UK’s Independent Defends Unethical Journalism

More than most British newspapers, the Independent has reason to be worried about an increased public focus on journalistic ethics.

It is, after all, the newspaper that employs correspondent Robert Fisk, who was described by the New York Times’ Ethan Bronner as pursuing an anti-Western agenda “nearly to the exclusion of the pursuit of straight journalism.” (See a few examples of Fisk’s crooked journalism here.)

So it’s not surprising that the Independent became highly agitated after the BBC Trust recently ruled against its Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen for violating the organization’s ethical guidelines. That ruling served as a loud, public reminder of the importance of journalistic ethics — a reminder that could lower the public’s regard for the Independent’s brand of journalism, where advocacy trumps accuracy.

The Independent published a number of opinion pieces grumbling about the BBC’s findings, including 1) a “leading article” (or, in American parlance, a lead editorial), 2) a ranting column by the aforementioned Robert Fisk, and 3) an ad hominem attack on CAMERA by Richard Ingram.

Each of these pieces says more about the Independent and its columnists than about the BBC’s decision, about which they say very little.

“Leading Article”

The April 16 leading article accuses the BBC of “bad judgement” — that was the piece’s title — but didn’t bother explaining to readers exactly why it disagreed with the BBC’s ruling. What it said was basically this: The BBC shouldn’t have ruled against Bowen because we think he’s good.

Here’s the piece in its entirety:

The idea held in some circles that the BBC should be able to float serenely above any criticism of its news reporting has always been silly. Like any media organisation the BBC occasionally makes mistakes. And it is only right that it investigates complaints properly and apologises when it has erred. Indeed, the fact that the BBC is financed by the licence fee makes it all the more important that the Corporation is seen as accountable.

Yet the decision of the BBC Trust’s editorial standards committee to censure the BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, for breaching the Corporation’s guidelines on accuracy and impartiality demonstrates a terrible absence of good judgement. Mr Bowen’s work has always been scrupulously unbiased. The BBC Trust needs to learn that accountability does not mean swallowing every complaint uncritically. When a good journalist needs to be robustly defended, it must not be afraid to do so.

There isn’t much that can be said about this article, because the Independent, though apparently certain that it understands the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines better than the BBC itself, says nothing specific about any of actual findings.

Still, it is noteworthy that Bowen, the person they argue “has always been scrupulously unbiased,” is the same man whose writing has been described by historian Ephriam Karsh as being “rife with standard anti-Israel prejudice, namely, the portrayal of Israel as the source of the ME conflict and the whitewashing of Arab-Palestinian rejection of Israel’s legitimacy and decades of relentless violence against the Jewish state.” (Karsh, director of the Mediterranean Studies Programme at King’s College, University of London, made these comments in an email to BBC-critic Jonathan Turner.)
It is also worth pointing out that the BBC’s investigation spanned two years, involved hundreds of pages of correspondence and analysis, enlisted the advice of an independent advisor and two well-known historians, and was concluded with a detailed 118-page document. This can hardly be described as “swallowing every complaint uncritically.” To the contrary, the BBC Trust findings were, if anything, overly restrained, and failed to acknowledge Bowen’s extensive history of biased reporting. (The claim that BBC Trust uncritically swallows every complaint is also belied by the numerous complaints not upheld by the group.)

Robert Fisk

If the Independent’s editorial was undone by its lack of reasoned argument and detail, Fisk would have been better off limiting himself to vague expressions of disapproval. The “substantiations” he offers in his April 16 tirade only serve as a reminder of his reputation for mendacity.

For example, to show that the BBC management are “cowards,” Fisk points to their supposed insistence that BBC reporters use the term “security barrier” instead of “wall” to describe the structure Israel built to combat suicide bombing and other anti-Israel violence. He argues:

Zionism does indeed instinctively “push out” the frontier. The new Israeli wall – longer and taller than the Berlin Wall although the BBC management cowards still insist its reporters call it a “security barrier” (the translation of the East German phrase for the Berlin Wall) – has gobbled up another 10 per cent of the 22 per cent of “Palestine” that Arafat/Mahmoud Abbas were supposed to negotiate. (Emphasis added)

His argument that the media should use “wall” over “barrier” is certainly absurd, considering that most of the barrier is actually a fence, and only a small fraction is a wall. But more remarkably, his assertion that the BBC calls on its reporters to use the phrase “security barrier” is an outright lie. The BBC’s style guide, published online here, notes under the entry “Barrier”:

BBC journalists should try to avoid using terminology favoured by one side or another in any dispute.

The BBC uses the terms “barrier”, “separation barrier” or “West Bank barrier” as acceptable generic descriptions to avoid the political connotations of “security fence” (preferred by the Israeli government) or “apartheid wall” (preferred by the Palestinians).

The United Nations also uses the term “barrier”.

Of course, a reporte r standing in front of a concrete section of the barrier might choose to say “this wall” or use a more exact description in the light of what he or she is looking at. (Emphasis added)

Then-Middle East bureau chief Simon Wilson summarized BBC’s recommendation as follows:

… we recommend using the term “West Bank Barrier” for the system of fences, walls, ditches and barbed wire which Israel is currently building. The official Israeli term is “Security Fence”, the Palestinians call it an “Apartheid Wall”. Each has their point — but we believe this is the clearest generic term for our audiences. Individual reporters standing in front of a particular section can, of course, still refer to a “fence” or “wall” behind them. (Emphasis added)

Fisk again prevaricates when he exclaimed: “Even when the International Court in The Hague stated that the Israeli wall was illegal – the BBC, at this point, was calling it a “fence”! – Israel simply claimed that the court was wrong.”
While it is possible that a BBC reporter somewhere, when discussing the court’s advisory opinion, said the structure was a “fence” as opposed to a barrier; that certainly wasn’t the case here (“the network of walls, fences and ditches”), here (“barrier”), here  (numerous references to “barrier,” and one reference each to “wall” and “fence”) or here (“barrier”).

As to Fisk’s broader point in this passage — he predictably agreed with Bowen’s claim that Zionism has an innate instinct to push out the frontier — it is notable that this is one of the few subjects about which the two historians consulted by the BBC were in rough agreement. Mainstream historian Martin Gilbert said that “it is extreme Zionism that is described here not the mainstream, which has always compromised.” And revisionist historian Avi Shlaim asserted that “it was not the Zionism movement that had an innate instinct but the right wing — [Bowen’s language] is not accurate enough but is a generalization.”

Richard Ingram

Richard Ingram’s April 25 column relies on a different approach. He avoids addressing the specifics of the BBC Trust’s findings, and offers “substance” that is little more than a spurious, ad hominem attack against CAMERA.

After asking “why the BBC should go out of its way to blacken the reputation of one of its best reporters” — the answer to this question, as the BBC Trust made perfectly clear, is that this reporter was neither accurate nor impartial — Ingram suggests that violations of journalistic ethics should be ignored if one of the parties that points out the violation is American or Zionist:

We have rightly asked why the BBC should go out of its way to blacken the reputation of one of its best reporters. More puzzling is why it should feel obliged to spend weeks investigating a complaint about Bowen from an American pressure group.

The organisation in question is called Camera (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America – not the UK, you note). Camera was formed in 1982 following the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. It is now a powerful organisation with a membership of over 55,000 and offices in Washington, New York and Boston as well as Israel. Camera makes no bones of the fact that it is engaged in a propaganda exercise to promote the cause of Zionism. Nothing wrong with that. However, it has little to do with the rights and wrongs of journalism.

What is shameful is that the BBC should waste time and public money investigating, and in this case upholding, the complaints of wealthy American lobbyists who seek to promote the cause of a foreign government.

Fortunately, the BBC does not subscribe to Ingram’s exclusivist/nationalist view that the BBC should not investigate ethical violations noted by Americans.

(The columnist apparently does not realize, or does not see fit to tell readers, that a similar complaint about Bowen’s piece independently filed by a British citizen living in London was likewise upheld. It is unclear whether he regards those findings, which almost mirror the BBC’s findings in response to CAMERA’s complaint, as valid.)

As if relying on ad hominem attacks in an attempt to devalue the BBC Trust decision isn’t bad enough, Ingram’s column dramatically misrepresents CAMERA. Although journalists certainly should feel pressure when they are shown to be violating journalistic ethical principles, CAMERA is not a “pressure group,” but rather a media watchdog organization. Ingram’s absurd contention that CAMERA “makes no bones” about being involved in a “propaganda exercise” is likewise a transparent and patently false attempt at argumentum ad hominem. (Learn more about CAMERA here.) Such references to “pressure” and “propaganda” are an all-too-easy recourse for reporters who don’t want external scrutiny to interfere with their power and influence, and who consider themselves above the norms of accountability that apply to virtually every other craft, business and profession.

But slurs don’t change the facts: Bowen violated the public’s trust by ignoring his obligations to report accurately and impartially.

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