Can the BBC Change?

Over the years, the BBC has come under harsh criticism for unbalanced, anti-Israel reporting (See CAMERA analyses: Charges of partisan and inaccurate reporting are routinely ignored, dismissed, or more often denied by BBC directors. In March 2002, British lawyer Trevor Asserson launched his BBC Watch site ( with an in-depth study of domestic BBC coverage of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. He concluded that it was frequently inaccurate and subjective. Further studies documented an anti-Israel bent in BBC coverage, the most recent demonstrating that BBC television documentaries on Israel are routinely negative. Although BBC responded to some of these concerns, its editors, at the same time, denied evidence of partiality.

While BBC has made no public mention of Mr. Asserson’s studies, nor of any other documented example of partisan reporting against Israel, it has, on the other hand, displayed an unusual alacrity in publicizing a study charging it with a pro-Israel bias. BBC 4 aired several interviews with the study’s author, the network’s Web site ran two separate articles describing the study’s findings, and the World Service weighed in with a discussion on the topic.

The Study by University of Glasgow Media Unit

The study claiming pro-Israel bias, authored by Greg Philo and Mike Berry of the University of Glasgow Media Unit, is summed up in a book entitled “Bad News from Israel,” (London, Pluto Press, 2004). Focusing on British television – BBC1 and ITV– news reports on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the study concludes that the coverage leans heavily toward Israeli government perspectives and favors Israel over the Palestinians. The authors suggest that reporters do not apportion sufficient blame to Israel for the conflict. They object to scant mention of what they believe is the origin of the conflict. According to the study:

TV news says almost nothing about the history or origins of the conflict….Most [viewers] did not know that the Palestinians had been forced from their homes and land when Israel was established in 1948. In 1967 Israel occupied by force the territories to which the Palestinian refugees had moved. Most viewers did not know that the Palestinians subsequently lived under Israeli military rule or that the Israelis took control of key resources such as water, and the damage this did to the Palestinian economy…

In presenting this distorted version of the conflict, the authors draw upon the writings of Avi Shlaim, one of a group of radical Israeli historians who have attempted to rewrite Israel’s history to suggest the country was born in original sin. Shlaim wrote a book accusing Jordan and Israel of collaborating to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state. His specialty is blaming Israel in general, and in promoting the idea of a mass expulsion of Palestinians during the Israeli War of Independence in 1948-49. And while Shlaim’s writings and those of other radical historians have been discredited by scholars, they have been embraced and publicized by pro-Palestinian advocates.

Why then is BBC so eager to publicize such a study?

Very likely the network seeks to counter the preponderance of accusations against it of anti-Israel bias, and perhaps the negative image of Israel is shared by many at the BBC.

Witness the reaction of former BBC correspondent Tim Llewellyn (also an executive board member of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding — CAABU, and of the Arab British Centre in London) who enthusiastically endorsed the findings of the study in an article in which he asserted:

That 37 years of military occupation, the violation of the Palestinians’ human, political and civil rights and the continuing theft of their land might have triggered this crisis [Israeli-Palestinian conflict] is a concept either lost or underplayed. (The Observer, June 20, 2004)

That BBC had for decades employed as its Middle East correspondent this overtly partisan player is telling indeed.

So too is the following example from the public notes of the BBC Governors Programme Complaints committee ( July 2004) which demonstrates the mindset that prevails from the bottom to the top of the organization. A complaint was sent to BBC’s Director of News about a segment of the Julian Worricker programme in which Security Correspondent Frank Gardner made clear his pro-Palestinian view that:

Theirs [ the Palestinians ] is essentially a territorial fight to liberate their land from illegal occupation. People should understand that Israel is illegally occupying Arab land. It is against UN resolutions, and the transportation of a civilian population into occupied territory and then colonising it is illegal under the Geneva Convention. (January 23, 2004, BBC 5)

The listener argued that these comments by a BBC correspondent were inaccurate as well as biased, misapplying the Geneva Convention to Israel, erroneously portraying Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza as illegal, discounting the avowed goal of Palestinian terrorists to annihilate the Jewish state, and misrepresenting UN Resolutions 242 aand 338, which require Israel to withdraw – not from all the territories – but to secure and recognized boundaries, and only when the Arabs recognize Israel’s right to exist (which most Arab states do not).

The news director’s response was characteristic. First, he trotted out Gardner’s credentials as a veteran Middle East reporter, as if that placed the journalist above criticism. Asserting that Gardner is “neutral” on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he brought as proof the reporter’s condemnation of suicide bombings — a position, he noted, which had incurred the wrath of “some of the more extreme sections of the Muslim world.”

A summary of Gardner’s own justifications followed, relying on highly politicized, anti-Israel documents and resolutions, and reaffirming his reliance on UN Resolutions 242 and 338, without addressing the inherent discrepancy between his own interpretation and their intent. Gardner apologized for using the word “transportation” instead of “transfer” of the Israeli civilian population into occupied territories.

The listener objected to this response, appealing to the Director General of the BBC who in turn referred the complaint to the Governors’ Committee responsible for upholding the network’s guidelines of accuracy and impartiality.

After considering the complaint, the committee decided not to uphold the appeal and instead expressed satisfaction with the reporter’s comments on the show. The committee noted that while the issue of Israel’s occupation was complex and UN resolutions frequently vague and ambiguous, “many in the international community regard the Israeli occupation as illegal.” Furthermore, they insisted that since the settlement of the Occupied Territories are illegal under the Fourth Geneva Convention, Gardner’s comments “did not represent a breach of BBC guidelines on accuracy.” Regarding the reporter’s references to “Palestinian” land and “Arab” land , the committee ruled tha t these terms were in accordance with “the language of UN resolutions.” And while the committee acknowledged that there are those who claim the Palestinian aim is the eradication of Israel, it indicated that Gardner had qualified his observation about the territorial aims by saying it was “essentially” a territorial fight.

Not only does this perspective accept Palestinian allegations at face value and rely on biased resolutions and documents indicting Israel, it places those attempting to hold the network to its own guidelines in a conundrum as they fruitlessly try to reason with an organization that defines “impartiality” and “accuracy” according to its own worldview.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in BBC’s hiring choices. In order to train journalists in “BBC standards of impartiality and accuracy,” BBC’s World Service Trust hired Ibrahim Helal away from his job as editor-in-chief of the Arabic satellite TV network Al Jazeera. Significantly, it was under Mr. Helal’s helm that Al Jazeera was severely criticized for inflammatory, false and inaccurate reports. It was Helal who had authorized the broadcasting of controversial anti-Western propaganda by Al-Qaeda terrorist leader Osama bin Laden and former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and Helal who had approved the screening of footage of US and British soldiers captured and killed during the Iraq war. It is noteworthy that since Helal’s departure to the BBC, Al Jazeera has released a new code of ethics to ensure more balanced and sensitive reporting.

And what about the BBC?

Scapegoating Israel and the U.S.

BBC continues to produce articles, reports and documentaries unfairly criticizing and condemning Israel, while at the same time whitewashing Palestinian responsibility for the conflict. BBC correspondents regularly editorialize in news reports, ask leading questions, and insert their own opinions unhindered. And these opinions, more often than not, count Israel as the primary culprit aided and abetted by the U.S.

Israel is a scapegoat not only in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in reports on issues completely unrelated. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, BBC correspondent Jim Muir offered the Arab view that Israel was at the root of the crisis and questioned whether the perpetrators were Arab or Muslim. Speculating that Israel would take advantage of the situation for its own nefarious purposes, Muir used the opportunity to attack Israel explaining that:

The fact is that for more than five decades, in defiance of countless UN resolutions and of international law, the Palestinians’ land has been occupied and their rights ignored by Israel, with full diplomatic cover and open-ended financial and military backing from Washington. (“Analysis: Impact on the Middle East, BBC Web site, September 12, 2001)

More recently, a May 6, 2004 World Service news report featured BBC host Claire Bolderson questioning the Arab League’s ambassador in London about remarks by President Bush concerning prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib. Despite its complete lack of relevancy to the issue at hand, Ms. Bolderson nevertheless sought to interject Israel into the conversation, implicating U.S. support of the Jewish State as the “real” problem in the Middle East. Bolderson charged:

Is the real problem not so much the photos and the allegations of these serious abuses but the United States’ attitude toward Israel and the Palestinians?

Can BBC Change?

Given the entrenched anti-Israel attitude among BBC correspondents, with the tacit approval of its governors, can the BBC change?

With BBC’s Royal Charter up for renewal at the end of 2006 and its recent credibility troubles –the Hutton Commission’s harsh criticism of the organization’s journalistic breaches and the resultant replacement of its Director-General and Chairman — the BBC has had to re-examine its role in broadcasting, its accountability to the public and its direction for the future. In the new BBC document putting forth its plans for the future, entitled Building Public Value ( the corporation both acknowledges that “historically the BBC has resisted criticism,”and publicizes its intention to “shortly introduce a new system for dealing with complaints from licence payers, to ensure objectivity, fairness and transparency.” Outlined more specifically:

The BBC will begin with the presumption that the licence payer is right. A new Head of Complaints will report directly to the Board of Governors. We will make it much easier to make complaints about BBC programmes and services and will publicise the procedures more widely on TV, radio and online. We will publish all errors, clarifications and corrections promptly on the BBC’s website. We will also set out for complainants –– and for serious upheld complaints, for the public at large –– the actions the BBC will take to correct the error and minimise the risk of it recurring…. Our proposals will shortly be laid out within a new Code of Practice and implemented as soon as possible. The BBC will be a stronger organisation for recognising where it is wrong and taking clear steps to put things right.

The document pledges that “BBC will be a guarantor of impartiality and independence, enabling people to make sense of this fast-changing agenda” and will “offer a place where a plurality of voices and opinions can be given space and where rational debate can be held.”

While the BBC’s record provides reason for skepticism, perhaps such new awareness of journalistic accountability offers an opportunity for real redress. British BBC consumers have a fresh chance to participate in “rational debate”— to politely engage BBC journalists in dialogue and to gradually effect a positive change in the reporting.

As for global World Service News consumers, they too can have an impact. In Building Public Value, the BBC promises to build “BBC’s reputation as the world’s most trusted broadcaster of news” and as “the trusted global voice of British broadcasting.” BBC, therefore aims to “play a valuable role as a voice of fairness and impartiality around the world,” and “to increase the reach and standing of the BBC’s global news services.”

American consumers can help ensure that BBC World Service reports are accurate, balanced and unbiased. by engaging BBC directly through complaint channels, as well as through local public radio affiliates that carry BBC, PRI (Public Radio International) that distributes World Service reports, and members of congress who control the public radio funding. Those who care about how Israel is viewed internationally should make their voices heard.

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