Jewish leaders and anti-bias campaigners have applauded an independent panel's findings that have validated complaints that BBC coverage of the Middle East is flawed and unbalanced.
"The BBC should emerge from this report both chastened and a little relieved," Trevor Asserson, the founder of BBCWatch, an organization that documents alleged BBC bias in its coverage of Israel, told The Jerusalem Post
. The BBC recognizes there are problems with its coverage and has now shown "a serious desire to put its house in order," he said.
According to the 38-page report prepared by the panel, the BBC's Middle East reporting did "not consistently constitute a full and fair account of the conflict but rather, in important respects, presents an incomplete and in that sense misleading picture."
While no evidence of "systematic or deliberate bias" was found, "gaps in coverage, analysis, context and perspective" have led to a failure to "maintain consistently the BBC's own established editorial standards" of impartial reporting, the panel found.
Asserson, who immigrated to Israel last year, said that some aspects of the report would prompt "the nitpicking media watchers to say we won and you lost." But this was "missing the point," he said, as "the real essence of the report is that they have hit the BBC quite hard."
"The report was not trying to analyze whether or not the Israelis or Palestinians are more to be vilified or more to be praised. It was asking whether the BBC was doing a good job and it clearly said it was not," Asserson said.
"It basically said, 'You the BBC have got problems... You've got no management structure we can see at all,'" he told the Post
. "That's a very severe criticism" and the source from which the broadcaster's "mistakes flow," Asserson said.
Asserson said the BBC has "done much internally to improve what was a lamentably poor coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," coverage that began to go "very badly wrong at the start of the intifada." The coverage reached a low point "when Israel began to treat the BBC as an unfriendly organization," he said.
On October 30, 2004 the BBC's West Bank correspondent, Barbara Plett, filed a report on the death of Yasser Arafat writing, "Yet when the helicopter carrying the frail old man rose above his ruined compound, I started to cry... without warning." Plett went on to laud Arafat, saying he was no coward and that "throughout his years of revolution, peace and uprising, the Palestinian leader has been an enduring national symbol."
In response to increasing complaints, the BBC appointed a Middle East ombudsman, Malcolm Balen, to review its work and submit recommendations for reform, which the independent panel said had been implemented over the past few years.
"Only after it had taken these steps did the BBC appoint the impartial panel, with strict instructions for it only to consider the last six months of broadcasts," Asserson said. "What the BBC has done is [to do] everything it can to solve the problem and then say 'Now we have a cleaned up, better BBC, now you can look at us and judge us,'" he said.
It was this "cleaned up" BBC that was castigated by the panel for not "having methods in place for doing their job properly and being impartial" and not having a "complaints procedure that works," Asserson said.
Jon Benjamin, chief executive officer for the Board of Deputies of British Jews, told the Post
the board was "pleased" the panel had accepted its testimony that the BBC's reporting lacked "context and historical background" and "has in the past been incomplete and therefore misleading." He welcomed the panel's condemnation of the BBC's language, as well as the report's "use of the word terrorism" to describe "violent acts targeting civilians with the intention to cause terror for party political purposes."
Benjamin questioned, however, the methodology used to prepare portions of the report that suggested pro-Israel bias on the part of the BBC. "Many observers of BBC coverage will be surprised at the report's finding that the situation of the Palestinians is not adequately explained," he said, as "almost without exception, Palestinians are shown as suffering from 'the occupation.'" "Whilst this is perhaps a reflection of the situation for many, what is not shown is the fact that others live more affluently due to corruption and abuse of power," he said.
Dr. Irene Lancaster of the Centre for Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester also questioned the study's assumption that the fact that the BBC broadcast more interviews with Jews and Israelis than with Palestinians demonstrated a pro-Israel leaning.
The BBC regularly reports the opinions of anti-Israeli Jews, Dr Lancaster said, which under the report's methodology would count as a pro-Israel broadcast.
The "prestigious Reith Lectures, currently running on [BBC] Radio 4 is a typical example of the BBC using Jews, both running the show and featuring Jews, in this case Daniel Barenboim, the conductor, in order to demonize Israel and thus the Jewish people by ridiculously adulating Muslim culture, in this case that of the Palestinians," she said.
The chairman of the BBC's Board of Governors, Michael Grade, said BBC management would "consider the panel's recommendations and respond to us at our June board meeting."
Much of its coverage of Israel and the Middle East remains biased and objectionable, according to Jewish leaders.
A story by the broadcaster's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, on the Palestinian Authority's funding crisis stated, "Without foreign donations the PA cannot do the most basic things, like pay its staff, let alone address the desperate economic and social problems faced in the territories, many of which have been caused by nearly 40 years of military occupation by Israel." The BBC mentioned no other cause for the PA's economic and social problems other than military occupation by Israel.