A senior BBC executive has admitted that errors in its news coverage of the Israel could endanger British Jews - but insisted such mistakes were inevitable because of the “fog of war”.
Rhodri Talfan Davies, the BBC executive in charge of local and regional outlets, made the admission while addressing an audience of around 300 community members at South Hampstead United Synagogue on Wednesday evening.
The event, organised by the Campaign Against Antisemitism and intended to address community fears, saw Davies and David Jordan, the head of the BBC editorial policy department that issues reporting guidelines, respond to questions put to them by the group's CEO, Gideon Falter.
At times, the atmosphere grew heated, with members of the audience claiming that the BBC was “institutionally antisemitic” - a claim that the two executives vehemently denied.
“I can accept the criticisms that have been made about our news coverage,” Jordan said.
“But the idea that the BBC anyway endorses or has antisemitism at its core? I just can’t agree.”
Davies’s acknowledgement that inaccurate reports might have “real world” consequences for British Jews came after Falter asked him about the BBC’s reporting of the blast at the Al-Ahli hospital on 14 October, when correspondent Jon Donnison stated he believed it could not have been caused by anything other than an Israeli airstrike - a claim that has since been undermined by evidence that it was the result of a rocket fired from inside Gaza that fell short.
In the wake of the report, Falter said, the CAA was notified of physical threats to Jews being posted on social media, including one threatening that “no Jew in London” should be left alive.
Davies said he realised that since the October 7 atrocities, “the fear factor for the Jewish community is significant”, citing police figures suggesting that antisemitic incidents have soared.
The Metropolitan Police observed a 1,353 per cent increase in antisemitic offences in London from 1 October to 18 October compared to the same period in 2022, with some 218 anti-Jewish hate crimes recorded. Figures released this week by the CST, which records incidents of antisemitism nationwide, showed in the month following October 7 cases surged by over 500 per cent year on year, with dozens of assaults and more than 100 threats recorded.
Athough the BBC had “put it on the record that it was a mistake for the journalist to speculate” in the way that Donnison did, it was “still not possible to independently verify how that incident happened”, Davies said.
Unravelling events such as the Al-Ahli blast during the “fog of war” was always “an enormous challenge for the journalists on the ground”, with multiple sources of information making contradictory claims and the inevitable “chaos and confusion at times of conflict”, he added.
Davies and Jordan were also pressed on the BBC’s refusal to label Hamas as terrorists. In the early days of the war, the corporation referred to the group as “militants”, although it has since adopted a convoluted formulation that states Hamas has been designated a terrorist group by Britain and other western governments.
Davies responded by saying that during the Northern Ireland Troubles, the BBC had not described the IRA as terrorists, because to do so would have alienated the Catholic community, which would then have seen the Corporation as irredeemably biased.
Jordan said that Nelson Mandela had once been described as a terrorist by Margaret Thatcher, but had gone on to become the “revered leader” of South Africa. As the audience gasped at this statement, which seemed to imply Hamas might also one day be rehabilitated, he hastily added he was “not suggesting this could happen with Hamas”.
Davies was also asked about the BBC’s report of the attack on Charedi schoolchildren who had come to celebrate Chanukkah in Oxford Street in 2021, which falsely claimed that audio recordings of the incident suggested they had described their attackers as “dirty Muslims” - an allegation that prompted widespread outrage in the community.
He was one of several senior BBC staff who initially stood by this claim. Eventually Ofcom issued a damning report, saying the BBC had "failed to observe its editorial guidelines on due impartiality and due accuracy", and that it had also failed "to acknowledge promptly that there was a dispute about its interpretation of the audio”.
Forensic analysis suggested that words on the recording were in fact a Hebrew phrase, meaning 'Call someone, it’s urgent'".
Davies admitted: “We didn’t recognise quickly enough there was a genuine dispute.”
However, he said he had heard the recording at the time and had supported the now-contested interpretation, claiming that even now, the issue could not be definitively resolved.
Falter ended the meeting by thanking Jordan and Davies both men for attending, pointing out that no other news organisation had submitted itself to such scrutiny.
A CAA spokesperson said later that it was “credit to these senior BBC figures that they came before the community in an effort to listen to the hurt and fear that British Jews feel".
They added: "We hope that they will report these sentiments back to the newsroom, and we look forward to continuing this relationship with the BBC in the knowledge that building trust on behalf of the Jewish community will be a long but essential process.”