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BBC Bias By: HonestReporting.com
HonestReporting.com | Wednesday, May 10, 2006

For many years, HonestReporting, through our communiques and initiatives such as TerrorPetition.com, along with the efforts of many other worthy organizations, have campaigned for the BBC and other media outlets to adopt accurate language when referring to terrorism. Current holder of HonestReporting's Dishonest Reporter Award for 2005, the BBC has long been a source of contention regarding its coverage of the Mideast conflict. Recognizing its own shortcomings, the BBC, last year, commissioned an independent inquiry to examine its treatment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the results of which have finally been published and can be read in full here.

Congratulations to  our subscribers who have consistently called on the BBC to call terrorism "terrorism" - we are extremely pleased that such efforts are paying dividends as, amongst the report's conclusions, Chairman of the Panel, Quentin Thomas states: "that the BBC should get the language right. We think they should call terrorist acts "terrorism" because that term is clear and well understood." Indeed, the report criticizes the BBC's inconsistent usage of the terms "terrorist" and "terrorism", noting that the expression "was readily used in respect of the tube and bus bombs in London... has added to disquiet in respect of its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict where 'militant' is the preferred term."

"If it appears to adopt one policy in covering terrorist attacks in London, or Madrid, [the BBC] must expect to face questions if it appears to take a different line in Israel," the report concludes.

Indeed, HonestReporting has fended off critics who have accused us of lacking impartiality. Yet, an independent inquiry has now come to the same conclusion regarding the BBC's unwillingness to recognize that murderous attacks against Israeli civilians are also acts of terror.  

While encouraging on this point, the report also concludes that "apart from individual lapses, sometimes of tone, language or attitude, there was little to suggest systematic or deliberate bias; on the contrary there was evidence, in the programming and in other ways, of a commitment to be fair, accurate and impartial."

However, also highlighted are:

gaps in coverage, analysis, context and perspective. There is also a failure to maintain consistently the BBC's own established editorial standards, including on language. There are shortcomings arising from the elusiveness of editorial planning, grip and oversight. In summary, the finding is that BBC coverage does not consistently constitute a full and fair account of the conflict but rather, in important respects, presents an incomplete and in that sense misleading picture.

In brief, the report recommends that the BBC:

  • should provide more consistently a full and fair account - taking into consideration context, the diversification of the stories available in Israel, the regional dimension, and the two narratives;
  • should provide better training for its Middle East staff;
  • should provide an editorial 'Guiding Hand' - a senior figure with sufficient executive authority to command resources and give direction should be tasked with providing more secure editorial planning, grip and oversight;
  • should get the language right, remedy deficiencies and ensure consistent application;
  • should make purposive, and not merely reactive efforts to explain the complexities of the conflict.

Of course, in a report of this size and scope, many parties are able to find positives and negatives, something reflected in the reaction of both the press and other interested parties. The Guardian and Daily Telegraph both lead with the criticism leveled at the BBC for not using the word "terrorism" while the Independent preferred to highlight the BBC's "misleading coverage".

The Times, on the other hand, concentrated on the report's conclusion that the BBC's coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict implicitly favors the Israeli side as "Deaths of Israelis received greater coverage than Palestinian fatalities, while Israelis received more airtime on news and current affairs programmes." HonestReporting is sure that this will be greeted with a healthy degree of skepticism by its readership, for, as the Times points out, the "references to "identifiable shortcomings" surprised BBC News executives, who are more used to accusations that their coverage is routinely anti-Israel."

Nonetheless, according to the Guardian, the report has been positively received by representatives from both sides of the debate. We now await an official response from the BBC itself and to see how far this media giant implements the report's recommendations. HonestReporting will continue to hold the BBC accountable for its Mideast coverage and hopes that the publication of this report will be the beginning of efforts by the BBC to improve its news reporting from the region. HonestReporting invites its subscribers to read the independent report for themselves and to draw their own conclusions.


Following many requests and as part of our efforts to reach out to communities of activists around the globe, we are pleased to announce that our communiques are  being translated into Spanish text-only e-mails. If you wish to receive these e-mails or you have Spanish-speaking friends or family who would like to be part of HonestReporting's activities, please send a message (in English!) with the relevant e-mail addresses to spanish@honestreporting.com and we will add you to the list.

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