Trusting the BBC just a little bit more

In criticising Jeremy Bowen, the BBC Trust took a big step towards maintaining impartiality

By Alex Brummer, April 30, 2009

There has been a great deal of triumphalism on the web and in print at the criticism levelled at BBC Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen by the guardians of impartiality on the BBC Trust. Certainly, it is encouraging that the BBC Trust is taking its regulatory role more seriously.

In the pre-Hutton era, BBC governors saw their role as defending management and editorial from outside interference. Now it has shown it deals with complaints carefully and is determined to maintain journalistic standards.

The real case against Bowen is that, as Middle East editor, he has a blurred mission — as both reporter and editor. When he was appointed in June 2005, it was as a direct response to complaints over the coverage of the second Intifada and in particular the Middle East reporting of Orla Guerin and Barbara Plett. The BBC has now moved both to other regions and despite occasional slippage it is doing better in enforcing impartiality.

As an “editor” Bowen is more than a reporter. He is an expert on the ground, the person the anchor looks to when wanting a judgement about an issue. It is this muddle — the conflict between reporter and opinion former — which has turned Bowen into a target of the critics. He is not alone. Other BBC editors in unrelated fields, including the formidable Robert Peston, face a similar challenge.

The BBC’s response to the digital age has been to move beyond impartial reporting to analysis and comment. This is how Bowen found himself in difficulty.

It is no surprise that one of the items criticised was an article on the BBC’s website. Bowen, among other things, referred to Zionism’s “innate instinct to push out the frontier”. Clearly, as the BBC found there was much in the article that was contentious and breached the impartiality test. But what was perhaps more important over the longer haul is not Bowen’s judgement of events at the time of the Six Day War, but the finding that the lack of precision should have been picked up by the BBC’s on-line editorial process.

It has long been my contention that the BBC applies a different standard on the web to that on the air. Indeed, it is true of almost all news websites: the editorial process is far less vigorous than in print. This may be okay in commercial organisations but the BBC find itself in difficulty on this because of its taxpayer funding and commitment to objectivity.

The common thread between the complaint concerning the web and a second complaint in the “From Our Own Correspondent” programme is that this Radio 4 show has also used highly personalised reports of events. Here the complaint upheld was one of inaccuracy with Bowen claiming that the Har Homar development had been deemed illegal by the Americans, when in fact it has not.

It is interesting that the decision of the Trust to uphold the complaints, even though they were historic, attracted coverage from almost all the national titles. But most of them — including those not friendly to Israel — now see the BBC as commercial enemy number one because it competes against their own digital activities with a taxpayer subvention.

Only the Independent’s combative Robert Fisk felt the need to come rushing to the defence of Bowen and attacked the BBC Trust’s report as “pusillanimous, cowardly, outrageous, factually wrong and ethically dishonest”. In fact the Trust was balanced. Its failure is to formally address the bigger issues. These include the vagaries of editing on the web and neglect of the Manchester Guardian founder-editor CP Scott’s dictum: “Comment is free, but facts are sacred.”

Alex Brummer is City Editor of the Daily Mail

Last updated: 11:17am, April 30 2009