The Government appointed Culture, Media and Sport Committee (DCMS) has been taking evidence, both oral and written to determine the Future of the BBC, ahead of its current Royal Charter ending in December 2016. The BBC charter is renewable every decade, which represents a once in 10 year opportunity to have any input into BBC functionality. A brief glance at some of the evidence the DCMS has published, shows a general dissatisfaction with the in-house BBC complaints procedure. Randomly chosen from the DCMS website, Ian McNulty, writes:
“My own conclusions are that the BBC will go to any lengths necessary to avoid admitting anything but the most self-evident mistakes, including breaking its own Editorial Guidelines and flying in the face of reason. Moreover, this culture of misrepresentation, denial and prejudice against non-consensus views is systemic and institutionalized at every level of the organization, from the bottom to the top.”
With the focus on BBC Middle East reporting and its effects on the rise of anti-Semitism in the UK, Campaign4Truth together with BBC Watch/Camera (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) presented three extraordinary UK events that brought record numbers to hear the rationale for the proposals presented to the DCMS this year.
Of particular concern are three areas that encompass historical record, the complaints system and anti-Semitism and extremism. The proposal includes recommendations to ensure:
- the implementation of a recognised study course in the history, culture and geography of the region for all those working out of the Middle East;
- the complaints system be transferred to an external body;
- that the BBC work according to an accepted definition of anti-Semitism.
BBC News provides coverage to over a quarter of a billion people across the world and is therefore the most influential news broadcaster. In 2013 the Director of BBC World Service Group responded to the CPS report:
“…Our priority is to deliver the best services for all our audiences at home and abroad and in that we are pleased to say we are succeeding with record audiences abroad and more listeners and viewers at home than any other of our competitors.
We are rigorously policed by the BBC Trust, our own editorial guidelines and our own audiences. More importantly, we remain the most trusted news broadcaster in the UK…”
In his Future of News Project report in January 2015, the Director of [BBC] News and Current Affairs said:
“…The job of the news is to keep everyone informed – to enable us to be better citizens, equipped with what we need to know. In the exciting, uneven and noisy internet age, the need for news – accurate and fair, insightful and independent – is greater than ever.”
Does the BBC live up to these claims and to audience expectations? Is an in-house complaints system fit for purpose in 2015 when most other regulatory bodies have outsourced complaints to the independent sector such as an ombudsman, Ofcom, Ofsted? Does the BBC meet its expectation to be accurate and fair, insightful and independent? How does this BBC aim sit alongside a free press, unencumbered by input that is set to frame the notion of what a better citizen might be?
To examine these issues panels were assembled for the three events that included world experts in their field. Prof Richard Landes set the overview for what he terms lethal or own-goal journalism, a concept in which journalists report propaganda as news to the detriment of their own societies. He explained: “It is how Robert Fisk of the Independent newspaper can get away with a statement like “when I hear ‘caught in the line of fire’, I know the Israelis have been targeting children again.” and “If the wider population knew of the damage this ‘own goal’ journalism was causing, they would be more inclined to listen.” rather than condemn the messenger as extremist.
Honing in on how the media in general in the greater Middle East presents information about Israel and Jews, Dr Denis MacEoin drew attention to the fantasy world inhabited by the clergy, TV personalities and reporters across the Muslim Middle East, in which Jews are depicted in the most vile and vulgar caricatures, evoking the ancient Blood Libel of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion”. He speculated that it would take an entire army of PR experts to change the pervading anti-Semitic Middle Eastern narrative.
Lesley Klaff, resonated with the audience when she focussed on the effect of BBC Israel reportage on Jews in the UK. She highlighted specific instances like “first Last reporting” as termed by BBC Watch’s Hadar Sela, in which the BBC habitually highlights the death of a terrorist before placing that in the context of a prior non reported provocation, in many instances the indiscriminate stabbing of Jews in Israeli streets or the launch of Gazan rockets into Israel. “You get a lot of tropes for your money in BBC’s Panorama.” She said. As well as Israel’s so called colonialist pretensions, anti-Zionist Jews who are useful for shielding the BBC against claims of anti-Semitism play the part of “high value witnesses” against Jews. Panorama makes use of the theme of the self-hating Jew: “I am a Jew, a British Jew,” says Wishart in his Panorama programme “The train that divides Jerusalem”. Receiving many complaints about the imbalance and bias of this programme, a BBC spokeswoman responded: “It explored the tensions in Jerusalem through the eyes of a British Jewish filmmaker, reflecting what he witnessed in the city and hearing from a range of voices expressing alternate views”.
Baroness Deech, and Jonathan Turner, covered the BBC complaints procedures for these events. Jonathan Turner described the practicalities of using the BBC complaints system, a process Byzantine in its complexity and capacity for self-protection. “Its role is to provide reasons and to use every trick in the book to reject complaints, deterring all but the most determined complainants.” Anyone who was sufficiently resolute to negotiate the BBC’s complaints system could find himself still embedded in its layers of bureaucracy a full two years later.
In 2012/13 Neil Turner (unrelated) and Sharon Klaff requested information from the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act about the total number of complaints upheld (ie the BBC made a correction) over the previous five years. The BBC attempted to use the Balen decision whereby a request for information could be refused in terms of art, literature and journalism. After a year of protracted effort, a formal appeal, and the threat of legal fees, the BBC volunteered (although not as an FoI admission) that it had received over 1.2 Million complaints, and that only 166, less than 0.014% were ultimately upheld at Stage 2, by the Editorial Complaints Unit.
The BBC seems to be amongst the last of the major corporations that still monitors itself in-house and it is time for change on this level. Like Jonathan Turner, Baroness Deech stated her preference for the in-house BBC complaints system to be handed over to an independent ombudsman rather than to Ofcom.
To complete the shape of the events Hadar Sela of BBC Watch, set up in 2012, presented evidence of all of the above from the extensive record she has acquired during that time. Hadar writes at least one daily bulletin on BBC misreporting across the service as well as malicious chat board and web page content. She explained the proposal presented to the DCMS select committee and told the audience that their help would be required over the coming year to ensure that the proposal is heard by the Parliamentary Select Committee. To this end the proposal and a template for general use will be posted on the BBC website with links mailed to the attendees of these events. (Anyone wishing to receive these should send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org)
Hadar also introduced Joelle Reid, the first Camera intern on campus in the UK. Joelle hit the ground running by bringing some 25 university students to these events, who not only came along, but who participated in the discussions. It was here that we heard of the vigil held on campus for the murderers who have intensified the stabbing of civilians in the streets of Israel over the last 6 weeks. Baroness Deech has reached out to these students and will be consulting with them directly.
These meetings were packed to capacity at the House of Commons, where Mike Freer MP hosted an audience of 70, in Finchley Synagogue where in excess of 500 people packed into the Kinloss Suite, focussing intensely for some three hours with only a short break to stretch their legs, and in Manchester where an audience of 100 were hosted by the ZCC. The audiences represented a cross section of society from the Jewish community, Christian Zionists, CUFI as well as religious and secular Jews and non-Jews. By all accounts this was the most comprehensive, stimulating series of events presented on the Jewish calendar this year that alone set the agenda to make representation to the DCMS select committee and provide a platform for what is currently of great concern to the Jewish community.
When we set out to organise these events we never dreamed that so many people would respond and indeed turn up at all. In these times when anti-Semitism is on the rise, when the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition is also a leading member of the PSC (Palestine Solidarity Campaign), a man who in the past has appeared at many anti-Israel meetings and marches, taking his place amongst members of the Red/Green alliance set to delegitimise both Israel and the Jewish nation, when the EU has passed a directive to label Israeli goods so as to entrench the Pallywood notion of an occupation and settlers, at the same time that Yachad presents its flawed poll regarding British Jews’ views of Israel, there is clearly a need we feel as a community, for answers to questions that possibly have no immediate solutions, but if we don’t speak out, who will speak for us?
Douglas Murray asked last summer “since when did it happen that Jews can’t speak out for themselves?” This last week we heard that we can, as people came in their droves to hear and to be heard. If as individuals we each have a unique voice that sits within the larger community, imagine the roar of that voice if it is joined together in a single chorus. It is that bond of community that gives us strength.
Our speakers laid the ground for deeper understanding, but overall the question that is most asked of us is why we focus on the BBC when most other outlets are not dissimilar. For me it is clear. The BBC as a state broadcaster belongs to us, the stakeholders and yet we feel unable to hold this monolith to account. In receiving questions ahead of the meetings, what stood out was what happened to the Balen report. How is it possible that a state broadcaster in the seat of democracy can hide a report that we paid for under the guise of derogation in terms of art, literature and journalism and Official Secret privilege? Well maybe we can’t look back, but going forward we hope that the All Party Select Committee will take cognisance of our proposals for improved accountability and training to be entrenched in any future BBC Charter that is truly independent, transparent and accountable to its stakeholders.