Reporting unverified Hamas claim is like throwing petrol on a burning building

BBC logo (Jewish News)
BBC logo (Jewish News)

The BBC has apologised for “reporting an unverified Hamas claim” that the Israeli army carried out “summary executions” of “Palestinian civilians in Gaza.”

In other words, the BBC has admitted doing precisely what many of us have been alleging they’ve been doing since at least the mid-1990s. That is, treating unverified claims made by Israel’s sworn enemies as if they were verified facts. And reporting such claims as “news.”

Though it doubtless originated from  Palestinian spin doctors who know this kind of egregious claim will be welcomed by correspondents in newsrooms across the globe, the source of this particular “story” appears to be the French news agency AFP. Its report stated that Hamas had “gathered testimonies” alleging that “137 Palestinians had been executed” by the IDF since the start of Israel’s operation.

The BBC apology concedes that it “knew this was a Hamas claim ” and “knew” that AFP “could not verify the claim.” But it went right ahead and ran a story in “overnight output” – Radio news bulletins to you and me – accusing the Israeli army  of “carrying out summary executions in the Gaza Strip.”

“Overnight output” would, of course, also include the BBC website. And from there it would be repeated and replicated and appear online everywhere.

Talk about throwing petrol on a burning building, BBC.

Attempting to put a gloss on its decision to use the story, the BBC statement  notes that the report carried a “response” from the Israeli military and used the “Hamas is designated a terrorist organisation” formula. But it also defends its use of the unverified report by claiming the accusations were “attributed.” Oh yes, silly me, Hamas had “gathered testimonies.” That is, a terror organisation which has been raining rockets on Israel for almost a decade, whose members swarmed into Israel on Oct 7th unprovoked – except of course for the provocation of Israel’s existence – and slaughtered, mutilated, raped, burned alive and butchered 1,300 civilians and abducted 100s more including babies and young children. Oh, that Hamas had “gathered testimonies” that it handed to AFP who in turn filed a report to the BBC which then told the world in “overnight output.”

The statement admits they had “not made sufficient effort to seek corroborating evidence” and apologises for this “mistake.” But this is far than a “mistake.” This is a perfect example of the kind of deadly serious – and possibly deadly – newsroom failures that many individuals and organisations have been calling out for decades.

This newsroom activity fuels the fraudulent narrative that Palestinian spin doctors have been peddling to a receptive media for decades. And that in turn feeds antisemitism, as the BBC may be starting to realise as it reports on rising antisemitic hate-crime.

But most of all,  BBC, you can’t un-ring a bell. The peal of the bell – yet another unverified allegation – was heard loud and clear. Those who heard it can’t unhear it. And who will hear the apology?

Mainly we Jews pay attention to apologies and corrections. And they are printed, not heard. And not likely to be high on internet searches. As a Jewish employee of the BBC told one newspaper, unless the apology was given the same prominence as the original allegation, it’s of no use. And because it follows from so many other unverified allegations reported as “fact” those hearing it will believe it.  Confirmation bias, anyone? Ironically, there is hardly a better example of the cumulative effect of the reporting  of unverified allegations as “events” than the juxtaposition of the BBC apology and a Times headline. This reads: “Cameron: I worry that Israel has broken international law.” Ignoring Sam Cam’s attendance at a pro-Palestine stronghold Exeter Uni, which may have influenced Lord Cameron’s views, we must  assume that at least some part of his perceptions on Israel derive from decades of “reports” based on unverified allegations.

The Balen Report might enlighten us about  these newsroom failures, though probably not whether they are due to human failings (you know, laziness, ambition, stupidity or naivety) or  to active bias. So come on BBC, come clean. Let us read about the newsroom practices that you have been covering up for 20 years. Let us judge for ourselves whether you contributed to the embedding of  a fake anti-Israel narrative.

It may help you avoid causing further harm to Israel and Jewish people. You know you’ll feel better.

About the Author
Jan Shure held senior editorial roles at the Jewish Chronicle for three decades. and previously served as deputy editor of the Jewish Observer. She is an author and freelance writer and wrote regularly for the Huffington Post until 2018. In 2012 she took a break from journalism to be a web entrepreneur.