Complaining about bias in BBC news about Gaza
In March, 2011 Amena Saleem of Palestine Solidarity Campaign wrote to the BBC to complain about the Today programme of 23 March covering news of Palestinian rocket attacks into southern Israel the day before (which resulted in damage to a house) and failing to mention the Israeli attacks on Gaza the same day, which resulted in eight Palestinian deaths.
She pursued the complaint through the required rules and stages over the next six months, arriving at the appeal stage at the end of August. Last Friday, the BBC sent her its response (below). An appeal will not be considered.
The response summarises the correspondence between Ms Saleem and the BBC and gives its reasons for not considering an appeal. ‘It’s worth reading’, says Ms Saleem, ‘just to see how opaque the whole system is at the BBC and how almost impossible it is for reason to win through the Kafkaesque murkiness’ adding ‘The one thing it has done in its correspondence with me is admit to a ‘lapse’ in news judgement, but no apology.’
Response from BBC
Dear Ms Saleem
I am responding to your appeal of 23rd August 2011 to the Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) regarding a Radio 4 news broadcast on 23 March 2011, following the decision by the Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) not to uphold your complaint. Your appeal concerns your complaint that the Today programme of 23 March 2011 carried a report of two rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, but made no mention of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza on the same day which resulted in eight Palestinian deaths.
Firstly, I should explain that the Trust does not adjudicate on every appeal that is brought to it, and part of the role of the Head of Editorial Standards is to check that appeals qualify for consideration by the Trust (or one of its complaints committees) under the Complaints Framework. You can find full details of the Complaints Framework and Trust appeals procedure’s here:
I am therefore writing this response on behalf of Fran O’Brien, the BBC Trust’s Head of Editorial Standards, who has read your correspondence and given me her decision. The Head of Editorial Standards has read the relevant correspondence and the transcripts of the items in question and does not consider that your appeal has a reasonable prospect of success and should proceed to the ESC. I would like to explain why.
The Trust’s Editorial Appeals procedure states that:
Your appeal must raise a matter of substance – in particular, that, in the opinion of the Trust, there is sufficient evidence to suggest that the appeal has a reasonable prospect of success and there is a case for the BBC Executive to answer. Consideration will also be given to whether it is appropriate, proportionate and cost effective for the Trust to address an appeal.
Before giving the reasons for the Head of Editorial Standards’ decision, I have summarised your complaint and the BBC Executive’s response.
You initially complained to the BBC that the news bulletins broadcast at 08.00 within the Today programme on Radio 4 on 23 March 2011 reported that on the previous day rockets had been fired from Gaza into Israel but no injuries resulted. However, you noted that on the same day Israel had bombarded Gaza, resulting in the deaths of eight Palestinians which were not referred to at all. In your complaint you noted that:
“…two of those killed were children, aged 11 and 16, who were playing football outside their house when it was shelled. A third youth of 17 was killed in the same attack. In all, four members of the same family were killed in that attack, and a fourth child from the family, aged 7, died the next day from the injuries he sustained. A total of 32 Palestinians were injured that day in Gaza as a result of Israeli strikes.” You asked:
“why the Today programme did not consider any of this to be news, but took the time to report two bursts of rocket fire into Israel, neither of which caused death or injury.” (In fact one personal suffered shrapnel wounds as a result of the rocket attacks from Gaza).
You also asked if the BBC considered “…the omission of fatal attacks on Palestinians, including children, and the inclusion of non-fatal attacks on Israel, which took place on the same day, to be impartial, unbiased journalism?”
In reply on 29 March 2011 Mark Roberts of BBC Audience Services pointed out that recent BBC news coverage of events in the Middle East had included news of Israeli air strikes on Gaza. He gave you links to two such stories on the BBC News Online website. He said that:
“Choosing the stories to include in our bulletins; the order in which they appear and the length of time devoted to them is a subjective matter and one which we know not every viewer and listener will feel we get right every time.”
He sought to assure you that the BBC was “committed to due impartiality in respect of all our news reports and we are careful that this is maintained.” He went on to say: “We are satisfied our coverage of events in Israel and the Palestinian Authority has been balanced, fair and accurate. Across our programming we have tried to explain how the current situation started and has since developed and given airtime to representatives from across the political spectrum, as well as covering incidents such as those above across our network.”
He concluded by stressing the importance that the BBC attached to audience feedback and assured you that your complaint had been registered on the audience log, which he described as an “important document that can help shape decisions about future programming and content” and which, he advised you, was available to all BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive Board, channel controllers and other senior managers.
You replied to Mr. Roberts on 11 April 2011 and queried a number of points raised in his reply. You asked why the reported deaths of eight Palestinians “only merited mentions on BBC Online” (which you say was not given prominence) whilst rockets fired from Gaza into Israel, which resulted in no fatalities or injuries “merited airtime on the Today programme?” You asked, “If Palestinians had killed ten Israelis, including children, in one day, would this have been reduced to an online article or would it have been given more prominence by the BBC? “ You raised the question as to how audiences who did not have access to the internet were served since, by confining stories to the web, the BBC was “failing to give its audience a full and balanced account of what it terms the ‘Israeli-Palestinian conflict’.”
In particular you disagreed with Mr Roberts’ statement that the choice and prominence of stories in a news bulletin was essentially a “subjective” judgement. You argued that such judgements were based on “journalistic news sense” which you maintained was “a totally objective exercise.” You claimed that the lack of coverage of the Palestinian deaths during the output of the Today programme, compared with the coverage of the Israeli raids appeared to you to “smack of subjectiveness” which you suggested was based on personal political beliefs rather than “objective news sense”.
This, you said, represented “bias”. You believed that this bias was “…compounded when one considers the house demolitions, arrests of children, collective punishment (most recently seen in Awarta and Al Aqaba villages in the West Bank) and further human rights abuses that are regularly carried out by Israel and” as you put it “ignored as news stories by the BBC”.You contrasted this with the claim that “a single bomb exploding inside Israel is covered extensively across the BBC network.” And you asked “Why is such subjective journalism practiced by the BBC?”
You rebutted Mr Roberts’ response in which he said that the Israeli/Palestinian dispute was covered extensively across the BBC. Your point was, you said, that no one can listen to the entire BBC output, and nor should they have to “…before finally gaining an idea of the day’s news in Gaza”. You said that in your opinion the news about the deaths in Gaza should not have been “tucked away” but on an important programme such as Today should have been prominently covered especially in light of the coverage given to the non-fatal rocket attacks on Israel. You concluded by asking, “why did the Today programme of March 23 lack the standards of balance and fairness that the BBC purports to aim for?”
Mr Roberts responded on 23 June 2011. He reiterated that whilst the Gaza deaths were not reported within the bulletins broadcast during the Today programme they were reported later in the day. He set out that they had been referred to in some detail in the news bulletin broadcast at 18.00 on the previous day, were also mentioned in later Radio 4 bulletins at 2200 and 2300 on 22 March and that in the midnight bulletin there was an extended report from Gaza.
Bulletins the following day did refer to the Gaza deaths, in reports regarding a bomb attack in Jerusalem that day and this was supplemented by the BBC’s Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, detailing the deaths during a report for the Today programme on 24 March. There was also further coverage of the deaths online. Thus Mr. Roberts concluded that coverage of the Gaza deaths, on the day itself and following, was “appropriate, fair and impartial”. He advised you that should you wish to proceed to the second stage of the complaints process, it was now open to you to write to the Director of BBC News.
On 13 July 2011 you wrote to the Head of BBC News, Helen Boaden. You reiterated that your complaint was specifically that the news bulletins within the Today programme of 23 March made no mention of the eight (subsequently nine) deaths in Gaza resulting from Israeli bombardment, but did carry a report about two rockets being fired from Gaza into Israel which resulted in no casualties.
You said that in your opinion, within the Today programme, “there was absolutely no attempt made to achieve any kind of balance.” You said that every BBC report of an attack by Israel on Palestinians “carried a line about the attack being a response or retaliation to Palestinian aggression”, but you stressed that within the Today programme in question:
“…there was no such balance… The Palestinian rocket attacks on Israel were mentioned in isolation. Listeners were not told about the Israeli attacks, which would have allowed them to make a judgement on the potential reasons for the Palestinian attacks…
The fact that every attack by Israel on the Palestinians is counter-balanced in BBC reporting by mention of a recent Palestinian attack, and the lack of any counter-balance when reporting an attack by Palestinians on Israel amounts to bias.”
You concluded by reiterating that your complaint was that BBC journalists are not giving Palestinians the same treatment they give the Israelis.
Stephanie Harris, Head of Head of Editorial Compliance & Accountability, BBC News, replied on behalf of Helen Boaden, Director of News on 10 August 2011. 5
Ms Harris summarised your complaint as being about “lack of balance and impartiality shown in this particular edition of the Today programme”. She began by pointing out that the Today programme itself did not carry any stories on these developments and your complaint actually related to the Radio 4 news bulletin coverage. She explained that this meant that she had consulted with Radio 4 news bulletin editors about your complaint rather than the editor of Today.
In order to consider your complaint properly Ms Harris had looked back through the coverage on both March 22 and 23, and gave you a summary of the news bulletin coverage of the Gaza deaths as summarised above during the Stage 1 correspondence which included substantial items about the Gaza raids in the 18.00, 22.00 and midnight bulletins of the 22 and (in the latter case) 23 March. She noted that the 08.00 story, the one you complained about, contained no reference to the Israeli bombardments but a generalised reference was inserted in the 09.00 bulletin.
However, Ms Harris told you that the newsroom editors now acknowledged that “specific reference to the previous day’s fatal attacks from Israel into Gaza should have been made that morning”, and she thanked you for bringing this issue to the BBC’s attention. Ms Harris added by way of further explanation that 23 March had been an exceptionally busy news day (she referred to the Budget, the events unfolding in Libya and the growing death toll from the earthquake and tsunami in Japan). Space was at a premium, she said, but she conceded that nonetheless this should not have caused even a brief reference to the previous day’s fatalities to be omitted in the 08:00 bulletin. She reassured you that BBC news editors were committed to covering the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians “fairly, accurately and impartially”. She concluded by advising you that if you were dissatisfied by her response it was open to you to appeal to the BBC Trust.
On 23 August 2011 you contacted the BBC Trust indicating your wish to appeal the Stage 2 decision.
First, you suggested that the BBC frequently made reference to the preponderance of ‘other’ news stories as “an excuse for not covering the Palestinian perspective in stories concerning Palestine and Israel.” Even if it was the case, you suggested that 23 March hardly qualified since both Libya and the Japanese tsunami were running stories and the Budget had not yet been delivered. You repeated your charge that omitting reference to the Gaza deaths on the 08.00 bulletin of the 23 March represented “bias and unbalanced reporting” and was also “poor journalism and poor decision making” on the part of the bulletin editors concerned.
You contested Ms Harris’ statement that in live coverage of breaking news it was “not always possible to include every perspective and every fact on every story as one would ideally wish.” You countered by saying that “Including all the facts of a story shouldn’t be an ‘ideal’ of the BBC, it should be considered an imperative.” You said that, in comparison with the Libyan and Japanese developments, it was the conflict in Gaza that was the most recent breaking story and, if there were conflicts of space and time, it should have been given priority. Since news bulletins are scripted and not ‘live reports’ it should have been possible to script a brief mention of the Palestinian deaths, “in order to give balance and context to the item.”
Finally you raised a new point to your complaint; namely you asked why the 22.00 bulletin of 22 March referred to eight deaths whilst the introduction to the report in the midnight bulletin referred to ‘at least’ four? You asked, “If no concrete figure had been arrived at in news bulletins prior to those of 08.00 and 09.00 on the 23rd, then this is all the more reason why a definite figure should have been given in these two bulletins, as that figure was available by then.”
The Head of Editorial Standards’ decision
The Head of Editorial Standards has considered your case in detail, and has read all the relevant correspondence and transcripts.
Firstly, the Head of Editorial Standards notes that the BBC Executive have acknowledged that the 08.00 bulletin you referred to should ideally have made reference to the previous day’s deaths in Gaza, and we are grateful to you for bringing this to our attention. We note that the Executive have accepted this was a lapse, and that it was corrected in subsequent bulletins. The BBC Editorial Guidelines are clear that impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment to its audiences. The Guidelines specify that due impartiality is paramount in matters of controversy, such as the Israeli/Palestinian dispute. In such cases the Guidelines say that:
“Consideration should be given to the appropriate timeframe for reflecting other perspectives and whether or not they need to be included in connected and signposted output.” In this case, given the references to the Gaza deaths in the news bulletins from 18.00 on 22 March through to the bulletins on 23 March, the Head of Editorial Standards believes that the BBC has provided evidence that their output achieved “due impartiality”, even if there was an acknowledged lapse in the 08.00 bulletin on 23 March. The Head of Editorial Standards has noted your complaints challenging the news judgements of the BBC News Editors and as to what counts as a ‘busy news day’, but accepts that these are matters of judgement for which you have been provided with a reasonable explanation. The Head of Editorial Standards does not believe that you have made a case for the Executive to answer on this point. In terms of the final point you raise, about the reporting of the numbers killed in the Gaza air raids, we note that this is a new issue that you had not previously raised with BBC News. We have therefore passed this point back to the Head of Accountability, BBC News, to answer, and she will be in contact with you within 20 working days of this letter.
Overall, in terms of the substance of your complaint, whilst the Head of Editorial Standards is acutely aware of the sensitivities surrounding this issue and the importance of providing as much context as feasible, she does not consider that the absence of one contextual reference in one bulletin constitutes a matter of substance for the ESC to consider. The Head of Editorial Standards therefore does not propose to put your appeal to the Committee.
I am sorry that the Head of Editorial Standards’ decision will disappoint you. If you wish the Trustees to review her decision, please reply with your reasons by 5pm on Thursday 29 September to Lucy Tristram, Complaints Advisor, at the above address or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you are able to reply by 12pm on Wednesday 28 September, your request will be considered by the Trustees at their October meeting. Otherwise, it will be considered in November. If exceptionally you need more time please write giving your reasons as soon as possible.
If you do ask the Trustees to review the Head of Editorial Standards’ decision I will then place your letter, this letter, the Stage 2 decision and your original letter of appeal to the Trust before the Editorial Standards Committee. I anticipate that (on reply by 28 September) they will consider your request at their October meeting. Their decision is likely to be ratified at their November meeting and you will be given their decision shortly afterwards.
If the Trustees consider that your case has no reasonable prospect of success then your case will close. If the Trustees disagree with the Head of Editorial Standards’ view then your case will be given to an Independent Editorial Adviser to investigate and we will contact you with an updated time line.
Senior Editorial Strategy Adviser, Trust Unit
A Palestinian life v an Israeli house
Palestine Solidarity Campaign
Does the BBC really believe the death of a Palestinian is worth less than rocket damage to an Israeli house?
Since the beginning of 2011, Israel has killed 49 Palestinians in Gaza, seven of them children.
These were the grim figures as of 10th April, and with April only just beginning, worked out at a rough average of 14 dead Palestinians a month.
Yet, on the morning of 11th April, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme carried a report which began with the words: ‘In the last four days, there’s been a flare up of violence in and around the Gaza Strip’, an introduction which wilfully ignored the fact that Israel had been pounding Gaza from land and air since March. It also failed to take into account that violence against Palestinians by Israeli soldiers, as demonstrated by the high death toll, is continuous and ongoing, and not limited to the occasional ‘flare up’. The presenter went on to make the unqualified and one-sided statement: ‘It started with a missile attack on an Israeli school bus’.
This distortion of reality and the blatant ignoring of facts is shocking and yet, sadly, all too consistent with the BBC’s reporting of the situation in Palestine and Israel.
In February 2011, PSC complained about an article on BBC Online headlined ‘Gaza militants fire rockets at Beersheba, Israel’. The story began with the news that a rocket fired from Gaza had hit a house in Israel. Then there was the BBC’s usual line about Israel ‘retaliating’ with an air strike on Gaza which injured three people. It was only after this, and four paragraphs into the story, that the journalist mentioned the rocket attack on Israel came after an Israeli tank fired on Palestinians in Gaza, killing one person and injuring 11 others.
So, on the day in question (23 February), Israel launched a tank attack on Gaza, then a rocket was fired into Israel, and, in the final act of the day, Israel carried out an air strike on Gaza. And yet the BBC completely twisted these events around to suit its own agenda, and focused its headline and story on a rocket attack which damaged a house in Israel, while relegating to second place the death of a Palestinian and the wounding of 14 more.
Is this bias? The BBC always strenuously denies such accusations, and yet continues to invite them with the nature of its reporting.
On 23rd March, the Today programme carried news of two rockets fired into Israel but completely ignored the death and destruction wreaked on Gaza the day before, when Israeli tank and air bombardments killed eight Palestinians, including two children and their grandfather.
When PSC wrote to question this, we received a reply which included the line: ‘Choosing the stories to include in our bulletins; the order in which they appear and the length of time devoted to them is a subjective matter’.
Subjective? According to the dictionary, this means ‘a type of thinking, judgement and experience people can have that is not connected with factual data’. In other words, judgements based on personal viewpoints. Choosing what stories to include in bulletins should surely be an objective (dictionary definition: ‘to give a non-biased opinion’) exercise, and yet this appears not to be the case for the BBC.
As a result, the BBC’s audience is kept more or less in the dark about Israel’s atrocities in Gaza and the West Bank, and certainly about the systematic nature of them, while being kept fully informed of every Israeli house and building that is damaged by a home-made Gazan rocket.
This is an unacceptable failing on the part of a public service broadcaster that is funded by the taxpayer. The BBC has a duty to inform those who pay for its licence, and is fundamentally failing to do so.
This failing was picked up in the Thomas Report of 2006, an independent report which was commissioned to assess the BBC’s coverage of Israel and Palestine, and it has also been examined in great detail by Greg Philo and Mike Berry, of the Glasgow University Media Group.
In their first book, Bad News from Israel, Philo and Berry examined around 200 news reports from the BBC and ITV and interviewed more than 800 people. They found that the impression given to viewers was of Israelis defending themselves against Palestinian aggression, with many viewers subsequently believing that the ‘dispute’ was about Palestinians occupying Israeli land.
A second book, More Bad News from Israel, is due out in May and studies television reporting of the situation over the last five years, including Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008/9 and on the Freedom Flotilla in 2010. Among other things, Philo and Berry detail the way in which news often simply reproduces the offerings of Israel’s sophisticated public relations machine without giving an alternative Palestinian perspective, and the impact this has on public opinion.
The Thomas Report noted this imbalance in the BBC’s reporting and, until this taxpayer-funded organisation stops making arbitrary decisions on what causes the violence (‘It started with a missile attack on an Israeli school bus’) and parroting the narrative given to its journalists by Israeli spokespeople, and starts basing its reports in the context of fact and international law, then public opinion will remain confused at best, and siding with an illegal occupation and siege at worst.
By Simon Rocker, Jewish Chronicle
Just Journalism, the organisation founded to encourage more balanced media coverage of Israel, is closing this week because of lack of funds.
Founder Dana Brass said that despite its “extremely modest” budget of £130,000 a year, “it became increasingly difficult to sustain financially the operation in the current economic environment”.
She added: “We’re extremely proud of all the work we have produced since we launched and of the global impact we made. The professionalism, quality and originality of our work played a unique role and earned us respect and credibility from those who followed us. We are just sorry that, at this time, the work cannot continue.”
Launched in 2008, the organisation provided daily online analysis of reporting of Israel as well as publishing detailed critiques of media such as the Guardian or the London Review of Books.
Michael Weiss, who left as director – its third since the organisation’s launch – in spring but continued as spokesman until a few weeks ago, said that news of the closure was “a surprise when I found out a few days earlier”.
Since May, Mr Weiss has worked as communications and public relations director of the Henry Jackson Society, the association promoting liberal democracy. Just Journalism had shared offices with the society lately and several of the HJS staff served on Just Journalism’s advisory board.
Robin Shepherd, international affairs director of HJS and a member of Just Journalism’s advisory board, said: “This is a great pity and the cause of Israel in Britain will be the poorer for it.”
Despite its problems, Just Journalism retained some loyal donors, including Conservative peer Lord Fink.
For information about Just Journalism go to http://www.powerbase.info/index.php/Just_Journalism