BBC content again featured in CST report on antisemitic discourse

The Community Security Trust (CST) recently published its annual report (available here) on the topic of Antisemitic Discourse in Britain for the year 2015.

The section of that report documenting reactions to the 2015 terror attacks at the Hypercacher supermarket in Paris and the Synagogue in Copenhagen includes:

“…examples show[ing] a range of mainstream media and political responses to the Paris attacks […]. They include cases where hostility to Israel appeared to dictate reactions to the killings of French Jews.”

One of those examples (p 31) is described as follows:

“On 11 January, Tim Willcox of BBC News interviewed a French-Israeli woman attending a rally in memory of the victims of the Paris terror attacks. She expressed concern about persecution of Jews, saying “the situation is going back to the days of the 1930s in Europe”, whereupon Willcox stated:

“Many critics though of Israel’s policy would suggest that the Palestinians suffer hugely at Jewish hands as well”.

Willcox’s response sparked an angry reaction from many commentators. For example, historian Simon Schama tweeted “Appalling of @BBCTimWillcox to imply any and all JEWS (not Israelis) responsible for treatment of Palestinians by hectoring lady in Paris”. Writing in the Spectator, Nick Cohen commented:

“…Of course, Willcox would never say such a thing after the murder of Muslims, and rightly so. He was interviewing an elderly Jewish lady, who was trying to mourn Jews killed for no other reason than they were Jews in a Paris supermarket.

Change the religion – make it Judaism, to be precise. Change Islamism to Israel, and the most grotesque apologies for murder become acceptable; standard even. Jews must bear collective responsibility for Israel’s crimes real and imagined.”

On 12 January, Willcox tweeted a bland apology: “Really sorry for any offence caused by a poorly phrased question…it was entirely unintentional”.”Willcox

Readers will no doubt recall that in response to complaints concerning that broadcast, the BBC originally claimed that Willcox’s subsequent apology on Twitter sufficed. Having received a large number of complaints, the BBC then decided to consolidate them. Concurrently, additional complaints made to OFCOM were rejected.

In February 2015 the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit provisionally rejected the consolidated complaint, sparking condemnation from the Board of Deputies of British Jews. In May 2015 the ECU finalised its decision. In June 2016 the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee published its rejection of appeals against that decision. 

In short, both the BBC and OFCOM dismissed complaints concerning a statement which Britain’s leading authority on antisemitism categorises as antisemitic discourse, with OFCOM stating that it had:

“…“carefully assessed complaints about alleged antisemitic comments” and “decided not to take the issue forward for further investigation.”

It explained: “While the comments clearly had the potential to cause offence, Ofcom considered a range of factors, including the live nature of this coverage and the need for an appropriate degree of freedom of expression, especially in news coverage of such a significant event.””

As OFCOM prepares to take on its new role as final adjudicator of complaints concerning BBC content, this worrying example once again highlights the need for both it and the BBC to work according to the definition of antisemitism recently adopted by the British government.

Related Articles:

BBC programme flagged up in CST report on Antisemitic Discourse

BBC’s ‘Hardtalk’ featured in CST report on antisemitic discourse

BBC Trust’s ESC rejects complaint about Tim Willcox’s ‘Jewish faces’ remark

The saga of three questions the BBC did not want to answer – part two

In part one of this article we noted the process which led to the BBC’s eventual response to three questions regarding its complaints system which were posed by Mr Neil Turner in April 2013.

 • How many complaints were made to the BBC over the last 5 years on a year by year basis?

• How many complaints were upheld (i.e. the BBC makes a correction) on a year by year basis?

• How many complaints were rejected by the BBC (i.e. no corrective action taken)?

So what does the information provided by the BBC tell us about its three-stage complaints system?

complaints 1

Because of the general nature of some of the complaints or comments made at Stage 1, the fact that there is no way of knowing what proportion of them related to editorial issues and the additional fact that no information is kept regarding whether changes are made to BBC content as a result of those complaints or comments, it is impossible to establish how many of the members of the public complaining about editorial content at Stage 1 were satisfied with the response they received (if at all) and how many simply abandoned the process at this stage.  

We can, however, clearly conclude that only a small proportion of those complaints were actually pursued further along the process.

At Stage 2 of the complaints process, we see that whilst the actual number of complaints made at that stage has generally risen over the past five years, the percentage of those upheld has fallen.

complaints 2

complaints 3

Seeing as all complaints going on to Stage 3 would have had to pass through Stage 2, we can also look at the number of people whose complaints were not upheld at Stage 2, but dropped out of the process at that point rather than continuing to Stage 3. Hence we see that on average, 45.2% of complainants chose not to pursue further a complaint which was not upheld at Stage 2.

complaints 4

Of those complaints which were pursued to Stage 3, we see that an average of 4.28% were upheld in full.

complaints 5

The fact that a complaint is upheld at Stage 3 indicates that the process at Stage 2 was inadequate, and thus we can see how many complaints which were rejected at Stage 2 were later found to be justified at Stage 3.

complaints 6

The information provided does not include complaints which were partially upheld at Stage 3 and thus likewise indicate that the process at Stage 2 was at least inadequate in part. It is of course impossible to know how many of the 45.2% of complaints which dropped out of the system after rejection at Stage 2 would have been upheld at Stage 3 had they reached that part of the procedure.

As we have documented here in the past (see for example here and here), even the fact that a complaint – which may have spent months or even years going through the entire long and complicated BBC complaints procedure –  is upheld at Stage 3 does not guarantee that a correction will be made to the relevant report or that the public will be informed of any amendment made. Clearly there is an urgent need for reform of that part of the procedure.

As a publicly funded body, the BBC should welcome the feedback from its licence-fee payers which comes in the form of comments or complaints. That feedback is a valuable tool for the improvement of the standard of its journalism and a way for the BBC to feel the pulse of the people for whom – after all – it exists. Instead, members of the public find themselves facing a complicated, time-consuming  and – importantly – self-regulating and therefore subjective process which, as these figures provided by the BBC show, simply causes most people to abandon the process and drop out along the way. 


BBC Trust ESC rules: no requirement to translate accurately

As readers may remember, back in February we noted here that a report by the then BBC Gaza Strip correspondent Jon Donnison – which was promoted on several BBC platforms and in various formats – included a mistranslation of the words of one interviewee. 

“Another version of the same story was also featured on Radio 4′s ‘PM’ programme on February 26th – available here for a limited period of time from 41:38. In that version, at 43:37, one can hear a translator interpret the words of interviewee Nour Adwan as “If we meet an Israeli and they are speaking in Hebrew..”.  Sharp eared listeners will notice that the fifteen year-old actually says the word “Yahud” – Jew – in Arabic rather than “Israeli”, but for some reason, the BBC chose to modify that in translation.”  

A BBC Watch reader has now informed us of the findings of the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee with regard to a complaint (not upheld) he made about that mistranslation and those findings reveal some very interesting points concerning the Trust’s interpretation of BBC Editorial Guidelines on accuracy.

In the summary of its findings (page 5 in this document) the BBC Trusts Editorial Standards Committee writes: [emphasis added]

“The complaint concerned the translation of the Arabic word “Al-Yahoud” in an item about Hebrew being taught in Hamas-run schools in Gaza. The complainant said that the term translates literally into English as “the Jews” and it was inaccurate for the programme to have translated this as “an Israeli” in the English voice over. The complainant alleged that this was a mistranslation which was materially misleading. The complainant also alleged that the programme should have included the information that Arabic had been taught in Israeli schools for decades and that not mentioning this fact demonstrated a lack of due impartiality.

The Committee concluded:

that it was not the case that only a literal translation would have met audience expectation for due accuracy.

that no interpretation of the editorial guidelines requires content producers to make direct word-for-word translations without also taking account of relevant context.

that the programme makers had demonstrated they had taken care to reach a considered view on the appropriate translation, taking into account the circumstances in which the contributor was discussing interaction.

that the decision to translate the contributor’s words as “an Israeli” was an appropriate exercise of editorial judgement.

that, in the light of the programme team’s explanation of why it felt the decision not to use the literal translation was the right one, the translation employed by the programme was well sourced and based on sound evidence.

that the programme had taken account of sensitivities in this area and that it had borne these in mind when reaching its decision to translate the content in the way it had.

that the programme team had demonstrated that it had weighed all the relevant facts, and taken into account the context in which the girl was speaking, and to whom she was most likely to be referring, in reaching its decision to translate the words she used as it did.

that the chosen translation did not dilute the contributor’s hostility or soften the impact of her words. The Committee therefore concluded that the programme had achieved due accuracy as required by the editorial guidelines.

that the situations in Gaza and Israel were not analogous and it was a legitimate exercise of editorial judgement not to include the information regarding the teaching of Arabic in Israeli schools in this report.

that, as well as meeting the requirements of due accuracy, the programme had achieved due impartiality as required by the Editorial Guidelines.” 

The full findings (well worth reading) can be found on pages 52 – 58 of the same document. There, inter alia, we learn that: [emphasis added]

“The Committee did not accept the complainant’s contention that only a literal translation of the girl’s words would have met audience expectation. It noted the overarching requirement of the Editorial Guidelines, requiring that content observe “due accuracy” and “due impartiality”, i.e. that it is adequate and appropriate taking into account the subject and nature of the content and the likely audience expectation. The Committee noted that the requirements for “due accuracy” and “due impartiality” underpin the entire guidelines. In this case, as the ECU had also found, the programme-makers had demonstrated that they had taken care to reach a considered view on the appropriate translation, taking into account the circumstances in which the girl was discussing interaction.”


“The Committee considered that the decision to translate the girl’s words as “an Israeli” was an appropriate exercise of editorial judgement. In taking this view the Committee emphasised that no interpretation of the Editorial Guidelines requires content producers to make direct word-for-word translations without also taking account of relevant context. “

In other words, a BBC translation can and will be amended in accordance with the way in which editors subjectively perceive “likely audience expectation” and in accordance with their own subjective interpretations of “relevant context”.

With regard to the specific translation in question, we also learn that: [emphasis added]

“The Committee noted that the programme did not deny the distinction between “Jews” and “Israelis”, but that in this context it felt that it would be misleading not to give the audience a clearer picture of whom the girl was most likely referring to and that a literal translation would not necessarily have achieved that.”

In other words, the programme makers amended the translation to fit in with their own subjective interpretation of what the interviewee might have meant.

The report goes on:

“The Committee noted the programme’s response to the ECU explaining why it felt the decision not to use the literal translation was the right one:

“It is clear in the context that she is talking about crossing the border into Israel and meeting Israelis. Translating the words as Israelis made the most sense within this context and didn’t alter the meaning or tone of her comment. Her distrust and dislike, which was clear from her quote, was of Israelis not of Jews. Jon [Donnison] thought long and hard about this translation but on the advice of Israeli and Palestinian colleagues they came to this decision. He also added that not in this case, but in interviews with other Palestinians who have used the word ‘Jehud’ [sic], he has clarified what the interviewee meant and they nearly always say they mean Israelis unless they are referring specifically to the religion.”  ” [emphasis added]

Most importantly, we also learn that: 

“The Committee accepted that the main editorial purpose of this news item was to report that Hamas schools were teaching children Hebrew as “the language of the enemy”. The programme-makers, based on their professional judgement, understood the enemy in this case to be Israel, and the Committee understood the reasons why the programme felt it was important to communicate that clearly.” [emphasis added]

In other words, the programme-makers’ “professional judgement” led them to believe that Hamas makes a distinction between Israelis (the enemy) and Jews (not the enemy) and intended by means of this translation distortion to clarify that. 

Apparently that “professional judgement” has never come across the antisemitic themes which dominate the Hamas Charter or the words of Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar from 2009, for example.

“The Zionists have legitimised the killing of their children by killing our children. They have legitimised the killing of their people all over the world by killing our people.” [emphasis added]

The obvious attempt by the programme-makers to tone down and censor the type of propaganda with which children in the Gaza Strip are indoctrinated by Hamas in schools, summer camps or on television by replacing the word ‘Jew’ with ‘Israeli’ – thus making it more palatable for Western audiences sensitive to issues of racism – indicates the existence of a problem far greater than mistranslation – and one which apparently exists even in the highest echelons of the BBC.