The BBC has apologised for years of “unacceptable” handling of complaints about anti-Israel bias in its Arabic output, which activists say represented a “disdainful” attitude towards Jewish concerns.
It is an early victory in the JC campaign to restore impartiality to the broadcaster. Our petition demanding a parliamentary inquiry into its coverage of Jews and Israel is approaching 6,000 signatures and can be signed at theJC.com/BBCPetition.
Since the Gaza war in May 2021, BBC responses to complaints about Israel coverage have taken up to a year, with some ignored completely.
Even when complaints are acknowledged and upheld, issuing corrections is often delayed further or in some cases is not done at all.
The BBC Charter requires a framework that provides “transparent, accessible, effective, timely and proportionate methods” of fixing problems.
According to BBC rules, this means addressing complaints within 10 working days when possible. But it has taken the BBC an average of four months to respond to a watchdog’s complaints about its Israel coverage in Arabic, with half of complaints ignored.
In one case, the broadcaster took 12 months to accept an error in a report about holy sites in Jerusalem. Although the BBC acknowledged it, the mistake remains online more than two months later, and is still in place.
“Out of our 26 complaints, only seven received a proper, timely response and resolution,” said a spokesperson for Camera, a media watchdog which monitors Arabic language media.
A BBC spokesperson said: “We apologise for the unacceptable delay and will ensure formal responses are issued as soon as possible.”
Since May last year, 14 of Camera’s 26 complaints were upheld by the BBC, with some corrections only acted upon after many weeks. None were rejected.
Furthermore, of the 26 complaints made by Camera since the Gaza war in May 2021, 14 received no response, though three of these were later quietly corrected without acknowledgement, the watchdog says.
Complaints that forced the BBC into humiliating U-turns included unfairly criticising Israel in a report about a homophobic murder of a Palestinian by other Palestinians; labelling Jewish visitors to Temple Mount “foreigners”; and referring to Jewish prayers as “Talmudic ritual”, which carries extremely negative connotations in Arabic.
It comes amid mounting criticism of the BBC’s dismissive attitude towards Jewish criticism following Director-General Tim Davie’s belated, “vacuous” response last week to an open letter from 36 parliamentarians and public figures sent in September.
BBC Arabic has an audience of 36 million people worldwide and is seen as a voice of authority in the region, raising further fears that its repeated errors have “fanned the flames of hatred”.
The delays are the tip of the iceberg. In once instance, the BBC admitted an error but failed to correct it. In two further examples, the correction was only partial and came with no official response.
A Camera spokesperson said: “The BBC’s complaint system is unable to meet its own standards when it comes to content in Arabic about Israel and Jews. That the BBC’s foreign language content is inadequately overseen by its management is a well-documented fact. Now we see that even when the Arabic-speaking BBC audience is trying to step in and do the management’s work for it, we still face impassable obstacles.”
The revelations will magnify concerns about the broadcaster’s process for the handling of complaints, with an Ofcom investigation into its reporting of the Oxford Street Chanukah attack nearing completion, the JC understands.
A spokesperson for the Campaign Against Antisemitism, which is backing the JC’s campaign, said: “As calls mount for a parliamentary inquiry into antisemitism at the BBC, this feels like a forced apology. For years, the BBC has shown a disdainful attitude towards Jewish concerns and failed to engage with the community’s complaints.
“The rot has been festering for years and now needs to be drawn into the light of parliamentary scrutiny.
“The BBC is seen as an authoritative voice around the world, and it is disturbing to consider the extent to which the views expressed on BBC Arabic may have fanned the flames of hatred over the years.”
Criticism of the BBC’s failure to deal adequately with complaints on Jews and Israel is not new — and not confined to its Arabic channels.
Neil Turner, a non-Jewish project manager from Northampton, became involved in a dispute with the BBC in 2013 after he made numerous complaints regarding its coverage of Israel in English.
“The BBC’s complaints system is designed to delay, obfuscate and demoralise those complaining,” he told the JC. “Complaints can take weeks, months or years to get through the system.
“In the extremely unlikely event you are successful, they bury the findings and carry on as usual. As the complaints team is staffed by the BBC, and Ofcom is staffed by establishment types with BBC connections, you really have no chance of a fair hearing.
“They’re unaccountable. Almost every day there’s something misrepresenting or maligning or demonising Israel.”
Barrister Jonathan Turner, Chief Executive of UK Lawyers for Israel, described the BBC’s complaints system as “totally unfit for purpose”.
Having submitted complaints himself, including in a high-profile case in 2007 concerning an article about the Six-Day War, he said: “Timings specified in their policies are ignored with impunity. Responses, if and when eventually given, are designed to fob off. Complaints handlers seem to regard it as their job to find reasons, however bad, to reject complaints, rather than to consider them objectively and use them to improve quality.
“In theory, there is now a right to appeal to Ofcom, but guess what? Nine out of 14 members of Ofcom’s Content Board, which is responsible for considering complaints about content, are ex-BBC.”
A BBC spokesperson said: “Our complaints team are in regular and direct contact with Camera Arabic who submit a comparatively large number of complaints to us each year. Whilst there has been dialogue on the complaints, we acknowledge that some of them have not yet been actioned or responded to with a formal outcome letter. We apologise for the unacceptable delay and will ensure formal responses are issued as soon as possible.”
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