“I believe strongly that the BBC has the best news organisation in the world,” said the broadcaster’s Director General Tony Hall, at the launch of its annual report last week. “Right across the Middle East,” he went on, “our coverage has been absolutely first rate.”
This claim to be the world’s best is something of a formality at these events and a boast I’ve heard many times from BBC chiefs over the years. It’s not without merit, given the organisation’s history and the extraordinary scope of its journalism even in these financially straitened times. But this hard-won reputation is currently being questioned with rare animosity and there are worrying connotations.
Tony Hall speaks with the authority of a former BBC head of news but his comments came after protests outside BBC buildings across the country – in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle – over coverage of the conflict in Gaza. This week demonstrators camped in the garden of BBC Bristol and draped a 56-ft banner across the façade of the building saying: “BBC Occupied by Friends of Gaza”. The BBC is accused of pro-Israel bias. “British Bullshit Corporation” was the message on a banner at another rally at BBC Belfast this week.
I reject the idea that BBC News is prejudiced in the way that’s being suggested. I remember very clearly the day in 2009 the BBC Trust upheld a complaint against the Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen for supposed anti-Israel bias. There was anger in the office and my colleague Robert Fisk memorably criticised the ruling as “pusillanimous, cowardly, outrageous, factually wrong and ethically dishonest”.
The same Jeremy Bowen and his excellent colleague Lyse Doucet have been at the forefront of the BBC’s dispatches from Gaza this month.
It goes without saying that pro-Israel groups are bemused by the notion that the BBC is doing their bidding.
Significantly, journalists from other media with experience of working in the Middle East have expressed surprise to me this week about the vitriol directed at the BBC’s reporting.
In Broadcasting House, the criticisms are viewed with frustration. “Unless you are sticking an Aston [caption] on an Israeli and call him a war criminal, they are not satisfied,” one BBC figure told me.
But it’s clear the anger with the British media is not uniform. Jon Snow went to Gaza to host Channel 4 News last week and was revered on social websites for his brave reports from the frontline. While C4 News – like The Independent – received written complaints overwhelmingly for supposed pro-Palestinian sympathies, the BBC finds itself denounced very publicly as pro-Zionist.
Historically, BBC News chiefs have had to resist the sophisticated propaganda operations on both sides of this quarrel. Within the UK, the BBC’s journalism has long been subjected to criticism by right-wing newspapers for its supposed liberal metropolitan agenda. The protests over Gaza are largely being organised by those on the British political left.
It has always been the fallback position of the BBC that when it receives complaints from opposite sides of a contentious issue, it’s an indication that a neutral course is being followed. This explanation could be too convenient. It can’t be healthy for the BBC to be the subject of such animosity from many sides – especially at a time when it’s trying to persuade the public of its right to future funding.
I don’t accept that the BBC has an inherent pro-Israel stance and think the suggestion is deeply insulting to the correspondents, cameramen and producers working on the ground in Gaza and Israel to bring us news.
But the fact is that, in some ways, this is a harder story for the BBC to report than other large media organisations. The respective lobby groups run the BBC Trust ragged. Aside from the Bowen ruling, another fine BBC reporter, Wyre Davies, was censured by the Trust for an inaccuracy (slightly overstating Palestinian civilian casualties) in one of 24 tweets he wrote during one day of conflict in Gaza in 2012. Such findings are exploited to undermine the credibility of excellent journalists, who must feel they are walking on eggshells.
As it approaches Charter Renewal, the BBC is fearful of making errors of the kind that brought down its last Director General. There are some in the organisation who compare the current climate to the caution that existed in the wake of Lord Hutton’s inquiry report of 2004 after the David Kelly affair.
No media organisation is under pressure to balance the story like the BBC. While newspapers can run passionate opinion pieces, the corporation is conscious of the requirement to be rigidly impartial.
But less scrutinised broadcasters realise that the latest Gaza tragedy is – particularly for television news – essentially a straightforward story of pictures of the victims and their ravaged landscape. For the most part, this means images showing the tragedy of Palestinian children (at the time of writing, Operation Protective Edge has resulted in more than 1,060 Palestinian deaths and 43 members of the Israeli Defence Force).
Sometimes a story isn’t evenly balanced. As the BBC strives for impartiality in putting Mark Regev and other Israeli figures on air, it risks giving a false impression. No matter that BBC journalists such as Emily Maitlis have given Regev a hard time. BBC figures admit it’s more difficult to find Palestinian spokespeople and the result is that pro-Palestinian activists cry foul.
The corporation was recently rapped by the Trust for giving too much of a platform to climate-change deniers in a misguided attempt to be even-handed.
In Gaza, the BBC’s attempt to avoid controversy through playing it by the book has resulted in its newsrooms coming under siege. The protests might not be vast but their outrage is amplified by social media, which is never slow to embrace a conspiracy theory. And when it comes to the satisfaction ratings that the BBC will depend on as it lobbies for its licence fee settlement in the months ahead, the organisation could be significantly damaged.
There’s no room for complacency.