BBC secretly reforms Arabic news output

BBC Arabic editors ordered to drop terrorist sympathiser pundit


The BBC has introduced a catalogue of reforms to its Arabic news service — including dropping the controversial terrorist sympathiser Abdel Bari Atwan as a pundit — in the wake of widespread criticism of the corporation’s output, the JC can reveal.

The moves are taking place behind closed doors, even as its Director-General continues to publicly defend Mr Atwan, who has expressed sympathy for Sir Salman Rushdie’s attacker and defended the 1972 Munich massacre of Israeli Olympians.

“Team leaders in BBC Arabic have told editors to stop using him [Atwan] because he said some problematic things on BBC English,” a BBC source said.

In response to an open letter, signed by 36 parliamentarians and public figures, demanding the broadcaster drop Atwan after reporting by the JC and media watchdog Camera, BBC Director-General Tim Davie insisted that using the pundit was “in the public interest”.

However, the JC can disclose that behind the scenes, Arabic editors were informally told to drop him. The source added: “We used to have him on a lot, but we have been told not to.”

Separately, the broadcaster is rolling out a package of reforms to the department. Amid job losses across the World Service, 70 positions are being cut in BBC Arabic. But at least four Output Monitors are being newly appointed to clean up Arabic language reporting, the source said.

“They will watch BBC Arabic TV broadcasts both before they are aired and afterwards,” the source said, “and monitor all the digital stuff to make sure it complies with guidelines.”
The source added: “The problem has been quality control. Attitudes in the Arab world are hostile to Israel, and this has been coming through BBC reporting via local journalists.”

The reforms — which suggest the BBC is starting to take seriously calls to tighten up its Arabic output — are being implemented for April while the broadcaster maintains its staunch public defence of its output.

It comes after the corporation has suffered months of intense pressure about its Arabic-language service, which stands accused of repeated anti-Israel bias.

According to the source, BBC top brass “read the riot act” to Arabic language journalists in a virtual meeting in the wake of the recent public criticism. “They said, ‘we are defending you on this, but we can’t do it forever. You must abide by the BBC guidelines from now on’.”

And following a year of multiple disclosures by the JC of failings and bias at BBC Arabic, Mohamed Yehia, the department’s Head of Multimedia Output, sent an email to Arabic staff ordering journalists to observe BBC guidelines.

In the email, sent in October and seen by the JC, Mr Yehia, who has been at the BBC for 23 years, reminded staff to name the Jewish state “Israel” rather than “Tel Aviv”, a reference widely used in Arabic media to imply its lack of legitimacy.

He also told them to abandon the term “Wailing Wall”, which carries negative connotations in Arabic, and warned against referring to Israeli towns as “settlements” and all Israelis as “settlers. Mr Yehia also instructed journalists not to report that Israeli forces had entered Al-Aqsa Mosque when they had only breached the outer compound.

“The whole attitude towards Israel has been changing as the JC has published its stories,” the BBC source said. “Editors were told by team leaders to stop using Abdel Bari Atwan because of remarks he made on BBC English.

“And there was much more coverage than usual of the Israeli elections this year, which was more in-depth and balanced.”

Although staff were aware that the World Service cuts would affect BBC Arabic, the reforms came as a surprise, the source said, especially the new output monitoring roles.

The moves came at the same time that Tim Davie was defending BBC Arabic from the latest round of criticism, in particular over its continued reliance on Mr Atwan.

He said: “We will sometimes include in our output people whose views may cause serious offence to many in our audiences, but where we do so the potential for offence must be weighed against the public interest.”

However, his attitude was attacked as “vacuous” by former BBC Governor Baroness Ruth Deech.

The unpublicised changes come after the corporation was accused of a “culture of defensiveness” by broadcasting watchdog Ofcom.

It follows the BBC’s defence of the broadcast of a Palestinian folk-song which said “don’t leave your weapon in its sheath”, which a spokesperson insisted was not “condon[ing] violence” and deserved to be aired.

The corporation has announced significant cuts to the 200-strong BBC Arabic operation — the BBC’s largest foreign language service — with its radio station being closed down and its digital arm being relocated to Amman, Jordan, from April.

Seventy of about 150 Arabic jobs will be lost at Broadcasting House.

A BBC spokesperson said: “The BBC regularly reminds staff of our editorial guidelines, whether that is in person, in meetings or via email. In addition, for the past three years we have run successful pilots to monitor Arabic output and others for language mistakes or typos. These are not editorial roles.

"The BBC publicly announced a wider restructure of all of its language services earlier this year, which will involve recruiting for new roles across many of our services.”

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