Op-ed'At times of conflict the BBC becomes a lightning conductor'

The BBC is under fire for its coverage of the Israel-Hamas war – rightly so

The outlet whose founder famously pledged to ‘educate, inform and entertain’ risks its reputation as the most trusted international news provider globally

Robert Philpot

Robert Philpot is a writer and journalist. He is the former editor of Progress magazine and the author of “Margaret Thatcher: The Honorary Jew.”

Protesters hold placards and Israeli flags outside the headquarters of the BBC in London on October 16, 2023, to appeal to the corporation to call Hamas 'terrorists.' (Daniel Leal / AFP)
Protesters hold placards and Israeli flags outside the headquarters of the BBC in London on October 16, 2023, to appeal to the corporation to call Hamas 'terrorists.' (Daniel Leal / AFP)

LONDON — The BBC’s founding father and first director-general John Reith famously declared that its purpose is to “educate, inform and entertain.”

The corporation’s coverage of Israel’s war with Hamas has arguably fallen some way short of both of those first two goals.

Instead, Britain’s public service broadcaster stands accused of failing to accurately capture the true nature of the enemy the Jewish state faces, “parroting Hamas propaganda,” and, in the words of former prime minister Naftali Bennett, “lacking moral clarity.”

Last week, the current director-general, Tim Davie, faced the wrath of Conservative MPs shortly after what might be the broadcaster’s most egregious error so far: rushing to report unverified (and untrue) claims that an Israeli airstrike was responsible for the explosion at Gaza’s Al-Ahli hospital on October 17.

Bruised and under fire, the BBC is struggling to defend itself. “Many people have extremely strong feelings about media coverage — especially the BBC’s,” Deborah Turness, the head of BBC News and Current Affairs, wrote last week. “It’s because the BBC matters that what we say — and don’t say — matters so much. At times of conflict, the BBC becomes a lightning conductor — and this war has once again seen us challenged by all sides.”

Turness is right: the BBC does matter — both in the UK and around the world. Research published by the BBC earlier this year showed that it draws a weekly global audience of 447 million people. It is the most trusted news brand in the UK and the United States, and the most trusted international news provider globally.

On its home turf, eight in 10 British adults use BBC News services on average per week — way ahead of rivals such as Sky News and ITV News. In terms of perceptions of accuracy and impartiality, the BBC similarly outperforms other UK news outlets.

Tim Davie, the Director-General of the BBC, sits in the Royal Box on Centre Court for the final of the men’s singles between Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz and Serbia’s Novak Djokovic on day 14 of the Wimbledon tennis championships in London, July 16, 2023. (AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth)

The BBC’s reputation is, in many regards, well-earned and deserved. Impartiality is its watchword: Unlike in the US, Britain has a news service that is popular among voters of both main parties. The corporation invests huge sums in news gathering and investigation, and continues to produce and broadcast high-quality current affairs programming. In Westminster, programs such as “Today” on BBC Radio 4 and “Newsnight” on BBC2 are avidly followed and help shape and set the political agenda. There’s also no doubting the bravery and professionalism of many of the journalists the BBC dispatches to war zones. Its reporting from Ukraine, for instance, continues to be first-class.

This makes the BBC’s performance over the past three weeks reporting the war with Hamas all the more dismaying. Things began to go wrong for the broadcaster on October 7, the very day Hamas unleashed its onslaught, when it aired an interview with Refaat Alareer, a lecturer at Gaza’s Islamic University who described the attacks by the “Palestinian resistance” as “legitimate and moral” and likened them to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.

Palestinian flags are waved outside the BBC Scotland building as people take part in a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel demonstration, in Glasgow on October 14, 2023, in support of “their right to resistance”. One banner reads: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — a call to destroy Israel. (Photo by Andy Buchanan/ AFP)

After complaints from UK Jewish communal leaders and MPs, the BBC, while asserting that the “offensive” comments were “robustly challenged on air,” admitted it had erred and said Alareer wouldn’t be invited back. (A brief web search could have swiftly revealed to the BBC production staff that he might be a problematic guest.)

Researchers at the pro-Israel monitoring website CAMERA-UK have also highlighted other “excuses for terror” in the BBC’s coverage of the unfolding tragedy in southern Israel.

And then, of course, there is the continuing row over the BBC’s steadfast determination not to label Hamas as “terrorists.” Instead, the broadcaster initially decided to term those who murdered over 1,400 Israeli men, women and children as “militants.” As The Times newspaper succinctly put it: “The BBC is, in effect, cloaking the evils committed by Hamas in euphemism.”

People hold placards reading ‘Save My Family’ during a tribute to the victims of the Hamas-organized massacre in Israel, at the European Parliament in Brussels, on October 11, 2023. (Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP)

The BBC has doggedly stuck to its guns despite criticism from, among others, the government, the opposition Labour Party, leading lawyers, and the chief rabbi. In protest, the Campaign Against Antisemitism led a demonstration outside the BBC’s Broadcasting House on October 16, while the Board of Deputies of British Jews complained to broadcasting regulator Ofcom.

Last updated in 2019, the BBC’s editorial guidelines argue that “terrorism” is an “emotive subject” with “significant political overtones.”

“We should not use the term ‘terrorist’ without attribution,” the guidelines state, because it is “a barrier rather than an aid to understanding.” Instead, journalists are advised to describe perpetrators using terms “such as ‘bomber,’ ‘attacker,’ ‘gunman,’ ‘kidnapper,’ ‘insurgent,’ and ‘militant.’”

Senior journalists at the BBC have defended the corporation’s stance by pointing to its founding ethos and requirement to “stay objective.”

“Terrorism is a loaded word, which people use about an outfit they disapprove of morally,” argued the respected world affairs editor John Simpson. “It’s simply not the BBC’s job to tell people who to support and who to condemn — who are the good guys and who are the bad guys.”

Protesters hold placards and wave Palestinian flags during a ‘March For Palestine’ in London on October 28, 2023, as they call for a ceasefire in the war between Israel and Hamas. (Henry Nicholls/AFP)

But Simpson’s reference to BBC wartime broadcasters not describing the Nazis as “evil or wicked” hardly helped to douse the tensions. As the defense secretary, Grant Shapps, said: “When you start to cite the Nazis in any argument you’ve basically lost it.”

The BBC’s defense has been weakened by plentiful evidence of other instances where, as the Board of Deputies noted, the broadcaster has used “the language of ‘terrorism’ in recent times.”

The BBC, for instance, didn’t hold back from describing 9/11, the 2005 London bombings and the 2015 Bataclan Theatre attack in Paris as “terror” attacks. Indeed, at the very moment that it was making the case that describing Hamas as terrorists would breach its editorial guidelines, the BBC reported the shooting of two Swedish nationals in Brussels as a “terror attack.” (The BBC quickly changed the headline on its story about the Belgium attack and claimed the initial headline was a mistake.)

After meeting with the Board of Deputies late last month, the BBC shifted its position, confirming it would drop “militants” as its default description and instead refer to Hamas as a group “proscribed as a terrorist organization by the UK government and others,” or simply use “Hamas.”

However, that partial climbdown was overshadowed by the row over the BBC’s reporting of the Al-Ahli hospital blast. “Hundreds feared dead or injured in Israeli airstrike on hospital in Gaza, Palestinian officials say,” read a BBC news alert, failing to make clear that “Palestinian officials” means Hamas. Predictably, the BBC tweet was swiftly and widely shared by, among others, England’s leading clergyman, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

An overview of the al-Ahli Hospital (center) in Gaza City after a deadly explosion on October 17, which according to AP video analysis and other investigations was likely caused by a failed rocket launch from within the enclave. (Satellite image ©2023 Maxar Technologies via AP)

The BBC’s coverage on its news programs compounded this initial error. “It is hard to see what else this could be… given the size of the explosion, other than an Israeli airstrike or several airstrikes,” a BBC reporter speculated. Later, a more senior BBC correspondent commented on air: “The Israeli army urged caution about what it called the unverified claims of a terrorist organization. That statement will not be believed by Palestinians and millions of others in the Middle East.”

As the Board of Deputies’ lawyers wrote in a complaint to the BBC, “Full credence was given to the Hamas line, and the Israeli line was treated dismissively.” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tartly and accurately responded in the House of Commons: “If we don’t treat what comes out of the Kremlin as the gospel truth, we should not do the same with Hamas.”

But by then the damage was done: cities throughout the Middle East and Europe exploded in anger, with attacks on synagogues in Berlin and Tunisia, and US President Joe Biden’s meeting with Arab leaders in Jordan kiboshed.

The BBC was not alone in its errors and, as Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff rightly argued, “It would be wrong to pretend that without its reporting, the Arab streets would have somehow calmly shrugged off an explosion at a hospital during an Israeli bombardment of Gaza.” The BBC has admitted and apologized for elements of its coverage — “we accept that even in this fast-moving situation it was wrong to speculate in this way about the possible causes” — and said it will do more to “increase clarity and accuracy in breaking news.” Its news alerts and headlines, for instance, will adopt a new formula, starting with the source of the claim, rather than the claim itself. So instead of reporting: “Hundreds killed, X claims,” the BBC says, it will start: “X claims hundreds killed.”

Hundreds of Moroccans take part in a protest, in Rabat, Morocco, October 17, 2023, in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza following an explosion near the Al-Ahli, or Baptist hospital, which was inaccurately ascribed to the IDF. (AP Photo)

Unsurprisingly, UK media reports say the BBC’s newsrooms are fraught and feeling the heat of the spotlight the broadcaster is under. “Staff have been crying in the toilets and freelancers have been sacrificing earnings by not showing up to work because of the distress caused,” one insider told The Times. “Many people are feeling deeply disturbed.”

Indeed, while some Jewish staff are reportedly angered by their bosses’ refusal to call Hamas terrorists, other employees are accusing the corporation of going soft on Israel. A widely shared and reported email to Davie from a BBC correspondent based in Beirut, for instance, claimed: “Words like ‘massacre,’ ‘slaughter’ and ‘atrocities’ are being used prominently in reference to actions by Hamas, but hardly, if at all, in reference to actions by Israel. Does this not raise the question of the possible complicity of the BBC in incitement, dehumanization and war propaganda?”

At the same time, six BBC Arabic staff have reportedly been taken off air for posting messages on social media appearing to support Hamas. Back in the UK, the i newspaper reported that the head of the BBC’s Asian Network radio station retweeted a post calling Israel’s military operations in Gaza a “genocide.”

The problem for the BBC is that the current controversies in which it is enmeshed appear part of a pattern of alleged anti-Israel bias. Such allegations run back years, but even evidence from the past 12 months paints a worrying picture.

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett (right) in a BBC interview during which anchor Anjana Gadgil put it to him that the Israel Defense Forces ‘are happy to kill children’ in the Jenin operation, July 4, 2023. (Youtube screenshot; used in accordance with clause 27a of the copyright law)

Just four months ago, for instance, the Board of Deputies said it was “appalled” after a BBC presenter engaged in a testy exchange with Bennett about IDF operations against terrorists in Jenin. “The Israeli forces are happy to kill children,” Anjana Gadgil stated after the former prime minister had told her that “all the Palestinians that were killed are terrorists, in this case.”

“What would you call a 17-year-old person with a rifle, shooting at your family and murdering your own family? How would you define that person,” Bennett responded angrily. (The BBC later apologized and admitted that, while a legitimate subject to examine, the “language used in this line of questioning was not phrased well and was inappropriate.”)

The researcher David Collier has detailed “one-sided reporting” in the BBC’s coverage of Israeli military operations in Jenin this summer, concluding: “You would expect this from online propaganda outfits. It is deeply disturbing to see it from the BBC.”

Last autumn, the broadcaster’s decision to invite controversial commentator Abdel Bari Atwan onto its programs sparked an open letter to Davie signed by 36 parliamentarians and public figures, including the former Conservative party leader Michael Howard, historians Prof. Andrew Roberts and Simon Sebag Montefiore, and the actor Tracy-Ann Oberman. Atwan has allegedly praised terrorists as “martyrs,” termed their attacks as “miracles,” and equated a deadly bombing in Jerusalem to a football tournament. (The BBC is now believed to have stopped using Atwan as a pundit as part of a series of reforms to its Arabic news service.)

Al-Quds al-Arabi editor Abdel Bari Atwan. (Screen capture/YouTube)

Mounting concerns have led a cross-party group of MPs and peers to launch an investigation of the BBC’s coverage of Jews and Israel.

The Jewish Chronicle, which played a pivotal role in securing the inquiry and has published a series of probes into the BBC, revealed this summer that the Arabic news channel had been forced by complaints to issue more than 130 corrections since early 2021. The corrections, focused on stories concerning Israel and Jewish affairs, averaged more than one a week, the JC claimed.

The BBC is by no means unique in facing accusations of anti-Israel bias. Just last week, for instance, ITV News was forced to apologize after airing an interview with a reporter from Iran’s Press TV who had described Hamas’s October 7 terror onslaught as a “homecoming by the Palestinian resistance.”

Nor is it the only British broadcaster hesitating to label Hamas as “terrorists.” As the BBC argues, while ITV sometimes refers to Hamas as “terrorists,” other rival broadcasters such as Sky News and ITN have routinely labeled them “militants” and “fighters.”

And BBC journalists have not shied away from rigorously questioning representatives of Hamas. Predictably for an organization not known for its love of press freedom, one such interview came to an abrupt end last week with the terror group’s former deputy foreign minister abruptly taking off his microphone and stalking out when he was asked how he could “justify killing people as they sleep.”

Ghazi Hamad, a member of Hamas’s political bureau, speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in Beirut, Lebanon, October 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

It is also worth remembering that the BBC has routinely clashed with past UK governments over its reporting of conflicts in which British forces are engaged.

During the 1982 Falklands War between Britain and Argentina, for instance, the corporation enraged the Thatcher government by maintaining its policy of impartiality. In one famous incident, a BBC Newsnight presenter appeared to cast doubt on information issued by the UK military, saying: “If we believe the British.” The media and Tory MPs reacted furiously, describing the remarks as “almost treasonable.” Another BBC program was labeled an “odious, subversive travesty” by cabinet ministers. The broadcaster hardly helped itself with statements such as “it is not the BBC’s role to boost British troops’ morale,” and “the widow in Portsmouth is no different from the widow of Buenos Aires.” BBC bosses later recognized the need to be “sensitive to the emotional sensibilities of the public.”

Four years later, Thatcher’s decision to allow US planes to use bases in Britain to bomb Libya provoked another row between the BBC and the government. The Conservative party went so far as to issue a dossier accusing the BBC coverage of being “riddled with inaccuracy, innuendo and imbalance.” Throughout this period there were also sporadic clashes between the broadcaster and Thatcher’s ministers over its reporting of the government’s approach to combating the terrorist campaign waged by the Irish Republican Army. Ministers’ efforts to get the BBC to drop a documentary that featured an interview with a Republican paramilitary in 1985 even led to a strike by journalists which blacked out news coverage for 24 hours.

During an official state visit to Israel in 1986, prime minister Shimon Peres and British prime minister Margaret Thatcher chat during a bus drive in the Negev. (Herman Chanania/GPO)

And it isn’t just Conservative governments with which the BBC has had a sometimes tense relationship. A BBC report that claimed former British prime minister Tony Blair had deliberately misled parliament in the weeks running up to the 2003 Iraq war led to the establishment of a judicial inquiry. It eventually cleared Blair, accused the BBC of broadcasting “unfounded allegations,” and led to the resignation of the corporation’s director-general and chairman.

The BBC’s attempts to strive for impartiality and objectivity are noble ones. Its willingness to anger British governments of various political stripes — and their allies around the world — is an inevitable consequence of that objective. The question is not whether the broadcaster should abandon those goals when it comes to reporting on Israel. Rather, it is whether the BBC is truly objective and accurate in its coverage of the Jewish state and those who seek to destroy it.

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