Systematic BBC Arabic bias revealed

A JC investigation shows a pattern of anti-Israel bias and inaccuracies


The BBC’s Arabic service stands accused of ignoring the corporation’s own impartiality guidelines as a JC investigation reveals large numbers of examples of apparent anti-Israel bias and inaccuracies.

Alleged infringements include systematically downplaying terror attacks on Israelis; repeatedly using Hamas-inspired language; showcasing extreme views without challenge; and publishing a map in which Israel was erased.

A detailed dossier of apparent breaches was handed to Broadcasting House this week. A BBC spokesperson responded: “BBC 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.”

Today, the JC discloses that the BBC was forced to acknowledge 25 mistakes in its Arabic coverage of Israel in just over two years, issuing on average nearly one correction every month.

One high-profile BBC apology came after Ahlam Al-Tamimi — a Hamas terrorist who masterminded the killing of 15 Israelis in 2001 before becoming a celebrity in Jordan — was the focus of a fawning BBC story last October, causing concern and distress to the victims’ families.

“I apologise for this lapse in our editorial standards,” Jamie Angus, head of the World Service, said in response to the outrage. “[We] will ensure that the appropriate lessons are learned.” 

But Arnold Roth, 69, whose teenage daughter was killed in Al-Tamimi’s 2001 plot, responded: “From the poison they are putting out, I sense a toxic culture at BBC Arabic.

“My encounters with senior management left me with the feeling that they actually don’t know what’s going on there.”

Other BBC apologies have been issued for describing Jerusalem as “the occupied city”, the Israeli army as the “Israeli Occupation Forces” and the PLO as “the Palestinian Resistance” in Arabic language coverage.

The service has also repeatedly referred to the West Bank, Gaza and even Israel as “Palestine”, despite its own style guide outlawing the term, as “there is no independent state of Palestine today”. In 2017, the channel was forced to apologise after it referred to victims of a terror attack as “nine Jewish settlers”. In fact, four of the dead were not Jewish and none of the victims were settlers.

In a concerning sign, the corporation employed a correspondent who had formerly worked at the Hezbollah-owned TV station Al-Manar. The channel was designated a “Terrorist Entity” by the United States after the US claimed that a member of Al-Manar staff had carried out military surveillance for the Lebanese terror group, under cover of his job. It was found to be providing support to a variety of active terrorist organisations.

A different journalist who also worked at the Hezbollah-run channel was recruited to work for BBC Arabic in senior editorial roles over a period of more than 10 years, with responsibility for shaping the channel’s output as recently as last year.

BBC Arabic has also regularly given a platform to the British-Palestinian pundit Abdel Bari Atwan, who caused fury when he said on Lebanese TV that if Iran attacked Israel, he would “go to Trafalgar Square and dance with delight.”

Some of Atwan’s controversial views have been presented on BBC Arabic without the “appropriate challenge and / or other context,” demanded by BBC guidelines, analysts from CAMERA, an NGO that monitors media reporting on the Middle East, said.

Atwan did not respond to requests for comment.

In another incident last May, BBC Arabic showcased social media comments which celebrated a sci-fi drama that envisioned the destruction of the Jewish state.

The corporation has also appeared to depart from editorial standards in its Arabic output with respect to reporting terror attacks.

According to the BBC style guide, journalists must “report acts of terror quickly, accurately, fully and responsibly”.

But while the BBC reported in English on 34 fatal terror attacks on Israeli civilians between 2015 and 2020, its Arabic service covered just 25 of these, analysts said, seriously downplaying the extent of Palestinian brutality.

Hadar Selah from CAMERA said:  “When Israel conducts military action in Gaza, Arabic language viewers don’t understand the reasons for the incursion because they haven’t had the full background.”

In October, the corporation released new impartiality guidelines, to be enforced by its new Executive Sponsor Safeguarding Impartiality, Ken McQuarrie, who is paid £325,000-a-year. The pattern of infractions is an example of “revealed preferences” and contravenes the corporations own standards, a former senior BBC insider told the JC.

The source said: “If the trend is to stick to issues or analysis only from one side, then you have a problem. This is what we call ‘revealed preferences’.

“While you can explain away individual examples, you need to ask yourself why you are always explaining away in one direction and never the other. That suggests a problem.

“If the BBC wants to protect its reputation for impartiality, it needs to reform its Arabic channel.”

Whistleblowers described a “toxic atmosphere” in the BBC Arabic newsroom, meaning staff were afraid to voice their concerns about bias. “You go through the door to the BBC Arabic department in Broadcasting House in London and it’s like you’ve stepped into a world with different standards,” one employee said.

“It’s a totally different culture inside there. There is a sense that journalists feel free and entitled to follow their own agendas rather than BBC impartiality. It can be quite intimidating.”

Dr Noha Mellor, Professor of Media at the University of Bedfordshire and a foremost expert on journalism in the Arab world, told the JC that journalists working for BBC Arabic often saw themselves as “non-elected representatives of their people”.

As such, some follow their own ideologies rather than BBC guidelines, she claimed. Those who did not conform to the prevailing culture — such as Coptic Christians — have reported facing discrimination in the newsroom.

“In pan-Arab newsrooms, each Arab journalist tends to come with a different kind of baggage of ideologies, working traditions, values and practices,” she said.

“I have seen Palestinian journalists who see themselves as the expert when it comes to Palestinian affairs.”

Dr Mellor added that she had noticed that BBC Arabic’s coverage of the recent Israel-Arab peace accords had been overly negative, despite the fact that they were welcomed in some parts of the Arab world.

“Maybe they were afraid that if they tried to portray the normalisation as a fantastic thing, their audience might think of them as making propaganda,” she said. “I have seen many journalists thinking this way.

“I think they’re wrong. We can see the Gulf channels, for example Al Arabiya based in Dubai, saying positive things about normalisation.”

BBC News Arabic, which is run by the World Service and funded from the television licence fee or the Foreign Office, has an audience of more than 36 million people worldwide.

Director-General Tim Davie, who was appointed last September, has called for the BBC to renew its commitment to impartiality, in the wake of dwindling trust in the broadcaster.

Upon taking up his role, Mr Davie told BBC staff: “If you want to be an opinionated columnist or a partisan campaigner on social media then that is a valid choice, but you should not be working at the BBC.”

BBC coverage of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is always controversial, with staff privately expressing frustration at the fact that their output comes under fire from both sides.

A spokesman for the corporation said: “BBC Arabic’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 that shape all of BBC output.

“BBC 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.

“BBC Arabic is an award-winning service and valued as a trustworthy and impartial source of news in what is a highly polarised media landscape; its large audience across the Middle East, and on all sides of the conflicts which divide the region, is testament to this.”


Difficult to 'keep tabs' on their output: Dr Noha Mellor, Professor of Media at the University of Bedfordshire, is a leading expert in journalism in the Arab world

"Spmetimes I feel that the journalists in pan-Arab channels think of themselves as the non-elected representatives of ‘their’ people.

"Inside the newsroom, there have been staff members who have felt they’ve been discriminated against based on their religion. I know of someone there who felt that he was treated unfairly because he was a Coptic Christian.  There is a difference between BBC Arabic and BBC English. A BBC Arabic journalist will tell you they are not simply translators but journalists in their own right British journalists, even the Arabic speakers, are unable to keep tabs on every aspect of BBC Arabic output.

"BBC Arabic, like other pan-Arab newsrooms, is usually more focused on hard news and politics than human interest stories, because they think that is what their audience wants.

“If you ask any journalist in pan-Arab newsrooms, including the BBC Arabic, why they cover the news in the way they do, they will say, ‘Our audiences expect us to do that’. But how do they know what their audiences want?”


"There's a toxic culture" - Arnold Roth, the father of 15-year-old Malki Roth who was murdered in a 2001 terror attack in Jerusalem, won an apology from the BBC after it broadcast a fawning interview with his daughter’s killer.

"To judge from the poison they are putting out, there’s a toxic culture at BBC Arabic. My encounter with senior BBC management made me feel they don’t know what’s going on.

“The BBC’s apology, when it finally came, was empty and cruel. I was stunned by the coldness of the corporation’s formalistic, painting-by-numbers reaction to the outrage. They have misplaced their moral compass.

“No credible news organisation should ever give a platform to someone who boasts of blowing children to pieces. 

“How did they dare depict the bomber as a victim? Victims and dead children weren’t mentioned. Nor that Tamimi confesses to everything. 

“This isn’t journalism. It’s the advocacy of pushing their own hateful views. She confessed to all the charges in court and is unabashedly proud of what she has done. Yet BBC Arabic wants to treat her like Joan of Arc.

“I believe in senior management’s good faith but fear they don’t fully grasp the BBC Arabic agenda. The language barrier leads, I suspect, to the Arabic producers and reporters playing BBC senior people for fools.”

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