Palestinian source:

“He tells me that he saw people who had been tortured.”

This article from April 15th 2002 says:

“Palestinians have alleged that a massacre took place during the battle in the camp, and have said the army had begun burying the dead to conceal evidence. The allegations have brought international condemnation.”

And:

“The allegations of a massacre in Jenin have sparked condemnation from around the world.

The United Nations on Monday passed a resolution accusing Israel of “gross violations” of international law.”

An article by Jeremy Cooke from April 16th 2002 states:

“Israelis put the figure at something like 50 – they base that on the accounts that their own soldiers have given of the fighting which went on for the past two weeks or so.

The Palestinians, though, are still insisting that some 400 people were killed.

From what I’ve seen it is impossible to verify or contradict either of those accounts.”

Under the title “Analysis: ‘War Crimes’ on the West Bank“, an article from April 17th 2002 states:

“Palestinians and Arab politicians are already accusing the Israeli army of war crimes in the Jenin refugee camp and elsewhere in the West Bank.

They are comparing what has happened in Israel’s current campaign to the massacres at the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982, in which at least 800 Palestinians died.”

Entitled “Jenin ‘massacre evidence growing“, this article from April 18th 2002 says:

“A British forensic expert who has gained access to the West Bank city of Jenin says evidence points to a massacre by Israeli forces.

Prof Derrick Pounder, who is part of an Amnesty International team granted access to Jenin, said he has seen bodies lying in the streets and received eyewitness accounts of civilian deaths.

The Dundee University expert said the Amnesty investigation has only just begun but Palestinian claims of a massacre were gaining foundation as the team continued its analysis.

He said: “The truth will come out, as it has come out in Bosnia and Kosovo, as it has in other places where we’ve had these kinds of allegations.

“I must say that the evidence before us at the moment doesn’t lead us to believe that the allegations are anything other than truthful and that therefore there are large numbers of civilian dead underneath these bulldozed and bombed ruins that we see.” “

Another article from the same date, entitled “Jenin camp ‘horrific beyond belief” states:

“Palestinians claim hundreds of bodies are buried beneath the rubble, but Israel says the numbers of dead are far fewer. An independent forensic expert says evidence suggests that a massacre has taken place.”

An article from May 4th 2002 reports that:

“Arab states are to call an emergency session of the United Nations General Assembly over claims that Israel massacred Palestinians at the Jenin refugee camp.”

And:

“The Palestinians claim Israel slaughtered hundreds of civilians during a fierce nine-day battle in Jenin last month.”

All of these reports – and many more – remain accessible to anyone carrying out an internet search for ‘Jenin’. None of them have been amended to make it clear that it was established definitively that no ‘massacre’ took place in Jenin and that out of the 52 Palestinian dead, the vast majority were terrorists. Needless to say, no articles appear asking how so many ‘experts’ got it so wrong or examining why the media and many others were so willing to embrace the narrative of a ‘massacre’ without credible evidence. 

As despicable as it was at the time that the BBC should be propagating unsubstantiated claims by Palestinian propagandists such as Saeb Erekat – claims designed specifically and deliberately to delegitimize Israel in the eyes of world opinion and to tie Israel’s hands in its attempts to curb the terror war launched by the Palestinian Authority against Israeli civilians – it is even more reprehensible that the BBC does nothing to correct or remove its inaccurate reports over a decade on. 

Of course the BBC was far from the only organization to unquestioningly embrace Palestinian propaganda with such alacrity, and that malaise was by no means limited to the field of the media. Another BBC article still available on the internet – from April 18th 2002 – is an account of a ‘Hardtalk‘ interview with the External Affairs Commissioner of the EU at the time (and now Chair of the BBC Trust) Chris Patten in which he ‘contextualised‘ suicide bombings against Israeli civilians under the title “Patten: Sharon’s policies caused ‘cult of death’ “.

 “But”, he went on “you do have to recognise, what is the political context in which young men and women strap bombs to themselves and go out to murder other young men and women.”

Patten also gave an interview to the Guardian around the same time:

“The European Union’s external relations commissioner, Chris Patten, in an interview with the Guardian, said Israel must accept a UN investigation of alleged atrocities against Palestinians or face “colossal damage” to its reputation. […]

Mr Patten was even more direct, telling the Guardian: “It is in Israel’s interest to behave like a democracy that believes in the rule of law. There has to be movement, and movement fast, to enable the international community to deal with this calamity.”

He added: “If Israel simply refuses all the genuine calls for humanitarian assistance; if it resists any attempt by the international media to cover what is going on, then inevitably it is going to provide oxygen for all those who will be making more extreme demands.” […]

But he said: “Israelis can’t trample over the rule of law, over the Geneva conventions, over what are generally regarded as acceptable norms of behaviour without it doing colossal damage to their reputation.” He backed Mary Robinson, the UN human rights commissioner, who has been asked to lead a fact-finding mission to the Palestinian territories.”

To the best of this writer’s knowledge, Chris Patten has never apologized to the Israeli people for rushing to defame them purely on the basis of his readiness to swallow malicious Palestinian propaganda and a disturbing willingness to believe the unproven worst about them.

In his current role, however, he does have the opportunity to go some small way towards rectifying that by ensuring the correction or removal of reams of inaccurate material from his organisation’s website which – more than ten years after it has been disproved – constitutes a lethal narrative which continues to incite against Israelis.