The BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee Rubber Stamps One-Sided Reporting

The BBC Trust states that its “Editorial Guidelines are one of the most important documents the BBC publishes.” When the Trust, the highest body of the BBC, fails to enforce these standards, they become meaningless. This is exactly what happened when the BBC’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC), representing the BBC Trust, summarily rejected CAMERA’s complaint about an egregiously one-sided documentary about Jerusalem that was aired on BBC One’s Panorama program on Jan. 18, 2010 and repeated on Jan. 22, 2010. https://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=3&x_outlet=12&x_article=1789

Despite its claim of transparency and decision-making “based on hard evidence and wide consultation,” it is apparent that the Committee never seriously considered CAMERA’s appeal – perhaps having made a decision not to risk the type of condemnation https://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=4&x_outlet=12&x_article=1667 they received from anti-Israel journalists after having upheld https://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=4&x_outlet=12&x_article=1655 an earlier, separate complaint by CAMERA about its coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rather than explain the applicability of its Editorial Guidelines, the Committee instead merely parroted the self-justifications of BBC editors without fully weighing or addressing evidence that its guidelines were violated repeatedly throughout the program. It is disturbing that the ESC proceedings have not complied with their rhetoric promising “fairness, accuracy and impartiality.”

CAMERA originally lodged a complaint against the Panorama program last January. The program, entitled “A Walk in the Park,” featured reporter Ms. Jane Corbin on a walking tour of strategic points in eastern Jerusalem purporting to demonstrate why the route to peace is so difficult, but focusing almost entirely on alleged misdeeds by Israel, while ignoring Palestinian actions in those same sensitive areas. We expressed our concern about this one-sidedness and about how the program failed to provide context for Israeli actions, presenting those actions through a lens of Palestinian grievances. We demonstrated how the BBC’s editorial guidelines on accuracy and impartiality were breached on numerous occasions throughout the different segments that made up the documentary and asked editors to consider not only the individual violations of the guidelines, but the overall lack of impartiality in the program as a whole. (For more details about the program’s bias, see https://www.camera.org/index.asp?x_context=3&x_outlet=12&x_article=1789

In his response, the deputy editor of Panorama misrepresented our concerns. He ignored the substance of our complaint while arguing irrelevant points that were not challenged by us, and so we appealed to the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU).

Although it acknowledged that it “would have been better” for the documentary to have handled issues raised in our complaint differently, the ECU dismissed our overall complaint as well as each individual component of it, arguing that there was no need to provide context on every topic or in every segment. Viewers, it concluded, would instinctively understand the circumstances surrounding the events depicted, despite the program’s failure to provide such context.

We appealed to the BBC Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee, which merely reiterated the ECU dismissal, without demonstrating that they had seriously considered any of the points brought up in our rebuttal.

Below are just three of the numerous examples of the Committee’s unreasonable findings.

Example 1:

CAMERA’s complaint: Although this program purported to explain why activities in east Jerusalem present an obstacle to peace, it reported solely on Israeli actions and never reported anything about Palestinian efforts to change the status quo, which are viewed by Israelis as the obstacle to peace. Ms. Corbin repeatedly and vociferously challenged Israeli interviewees to respond to Palestinian grievances but refrained from similarly challenging Palestinians. For example, Israelis are accused of undermining the Palestinians by digging under their houses, and by emphasizing that Jews have lived here for thousands of years. By contrast, nowhere in the program are Palestinians accused of undermining the Jewish bond to eastern Jerusalem by illegally building in sensitive areas, or by their opposition to any Jewish presence in what is considered Jewish heartland or through the Waqf’s unsupervised archeological excavations, which have been deemed an “archeological crime.”

Although this program purported to explain why activities in east Jerusalem present an obstacle to peace, it reported solely on Israeli actions and never reported anything about Palestinian efforts to change the status quo, which are viewed by Israelis as the obstacle to peace. Ms. Corbin repeatedly and vociferously challenged Israeli interviewees to respond to Palestinian grievances but refrained from similarly challenging Palestinians. For example, Israelis are accused of undermining the Palestinians by digging under their houses, and by emphasizing that Jews have lived here for thousands of years. By contrast, nowhere in the program are Palestinians accused of undermining the Jewish bond to eastern Jerusalem by illegally building in sensitive areas, or by their opposition to any Jewish presence in what is considered Jewish heartland or through the Waqf’s unsupervised archeological excavations, which have been deemed an “archeological crime.”

Editorial Standards Committee: “The Committee took the view that in the context of this program it was appropriate to explain [Palestinian] criticisms and to present them to key [Israeli] interviewees to respond to. The Committee was of the view that it was not necessary to put balancing challenges to Palestinians to achieve due impartiality.”

The Committee took the view that in the context of this program it was appropriate to explain [Palestinian] criticisms and to present them to key [Israeli] interviewees to respond to. The Committee was of the view that it was not necessary to put balancing challenges to Palestinians to achieve due impartiality.”

The Committee does not clarify the reasoning behind their contradictory stance, i.e. while essentially acknowledging this double standard, they do not attempt to explain how “due impartiality is achieved” by challenging only one side while granting the other side a free pass.

Example 2:

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CAMERA complaint: Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount was referred to only in Arab terms, as “the compound surrounding the holy mosques” or “Muslim holy sites”, but never as the most sacred ground in Judaism. Instead, Ms. Corbin falsely described the Western Wall as “the holiest place in the world for Jews” – an error that the BBC has in the past corrected. (The BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit, we noted, had recently investigated and acknowledged this fact after a similar complaint was lodged. Details here: =”http://tinyurl.com/336mjjw”)

Judaism’s holiest site, the Temple Mount was referred to only in Arab terms, as “the compound surrounding the holy mosques” or “Muslim holy sites”, but never as the most sacred ground in Judaism. Instead, Ms. Corbin falsely described the Western Wall as “the holiest place in the world for Jews” – an error that the BBC has in the past corrected. (The BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit, we noted, had recentl y investigated and acknowledged this fact after a similar complaint was lodged. Details here: =”http://tinyurl.com/336mjjw”)

Jane Corbin: On the Sabbath the Adlers visit the Western Wall of the Temple.

: On the Sabbath the Adlers visit the Western Wall of the Temple.

Yonatan Adler: We have a special prayer for Jerusalem which Jews have been praying for the last 2,000 years, since the destruction of the Second Temple.

We have a special prayer for Jerusalem which Jews have been praying for the last 2,000 years, since the destruction of the Second Temple.

Jane Corbin: This is the holiest place in the world for Jews and it is why the Adlers say they’d resist any peace deal that required them to leave.”

This is the holiest place in the world for Jews and it is why the Adlers say they’d resist any peace deal that required them to leave.”

Editorial Standards Committee: The Committee “considered” Panorama’s false response which was that “it had been made very clear that Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were sacred to Jews.”

The Committee “considered” Panorama’s false response which was that “it had been made very clear that Jerusalem and the Temple Mount were sacred to Jews.”

In fact, nowhere in the program was it made clear that the Temple Mount was sacred to Jews.

It also “accepted” as “a reasonable interpretation” Panorama’s claim that the because the segment was filmed at the Western Wall, and the Temple Mount “is behind and above” it, the reference to “this” being the holiest place in the world for Jews therefore includes the entire area. According to the transcript, ” this” refers to the Western Wall, which is the site depicted in the film. Yet the Committee concluded that “the audience would not…have been misled on this issue.”

The Committee does not explain how they determine when an audience is misled by deceiving information and when they are not.

Example 3:

CAMERA’s complaint: Panorama presented statistics out of context – both in describing home demolitions and in describing the granting of building permits in Jerusalem. This violates the BBC’s accuracy and impartiality guidelines calling for “reporting statistics and risks in context”, “not distorting known facts”, and ensuring that “all the relevant facts and information” be “weighed to get at the truth”.

Panorama presented statistics out of context – both in describing home demolitions and in describing the granting of building permits in Jerusalem. This violates the BBC’s accuracy and impartiality guidelines calling for “reporting statistics and risks in context”, “not distorting known facts”, and ensuring that “all the relevant facts and information” be “weighed to get at the truth”.

Regarding Arab home demolitions by Israeli authorities, Ms. Corbin announced a short-term (days-long) trend of an increase in the number of demolitions, while concealing the more accurate picture of demolitions actually having decreased 25 percent from the previous year. We argued that this was inaccurate and presents an overall misleading picture. She also provided an inflated prediction of future demolitions, reporting that she had gotten “hold of a list that shows there’s another 40 to go before the end of the year”. We indicated that the municipality had subsequently denied having demolished 40 homes by the year’s end, and argued that the program should therefore have been modified to reflect this, in compliance with the BBC guideline requiring that “programs recorded some time before transmission or being repeated” should be checked “to make sure they have not been overtaken by events…”

Regarding the granting of building permits in Jerusalem to Jews and Arabs, Ms. Corbin declared that Palestinians are “just not given the permission to build” in Jerusalem. (In fact, 676 construction requests were approved in the eastern sector of the city from 2005 through 2009.) She further misled viewers by stating that “last year, only 133 permits were granted to Palestinians in the whole of east Jerusalem — nearly ten times more were given to Israelis in west Jerusalem” The obvious implication was of discrimination in the issuing of permits, because the statistic was presented out of context. We noted that in their appropriate context, the statistics took on an entirely different meaning: 133 requests were approved in the eastern sector of Jerusalem out of a total of 244, i.e. 55%, while 1,236 requests were approved in the western sector., out of a total of of 1,950, i.e. 63 percent. In other words, an almost equivalent proportion of requests were approved in the eastern and western sectors of the city.

Editorial Standards Committee: Regarding the statistics on home demolitions, the Committee repeated the BBC editors’ defence that Ms. Corbin had reported demolitions as increasing in “recent days” and therefore it was not misleading to ignore the overall trend. They concluded that “no further context” about the actual numbers of demolitions or about the downward trend in demolitions “was required for accuracy or impartiality”.

Regarding the statistics on home demolitions, the Committee repeated the BBC editors’ defence that Ms. Corbin had reported demolitions as increasing in “recent days” and therefore it was not misleading to ignore the overall trend. They concluded that “no further context” about the actual numbers of demolitions or about the downward trend in demolitions “was required for accuracy or impartiality”.

The Committee does not bother to explain, in light of this false overall implication, what is meant by the BBC guidelines of “weighing all facts and information to get at the truth”, “not distorting known facts” and “reporting statistics and risks in context”.

Similarly, the Committee repeats the BBC editors’ defence that since the reporter was describing an “intention, at the time of filming” for 40 houses to be demolished, the “film was duly accurate and impartial in the way it had reported the number and pace of demolitions.”

The Committee does not explain why the guideline to ensure that information given is “not overtaken by events” (or, in this case, the lack thereof) does not apply to this case.

Regarding the misleading statistics on building demolitions, the Committee claimed they looked at the evidence on the figures and proportions of planning approvals, as well as the possible reasons for the disparity in numbers of planning applications from the West and the East of Jerusalem and decided that “further context was not essential to the audience’s understanding on this point” especially since Nir Barkat states at one point that “On the east side a lack of planning causes sometimes, unfortunately, people to build illegally.”

The Committee does not explain how the tendency of Arab residents to build without proper planning or Panorama editors’ unconfirmed speculation about why Arab residents do not consider it necessary to apply for permits obviates the BBC from its responsibility to cite statistics in context.

This sort of spurious defence and argumentation appears throughout the Committee’s ruling and certainly does not reflect proceeding s based on “hard evidence and wide consultation” or a good faith attempt to apply the editorial guidelines to the program.