David Rose

However hard it tries, the BBC can’t help but exude bias

A BBC executive held up the example of Nelson Mandela during a discussion on the corporation’s refusal to call Hamas terrorists


A photograph taken on October 6, 2022 shows the BBC logo at the entrance of the BBC headquarters at Broadcasting House in central London. - On November 14, 1922, the clipped tones of the BBC's director of programmes, Arthur Burrows, crackled across the airwaves. "This is 2LO, Marconi House, London calling," he announced and with that, public service broadcasting in Britain was born. One hundred years on, the British Broadcasting Corporation is a global media giant. But its centenary comes at a time of drastic budget cuts that have raised questions about its future. (Photo by Justin TALLIS / AFP) (Photo by JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

November 10, 2023 12:39

There were two defining moments at the meeting organised by the Campaign Against Antisemitism with two very senior BBC executives at South Hampstead shul on Wednesday night.  

The first came almost at the start, when Gideon Falter, the CAA’s chief executive - who was moderating the meeting - asked how many people in the 250-strong audience were TV licence-fee payers. Almost everyone put up their hand. Then Falter inquired how many thought that BBC coverage of the Jewish community, the Middle East conflict and antisemitism was fair. Almost no one did.  To me, it looked as if the total was less than ten.

The second came later, when Falter pressed his guests as to why the BBC was still refusing to use the word “terrorist” in relation to Hamas. Rhodri Davies, the person in charge of all the BBC’s local and regional output, said that during a trip to Northern Ireland he learnt the BBC did not use this term to describe the IRA for fear of alienating the Roman Catholic segment of its local audience. That seemed to me to be distinctly off-colour, for if the BBC had wanted to demonstrate balance, it could simply have described Loyalist paramilitaries as terrorists too – which, without any question, they were.

But that was just the prelude. The really offensive comment came from David Jordan, the head of the BBC department responsible for editorial policy, which issues the guidelines that corporation journalists must observe – both in covering Israel and elsewhere. 

None other than Nelson Mandela, Jordan said, had once been described as a terrorist, by former PM Margaret Thatcher and others, yet had gone on to become the “revered leader” of South Africa. The audience gasped. Jordan realised he had just implied that the sadistic butchers who raped and murdered their way across southern Israel and took nearly 300 hostages might also be rehabilitated, and come to be seen as men of peace. Just in time, Jordan hastily added he was “not suggesting this could happen with Hamas”.

I suggest the second moment explains the first. Both executives were at pains to deny as vehemently as they could that the BBC was institutionally antisemitic. Indeed, as Falter pointed out, at times its coverage of antisemitism has been exemplary, citing the example of John Ware’s Panorama on Jew-hatred in the Labour Party during the Corbyn years. It’s also true that while the BBC still refuses to use the t-word, it has not shrunk from revealing the horror of last month’s atrocities, and their colossal human cost.

I’m prepared – just about – to accept Davies’s explanation that reporting errors that have caused British Jews deep offence, such as the false claim that the Jewish victims of the Chanukah attack in Oxford St two years ago had been recorded uttering anti-Muslim “slurs” were inadvertent, not a product of anti-Jewish prejudice. In fairness to Davies, he told the meeting he regretted the fact that the BBC had been deaf to evidence that the “slurs” were in fact a cry for help. 

I find it more difficult to understand why correspondent Jon Donnison told his prime news audience that he could not imagine what had caused the 14 October explosion at Gaza’s al-Ahli hospital other than an Israeli air strike, when in fact, it now seems almost certain it was the result of a Palestinian rocket that fell short. But I will reluctantly accept, as Davies argued, that “fog of war” does make judging such things difficult, with multiple sources of information making contradictory claims and the inevitable “chaos and confusion at times of conflict”. I am a reporter too. I have also made mistakes, all of which I regret, some of which have caused me sleepless nights. 

And yet: I can’t help thinking that when it comes to Jews and Israel, blind spots remain. 

It’s hard to be definitive. My hunch, evidently shared by many in Wednesday’s audience, is that the BBC is, on the whole, more likely to dwell on Israel’s response to terrorism than the terrorism itself, and that many who work there – as Jordan’s gaffe suggests – still don’t “get” the depth of the physical and psychological trauma that October 7 represents to most Jews. But to reach a conclusion on this, we need data and rigorous analysis, which is why I hope the promised parliamentary inquiry into this subject will eventually take place. 

But there is one BBC department where the claim of institutional bias is already backed by strong evidence: that responsible for its Arabic TV channel and website. This bias was once again highlighted in this week’s JC. It turns out that Layla Bashar al-Kloub, a journalist who works there and has covered aspects of the current conflict, has described Israel as a “terrorist” state on social media, and praised the “exquisite journalism” of an Al Jazeera presenter who made a documentary questioning the Holocaust, suggesting it had “benefitted” the Zionists. 

In fact, the JC first reported this in 2021. Some time later, Al-Kloub left the BBC to study for a masters, and returned in August. Back at the corporation, she wrote a story about journalists killed in the current conflict – and failed to mention that many of them worked for outlets either controlled by or supportive of Hamas. 

If this were an isolated case, it might not much matter. Yet the media watchdog Camera Arabic has revealed literally dozens of examples of mistaken or biased reporting by BBC Arabic, and secured numerous corrections. Almost exactly a year ago, senior BBC executives issued directives saying the outlet had to change. And yet, it seems, it hasn’t, for the complaints and corrected errors have continued.

That’s serious enough. But what makes it worse is the response I got from the BBC press office when I asked for comment on Al-Kloub. Its spokesperson said: “The BBC’s team of experienced editors and journalists come from across the Middle East and around the world and are subject to the same strict editorial guidelines, which cover social media use. BBC News Arabic shares exactly the same principles of accuracy and impartiality as BBC News in English and we strongly reject the suggestion that its impartiality is compromised.”

To which I say only this: if this statement is true – that BBC Arabic’s standards are shared by outlets in English – then we really do have cause for concern.

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November 10, 2023 12:39

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