The official report for the governors of the BBC on its coverage of the Palestine-Israeli conflict found predictably that there was "was little to suggest systematic or deliberate bias," but then went on to list a series of measurements by which the BBC could be said to be biased in favor of Israel.
This produced mocking guffaws in my own newsroom, where some of the BBC's greatest hits -- or perhaps misses -- remain fresh in the memory. There was the hagiographic send-off for Yassir Arafat by a BBC reporter with tears in her eyes, and that half-hour profile of Arafat in 2002 which called him a "hero" and "an icon" and concluded that the corrupt old brute was "the stuff of legends."
There was Orla Guerin's unforgettably inventive spin on the story of a Palestinian child being deployed as a suicide bomber, which most journalists saw as a sickening example of child abuse in the pursuit of terrorism. Guerin had it as "Israel's cynical manipulation of a Palestinian youngster for propaganda purposes."
BBC is waging the campaign shoulder to shoulder together with the Palestinian people.
There was the disturbing case of Fayad Abu Shamala, the BBC Arabic Service correspondent, who addressed a Hamas rally on May 6, 2001, and was recorded declaring that journalists in Gaza, apparently including the BBC, were "waging the campaign shoulder to shoulder together with the Palestinian people." Pressed for an explanation, the subsequent BBC statement said: "Fayad's remarks were made in a private capacity. His reports have always matched the best standards of balance required by the BBC."
There was the extraordinarily naive coverage of the London visit of Sheikh Abdur-Rahman al-Sudais, the predominant imam of Mecca, to open London's largest new mosque. He was described as a widely respected religious figure who works for "community cohesion," and a video on the BBC website was captioned "The BBC's Mark Easton: 'Events like today offer grounds for optimism'."
The BBC must have missed his sermon of February 1, 2004, that said "the Jews of yesterday are the evil fathers of the Jews of today, who are evil offspring, infidels... calf-worshippers, prophet-murderers, prophecy-deniers... the scum of the human race whom Allah cursed and turned into apes and pigs... These are the Jews, a continuous lineage of meanness, cunning, obstinacy, tyranny, licentiousness, evil, and corruption..."
Terms of Reference
These are isolated examples, but they stick longer in the memory because they are reinforced by a broader pattern of coverage that seems to play down that Israel is a democracy that elects Israeli Arabs to the Knesset and which does not engage in systematic terrorism and suicide bombing of civilians. So it was startling to read the report for the BBC governors finding so much bias in favor of Israelis. This was based largely on the quantitative content analysis done by outside researchers which found "significant differences across BBC news programs and services in the allocation of talk time."
The detailed survey found disparities (in favor of Israelis) in the amount of talk time given to Israelis and Palestinians, and that "Israeli fatalities generally receive greater coverage than Palestinian fatalities."
The methodology of the survey may be a complicating factor. The period analyzed went from August 2005, the time of the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and January 2005, when Ariel Sharon had his stroke and the Palestinians held their elections.
The greater use of Israeli voices in this period seems reasonable when the big stories were the domestic political implications for the settler movement of the Gaza withdrawal and of Sharon's eclipse. And given the media-wise presence of the Peace Now movement and Israel's lively democracy, much of that nominally "Israeli" talk time would have been highly critical of the Sharon Government.
Israeli victims are overwhelmingly and deliberately civilians, targeted at random.
Moreover, the terms of reference of the report that the BBC governors commissioned excluded both the BBC World Service and the international TV channel BBC World, although it did include the BBC website. This excluded a large fraction of the BBC's international coverage along with the often more detailed coverage that the World Service provides.
It is important to consider the context of the report's finding that Israeli deaths tend to get more coverage is that the Israeli victims are overwhelmingly and deliberately civilians, targeted at random. The Palestinian fatalities vary widely. Some are killed in internal feuds between Hamas and Fatah, and some are executed as "collaborators," some are terrorists caught in the act, and some are the victims of Israeli targeted killings. These tend to be the ones that result in the tragic collateral killing and wounding of civilians and children. And it can be difficult for journalists, even those with the resources and exemplary bravery and professional persistence of most BBC reporters, to establish which is which in time for a news report.
The report on which the governors will now rely to develop new guidelines for BBC coverage tends to skate over some of the professional problems that make even-handed reporting difficult in Gaza and in the West Bank. Journalists have been kidnapped and cameras stolen, and their sources are often intimidated.
By contrast, Israeli politics are easily followed in Israel's free press, where critics of the occupation and of Israeli military tactics abound and where the Israeli media does sterling work, including the kind of combative investigative reporting that is virtually unknown in the Palestinian press.
Good news: BBC reporters will be allowed to use the T-word.
There is one piece of good news. BBC reporters will henceforth be allowed to use the T-word to describe "relevant events, since it is the most accurate expression for actions which involve violence against randomly selected civilians with the intention of causing terror for ideological, including political or religious, objectives, whether perpetrated by state or non-state agencies."
But even here BBC reporters will be faced with a tricky dilemma, since the report goes on to say: "While those immediately responsible for the actions might be described as terrorists, the BBC is right to avoid so labeling organizations, except in attributed remarks."
So think of the poor hack on deadline in a flak jacket trying to remember whether to say some crazed Jihadist killer was "a terrorist from Hamas" rather than "a Hamas terrorist" while squeezing more historical background and more Palestinian talk-time into the news report. It's amazing that the coverage is as decent as it is, and that most of us in the business concede privately that, for all its flaws, the BBC still does a better job that any other news organization on Earth.
originally printed in The London Times