The BBC – a touch on the tiller

For the first time in some thirty years the BBC is clearly trying to ensure that an Israeli point of view is included in reports of the conflict.

BBC 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
BBC 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
Credit where credit is due. BBC newscasts over recent weeks have differed distinctly in tone, content and balance from how the Gaza conflicts of 2008-9 and 2012 were covered.  Not that dedicated subscribers to the monitoring website are likely to have noticed the change, for that website remains as assiduous as ever in reporting every deviation from its interpretation of what is “accurate and impartial” – the standard by which it measures BBC news reports.  It is, of course, no bad thing that the BBC’s output is subject to intense scrutiny, though BBCwatch does, perhaps, tend towards overkill.
The BBC is one of the largest and most influential broadcasting organizations in the world.  As well as serving the whole of the United Kingdom, it enjoys a massive global reach, transmitting news and current events via TV and radio in over 30 languages to audiences measured in hundreds of millions.
Established in 1922 as the British Broadcasting Company, the nascent organization was stamped from the start by the high moral tone set by its first Director General, John Reith. From its earliest days Reith successfully established and maintained the independence of the BBC from political interference, and by 1939, when the UK went to war with Germany, the BBC’s reputation for accuracy, objectivity and impartiality was firmly established.
Throughout World War II the BBC broadcast to Nazi-occupied Europe, and people all over the continent literally risked their lives to listen. The wartime reputation that the BBC acquired of honesty, objectivity, and lack of bias is the foundation on which today’s BBC stands, however much the structure may have wobbled on its footings in the recent past.  In defining the principles which underlie its editorial guidelines, the BBC says:
“Trust is the foundation of the BBC: we are independent, impartial and honest.  We are committed to achieving the highest standards of due accuracy and impartiality …”
There’s an old English saying: “Fine words butter no parsnips”. In other words, it’s not what you say that counts, but what you do.  And there is no doubt that, at some point during the 1960s-1970s, something began to go very wrong within the BBC.  Perhaps reflecting a general shift to the left among the opinion-forming élite in the UK, and perhaps not at all a deliberate policy, the BBC’s editorial standards came to be dominated by what became known as “political correctness” – an unspoken consensus of ultra left-leaning views.  Mark Thompson, then-Director General of the BBC, admitted in 2010 "In the BBC I joined 30 years ago there was, in much of current affairs, in terms of people's personal politics, which were quite vocal, a massive bias to the left. The organization did struggle then with impartiality."
As regards the BBC’s coverage of the Middle East in general, and Israel in particular, the Six-Day War in 1967 marked a turning point.  Until then, Israel had been seen as the brave little nation fighting off enemies that were intent on its destruction.  With Israel conclusively victorious, UK public opinion shifted in favor of the Palestinians – the party now perceived as the “underdogs.” Reflecting this, the BBC’s editorial stance also shifted significantly, to the point where , asserting: “The BBC’s coverage of the Middle East is infected by an apparent widespread antipathy toward Israel,” undertook six well-documented studies between 2001 and 2006 detailing the BBC’s systematic bias against Israel.
Criticism of the BBC's Middle East coverage from supporters of both Israel and Palestine led the BBC to commission an investigation and report from a senior broadcast journalist Malcolm Balen. Completed in 2004, the Balen Report has never been published, despite repeated requests to the BBC under the UK Freedom of Information Act.  The House of Lords, the UK’s supreme court, and the Information Commissioner have both held that the report falls outside the Freedom of Information Act. The suspicion by many right-wing critics is that the conclusions of editorial bias against Israel are too damaging to be made public.
Throughout the three weeks of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, the broadcast media, with the BBC in the vanguard, was out in force, capturing the horrors of war for the world’s television sets. Soon charges were being levelled against the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) by political and media figures of “disproportionate” military activity.  It was not long before they turned into accusations of war crimes. Israel’s case, as far as BBC news reports and comments were concerned, largely went by default.
During the following years a series of incidents appeared to highlight how far the BBC had fallen below its own editorial standards. During one BBC program in October 2004, a BBC journalist , Barbara Plett, described herself crying when she saw a frail Yasser Arafat being evacuated to France for medical treatment.  A complaint of bias against Plett was rejected by the BBC, but a year later the program complaints committee of the BBC governors ruled that Plett’s comments “breached the requirements of due impartiality”, and the then BBC director of news apologized for what she described as "an editorial misjudgment".
In April 2009 the Editorial Standards Committee of the BBC Trust published a report about complaints brought against Jeremy Bowen, the BBC’s Middle East Editor, including 24 allegations of inaccuracy or impartiality. Three were fully or partially upheld, though the report did not accuse Bowen of bias.
During Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 the BBC seemed to make an effort to present a more balanced view of the conflict.  Their reports provided something of Israel’s perspective, although the general impression left on the TV and radio audience was of a triumphant Hamas bestriding the world’s stage as the upholder of the “armed struggle” against Israel and, as a principal partner in negotiating Egypt’s peace plan, winning valuable concessions in the cease-fire.
BBC newscasts during Operation Protective Edge have undoubtedly shown a change of direction – small, perhaps, but significant. For the first time in some thirty years the BBC is clearly trying to ensure that an Israeli point of view is included in reports of the conflict.  Its newscasters have adopted a sharper edge in their questioning of Palestinian spokesmen, often intervening during interviews to bring the speaker back to the point (“If you stop interrupting me,” said Marwan Barghouti during a BBC interview on July 30, “I may be able to answer you”).  They have ensured that an experienced journalist – in this case Bethany Bell – is located within Israel to balance the narrative provided by Palestinian spokesmen.  On a recent domestic radio program the former Commander of British Forces in Afghanistan, Colonel Richard Kemp, drew a clear distinction between the legitimacy of IDF actions and the illegitimacy of Hamas.  Other examples abound.
Perhaps, after all this time, the BBC is returning to the core values that once made it the most trusted broadcasting organization in the world.
The writer is the author of  One Year in the History of Israel and Palestine (2011) and writes the blog “A Mid-East Journal” (