Complaints of BBC bias partially upheld

Watchdog: Israel coverage by Jeremy Bowen in Web article, radio broadcast partially inaccurate.

bbc 224.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
bbc 224.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
The BBC Trust, which oversees complaints to the British state broadcaster, has ruled that coverage of Israel in an article on the BBC's Web site and a radio broadcast by its Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen was partially inaccurate and that aspects of the Internet article lacked impartiality. The Trust was responding to complaints filed separately by London-based barrister Jonathan Turner and by the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA). Britain's Zionist Federation, of which Turner is a member, asserted on Wednesday that Bowen's position was now untenable. And CAMERA said that "The finding is likely to amplify concerns that BBC news coverage of the Arab-Israeli conflict is largely biased against Israel" and that it "cast doubt" on Bowen's suitability as a BBC reporter and editor. However, the Trust's ruling contains no sanction, and a BBC spokesman played down its significance. In respect to one of the findings, the spokesman said that Bowen had merely been "exercising his professional judgment on history." Bowen had no comment and referred The Jerusalem Post to the BBC press office. The Trust's Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) published its findings on Wednesday after Turner and CAMERA separately lodged complaints accusing Bowen of bias in his reporting of Israel. The Trust rejected many of the alleged examples of inaccuracy and bias, but it found Bowen had breached BBC guidelines in an article published on June 2007 on the BBC's Web site and on a BBC radio broadcast in January 2008. The article, entitled "How 1967 defined the Middle East," was found by the ESC to have breached the BBC's guidelines on impartiality. It also deemed that Bowen contravened guidelines on accuracy in a number of areas. The ESC said it was not accurate to say in the article that, in regard to settlements, Israel was "in defiance of everyone's interpretation of international law except its own," and that it was wrong of Bowen to accuse Israeli army officers of having "unfinished business" going back to 1948. "The Israeli generals, hugely self-confident, mainly sabras [native Israelis] in their late 30s and early 40s, had been training to finish the unfinished business of Israel's independence war of 1948 for most of their careers," Bowen stated. On "unfinished business," the ESC stated that "although the Middle East editor stated that he had meant it to be understood that he was referring to the capture of East Jerusalem, it would have been impossible for a reader of the article to know which 'unfinished business' had been meant" and that there had thus "been a breach of the guidelines on accuracy with regard to the use of 'clear, precise language' in this respect." The ESC also said the article wrongly referred to Zionism's "innate instinct to push out the frontier." CAMERA's complaint had charged that Bowen's article about the Six Day War and its aftermath was marred by "serious omissions, exaggerations and outright anti-Israel bias." In response to the ruling, CAMERA's Senior Research Analyst Gilead Ini said that "while ESC's willingness to openly fault unethical reporting by Bowen is important and encouraging, it is unclear that the BBC will draw appropriate conclusions from its findings and take concrete steps to combat the broadcaster's chronically biased reporting... The BBC also needs to consider the wider implications here. "Not only did the senior BBC reporter in the Middle East show bias in his reporting, but he also made it clear, while defending his piece before the ESC, that he thinks it's reasonable to report from the Palestinian perspective and ignore other mainstream narratives... There's good reason to be skeptical of Mr. Bowen's reporting, and by extension, the reporting of BBC reporters who are subordinate to him." Turner, in response to the Trust's ruling, said that the finding relating to the 1967 article was particularly significant as Bowen had written a book about the 1967 war which had been influential in his career. "Throughout the complaints process [Bowen] maintained that his article was impartial. If he cannot get this right, it is very difficult to see how he can be trusted to get anything else right in relation to Israel," Turner said. "Furthermore, it seems likely that the book was influential in his appointment as the BBC's Middle East editor and it is regularly cited by the BBC as a first line of defense when complaints are made about his coverage." In a statement, a BBC spokesman denied Turner's accusation and said that Bowen was merely exercising his professional judgment on history. "This is a single, partially upheld finding, related to one piece of output about events that took place over 40 years ago, and our Middle East editor was simply exercising his professional judgment on history," the spokesman said. "Clearly there is no consensus view of history and it is self evident that there are others who have different analysis - which of course they are entitled to." The BBC spokesman referred to an independent panel of inquiry into the BBC's coverage of Israel and the Palestinians: The Thomas Report [of April 2006] was instituted by the then BBC governors, and said of the BBC's coverage overall: "Our assessment is that, apart from individual lapses, there was little to suggest deliberate or systematic bias. On the contrary, there was evidence of a commitment to be fair, accurate and impartial. There is high quality reporting from location, some outstanding current affairs programs and the Web site provides much valuable historical and other context." As regards the broadcast on BBC radio in January 2008, the ESC found that a statement made by Bowen breached the BBC's guidelines on accuracy. Bowen had maintained that the Har Homa settlement was considered illegal by the US. In response, the BBC said: "The committee accepted that Bowen was stating his professional judgment, but in this instance, he should have either sourced his comment, or stated that it was what officials felt privately but couldn't say. This has absolutely nothing to do with bias, and we of course note the findings. We would also point out that the ESC accepted that he had been informed that that was the American view by an authoritative source." Turner also commented on the length of time taken by the BBC to address the complaints. "The complaint about the Six Day War article was first made by me in June 2007, and about the Har Homa report in January 2008. Even now the BBC Trust has not directed any remedial action, other than the internal circulation of the decision and its publication in an obscure corner of its Web site," he said. "Bowen's article has been on the BBC Web site for all this time, and was advertised for months by a prominent button on the main Middle East News Page." Turner claimed that Bowen's reporting had an impact on the recent rise of anti-Semitic incidents in the UK. "These delays have allowed Mr. Bowen and his colleagues to continue their biased coverage of Israel, which I believe has been a significant factor in the recent serious rise in anti-Semitic attacks in the UK." This claim was also taken up by British journalist and author Chas Newkey-Burden, who said: "It is extraordinary to think that the BBC entrusts a man such as Bowen with coverage of such a monumentally important issue. As we saw during Operation Cast Lead, anti-Israel distortion contributes to the atmosphere of hate that leads to violence against Jews on the streets of Britain." The Zionist Federation of the UK said that Bowen's position as Middle East editor of a public service broadcaster "is untenable in the light of the ESC's findings." In a statement, the ZF said: "The ZF calls on the government to bring the BBC under the full regulation of OFCOM, like all other broadcasting media. The ZF calls on the Parliamentary Culture, Media and Sport Committee to hold the BBC to account in this matter and in others relating to its coverage of the Middle East, for example its continuing refusal to publish the Balen Report despite a recent Law Lords decision. The ZF said also that the ESC needed to examine whether the BBC's complaints procedure was fair and met contemporary standards in public sector governance.