Behind the Lines: Bias vs balance at the BBC

Did the members of panel set up by the BBC's board of governors spend six months fudging and dodging?

bbc logo 88 (photo credit: )
bbc logo 88
(photo credit: )
I'm about to walk into a minefield and attempt to write a coherent and balanced column about the official report that came out this week on the BBC's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The sensitivity of this issue is evident, not only from the deluge of comments, mostly mocking, on various Internet talkback forums following publication, but also due to the virtually opposite ways in which this report can be read. Take, for example, the headlines on two Web sites a short while after the report was released. The Guardian's Web site heralded the report with the headline "BBC cleared of bias in Israeli coverage," while the most popular Israeli news-site, Ynet, went with "The BBC's reports aren't balanced." Whom to believe? If you read the report which is available on the Internet (, you'll find ample evidence to support either headline. Which of course leads to the question, did the five honorable members of the special panel set up by the BBC's board of governors spend six months and many thousands of British tax-payers' pounds fudging and dodging? Once again, if you read the report, it's clear they went about their task extremely seriously, took into account the entire range of accusations and counter-accusations that have raged for years around the corporation's treatment of Israel and didn't shy away from criticism and blunt conclusions, the most striking of which was that "the BBC should get the language right" and call terrorism by it's name instead of using euphemisms. The problem with the panel and its report is that from the start, the task was impossible and the report, next to useless. The BBC is the oldest and one of the world's largest broadcasting and news-gathering organizations, and arguably one of the most influential. Hundreds of reporters have been based in the region over the years or been sent on special-assignments from Britain. Hundreds more editors have determined the scope and tone of the coverage at headquarters in London. Their output has been the subject of numerous critical articles and reports over the years, usually reflecting the personal views of their authors. The Israeli government has tried various tactics on the corporation, from trying to cozy up to the Beeb to using the ultimate sanction of totally ignoring its reporters and even forbidding some of them entry to the country. None of these reports or actions seemed to have any influence or effect. The BBC is too large, too independent and too powerful, and no serious study should even assume to address the entire range of the corporation's Middle East coverage. The fact that the current report was initiated by the board of governors should mean that this time the BBC's employees will sit up and take notice. But aside from the problematic relationship between the governors and the corporation, after reading the panel's recommendations, it's clear they are too broad and general to have any real impact. As an example I cite the recommendation that the BBC "provide more consistently a full and fair account, and to fill in the gaps, most obviously in respect of context and history." What does this mean? That every report on the latest "targeted killing" in Gaza should include a full account of the terrorist outrages against Israelis? And how far should it go back? To the beginning of the intifada? (And which intifada?) To 1967? Or 1948? Perhaps they should also touch upon the Arab revolt of 1936 for good measure. Another recommendation is that BBC TV "not be dazzled by striking and available pictures," but "look for the important stories" instead. This a useful rule for any TV channel, but the only problem is that dazzling pictures is what TV news is all about. The recommendation "to be more proactive in explaining the complexities of the conflict" is also a good guideline, applicable to any news organization, anywhere in the world, at all times. But totally useless in a sound-bite dominated era. To their credit, the panel realized the difficulty in applying this recommendation and proposed that it be carried out mainly by linking broadcast programs to background information available on the Internet. But that might cause even greater problems when deciding whom to link to - the Israeli Government Press Office or the Hamas Web site? Of course, they could just link to the BBC's own archive material, but wouldn't it suffer from the same problems already addressed by the report? THE FUNDAMENTAL problem of the report is that as much as the coverage is decided by corporation policy, it's ultimately defined by the reporters out in the field and their immediate editors back in London. They're human beings with their own viewpoints, and demanding that they cancel their personal beliefs and views is unrealistic. The basic outlook of foreign reporters covering Israel - whether as a result of the political views they held before coming here or their personal prejudiced take on what they've seen - is on the whole sympathetic towards the Palestinians and critical of Israeli policies. That's a fact of life and we're never going to have a Zionist foreign press corps. But I don't think that's the BBC's main problem. The BBC, like many other British news organizations, is suffering from a denial complex of the fact that the West, including Israel and Britain, is in the midst of a bitter war against radical Islam, and that this not just a small group of religious crackpots with no connection to the peace-loving Muslim society. I realized this when I was in Britain during the bombings on the London Underground 10 months ago. Listening to the first BBC radio reports on the attack, the moment it was clear there had been several blasts in different places there was no question that this was an act of terror. But what was crystal clear to me was not at all certain to the newsreaders. They proceeded from just "explosions" to "what could be a terrorist attack" and then "what seems to be a terrorist attack." Only three hours after the blast, when Tony Blair announced it had been the work of terrorists, would the BBC admit "now it's officially confirmed." One didn't need more than sub-average intelligence to realize that what looked like a terror bombing and sounded like a terror bombing could not be just three simultaneous power surges. As the day wore on, the faceless men in the studio repeated again and again in disbelief, "but there was no warning," in an anachronistic throwback to the good old days of the IRA. How hard was it to understand that the Republican terror offensive, with all its inherent cruelty, was a gentleman's war next to what is happening around the world and now in Britain? And that was nothing next to the sheer astonishment at the possibility that a suicide bomber might have been the perpetrator of the bus bombing. "For the first time in Britain" was the recurring mantra. What did they think? That London was somehow immune to the ultimate weapon used already on New York, Washington, Islamabad, Nairobi, Baghdad, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv? What had the BBC been reporting from around the world for the last decade? Are the British special somehow, or did they think that the Islamists somehow owed them a favor? The denial mindset of the BBC and other news organizations in the West is a result of decades-long political and cultural influences, and if the wave of terror attacks over the last five years hasn't changed that, it's hard to believe that anything can. In last week's Spectator, columnist Rod Liddle, himself a former BBC senior editor, argued that the corporation's employees should be allowed to express their personal views on air. "It is truly ludicrous" he wrote, "that we should be expected to believe that our television and radio journalists, even those belonging to the state broadcaster, are devoid of personal political opinion and are mere ciphers for a glistening stream of untrammelled, objective, truthful inquiry." His conclusion: let the BBC's journalists be open with their views and allow the public to judge whether it wants to trust their reports, knowing what the authors really think. This will also have the result of forcing the corporation's directors to ensure that a wide cross-section of views is represented among their broadcasters. But before the BBC adopts this policy of openness, its viewers and listeners who are interested in information on Israel and its wars just have to take this into account: The BBC's journalists are human beings with their own set of ideals and beliefs and no amount of reports, government sanctions and complaints by various media-watchdog organizations are going to change that. They might gain concessions on a specific point of terminology, occasionally extract an apology or even get a problematic reporter moved off the beat, but the general tone of the coverage will always reflect the beliefs and prejudices of the majority of journalists within the organization. Balance, nuance and choice of materials will never be an exact science and no amount of recommendations and guidelines can change that, especially not without seriously curtailing editorial freedom and muzzling journalists. Every viewer is entitled to his own totally prejudiced view that the BBC is either the most professional news network in the world with unparalleled integrity or just a bunch of anti-Israel and anti-Semitic British snobs. That's your call and it's up to the corporation to prove or disprove it.