“The movements of those reporting from Baghdad are restricted and their reports are monitored by the Iraqi authorities.”
That footnote was added to BBC News articles produced in 2003 (see examples here and here) and its purpose is very clear: to alert BBC audiences to the possibility of inaccuracies and/or compromised impartiality in reporting as a result of the restrictions imposed on journalists by a dictatorial regime.
As the Guardian reported at the time:
“The Times journalist Janine di Giovanni has also said that the demands of real-time television, combined with the restrictions placed on reporters in Baghdad by the Iraqis and the difficulties of getting to the front line are making it virtually impossible for journalists to cover the war properly.”
The addition of written or spoken footnotes to reporting from Iraq was not uncommon in BBC coverage at the time and the corporation obviously considered that it was important to communicate to audiences the conditions under which reporting was being produced. An article from 2003 about BBC reporters embedded with US forces pointed out that:
“There has been no censorship, says Van Klaveren [BBC head of newsgathering at the time – Ed.], and reporters are not required to submit scripts before broadcast. There are, however, a couple of golden rules – journalists cannot give specific details of locations or outline the future plans of their unit.”
In August 2006 – just after the Second Lebanon War had ended – the then head of BBC newsgathering, Fran Unsworth, wrote a blogpost on the topic of restrictions on reporting that war.
“Some blogs, as well as emails we’ve received, have said that BBC correspondents are failing to report that when covering the war, they are operating under reporting restrictions imposed by Hezbollah. Others complain that we did not refer to Israeli censorship rules on air. I’d like to answer those points.”
Inadvertently clarifying Hizballah’s use of the civilian population as human shields, Unsworth wrote:
“So what about Hezbollah? Were they any better able to control what reporters can and cannot see? Jim Muir – our correspondent who has just spent the last month based in Southern Lebanon – says…
“There have basically been no restrictions on reporting as such – there’s been no pressure in any direction with regard to anything we actually say, indeed very little interaction of any sort. There was however an issue at the beginning of the conflict over the live broadcast of pictures of rockets going out from locations visible from our live camera position. We were visited by Hezbollah representatives and told that by showing the exact location of firing we were endangering civilian lives, and that our equipment would be confiscated.”
Editors in London discussed both how we should handle both this request, and the Israel rules, in terms of what we said on air.
We agreed that rather than begin each broadcast with a ‘health warning’ to audiences, we would only refer to it if it was relevant. If rockets started to go off while were live on air, we would not show the exact location but would tell the audience that we had been asked by Hezbollah not to; on the grounds they claimed it endangered civilian lives.
In the event the situation never arose. Apart from that one incident we have been free to report whatever we wanted.”
Some of the below-the-line commentators on that blog pointed out the discrepancy between Unsworth’s and Muir’s benign portrayal of Hizballah restrictions on BBC journalists and the situation as it was portrayed by correspondents representing other media organisations.
Eight years later, during the 2014 conflict between Israel and Hamas, the BBC did not make any public statements concerning restrictions placed on its journalists by Hamas and no footnotes were added to reports to alert audiences to the fact that media freedom was compromised.
We of course know that Hamas employed censorship and placed restrictions on the foreign press because not only did numerous journalists later report their experiences, but Hamas itself admitted to having deported journalists who did not toe its propaganda line.
One of the outcomes of the BBC’s failure to publicly acknowledge Hamas censorship was that it took over a month before BBC audiences were told that terrorist groups were firing missiles from residential areas. The BBC ‘explained’ that using the following disingenuous excuse:
“…we did raise your concerns with the relevant editorial staff at BBC News who covered the recent conflict in Gaza. They explained that there are number of reasons why BBC News has not shown images or footage of Hamas and Islamic Jihad militants firing rockets. The main reason is that militant groups keep the location of launch sites secret. It was very hard for journalists in Gaza to get to see rockets being fired out….”
During the 2014 conflict one former BBC employee noted that:
“…the only truths about Gaza that BBC reporters can convey are those that a camera can point at. Never has a BBC reporter broken a story from Gaza, interviewed a Hamas commander at any depth about splits in the ranks, examined the Palestinian justice and detention system, exposed the climate of fear that Gazans are subject to, shown missile stockpiling or residential defensive positions, or challenged the brainwashing of children in schools.”
And as the hostilities ended, another former BBC journalist wrote:
“Where Matti Friedman is entirely correct is in the failure of news organizations and their correspondents to point out the controls and “pressures” both implicit and explicit exerted upon them in Gaza by the all-pervasive and tightly-run Hamas media operation. This inaction can only be seen as – at best – moral cowardice by media organizations. […]
…the (Western) media must also account for itself and for its own conduct, including apparent omissions and failures in the reporting of the conflict. It must question where reporting may have ended and emoting began; if it held Israel to a standard apart from all others; and why it allowed Hamas a free pass in controlling the flow of information.”
And that, of course, is the crux of the matter: when restrictions are placed on the media by dictators or terrorist organisations, the picture journalists paint for their audiences changes. Significantly, over the years we see that the BBC’s approach has changed: in 2003 it rightly found it appropriate to advise audiences that Iraqi restrictions were likely to affect its reporting. In 2006 it acknowledged Hizballah restrictions days after the conflict ended. But in 2014, the BBC chose to be completely silent on the issue of Hamas restrictions on its reporting and it has maintained that policy ever since.
In 2010 a former BBC World News editor wrote a blogpost in which he recalled the “censorship” and the “minders assigned to news organisations to “monitor” their reporting” in Iraq. He closed his post with the following words:
“Journalists have a responsibility to be accurate and fair – we don’t want, and don’t ask, for special treatment. However, we do want the ability to operate freely, without fear or favour. Our audiences deserve nothing less.”
Given the corporation’s track record, the BBC’s funding public might well wonder whether or not those words – and the principles behind them – will apply during the next inevitable conflict between Israel and a terrorist organisation.