The BBC Report

May 1, 2002 12:00 by

The BBC Report was prepared by Trevor Asserson, a lawyer based in London who is global head of litigation for an international law firm. He can be reached at trevor@asserson.co.uk.

Research assistant for the BBC Report was Elisheva Mironi, an Israeli lawyer who recently obtained a Masters Degree in Human Rights Law including Media Law at University College London.

  1. PURPOSE OF THIS STUDY
  2. METHODOLOGY
  3. DUTIES OF THE BBC
  4. TABLE OF FINDINGS
  5. LEGAL EFFECT OF BREACH OF DUTIES BY BBC
  6. USE OF LANGUAGE:
  7. UNBALANCED REPORTING
  8. INAPPROPRIATE SELECTION OF MATERIAL
  9. CONTEXT
  10. DISTORTION AND OMISSION OF FACTS
  11. CONCLUSIONSCHEDULE I: Broadcasts CoveredSCHEDULE II: BBC Guidelines

 

 

Summary

 

This study seeks to provide a thorough analysis of BBC coverage of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, and to assess the BBC’s adherence to its own Guidelines, in particular with respect to its obligations of impartiality and accuracy.

As far as possible we have sought to approach the material in an objective manner. We have selected material in a consistent non-random fashion, and have likewise analyzed a variety of ‘control’ sources in a similarly non-random fashion.

We have found that the BBC preserves a superficial impartiality by allotting broadly similar time to supporters of each side to the conflict. However against most other criteria we have found the BBC to fall consistently short of its aim of impartial and accurate reporting.

Breaches are at times subtle, and such as might pass unnoticed by a casual observer. Some breaches are perhaps minor, and would not be worthy of note in isolation. Taken together, however, we believe that even these subtler or more minor breaches reveal a clear and significant trend of bias.

Some of the breaches are in our view quite glaring. At times, by a mere selection or omission of facts, the BBC provides a report which portrays the very opposite of the truth. Frequently the BBC report is misleading. At times it appears to invent material to suit its own bias.

Whilst some errors of judgement will inevitably occur, we detected a consistent trend which demands an explanation beyond mere error. All of the many breaches of the Guidelines which we have highlighted in this report appear to indicate a marked and consistent pro-Palestinian bias within the BBC.

This report contains the independent views of the author.

 

1) Purpose of this Study

 

This study analyzes BBC coverage of the struggle between Palestinians and Israel, which for the purposes of this report we refer to as “the Middle East.” We have analyzed BBC Middle East coverage against criteria of impartiality set out in the BBC’s own Producers Guidelines (“The Guidelines”).

Insofar as our findings indicate shortcomings, we hope that this study can form a basis for any relevant action to persuade the BBC to correct such shortcomings.

 

2) Methodology

 

We have recorded the bulk of BBC news output on TV, Radio and Website for the 7-week period 12 November 2001 – 30 December 2001. Over the same period we have also recorded reports from a variety of other sources to act as a control. (See Schedule I for details of all sources used.) All programs covered were recorded consistently to ensure impartiality in the selection of material.

All Middle East coverage has been transcribed, and then analyzed to see whether it complies with the BBC Guidelines. Comparison with control sources was carried out to ensure an impartial analysis.

The period covered was selected at random and in advance. All relevant material was included in the study. The material covered is thus randomly, consistently and fairly selected. With minor – and clearly noted – exceptions, we have only used material covered by the period of the study.

 

3 Duties of the BBC

 

The BBC was created by a Royal Charter in 1926. Pursuant to the Charter, a Licence Agreement with the Secretary of State for National Heritage was entered into in 1995 (“the Agreement”). The Agreement forms the basis for BBC activities. [Emphasis added below]

S. 3.2(c) of the Agreement provides that the BBC shall:

“contain comprehensive, authoritative and impartial coverage of news and current affairs in the United Kingdom and throughout the world…”

S. 5.1 (c) of the Agreement provides that the BBC shall do all it can to secure that all programs:

“…treat controversial subjects with due accuracy and impartiality… in the Corporation’s news services…and do not contain any material expressing the opinion of the Corporation…”

Pursuant to the Agreement, the BBC has published Producers Guidelines (“The Guidelines”). Chapter 2 of the Guidelines provides that:

Due impartiality lies at the heart of the BBC. All BBC programs and services should be open minded, fair and show a respect for truth… The BBC applies due impartiality to all its broadcasting and services, both to domestic and international audiences.”

The BBC has also published specific guidelines relating to all BBC material on the Internet, which states that such material must conform to the Guidelines. (see Schedule II)

Extracts from the Guidelines are attached at Schedule III. Although a discursive document, we believe that the Guidelines identify a number of independent, if at times overlapping, obligations. We consider that the BBC requires compliance with each of those obligations to ensure fulfilment of its legal obligation to report on news events in an impartial manner. Accordingly we analyze BBC output against each of these individual obligations.

We consider that the overriding duty is to broadcast in an impartial manner. The other obligations are the constituent elements which must be adhered to to achieve impartiality. Thus when we list each of the individual obligations we have not included “impartiality.” The overriding obligation cannot be a subset of itself.

For the purposes of this study we identify the following independent obligations, each of which can be found in Chapter 2 of the Guidelines.

  1. fairness
  2. respect for truth
  3. due accuracy
  4. attachment to fundamental democratic principles
  5. not broadcasting own opinions on current affairs or matters of public policy
  6. ensure that opposing views are not misrepresented
  7. news programs should be dispassionate, wide ranging and well informed
  8. must take account of events as well as arguments
  9. should offer viewers and listeners an informed account of issues, enabling them to form their own views
  10. audience should not be able to gauge reporter’s personal views
  11. research must be thorough, wherever possible- information should be gathered first hand by being there or by talking to those who were
  12. reluctant to rely only on one source
  13. if controversial issue – relevant opinions as well as facts may need to be considered
  14. if legally con
    tentious issue – its accuracy must be capable of withstanding scrutiny in a court of law
  15. use language fairly
  16. not use language inadvertently so as to suggest value judgements, commitment or lack of objectivity

 

 

4) Table of Findings

 

We attach at Schedule II a table setting out a summary of specific instances where we consider that the BBC to be in breach of the Guidelines. That table is intended as a reference guide to specific programs, and to specific breaches of the code. The majority of this report constitutes an analysis of trends deduced from analysis of the incidents covered in the table at Schedule II.

 

5) Legal Effect of Breach of Duties by BBC

 

We consider that the publication of the Guidelines, and the relevant sections within the Charter and the Licence together create a legitimate expectation that the BBC will comply with the standards of accuracy and impartiality which are set for and by it. Thus a breach of those obligations can give rise to an actionable event.

This report is not intended to suggest remedies for breaches. It is to be hoped that the BBC would remedy any breaches of its own volition. However if it does not, we consider that the courts can oblige it to do so.

 

6) Use of Language:

 

The BBC frequently shows partiality in its choice of language, in breach of the Guidelines. Examples include the following

 

A) ‘terrorism’

 

There are a number of international treaties dealing with acts that are recognized as terrorism. There is no standard definition of terrorism. The U.S. Department of State has defined ‘terrorism’ as:

“premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents, usually intended to influence an audience.” (‘Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000′ – www.state.gov/s/ct/rls/rpt)

The U.S. Department of State and the UK government classify Hamas and Islamic Jihad as terrorist organizations.’

Even Palestinians have used the term ‘terror’ to describe attacks on Israeli civilians. For example, speaking on ‘Newshour’ on the BBC World Service on 4 December 2001, Jibril Rajoub, head of the Palestinian Authority Security Service, refers to the attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa as ‘terror attacks.’ In an interview on ‘Newsnight’ on December 4, Nabil Abourdeneh, advisor to Yasser Arafat, refers to Palestinian militants as ‘terrorist groups.’

The BBC refuses to label the Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups as ‘terrorists’, instead using the terms ‘militants’, ‘hard liners’ or ‘radical.’ The BBC usually refers to Bombings of Israeli civilians as ‘attacks’ or ‘suicide bombings.’ One example out of many: BBC website, 2 December 2001: “A series of attacks by suspected Palestinian militants have killed at least 26 Israelis…The militant group Hamas, on its website, claimed responsibility for the Jerusalem and Haifa attacks.”

When suicide bombers killed 26 Israeli civilians in attacks on Jerusalem and Haifa (December 1-2, 2001), the word ‘terror’ was used by the BBC only when describing Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Palestinian targets: BBC1 news, 4 December 22:00: “Terror overhead in Gaza today and panic below…. Israel is pounding Gaza for a second day…”

Iain Duncan Smith recently stated that:

“…such misappropriation is absurd when even Palestinian moderates in Jerusalem describe the suicide bombers as terrorists.”

We consider it implausible that the deliberate bombing of a bus full of civilians or of a pedestrian street full of teenagers does not fall within any meaningful definition of “terrorism.”

We consider that it is rarely appropriate to use ‘terror’ to describe acts taken by a government to protect its citizens against a real threat of violence, and that the acts taken by Israel on 4 December 2001 was not such an occasion.

The BBC’s refusal to attribute the words ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’ appropriately constitutes a breach of the following principles:

  1. fairness
  2. attachment to fundamental democratic principles
  3. audience should not be able to gauge reporter’s personal views
  4. use language fairly
  5. not use language inadvertently so as to suggest value judgements, commitment or lack of objectivity

 

 

B) ‘Occupied Palestinian Land’

 

The BBC frequently refers to territories occupied by Israel in 1967 as ‘occupied Palestinian land’ or ‘occupied Palestinian territories.’ For example: BBC News24, 25 November 2001: “The 26 year-old was part of an Israeli unit guarding a Jewish settlement, built on occupied Palestinian land in the Gaza Strip.” This suggests that an autonomous sovereign Palestinian territory was conquered and remains occupied by Israel. The land generally being referred to is that also referred to as the West Bank and Gaza (i.e. this does not include the Golan.)

In 1948, the West Bank was conquered by Jordan and Gaza by Egypt. They were conquered by Israel during the 1967 war in what was widely accepted as a defensive action. Jordan unilaterally abandoned its claim to The West Bank in 1988, which claim in any event had only ever been recognized by two states. Egypt never claimed sovereignty over Gaza. Since then, excepting Jerusalem, no state has claimed sovereignty over the area, although obviously Palestinians aspire to sovereignty.

In 1993 The Oslo Accords, signed by the Palestinians and the Israelis, provided for the creation of a “Palestinian Interim Self-Government Authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.” There are indications that the present Intifada has inhibited negotiations towards the creation of that Palestinian controlled territory. The West Bank and Gaza have never belonged to an autonomous sovereign Palestinian entity.

By referring to the West Bank and Gaza as ‘occupied Palestinian land/ territories’ the BBC is in breach of the following principles:

  1. fairness
  2. respect for truth
  3. due accuracy
  4. ensure that opposing views are not misrepresented
  5. if controversial issue – relevant opinions as well as facts may need to be considered
  6. if legally contentious issue – its accuracy must be capable of withstanding scrutiny in a court of law
  7. use language fairly
  8. not use language inadvertently so as to suggest value judgements, commitment or lack of objectivity

 

 

C) ‘Presidential’ Arafat

 

The BBC frequently uses the adjective “Presidential” in connection with Chairman Arafat and will occasionally refer to him as “President.” ‘The World Tonight’, Radio 4, 13th December: “The president’s house itself is intact and the area where he receives guests is still standing…” ‘Newshour’, World Service, 12 December 2001: “We have had 5 bombs dropped from F16s into the presidential compound of Yasser Arafat.”

Arafat’s correct title is “Chairman” or to adopt the wording of the Oslo Accords “Ra’ees.” It has always been an important aspect of the Oslo Accords that the characteristics of a Palestinian State should not be created at least in the initial stage. The titl
e of Ra’ees/ Chairman was carefully chosen to avoid language implying statehood. (The Oslo Accords Article I-7)

By deliberately adopting use of a term which is contrary to the actual status, and contravenes a central principle behind the Oslo Accords, the BBC is using language to create a misleading impression, in breach of the following Guidelines:

  1. respect for truth
  2. due accuracy
  3. ensure that opposing views are not misrepresented
  4. audience should not be able to gauge reporter’s personal views
  5. use language fairly
  6. not use language inadvertently so as to suggest value judgements, commitment or lack of objectivity

 

 

D) ‘settlements’

 

The BBC website refers to Israeli settlements in Gaza and the West Bank as ‘illegal.’ The BBC Website reported on 13 December about Palestinian attacks on Jewish settlers: “Gush Katif is the name given to a massive, consolidated area of illegal settlements that is home to 7,500 Jewish settlers.” The legality of the settlements remains a live issue. Cogent arguments exist on each side.

The classification of settlements as ‘illegal’ could be understood to imply that they and the ‘settlers’ who live there are legitimate targets for attack, justifying Palestinian acts of terror. The neutral and accurate term of ‘disputed territories’ is largely ignored by the BBC.

For example, Article 49 of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention (“The Convention”) prohibits “Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory of the occupying power or to that of any other country.” However, the Convention does not apply to the West Bank and Gaza, since it applies to cases of “occupation of the territory of a High Contracting Party” by another such party. The West Bank and Gaza were never territory of a High Contracting Party. Accordingly Israel is not a ‘foreign occupier’ under the terms of the Convention with respect to those territories.

Furthermore, the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreements contain no prohibition on the building or expansion of settlements.

Clearly there are counter arguments which also have weight. This report merely seeks to demonstrate that there are cogent arguments refuting allegations of illegality and accordingly that the BBC should not view their legality as a decided issue.

By appearing to favor one side of this legal argument, the BBC is in breach of the following principles:

  1. fairness
  2. due accuracy
  3. not broadcasting own opinions on current affairs or matters of public policy
  4. ensure that opposing views are not misrepresented
  5. audience should not be able to gauge reporter’s personal views
  6. if controversial issue – relevant opinions as well as facts may need to be considered
  7. if legally contentious issue – its accuracy must be capable of withstanding scrutiny in a court of law
  8. use language fairly
  9. not use language inadvertently so as to suggest value judgements, commitment or lack of objectivity

 

 

E) Use of Language – Summary

 

Language is the principal medium for broadcast communication. Choice of language is fundamental to achieving an aim of impartiality. Where certain words or phrases have a specific legal or quasi-legal meaning which appears to support one side to a politically controversial debate, a neutral term should be used where it is available. The BBC’s failure to do so must impute its claim to impartiality.

 

7) Unbalanced Reporting

 

The BBC reporting on the Middle East is unbalanced, in breach of the Guidelines. Many of the examples used by this report would come within this category. However, we restrict ourselves here merely to a comparison of two articles on the Website which we believe demonstrate this breach conclusively. There is a marked disparity in the treatment of the Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the BBC website – profile section.

 

A) Ariel Sharon- Prime Minister of Israel

 

Sharon is treated with undisguised hostility. Vitriolic comment is passed off as fact or as unattributed quotation. Examples include:

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