‘Complaints From Both Sides’ Is No Rationalization for Lousy BBC Coverage

Mark_thompson“We get complaints from supporters of both sides of the story, so we must be doing something right.”

I’ve heard journalists make that claim quite a few times, in regard to the Mideast conflict, and about other issues as well.

That argument was most recently advanced by the BBC’s Director General, Mark Thompson. See how he handled this question from Bob Garfield, of the NPR’s show, On the Media:

BOB GARFIELD: I must say there have been times that I’ve listened to the Beeb, and I’ve gone, well that sounds almost like this presenter is an apologist for the Palestinian point of view. And as a newsman, my eyebrows have gone up.


I’m not a Zionist but if I’m thinkin’ that, I imagine that there’s hard core Zionists who are thinking that, and much worse. How do you monitor your coverage on an ongoing basis, to make sure that you’re not infuriating large swats of your audience in coverage in the Middle East?


MARK THOMPSON: The BBC’s minutely, minutely observed by all the players in that conflict, as we are in the conflict in Kashmir, in Sri Lanka and three or four other particularly vituperative conflicts around the world.


But the answer is that we do everything we can to monitor exactly how we cover these stories, the language we use, the balance we use, recognizing that these are conflicts where attitudes are so polarized that many on either side, let’s say, of the Israel-Palestine conflict, themselves have a very particular view about what fairness sounds like.


But this is one of a handful of the topics where we get the most numbers of complaints, though I want to be clear, we get very, very large numbers of complaints from both sides.



Bbc_logoI have four thoughts on this:

1. Thompson is essentially admitting that the Beeb’s Mideast coverage stinks in totality. I won’t argue that point.

2. Thompson brushes off critics by implying that the lousiness is equal. However, it would take an in-depth study to confirm that. Fortunately, such a study exists; it’s called the Balen Report, but the Beeb has spent more than £270,000 of taxpayer money covering it up.

3. I have a hard time believing that the number of complaints from supporters of both the Israelis and the Palestinians are as equal as Thompson suggests. But even if they are, you have to factor in the pool of potential complainants.

Let’s say — and I’m just making up this figure — 90 percent of the Beeb’s audience favors the Palestinians. The complaints coming from Palestinian supporters would have to be 10 times the number of complaints coming from the pro-Israel crowd before implying that both sides’ complaints somehow “balance each other out.”

4. Making sense of the BBC complaints site was so maddening, I wrote this Idiot’s Guide To Navigating BBC Complaints. It’s Backspin’s most widely-read post since we started tracking the stats. And don’t get me started on the Beeb’s lack of responsiveness to those complaints.

So I’m not sold that reader complaints really matter, even as Thompson uses them to tell us the playing field is level. Yeah, right.