by Simon Plosker
In 2004, the BBC conducted a thorough internal review of its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The contents of the Balen Report, authored by Malcolm Balen were never released to the public.
That the BBC spent some £250,000 successfully fending off legal attempts to get the report published led many to conclude that the report’s findings probably confirmed the view that the BBC’s coverage was at best, seriously flawed and more likely, biased against Israel.
While the Balen Report has been locked in a dark vault in BBC HQ, this last week saw the very public release of an internal BBC review into its coverage of the so-called “Arab Spring”, commissioned by the BBC Trust.
This report’s author, Edward Mortimer, a former United Nations communications director, was broadly positive about the BBC’s reporting. He did, however, identify a number of serious failings.
If Mortimer’s findings are a good indication of how the BBC reports on the Middle East in general, what would happen if we were to speculatively try to place these findings into the context of BBC reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Might we come up with a version of “Balen-lite”? Allow me to try.
There was acknowledgment from BBC Head of News Helen Boaden that some of the coverage, particularly from Libya where BBC journalists were “embedded” with rebel forces, was sometimes infected with excitement leading to a failure to explore both sides of the story. This was particularly evident with the delay in reporting human rights abuses by the Libyan rebels.
The BBC seemingly divided Arab rebels versus dictatorial regimes into a simple fight against good and evil. This would leave little room for acknowledging, for example, the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt or the presence of Global Jihad extremists amongst the Libyan rebels.
To most observers, the demise of Colonel Gaddafi’s regime was not something to be mourned. But does this mean that BBC journalists found themselves eliciting sympathy for one side over the other, possibly in breach of BBC impartiality guidelines?
Perhaps Malcolm Balen concluded something similar. BBC journalists appear to have a similar sympathy towards the Palestinians over Israel portraying them as the victims of Israeli brutality and occupation. In the same way that Libyan rebels were the “good guys” so Palestinian misdemeanors are either ignored or excused away.
So Palestinian rockets from Gaza on Israeli civilians are either part of a “cycle of violence” that accords equal moral value to that of Israeli defensive measures or are simply buried in the headlines referring to Israeli air strikes.
Palestinian incitement in the media or school textbooks is not a story for the BBC, while lack of freedoms and habitual human rights abuses within Palestinian territories are underreported.
Perhaps Malcolm Balen may also have concluded that the BBC fails to acknowledge the inherent extremism of Hamas that may spoil the romanticized and false image of Palestinians as freedom fighters.
While Hamas may be referred to as “militants” in BBC reporting, all this does is bestow a status of moderation upon the Palestinian Authority which has also made demands of a zero-sum nature such as the so-called “right of return” for Palestinian refugees that would mean the end of Israel as a Jewish state.
Why is the PA, which also carries out serious human rights abuses and promotes incitement and anti-Semitism in its media, regarded as moderate?
Edward Mortimer raised concerns about the risks of “user-generated content,” (UCG) referring to the often dramatic but grainy amateur footage taken by mobile phones and uploaded to YouTube, purporting to show events on the ground.
Academic analysis carried out for the BBC Trust review found that 74 percent of BBC broadcast news items examined over 44 days between December 2010 and January 2012, which featured UGC, contained no caveats about whether it was genuine or representative.
The BBC admitted that there were not enough formal warnings and there were no guarantees that all of the activist footage broadcast without caveats had been judged to be authentic.
Perhaps the Balen Report also found that the BBC has an unhealthy reliance on Palestinian “eyewitnesses” whose versions of events cannot be guaranteed as reliable.
And what about the lack of caveats? Does the BBC announce the reporting restrictions from Gaza where there is risk of intimidation and threats from Hamas, both towards foreign media and against Palestinians who deviate from the party line?
Just recently a BBC reporter tweeted on the tragic death of a two-year old Palestinian girl in Gaza as a result of an Israeli air strike. Yet it was only after differing versions came out from Hamas officials, Palestinian medical personnel and Palestinian eyewitnesses that the same BBC reporter managed to get a confession from Hamas that it was their own misfiring rocket that was responsible for the girl’s death.
The Mortimer Report concluded that BBC coverage of the Arab Spring was not as broad as it could have been. With reporters concentrated in single places such as Tahrir Square in Cairo, reporting from other Arab countries such as Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Jordan was sporadic.
In a pre-Arab Spring Balen Report, it might have been concluded that the concentration of BBC resources in Israel also led to sporadic coverage of other Middle East countries (apart from Iraq), leading to a skewed image of the region.
In this Israel-centric BBC universe, the average BBC consumer is falsely led to believe that Israel is the cause of all instability in the Middle East and the only conflict occurring in the region. While Arab populations suffer behind the cloak of brutal regimes, all incidents in Israel become international news broadcast by the BBC.
We may never know what conclusions Malcolm Balen reached back in 2004. But if the BBC was prepared to publicly release the Mortimer Report, and if that report has found fault with BBC Middle East coverage, then you can bet that Balen found something far worse and more insidious going on.Simon Plosker
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