BBC Flunks Impartiality Test
A report commissioned by its governors has told the BBC it must do better. An independent review panel chaired by Sir Quentin Thomas, highlighted ‘failure to convey adequately the disparity in the Israeli and Palestinian experience, reflecting the fact that one side is in control and the other lives under occupation.’ The panel’s conclusions are backed by new research from Loughborough University that shows six times as many Israeli fatalities as Palestinian deaths were reported in news and current affairs programmes over the period under review, despite many more actual Palestinian deaths. It also confirms the noticeable disparity in favour of Israelis in BBC ‘talk-time’ taken as a whole.
In a letter to The Guardian [May 4, 2006] Greg Philo, co-author of ‘Bad News from Israel,’ pointed out that these figures represent a more extreme ratio than found by Glasgow Media Group three years ago, indicating that BBC bias has become even more pronounced. He asks: why has this situation been allowed to continue and what will the BBC now do to offer a better informed coverage?
The Thomas Report recommends “the BBC should make purposive, and not merely reactive, efforts to explain the complexities of the conflict in the round, including the marked disparity between the positions of the two sides, and to overcome the high level of incomprehension among the audience.” The broadcaster is urged to consider the case for basing a correspondent in the West Bank to facilitate access “particularly once the barrier is complete.”
While it deals effectively with glaring deficiencies in BBC coverage which are hard to ignore, at times the report comes across as callously indifferent, as in the observation: “In recent years (When has it been otherwise? DL) many more Palestinians have been killed but usually in circumstances which are less dramatic and give rise to less striking images. Moreover, leaving aside death and injury, much of the Palestinian suffering arises from the situation of displacement and occupation, which does not generally lend itself to the newsworthy event.”
It is suggested that news stories are chosen on the basis of the pictures available to accompany them. In light of this, it is curious that one of the most newsworthy and iconic symbols of occupation, the Apartheid Wall, is so shyly peeked at by BBC cameras. The report does not say what it would take for the BBC to get excited about economic strangulation, starvation and state terror. However there is recognition that news and current affairs programmes are as much a construct as is a soap opera: there must be a choice of subject, presentation decisions, narrative framework, context setting and the selection of angles of vision. Journalists, producers, editors and the BBC as an institution should be fully conscious that a ‘human construct’ is being created, declares the report, and must take responsibility for their crucial interpretive role in that process.
All this could be applied to the report: itself a construct on every level, sugaring the pill for the BBC by conferring a gold standard upon ‘the majority’ of its output, and appeasing the Israeli notion of a ‘dual narrative’ in which ethnic cleansing, land theft and human rights violations are reduced to a mere ‘mindset.’ Zionist myths are accorded the status of legitimate narrative. The choice of an Israeli lawyer, Noam Lubell, to produce a paper on international law, is puzzling given the nature of an exercise aimed at establishing impartiality. Lubell gets it badly wrong in his appraisal of the ICJ ruling, ignoring the role of the Wall in illegal annexation of Palestinian land. The choice of experts on the Middle East invited for a seminar with the Panel also displayed a narrow ‘angle of vision’ and the organisations and individuals invited to give written and oral evidence mirrored the asymmetry referred to in the report. Heavy hitters, including Gideon Meir and Daniel Shek, put Israel’s case, while the Palestinians and their supporters were unable to match the resources of the Israeli Government and Embassy.
Lubell’s contribution has been used by the panel to help determine terminology: should the BBC use ‘occupied’ or ‘disputed’ lands? When giving oral evidence for PSC, we were told the BBC style book calls for the use of ‘occupied territory’ but this is not followed consistently. ‘Targeted killings’ is the term preferred by the panel for Israel’s illegal assassinations. Discussing the use of words deriving from the root ‘terror’ (ism/ist etc) the report acknowledges that state terrorism should be named as such, and puts the issue into the context of attacks on civilians, recalling terrorist acts by the Zionist. If those described as terrorists don’t like it, suggests the report, they can always cease the activities that give rise to the label. However, when describing the concerns of pro-Israeli witnesses regarding ‘tendentious’ reporting of Israeli actions as possibly triggering anti-semitism, the panel refrained from issuing similar advice.
The BBC is commended for appointing Malcolm Balen as senior adviser in late 2003 when relations between Israel and the BBC were at an all-time low. In a Haaretz interview Balen expressed his view of accusations of anti-semitism aimed at the BBC.
“I know there is a widespread belief, and it quite shocked me on taking this job, that if the BBC gets something wrong, or the nuances are misplaced, there is now a virtually automatic assumption that the BBC had done that because it is biased against Israel, or worse, anti-Semitic,” he says. “It is very difficult for sections of the audience to accept that the BBC got something wrong – it is maybe because it got it wrong, and not because it is biased. This situation polarized the debate and it is very difficult to get the editorial debate back on pragmatic level.”
Balen complains of Israel’s “megaphone diplomacy,” which he says thwarts possible dialogue. He offers as an example the leak of a letter from Natan Sharansky to the BBC. Sharansky claimed that a report on Hussam Abdu, a Palestinian youth who was caught at the Hawara roadblock wearing an explosive belt, was marked by an anti-Semitic bias.
”The letter,” says Balen, “was leaked to the media and became a public debate, [concerning] whether the BBC is anti-Semitic, based on this single report. Rather, it should have been a private debate about the editorial content of that report. Now, any viewer and any listener is perfectly entitled to ask questions about our coverage, but once it comes associated with allegations of anti-Semitism based on an individual report, the BBC could have done nothing else but to rebut that claim and defend itself robustly. We are so far removed from what should be the case, which is a pragmatic, sensible debate, where the two sides can understand each other better. I now get calls from government officials in Israel and they are legitimate, sensible editorial conversations, which is the way we should have a debate.”
While Malcom Balen’s appointment is praised, the panel goes on to recommend the creation of another, more senior post, to improve ‘grip’ and provide firmer guidance. Perhaps they were too polite to mention the worsening bias towards Israel and audience incomprehension unearthed by the Loughborough study, happened under Balen’s watch.
Complaints from viewers and listeners ‘sometimes seem to be treated as a necessary nuisance and dealt with defensively.’ It is not enough for the BBC to say that as there are complaints from both sides their coverage is about right. This kind of complacency would not be acceptable, says the report.
Over 700 emails and around 80 letters from the public arrived for the panel between 3rd October and 25th October 2005. ‘Pressure group activity could be seen in the number of identical letters or parts of letters. A large number of pro-Israeli supporters emailed from the United States, often with the same complaint, on the same date and/or from the same state:’ a reminder of the effectiveness of using your own words when complaining.
Despite its shortcomings, the Report is a useful tool for challenging bias and distortion, not only in BBC coverage but that of the entire mainstream media. PSC’s submission to the panel is on our website under ‘PSC News.’
The Thomas Report and appendices:
Press Statement issued by the Board of Governors:
PSC thanks everyone who made individual representations to the BBC Governors’ Impartiality Review. If you would like to be more involved in media work, please contact the office to join our media group.