May 02, 2006

Independent review of BBC Middle East reporting

I noticed an interesting little story on BBC news earlier today.

The BBC fails to always give a "full and fair account" of the Israeli Palestinian conflict but is not deliberately biased, a report has said.

The BBC governors asked an independent panel to scrutinise its output. …

Although this story gives very little information about what the report said, it did provide a link to the report.

The report pretty much confirms what I had thought about BBC coverage of the Israeli Palestinian conflict. That is, they are not purposefully biased in their coverage, but disparities in the everyday realities in Israel and Palestine and the failure of the BBC to correct for this mean that there is a bias in favour of Israel.

The report had four major recommendations. The first was that the BBC should provide a fuller account including context and history. The second was that they should have a 'Guiding Hand' (a strong editorial figure in charge of making sure the coverage is unbiased, consistent, coherent, etc.) Thirdly, they should use language more consistently (in particular, they should not avoid the use of the term 'terrorism'). Fourthly, the BBC should make sure to make purposive and not merely reactive efforts to explain the conflict.

Some bits that caught my attention from the report.

The first is a pre–emptive one, I know that someone would say this at some point, so I'm getting my reply to it out of the way from the outset.

It is clearly not enough to say that, as there are complaints from both sides, the BBC is presumably getting its coverage about right. This kind of complacency would not be acceptable and the Panel has not found it among BBC journalists or management.

To illustrate the point about how coverage can be biased without being purposefully biased:

There is an asymmetry of power between the two sides and this is reflected in a number of ways which impact on the journalistic enterprise. It is easier to gain access to Israeli spokespeople, and the Israeli authorities may be in a position to grant or deny permits to access Palestinian areas and spokespeople


In recent years, many more Palestinians have been killed but usually in circumstances which are less dramatic and give rise to less striking images. Moreover, leaving aside death and injury, much of the Palestinian suffering arises from the situation of displacement and occupation, which does not generally lend itself to the newsworthy event. Given this symmetry, providing a fair account of relative suffering is itself a challenge. Moreover, while the suffering is real and it is important that an account is given of it, graphic pictures on screen can produce a strong emotive reaction which can be seen as evidence of bias unless an even–handed approach is clear.
the BBC [is] committed, as our terms of reference make clear, to fairness, impartiality and balance. (While fairness and impartiality are legal requirements, balance is a concept adopted by the BBC in seeking to give effect to them.) These objectives, especially balance, work most naturally where the parties to a dispute are on an equal footing. Indeed, without care, a formulaic application of these doctrines, and in particular that of balance, to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict could produce coverage which misleads from the outset.


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  1. Linda

    Hi Dan,

    Here I am commenting again…
    Since you asked if there are opinions out there – I will just give you my opinion…

    It seems to me (and of course I am subjective) that you do not have a good and complete picture of what is happening between Israel and it’s neighbours and therefore you have your opinions which are extremely biased and extremely anti Israeli.
    Now of course – I am not a 100% expert on this too (I am Dutch) however – I have studied and am still studying the middle east in my university studies and therefore as part of my uni education I was and am exposed to a lot of this including campus debates with Israeli and Palestinian speakers.
    I have also visited Israel and Palestine and therefore believe that I have a pretty clear view of the subject at hand.

    I happen to think that the BBC is actually VERY biased against Israel and does not report fairly.

    Again, it is totally your right to speak out and have your say – and your opinion is of course respected.

    I think I will not comment any more since it’s quite pointless – your point of view and mine are quite different – it’s going to take a lot of correspondance to bridge the gap…

    Take care.


    13 Sep 2006, 23:07

  2. I thought supporters of Israel didn’t refer to “Palestine”?

    Anyway, opinion noted but I suppose I was really looking for opinion backed up by at least some sort of argument.

    14 Sep 2006, 01:40

  3. Linda

    I never said that I was a supporter of Israel – I also care for the Palestinians and the Lebanese – however it’s clear according to what you write that this is certainly not the case with you (it seems like you are very very biased against Israel and that anything that happens – you would immediately blame Israel – even if objectively Israel is not the blame or partially responsible – you would still immediately attack them verbally).

    It was late at night – and I just didn’t have the will to start wrting arguments (and there are many of them).

    14 Sep 2006, 07:09

  4. Objectively speaking, Israel is killing vastly more people than groups like Hamas or Hizbullah. They are also imposing harsh economic conditions on the Palestinians and the Lebanese which are affecting hundreds of thousands of people, quite possibly millions of them. If this fact changes, I will reconsider my position.

    14 Sep 2006, 16:01

  5. Linda

    I appreciate the fact that you are candid about your position.

    And coming from an academic background as I described – I can tell you my humble opinion that your apparent objective fact is in fact not a fact (no pun intended).
    It is actually objectively false.

    It would be more fair to the Israelis (however I assume that fairness to the Israelis is not one of your objectives) if you would assume your position based on facts and not on BBC coverage.

    Don’t be angry at me for saying that – take your time – do some objective homework – study the issue and you will see that the BBC coverage is in fact very biased.

    If you really spend time and delve into the conflict studying the matter at length – you will find many things which might and will surprise you – some good and bad things about Palestine and Israel – however – you will find out eventually that your views are incorrectly and unjustifiably biased. Israel might not be a saint (as Palestine and surely Hizbullah is far from being one) however the demonic colors in which you paint Israel in – is simply exaggerated.

    You have a PHD (almost) and I have a Masters degree – we are both academics and we both probably agree that your opinions should not be based on perceptions but on facts (agree?) – so take your time and study the facts.

    14 Sep 2006, 22:27

  6. Linda

    Come to think of it… I don’t have the right to tell you to do this or that…

    What I meant – was that I truely believe that you have a very distorted picture of the middle east conflict and one of the reasons might be ignorance (again… no disrespect) or just plain lack of objective knowledge and getting all your knowledge from the BBC.

    Anyway… to wrap this discussion up – I will bid you farewell and wish you luck in all your endeavours.

    14 Sep 2006, 22:35

  7. Linda, tell me this:

    (1) How many Israelis killed by Palestinians?
    (2) How many Palestinians killed by Israelis?

    (3) How many Lebanese killed by Israelis?
    (4) How many Israelis killed by Lebanese?

    (5) Is the economy of the West Bank and Gaza strip normal? Or are they in fact, quite heavily affected by the limitations imposed on them by Israel?

    (6) Does the current blockade on Lebanon by Israel affect its economy? How about having its infrastructure (airports and power stations) bombed?

    These are the facts I am referring to, and if you can find a source that contradicts my idea of what the answers to these questions are, then by all means do so.

    You accuse me of ignorance, but you haven’t offered me anything but opinion. All you’ve done is tell me that your academic background allows you to make these statements. As evidence in favour of my view (I don’t want to spend my whole day looking up statistics so this is just a sample):

    Regarding the current Israel-Hizbullah/Lebanon conflict:

    Israeli civilian casualties: 43 according to the Israeli government

    Lebanese casualties: 1187 according to the USAID situation report of 12th September

    It is of course difficult to get objective facts, but this is quite close. The Israeli government for example estimates that between 350 and 700 of those Lebanese casualties were Hizbullah fighters, whilst Hizbullah says that they have only had losses of 74 fighters. It’s likely that both are exaggerating, but even if we accept Israel’s largest estimate, that still leaves 487 Lebanese civilian casualties compared to 43 Israeli civilian casualties, which is to say a ratio of more than 10:1.

    15 Sep 2006, 01:07

  8. Zalamoka

    This is a bit of late response: Linda: being enrolled in a university doesn’t make a person more aware or informed about a situation. Many universities are nothing but forums for propaganda: I know that for a fact as I have attended universities in The Middle East and the US: a couple of Universities in the US ( in a Blue state and in a Red one) I can tell you there are political agendas in the academic world…Because of that many student, instead of turning into real researchers, (like Dan is trying to convey by asking factual questions) they just get brainwashed. I hope this is not the case with you. Not sure if you would read this as my response comes in very late.

    24 Feb 2007, 22:03

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