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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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13 Responses to Dimbleby: fearful BBC risks losing its way

  1. M Frederick VanVoorhis Reply

    13 April at 19:40

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  2. Jonathan Turner Reply

    10 December at 11:55

    Well I suppose Mr/Ms Bishop is unaware of the tremendous contribution made by Israel to the modern world, including in the computer on which he/she wrote the above post.

    I dare say Israel would have been able to do even more if it did not have to spend so much time defending itself against those who seek to destroy it or to prevent it defending itself.

    As for ‘war crimes’, Mr/Ms Bishop is perhaps also unaware of the assessment by Colonel Richard Kemp CBE, “the IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NX6vyT8RzMo

    All credit to the BBC for broadcasting this, once. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WssrKJ3Iqcw

  3. RBishop Reply

    20 November at 11:18

    Wow !

    That so much obsessive energy can come from one individual [July 28, 2009 at 12:51
    ] ! How much could be done by harnessing such energy to the constructive !

    It makes me deeply sad to see so much human effort wasted in the pursuance of a hate-filled ideology, and the persecution of an honest journalist attempting honest journalism.

    The smear that the BBC contributes to “anti-semitism” by reporting on Israeli war crimes I think is the clearest indicator of the nature of the individual concerned, and of in his mind at least the triumph of ethnic politicking over truth, fairness and balance. Shame on him.

  4. Jonathan Turner Reply

    28 July at 12:51

    I asked the Editor to publish a letter correcting the errors in this article. She declined to publish it, but has allowed me to post it here. This is what I wrote:

    Jonathan Dimbleby’s article about the BBC Trust’s handling of complaints relating to coverage by Jeremy Bowen (Index on Censorship, 13 May 2009) was a travesty of the true position. I was one of the complainants whom Mr Dimbleby erroneously criticised and I wish to set the record straight.

    Contrary to Mr Dimbleby’s supposition, they were hundreds of complaints about Mr Bowen’s article on the Six Day War. Many of those who complained were angry that their complaints were not properly addressed but did not pursue the matter, perhaps wisely reckoning that it would be a waste of time. I appealed and the only special treatment my complaint received was the massive resources deployed and tricks pulled by the BBC in their efforts over the following two years to avoid or delay an adverse finding.

    Mr Dimbleby underestimates the seriousness of the complaints and the BBC Trust’s findings. He also fails to appreciate that calls for Mr Bowen to be removed as the BBC’s Middle East Editor have been based not just on the BBC Trust’s findings but also on the ignorance and prejudice displayed by Mr Bowen in his submissions in the procedure, the bias in his book, and a well-founded concern that the BBC’s coverage of the Middle East is contributing to a serious rise in antisemitism in Britain, quite apart from any wider consequences.

    Only two complaints?

    Mr Dimbleby said that there were only two complaints about Mr Bowen’s article on the Six Day War. This is not correct. According to the Middle East Editor of the BBC Website “We had hundreds and hundreds [of complaints about this article] …Initially Steve … the overall editor … decided we would send quite a generic reply out to all. But many were angry that the replies weren’t tailor-made …”

    The BBC’s onerous complaints procedures are designed and operated to exhaust all but the most determined complainants, particularly in this area. By the time the ESC considered this complaint I had had to respond to about 20 substantial submissions from one or other arm of the BBC. The correspondence on this complaint occupies two full lever-arch files (with many of the pages being copied double-sided). It is not surprising that only two of us lasted the course.

    What is more concerning is that “hundreds and hundreds” of complaints were wrongly rejected and that many of those who complained were exasperated by the BBC’s treatment of them. As I explain later in this letter, many of those who complained have good cause to be deeply concerned about the implications of the BBC’s coverage in this area for their own safety, quite apart from broader considerations. A public broadcaster financed out of taxation should treat these concerns with greater respect.

    I appreciate that on some very high profile matters the BBC has received thousands of complaints. However, this article was not in this category: it was not, for example, a lead item on the broadcast news. Nor, so far as I am aware, was there any organised campaign to complain about it (and I think that I would have been aware if there had been).

    I would also mention that many people have told me that they are angry about anti-Israel bias in the BBC’s coverage but do not complain because of experience that it is a waste of time. I am sure that the BBC would have received many more complaints about this article if people believed that they would be considered fairly.

    Mr Dimbleby says that the complaints of myself and Mr Ini (the other appellant who persisted) were in “very similar terms”, as if to imply that they were coordinated. This is not the case at all. I had no knowledge of Mr Ini’s complaint until a late stage in the process when the Editorial Adviser to the BBC Trust mentioned in her report that there were two appellants. Even then I did not know who the other appellant was until I arranged for a note to be placed in a newsletter asking the other appellant to contact me.

    Red carpet treatment?

    Mr Dimbleby referred to our complaints receiving “red-carpet treatment”. The only special treatment was the length to which the BBC went in seeking to avoid and delay the inevitable adverse findings. The BBC Trust’s Editorial Adviser provided a report which supported key aspects of the complaints relating to Mr Bowen’s article. She was asked to rewrite it. The BBC Executive’s submissions did not rebut the main points in the complaints. The BBC Trust’s staff invited a further round of submissions … and a further round … and a further round – five rounds in all.

    Eventually, I pointed out that any further submissions should be limited to replying to new points, otherwise the procedure would be never-ending, unfair or both. The BBC Trust staff agreed and said that they would notify all parties accordingly. I stuck to it on my side, as did Mr Ini. But this did not stop the BBC Executive parties from making extensive submissions only a few days before the meeting of the ESC containing a raft of new points and material, which the BBC Trust staff promptly circulated to members of the ESC.

    Fortunately, I was fairly free that weekend and able to prepare a note objecting to this conduct and identifying various mistranslations, inaccuracies and fallacies on which the BBC Executive’s latest new arguments were based. But then the BBC Trust staff delayed circulating my note to the members of the ESC until the evening before the meeting, and I doubt that they were able to absorb it.

    I asked for copies of certain documents to which the BBC Executive referred, in order to check whether they said what the BBC Executive said they did, and whether quotations had been taken out of context. The BBC Trust staff refused this request on the ground that the ESC would not rely on these documents. But, in the event, the ESC did rely on them, at least according to their draft decision. And when I queried this, they revised the decision to say otherwise, but that was patently untrue.

    Why we said Bowen should go

    The thrust of Mr Dimbleby’s article was that our complaints were footling, that calls for Mr Bowen to be removed as the BBC’s Middle East Editor were unwarranted, and that the BBC Trust had wrongly put the BBC in a position where the fitness of its Middle East Editor could be questioned. These contentions were based on fundamental misapprehensions of the seriousness of the complaints and the reasons why the Zionist Federation called for Mr Bowen to be removed.

    The call for Mr Bowen to be replaced as the BBC’s Middle East Editor was based on a combination of (a) the finding that Mr Bowen’s article on the Six Day War lacked impartiality; (b) the ignorance and prejudice shown by Mr Bowen’s statements in the complaints procedure; (c) the bias in Mr Bowen’s book on the Six Day War; and (d) the belief that biased coverage of Israel under the leadership of Mr Bowen is contributing to the rise in antisemitic attacks on Jews in Britain to record levels.

    Contrary to the suggestion in Mr Dimbleby’s article, the members of the ESC were not a soft touch, at any rate for the complainants. On the contrary, they bent over backwards to find in favour of Mr Bowen wherever they felt they possibly could.

    They did not see that it was misleading to describe Har Homa as a “big concrete housing development” even though every single building is faced throughout in golden stone (or will be when finished). They held that there was nothing wrong in suggesting that the development was built on a Palestinian farmer’s field, even though most of the development was built on land owned by Jews.

    They thought that it was accurate to say that in 1967 Israel’s generals were “hugely self-confident” and “all knew that the only way that Israel would lose the war would be if the IDF did not turn up”, even though the Israeli Chief of Staff had a serious nervous breakdown and there was evidence that “two or three generals … were not confident, they were petrified and feared the war going on so long they could not maintain it” (although it is fair to say that this point contributed to the ESC’s overall finding of bias). And so on.

    However, the ESC had to find, and did find, that the article on the Six Day War as a whole was biased. A good half of the specific points which I raised contributed to this finding. Mr Ini’s complaint of bias was upheld in its entirety; my complaint of bias was upheld except in relation to certain comments about Israeli settlements. The minimalist changes made by BBC staff to the article should not mislead Mr Dimbleby or anyone else as to the extent and significance of this finding.

    Mr Bowen has written a book about the Six Day War, its causes and effects. If he cannot get a report about this subject right, it seems unlikely that he will get anything else right in relation to the Middle East.

    Furthermore, as Mr Bowen rightly said at the outset of his article, “To understand what is happening between Israel and the Palestinians now, you have to understand what happened in the Middle East war of 1967”. Since Mr Bowen’s understanding of the war of 1967 is partial, it must follow from this that his understanding of what is happening now is partial. And even if this statement is not correct, it is enough that Mr Bowen thinks it is, since the result is that he views the present situation through the prism of his biased understanding of what happened in 1967.

    Ignorance and prejudice

    The partiality in the article cannot be excused as an error of judgment under pressure of time. It was a considered article on a subject which Mr Bowen has studied at length. Furthermore, Mr Bowen insisted throughout the complaints procedure over the course of the best part of two years that his article was impartial; and he supported this view with statements which further displayed ignorance and antisemitic prejudice as well as anti-Israel bias.

    Mr Bowen claimed that

    “The Zionist settlement of Palestine started in Ottoman times with one kibbutz. Had there been no ‘instinct to push out the frontier’ how would Israel have developed into a highly successful nation-state?”.

    In fact, when the first kibbutz, Deganya, was founded in 1910, Jews constituted 65% of the population of the capital, Jerusalem, and had constituted a majority of its population for at least several decades. There were also longstanding Jewish communities in towns such as Hebron, Gaza, Safed and Tiberias. The Jewish town of Petah Tikvah was founded in 1878; Rishon LeZion, Rosh Pinna and Zikhron Yaakov in 1882; Gedera in 1884; Neve Tsedek in 1887. Fast forwarding, Tel Aviv itself was founded in 1909.

    As well as being inaccurate, this statement showed an unwillingness by Mr Bowen to recognise the extent of the historical connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel.

    Mr Bowen went on to say:

    “If Zionism didn’t have ‘an innate instinct to push out the frontier’ it’s hard to make sense of how the yishuv (the pre-state Jewish community in Palestine) grew from a handful of immigrants on a few patches of land into the powerful and rich regional superpower Israel has become.”

    As mentioned above, the yishuv included, inter alia, a longstanding Jewish majority of the capital city, Jerusalem, as well as longstanding Jewish communities in various other towns. Mr Bowen’s characterisation of the yishuv as growing “from a handful of immigrants on a few patches of land” shows an uncritical acceptance of a distorted Palestinian narrative.

    In finding it hard to make sense of how the yishuv and subsequently the State of Israel developed a major military capability, if not from an instinct to push out the frontier, Mr Bowen failed to contemplate the possibility that they did so because the Arabs threatened to destroy them and because their capability had to be sufficient to overcome that threat. This failure is inconsistent with an impartial mindset in relation to one of the key issues of the Middle East.

    Finally, and most seriously, it is difficult to see why Mr Bowen referred in this connection to Israel being “rich”, if not out of antisemitic prejudice. Israel’s economic success in recent years has been largely based on its high-tech industries which cover a very small part of the country. Mr Bowen’s thought process appears to be that Jews could only become rich by taking other people’s land.

    This is of a piece with a recurrent motif of classic antisemitism, namely to observe that Jews are rich; to reject any notion that their success might be due to their talent, energy or education; and to conclude that they must have got rich by nefarious means.

    As for Mr Bowen’s book on the Six Day War, Professor Karsh of Kings College, London, described it as “rife with standard anti-Israel prejudice, namely, the portrayal of Israel as the source of the ME conflict and the whitewashing of Arab-Palestinian rejection of Israel’s legitimacy and decades of relentless violence against the Jewish state”.

    Consequences

    Jews in Britain have good cause to be concerned that the BBC’s coverage of Israel is detrimental to their personal safety. There is a clear association between hostile coverage of Israel in the media and antisemitic attacks in the UK, as noted in the Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Inquiry into Antisemitism and in the annual reports of the Community Security Trust.

    The numbers of these attacks have more than doubled in the last ten years. It was reported at the end of last year that it is not even safe for children to travel to a Jewish school in London by public transport. The BBC is not the only news organisation in the UK, but it is probably still the most influential one. It is therefore likely that anti-Israel bias in the BBC’s coverage encourages attacks on Jews in Britain, quite apart from any wider considerations.

    These are the reasons why I and others believe that Bowen should go. They deserve careful consideration by senior figures in the BBC, who should not be intimidated by Mr Dimbleby’s misinformed attack.

    Finally, I have not forgotten the Impartiality Review chaired by Sir Quentin Thomas. There was a basic flaw in its methodology. It was based on coverage in the period after the announcement that it was taking place. In that period, BBC journalists, editors and management made sure to avoid anti-Israel bias. This is corroborated by a reversal in the pattern of complaints during this period. The review cannot be relied upon as validating coverage before or after this period.

  5. Brian Finch Reply

    18 May at 17:44

    I am not too sure who, other than Dimbleby and a few other BBC hacks, regards Bowen as ‘authoritative’. For my part I think the article complained of is of a part with all of his reporting, biased and full of sly insinuations. The idea he promotes that Israel was a warmongering ‘Goliath’ in 1967, driven by aggressive generals who pressured their weak political leaders to mount an unnecessary war of conquest is neither just nor authoritative but is a fairytale attempt to rewrite history to conform to Bowen’s agenda. Quite the contrary, most of Israeli society correctly believed that the surrounding states were on the verge of attacking them and that, if that attack were a success, it would result in the slaughter of untold numbers of Israelis. This narrative that Bowen insultingly describes as a myth is, in fact, an accurate representation.

    It is right, however, that mild criticism of Bowen is wrong – he distorts reporting of the Middle East to fit his prejudices and should be fired not subjected to minor editing.

  6. Paul McLaughlin Reply

    16 May at 20:35

    The current problems with editorial matters at the BBC, as highlighted in Jonathan Dimbleby’s excellent piece, stem from poor managerial decisions and weak negotiations with Government over renewal of the BBC’s charter in 2006. After the constitutional crisis of the Gilligan affair, the BBC, under the management of Mark Thompson and the Chairmanship of Michael Grade, agreed to cede vast managerial powers to the new BBC Trust. Until the balance is redressed in favour of strong internal editorial management at the BBC, such problems will continue.

  7. Karl Pfeifer Reply

    16 May at 16:05

    Can somebody explain why the Balen report on BBC coverage of Middle East conflict was not published?

  8. T Gray Reply

    15 May at 14:29

    The BBC “risks” losing its way?

    It lost its way a very long time ago where most science and current affairs programming is concerned!

    The BBC now makes extremely few factually/scientifically/logically/statistically accurate programmes.

    These days, mainly it’s just low-brow, indiscriminate lumping together of any old sources without any attempt to indicate to the audience whether the “talking heads” are longstanding, respected experts in their field or self-promoting fruit-cakes, both being included in programmes, without comment, in the interests of “balance” and “appealing to the wide range of license payer tastes”.

    (That is, these days the BBC appears to think that the “balance” to be sought is between truth and falsehood – with each being given equivalent status and screen time – and that those “wide range of license payer tastes” to be satisfied include equally people who “like” fair-minded, accurate, intelligent programmes and those who “like” misleading, confused, inaccurate, superficial, repetitive, shouty garbage.)

    Leaving aside all their rubbishy science programming (Horizon, etc), how else can we explain the poverty of such programmes as “Newsnight” where the makers appear to mistake lazy rudeness and shouting for incisive journalism? How else are we to explain the never-ending (and utterly pointless and un-illuminating) media platform provided for discredited figures like Richard Perle?

    None of this, of course, makes the BBC executives’ decision on Jeremy Bowen unimportant. They appear utterly intent on purging the last few remnants of intelligent programme making from their organisation.

    Their news output is vastly inferior to that of ITN/Channel 4 and most of their science and current affairs output is just drivel.

  9. Pingback: Francis Sedgemore - BBC angst resurfaces over Middle East reporting

  10. Francis Sedgemore Reply

    14 May at 17:47

    Does being a “passionate Zionist” disqualify one from commenting on Middle East issues and the journalistic reporting of same? If Turner and Ini’s criticisms of Jeremy Bowen have substance, then they should be considered on merit, and not dismissed as the ranting of lobbyists.

    I happen to agree with Jonathan Dimbleby that the BBC Trust’s censuring of Bowen was disproportionate, even though I regard the “passionate Zionists”’ criticisms of the corporation’s Middle East Editor to be justified in part. But that’s the nature of the beast – the BBC – and for this you cannot blame Zionism.

    Please, let’s have less of the knee-jerkism. There is enough reactionary politics on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict without journalists stirring it up when addressing bureaucratic failings in our own institutions.

  11. Mark Gardner Reply

    14 May at 10:34

    The other day I read a scholarly article from 1984 on Western media coverage of the 1982 Lebanon War.

    Under the heading, “The nature of the problem”, it stated:

    “In cases of controversy about the reliability of reporting, the protagonist of the media will espouse a ‘copy theory of knowledge’: the media are acting as a mirror. They are neutral, objective, passive and accurate…Anyone who objects to the coverage is like a person ashamed of seeing his own image in the mirror. ‘An ugly face looks ugly’ and it is now the mirror which should be blamed.”

    Jonathan Dimblebey’s defence of Bowen and BBC journalists, reads like a case study of this paragraph. Bowen and BBC are the mirror. Zionists are ugly.

    Bowen’s ommissions of fact, context or clarity in his 750 word article are explained and excused by lack of space; and far more ridiculously by the notion that readers surely know that when he says “everyone” is aginst Israeli behvaiour, that he doesn’t actually mean “everyone”.

    In which case, why does the BBC need to contextualise its coverage of Israel with an explanation of what the term “occupied territories” means? Surely “everyone” knows? (By which I don’t of course mean “everyone”!)

    Bowen’s assertions that 1967 was about ‘unfinished business’ and that Zionism = expansionism may seem axiomatic to Dimbleby and “everyone” at the BBC but they aren’t to the vast majority of “Zionists”

    - And by “Zionists” I merely mean those people who think that in 1967, Israel had the right to exist, and the right to defend itself from threatened destruction & actual blockade -

    Dimbleby tells us that 100 historians have 100 different opinions. Ok, but in this instance Bowen was playing the historian, and his opinion shone through when he should have been playing the role of BBC journalist as defined by BBC management.

    So, what about journalists? Do 100 journalists have 100 different opinions? I’d suggest that depends what cross-section of journalists you take.

    If you take 100 BBC broadcast journalists then I’d suggest that they would be significantly less diverse in their opinions than 100 British journalists per se. Jonathan Dimbleby would have us believe that’s because the BBC journalists are a perfect mirror – or at least because the BBC is the best mirror there is.

    Nevertheless, hands up all those who believe that 100 BBC broadcast journalists would be less likely than 100 journalists per se to vote Labour? or that they’d be less likely to read the Guardian than non-BBC journos? or that they’d be less likely to take Guardian coverage as the basis for what they’ll say and cover in their own news broadcasts?

    Still, lets say Dimbleby is basically correct and lets say that BBC is preferable to a global media dominated by Fox News and Press TV.

    How to best protect the BBC mirror? Is it by letting the journalists know that with BBC brand power comes BBC brand responsibility, and that they are open to real scrutiny from management and foe alike – or is it by BBC broadcast journos insisting to the world that the Guardian / BBC take on the world is of course always correct and always accurate: and that those who argue otherwise must be pigeonholed as censorious loons, preferably of the Zionist or right-wing variety?

  12. Jonathan Hoffman Reply

    13 May at 14:32

    Jonathan

    If you can’t live with the BBC’s obligation under its Charter to be independent and for its journalists to be accountable when they fail to be independent, then you should leave and work for a commecial broadcaster which does not have that obligation.

    It’s really that simple.

    Jonathan

  13. Jonathan Turner Reply

    13 May at 13:26

    I think that it is unfortunate that Mr Dimbleby did not consult me before publishing this piece. Had he done so and reviewed the full file of papers which I have, I think he would have realised that there are strong grounds for saying that the BBC Trust should have gone much further in its criticism of the Bowen article and report.

    However, as it was, the Trust upheld Mr Ini’s complaint of lack of impartiality in its entirety and upheld my complaint of lack of impartiality in relation to the article on the 6-day war save as regards the Israeli settlements on the West Bank.

    This was a considered article on a subject on which Bowen has written a book. If he cannot get this right, it is difficult to imagine what he can get right. Furthermore, as he said at the outset of the article, you cannot understand what is happening today between Israel and the Palestinians if you do not understand what happened in 1967.

    In addition, Bowen’s submissions in the complaints process displayed an astonishing ignorance, as well as anti-Israel prejudice and an anti-Semitic tendency.

    This is why I say that his position as Middle East Editor is untenable. I will continue to press my case. And I believe that the BBC will continue to be damaged until it properly addresses the issue.

    Jonathan Turner

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