Despite some gleeful reactions suggesting the contrary, the BBC report does not say its Middle East editor is biased against Israel
Critics who claim the BBC's Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, is biased against Israel are delighted with the news that, as the Times put it, he "breached BBC impartiality rules in Middle East coverage". Or if you prefer the Jerusalem Post headline: "Complaints of BBC bias partially upheld". Some of these critics are now baying for his blood. The Zionist Federation of Great Britain and Ireland (ZF) said Bowen's "position is untenable".
But even though the "judgment" has been handed down by the BBC Trust, after the publication of a 118-page report (pdf) by its editorial standards committee, the critics are not satisfied. The ZF said their report "fails to offer correctional steps" and "the committee's performance was lackadaisical in processing complaints". Jonathan Turner, a member of the ZF who lodged the complaint together with the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (Camera), said "it is very difficult to see how he can be trusted to get anything else right in relation to Israel". Referring to Bowen's "chronically biased reporting", Camera said "There's good reason to be sceptical of" what it called Bowen's "chronically biased reporting", "and by extension, the reporting of BBC reporters who are subordinate to him".
All this sound pretty heinous. So what did Bowen do wrong? According to the ESC, he breached accuracy regulations by not properly sourcing an assertion he made in a report for Radio 4's From Our Own Correspondent that the settlement of Har Homa, near Jerusalem, was considered illegal by the US. Of two other complaints – about historical interpretations he made when describing the legacy of the 1967 war for a BBC online news report – one was partially upheld on the grounds of impartiality and inaccuracy, the other was upheld with regard to impartiality and partially upheld with regard to accuracy. Still with me?
You might reasonably ask: why 118 pages to rule on three complaints? Well, certainly not in order to reach the conclusion of "bias". Nowhere in the ESC's report is there any admission that Bowen is biased against Israel. >(It seems this minor fact escaped the Jerusalem Post's headline writer.) The report runs to so many pages because, first, contrary to the impression given in most news reports, there were not three single complaints: each complaint consisted of a number of items. The Har Homa complaint consisted of four items. The first online report complaint consisted of 11 items, and the second of nine items. The ESC "guilty" findings referred to three of these 24 items. The second reason for the report's length is because of the incredibly detailed scrutiny to which every single one of the items is subjected. A doctoral thesis would not have been given this much attention. And remember, we're talking about an online report of 1,500 words and a radio "essay" of no more than that.
Step back for a minute and think of just how many words Jeremy Bowen has to produce over any four-week period, and especially during a four-week war; and also frankly note that no journalist is immune from occasional inaccuracies and less than perfect interpretive historical comments – and you'd be forgiven for reading the ESC report as an exoneration of Bowen and utterly removed from the wholesale damnation of him that the partisan media monitor complainants believe it licences.
No one reading the ESC report could reasonably complain that the BBC failed to take the complaints seriously. They acted according to their published guidelines and deserve credit for that. Yet there's something faintly distasteful about the whole exercise. Let such partisan organisations express their views in whatever way they like, but one wonders whether people behaving like vexatious litigants should really be given such credence.
There are plenty of absurd claims in the itemised complaints, but for me, there's one nugget in the report that Camera and the ZF use as ultimate proof of the rightness of their charges, but which only reveals the bankruptcy of their approach. One of the expert academic historians consulted to assess Bowen's historical prowess was Avi Shlaim, Professor of International Relations at Oxford. On one item Professor Shlaim agreed that when Bowen wrote that "the Israeli generals ... had been training to finish the unfinished business of Israel's independence war of 1948 war", it was "not accurate and is a bit misleading". Jonathan Hoffman, co vice-chair of the ZF was clearly pleased at Professor Shlaim's verdict. Professor Shlaim, widely regarded as an internationally respected historical authority on contemporary Middle Eastern history, is, however, vilified by the likes of Camera and ZF supporters for his alleged anti-Israel positions. Suddenly, all his past transgressions and distortions are forgotten, and his judgment is kosher. Hypocritical? Judge for yourself.
And as if we need reminding that such partisan media monitors always have other axes to grind, the complainant Jonathan Turner, in criticising the BBC for taking so long to deal with the complaints, said this allowed "Mr Bowen and his colleagues to continue their biased coverage of Israel, which I believe has been a significant factor in the recent serious rise in antisemitic attacks in the UK." This unfounded slur is sadly typical of many whose undifferentiated support for Israel leads them to lash out so indiscriminately at perceived enemies.
If any of this leads to the curtailment of the role of Jeremy Bowen it will be a sad day for enlightened BBC coverage of the Middle East. If you want a true exemplar of the attempt by the public broadcaster, in very restricted time-slots, to give a sense of what ordinary and extraordinary Israelis and Palestinians feel and think about the conflict, and to convey the complexities and nuances of the political and diplomatic goings on – and anchor the whole thing in some stab at balanced historical references – I don't think you'll find better than Bowen. And judging by his masterly piece on the challenges facing the US Middle East envoy George Mitchell as he was about to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on the day the BBC Trust released its ESC report, it seems that Jeremy Bowen is not cowed and that his professionalism is undimmed. link
2 days ago