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Dimbleby: fearful BBC risks losing its way

By Jonathan Dimbleby / 13 May, 2009

jeremy-bowenThe BBC Trust’s condemnation of Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen has the potential to cause serious damage to the corporation’s international standing, says Jonathan Dimbleby

The decision by the BBC Trust to censure the BBC’s Middle East editor for breaching the corporation’s guidelines on accuracy and impartiality deserve closer scrutiny than it has yet been given. Jeremy Bowen is justly regarded as one of the BBC’s most courageous, authoritative and thoughtful broadcasters; his hundreds of despatches and commentaries from various frontlines in the Middle East have been noted for their acuity and balance. Now, thanks to the Trust’s Editorial Standards Committee (ESC) — a body with the absolute and final authority of a latter-day Star Chamber — not only has Bowen’s hard-won reputation been sullied, but the BBC’s international status as the best source of trustworthy news in the world has been gratuitously — if unintentionally — undermined.

Not surprisingly, BBC journalists and news executives are aghast at the Trust’s blundering response to a series of complaints — from two individuals only — that, astonishingly, were given the full red-carpet treatment. Forget the here-today, gone-tomorrow headlines in the British media which gave the usual suspects in parts of the media yet another chance to bash the BBC. Far more disturbing is the impact of the ESC’s verdict on the BBC’s international reputation and on the morale of its staff in a news division which more than any other part of the corporation provides the BBC with its defining 21st century purpose.

The cause of this self-inflicted wound is an essay Bowen wrote for the BBC News website to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. “How 1967 defined the Middle East” is a concise outline of the origins and consequences of the conflict, which was written in characteristically measured prose and would be regarded by any one who follows the Middle East in any detail as the conventional wisdom of those who do not have an axe to grind on either side of the conflict. But Bowen’s commentary provoked two passionate Zionists — a lawyer called Jonathan Turner who is a member of the Zionist Federation and Gilead Ini, a lobbyist for an American Zionist organisation called CAMERA (the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America).

In very similar terms, these sole complainants subjected Bowen’s piece to line-by-line scrutiny and — not surprisingly — found therein a mass of confirming evidence of the bias both organisations believe to be endemic in the BBC coverage of the Middle East. Turner also complained about a later report by Bowen from Har Homa, the controversial Israeli settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem, which was broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent programme.

Between them, Turner and Ini detected 24 examples of Bowen’s “bias” in the online article and four in his From Our Own Correspondent report. In both cases their complaints went all the way through a tortuous procedure that started with an exhaustive exchange of correspondence between BBC News and the two complainants before the issue reached the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU), the second stage of the BBC’s exhaustive complaints process. The ECU’s task was doubtless complicated by the perplexing fact that one of the complainants did not conceal his view (reported on page 29 of the Trust’s 119 page report) that the BBC’s guidelines — under which his complaints were being considered — were “unlawful and invalid, and indeed their adoption by the BBC was a disgrace”. When the ECU eventually rejected the case against Bowen, Turner and Ini duly appealed to the Trust, which in its own words is the “final court of appeal if complainants are unhappy with the way their complaint has been dealt with by the management.”

Only one member of the Trust’s six-person Editorial Standards Committee has a track record as a senior news executive — its chairman Richard Tait (who was eminent both at the BBC and latterly at ITN). However, on the fateful day that the Trust made its ruling, Richard Tait was notable by his absence. In his place the meeting was chaired by David Liddiment, who is admired as a TV entertainment wizard and former Director of Programmes at ITV but whose experience of the dilemmas posed by news and current affairs, especially in relation to the bitterly contested complexities of the Middle East is, perforce, limited. Liddiment’s four colleagues — a member of the Food Standards Agency, a member of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, a former regional newspaper editor who is now a “media consultant”, and an investment banker – have no credentials to suggest that collectively they have any significant knowledge or experience of the Middle East. They would seem to have been heavily dependent on the advisor appointed by the ESC, who in turn consulted two specialist historians (why only two, one wonders, when for every hundred such historians there are at least a hundred different views?).

The Trust’s verdict was delivered on 3 March and released in the middle of April. It was precise and unequivocal: Bowen had breached three “accuracy” and one “impartiality” guideline in his online article, and one “accuracy” guideline in the From Our Own Correspondent report. BBC executives were compelled to re-edit Bowen’s article accordingly:

(1) To meet the ESC’s verdict that one paragraph had failed to use the “clear, precise language” required by the “accuracy” guidelines, Bowen’s original text, which referred to the 1967 war as a chance to “finish the unfinished business of Israel’s independence war of 1948”,was duly amended to define “the unfinished business” as “the capture of East Jerusalem”.

(2) On the same grounds, a reference to Zionism’s “innate instinct to push out the frontier” was amended to “the tendency with Zionism to push out the frontier”. (Perversely in this context, one of the two complainants had freely acknowledged in earlier correspondence with the BBC [page 33 of the report] that Zionism has indeed “sought to expand the area of the Jewish people’s historic homeland settled by Jews”; it was tone of Bowen’s observation, not the content, to which he claimed to object.)

(3) Similarly Bowen’s statement to the effect that with the expansion of settlements Israel was “in defiance of everyone’s interpretation of international law except it own” was amended to “in defiance of almost all countries’ interpretation of international law except its own”. (In the context Bowen’s reference to “international law”, it is surely inconceivable that an intelligent reader would conclude that “everyone” might be interpreted to refer to every sentient inhabitant of the planet).

(4) The ESC concluded that the BBC’s Middle East editor “should have done more to explain that were alternative views on the subject which had some weight” to protect readers from concluding that “the interpretation offered [by Bowen] was the only sensible view of the war”. This alleged breach of the “impartiality” guideline obliged BBC executives to preface a paragraph in the offending article which originally began “The myth of the 1967 Middle East was that the Israeli David slew the Arab Goliath” with the phrase, “While historians hold different views on the 1967 war, one school of thought is that it is a myth…” Are licence fee payers really not aware that there are many schools of thought about the 1967 war?

The ESC judged Bowen’s From Our Own Correspondent report to have breached the guidelines on “accuracy” (though not on “impartiality”) when he reported that the Har Homa settlement on the edge of Jerusalem was considered “illegal” by the United States. As he explained to the committee, he made this statement on the basis of what he described as an authoritative source from within the US administration. The ESC did not question the Middle East editor’s good faith, but concluded that he “had stated his professional view without qualification or explanation, and that the lack of precision in his language had rendered the statement inaccurate”. (What lack of precision? Either his assertion was accurate or inaccurate; true or false. That he did not cite a source for his claim — in a tightly written article of 750 words — is another matter: it only renders his statement “inaccurate” in Kafka’s kingdom. As it happens, in the very same week of the broadcast, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, informed the Jerusalem Post that “Har Homa is a settlement the United States has opposed from the very beginning.”)

And that is the sum total of Bowen’s “offence”: a phrase here, a qualification there. After an inquiry that lasted almost two years, which must have consumed weeks of Bowen’s time — let alone a bonfire of TV licences — the Trust has laboured mightily to bring forth a mouse. But when the reputation of the BBC is at stake, such mice roar. For the Trust to conclude baldly on the basis of such nugatory fragments that a senior BBC journalist had committed a cardinal offence — the editorial guidelines are rightly regarded as a lodestar for all BBC correspondents — and to publish this verdict without qualification or comment was bound to call into public question the integrity of BBC journalism and to undermine confidence within the news division of the corporation itself. To think otherwise is, at best, naïve.

The two organisations to which Turner and Ini are attached have had a field day. Repeating its constant allegation that the BBC’s coverage of Israel is “biased” and claiming that Bowen and his colleagues have contributed to “the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the UK to record levels”, the Zionist Federation has called for Bowen to be removed from his “untenable” role as Middle East editor. Not to be outdone, CAMERA claims that the Trust has exposed Bowen’s “unethical” approach to his work and insists the BBC must now take “concrete steps” be taken to combat its “chronically biased reporting” of the Middle East. Of course such crudely partial pressure will be resisted within the BBC itself. In contrast to their reaction to the Ross/Brand grotesquery, senior executives within the BBC have not only defended Bowen all the way through, but they have conspicuously failed to endorse the Trust’s verdict. Beyond that they are impotent — to “go to war” with the Trust, as one of them has put it, is not an option — and the damage has been done.

You don’t have to search far on the web to find Zionist publications, lobby groups and bloggers all over the world using distorted versions of the report to justify their ill-founded prejudice that the BBC has a deep-seated and long-standing bias against the state of Israel. Conversely, millions of Palestinians, other Arabs and Muslims will by now have been confirmed in their — equally false — belief that the BBC is yet again running scared of Israeli propaganda. And that really is damaging.

So why did the Trust fashion this rod with which to beat the BBC’s back? According to its own rules, the Trust is obliged to hear any complaint from any source that has been through the due BBC process; but it is only obliged to publish a verdict publicly in relation to “issues of wide public concern if they cause a significant number of complaints or involve a significant issue”. It is surely a moot point whether in this case, these criteria were satisfied. A significant number of complaints? From just two individuals. A significant issue? Perhaps — but if so, then what is to be regarded as “insignificant”? Either way, the Trust could surely have prefaced its verdict with an “executive summary” placing its verdict in context for those who do not have the time to read the entire 119-page report and draw their own conclusions about the weight that should be given to it. Why did The Trust not point out that (1) the ESC found there was no substance to 20 of the 24 complaints, (2) that Bowen’s four “breaches” of the editorial guidelines were minor errors and (3) that nothing in the report should be interpreted as a lack of confidence either in the Middle East editor or any of his colleagues in BBC News. As it is, the lies and distortions that have been constructed around the report gone half way round the world while the truth has yet to get its boots on.

The chairman of the Trust, Sir Michael Lyons has since said (in an interview with the Independent) that Bowen had only breached the guidelines in what he referred to, oddly, as “two isolated news items”. The Trust’s verdict, he explained “was not a judgement on [Bowen’s] role and responsibilities as Middle East Editor, for which he rightly has a high reputation and has received widespread respect.” In which case, why did the Trust not make this clear when it delivered its findings? As he should know, it is called providing the “context” the guidelines over which he presides quite properly demand of BBC News. In this case that context was critical: it would have gone some way towards minimising the impact on the BBC’s reputation, which has been inadvertently undermined by the actions of the Trust itself.

But there is a broader issue at stake. Sir Michael Lyons, who is generally liked and respected at the BBC, is at the helm of a new body that is still finding its way through the constitutional thickets that define its role. In another interview (with the editor of the Spectator) Sir Michael insists that he is not “micro-managing” the BBC. It is not to impugn his good faith to observe that in second-guessing the senior executives responsible for BBC news it looks very much as though that was has happened in the Bowen case. Indeed, Sir Michael rather reinforces this by saying that he is filled with “horror” at the thought of declaring a contentious broadcast — presumably a reference to the Bowen verdict — to be “broadly correct, broadly true”. If the Trust is resolved to adjudicate in matters of complex journalistic detail — aspiring to determine what is unambiguously “correct” or unequivocally “true” (a Sisyphean task, if ever there one) — then it hard to see how it can avoid micro-management.

And there is a greater danger implicit in the Bowen verdict. The Trust’s website reassures critics of the BBC that “the BBC Complaints Management Board of senior executive meets monthly to ensure that lessons are learned from complaints and fed into editorial and management processes” (though, given the chairman’s declared respect for Bowen, it is unclear what lessons senior executives are supposed to learn from this case). As it is, BBC staff already feel themselves to be under permanent scrutiny, stifled by the new doctrine of “compliance” which — from the best of post-Gilligan/Ross/Brand motives — subverts individual responsibility in favour of a “box-ticking” regime that consumes untold hours of time they believe could be better spent on exercising editorial and journalistic initiative. The culture of caution that this has already engendered threatens to become pervasive if managers, editors, and reporters in news now feel obliged to look over their shoulders towards the Trust, wondering which of them be the next Jeremy Bowen.

Of course the Bowens of broadcasting can look after themselves; they may feel aggrieved or frustrated, but they will shake off such verdicts; nor will they allow their editorial perspective and judgement to be constrained by them. But younger and less experienced correspondents will not find it so easy. At best the risk is that it becomes routine to hedge their coverage with so many cautionary “ifs” and “buts” that their journalism is denuded of genuine clarity and insight. At worst, they will simply start to regurgitate edited versions of competing press releases with an invitation to viewers and listeners to draw their own conclusions. Were that to happen, the BBC would have entirely lost its way, and we will be left a great deal poorer.

Jonathan Dimbleby is Chair of Index on Censorship

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