Finally, BBC admits to ‘shoddy journalism’

Just imagine the scenario: A flagship BBC news program investigates an alleged Israeli “war crime” and levels the accusation based solely on the uncorroborated evidence of unnamed Palestinian “eyewitnesses”.

A week later, the truth comes out – the bullets that killed the Palestinian children in the incident were fired by Palestinian gunmen during a shootout between rival Islamist gangs.

The BBC’s director-general, George Entwistle admits that there have been “unacceptable journalistic standards” and stands down from his position saying it was “the honorable thing to do”.

Standing next to him, the BBC Trust’s chairman, Lord Patten says: “George has very honorably offered us his resignation because of the unacceptable mistakes — the unacceptable shoddy journalism — which has caused us so much controversy.”

You can’t imagine it? Not surprising considering the number of times that the BBC has tried to explain away shoddy journalism when it comes to reporting from Israel.

And when the BBC has got it wrong? Do heads roll? Not a chance. Part of the above scenario is real however. The BBC’s director-general has resigned over an issue of shoddy journalism after BBC Newsnight implicated a former prominent politician as a pedophile and child molester based on the say so of one source who ultimately turned out to have been mistaken.

Granted, this scandal at the BBC is the culmination of a terrible few weeks for the organization as one of their top icons, children’s TV presenter and DJ Sir Jimmy Savile, now deceased, was exposed as one of Britain’s most prolific pedophiles and sex offenders by a rival news organization. This, after the BBC’s flagship Newsnight had dropped an identical investigation for reasons that are currently subject to an external inquiry.

Reacting to the Savile revelations, a UK government minister called for fundamental transparency reforms at the BBC, stating: “I think there is a problem at the heart of the BBC, is the organization is too secretive. I think it should think now of opening itself up to freedom of information requests.”

Indeed, when it comes to a lack of transparency, the Balen Report instantly springs to mind. In 2004 the BBC commissioned Malcolm Balen, a senior editorial adviser, to investigate allegations that the BBC’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was biased. The report, widely suspected to confirm those allegations, was never publicly released and the BBC spent over £330,000 fighting a freedom of information  (FOI) request to reveal its findings.

HonestReporting tested whether or not the BBC was now more receptive to FOI requests in the aftermath of calls for transparency. We asked a relatively simple question: “What is the breakdown of expenses incurred by the BBC’s Jerusalem bureau on outsourcing and independent contractors and stringers, both Israeli and Palestinian?”

Any answer may have given us some idea as to whether the BBC is disproportionately reliant on Palestinian sources to aid its news gathering operations in Israel and the Palestinian territories.

After a few weeks, this was the BBC’s response:

The information you have requested is excluded from the [Freedom of Information] Act because it is held for the purposes of ‘journalism, art or literature.’ The BBC is therefore not obliged to provide this information to you and will not be doing so on this occasion. Part VI of Schedule 1 to FOIA provides that information held by the BBC and the other public service broadcasters is only covered by the Act if it is held for “purposes other than those of journalism, art or literature”. The BBC is not required to supply information held for the purposes of creating the BBC’s output or information that supports and is closely associated with these creative activities.

Put simply, the BBC is able to hide behind a shield if it can loosely claim that the information requested is covered by journalistic license.

As a public service broadcaster funded by UK license fee payers, the BBC should be held accountable. Certainly when it comes to the BBC’s institutional bias towards Israel, this media behemoth has managed to evade attempts to bring it to book.

Will the latest dramatic developments at the BBC force the winds of change to come sweeping through the BBC’s news and current affairs operation?

Or is it more likely that the BBC’s poisonous drip feed of anti-Israel reporting has ensured that the UK public no longer cares if Israel is the wronged party?

While “Auntie Beeb”, as the BBC is affectionately referred to, attempts to rebuild trust with its viewers and listeners, it’s sadly unlikely that reporting on Israel will be a significant factor in any reforms.

That shouldn’t stop us from imagining though.



About the Author
Simon Plosker is the Editorial Director of HonestReporting, returning to the media watchdog in October 2022, having previously been part of the organization’s management team from 2005 to 2020. Prior to his first spell at HonestReporting, Simon worked in Israel for NGO Monitor, BICOM, and served for a short period in the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit. He was Managing Editor of the Geneva-based NGO United Nations Watch for two years before deciding to rejoin the frontline defending Israel from media bias. Simon has a BSoc.Sc in International Studies and Political Science from the University of Birmingham and an MSc in History of International Relations from the London School of Economics. He immigrated to Israel in 2001 from London.