Our fifth annual
Big media was clearly on the defensive in 2005. Dan Rather left the CBS News anchor desk under a heavy cloud while other executives were fired in the wake of Memogate. The use of anonymous sources put journalists like Judith Miller and the NY Times in an uncomfortable spotlight. Newsweek’s erroneous report that US Marines desecrated a Koran touched off a firestorm of deadly protests around the world. CNN news chief Eason Jordan was forced to resign over comments at an international forum. And an Al-Jazeera reporter was even convicted for his links to Al-Qaida. In each controversy, bloggers successfully pressured the news services for accuracy and accountability.
Unfortunately, problematic coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continued. We couldn’t address all the news services or journalists who were nominated by HonestReporting subscribers, but we thank readers for sharing their thoughts about 2005 and for making our fight for honest reporting your fight too. So without further ado, we proceed with our Dishonest Reporter of the Year Award. We begin with the runner-ups:
Of all the coverage we saw of the Gaza pullout, nothing stood out more than this odious comment by Reuters in the lead-up days:
The [Gaza] closure will give about 8,500 settlers a taste of some of the military restrictions and bureaucracy endured by Palestinians living under occupation.
The wire service also remained consistent to its warped principles during the London terror attacks too, refusing to describe the bombings as “terror.” To understand the logic behind Reuters’ vocabulary gymnastics, see here.
Western news services rely on Palestinian stringers for reporting, photographs and video footage. They also rely on “fixers” who provide all kinds of other support: arranging interviews, navigating through difficult areas, translating and more. But how reliable and objective are these stringers? The Jerusalem Post exposed a number of AP and AFP stringers who were also on the Palestinian Authority payroll, including Majida al-Batsh, who was a candidate for PA president. (Nobody protested the use of AFP office supplies for her candidacy.) The revelations brought to mind a related special report on the influence of Palestinian organizations on foreign news. But unlike a similar scandal in the White House press corps, the stringers’ conflict of interest met deafening silence.
C-Span executives took the idea of “balanced coverage” to an illogical extreme in March, deciding that a talk by Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt needed to be balanced out with a talk by Holocaust denier David Irving. Lipstadt told HonestReporting:
The notion that there are ‘two sides to every story’ is simplistic, fuzzy thinking at best, and far more dangerous than that at worst.
Now jailed in Austria, where Holocaust denial is a crime, Irving awaits a February trial.
The Guardian found itself red-faced by what became known as Sassygate: As exposed by blogger Scott Burgess, the Manchester-based paper hired trainee journalist Dilpazier Aslam, whose coverage of July’s London terror attacks included a commentary sympathizing with the bombers. It turned out that Aslam was a member of Hizb Ut Tahrir, an Islamist organization which calls for the destruction of Israel and the rule of a world-wide caliphate. When the dust settled, Aslam was fired and the paper’s executive editor for news, Albert Scardino resigned. Aslam is now suing The Guardian for “racial and religious discrimination.”
The February assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri shocked even the most cynical Mideast experts. Syrian propaganda, predictably blaming Israel, was echoed by the North American syndicated columnist Eric Margolis. Ironically, the same week that the Mehlis report to the UN on Hariri’s murder was released, Margolis gave a soapbox to unsubstantiated claims that Israel had a hand in the 1988 plane crash that killed Pakistani dictator Zia Ul-Haq.
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But one news service’s skewed coverage stood out the most, “winning” the award in a landslide. From the first day votes came in, it wasn’t close, which may explain the dearth of nominations for perennial runner-ups like the NY Times, Associated Press and The Independent. The 2005 Dishonest Reporter of the Year Award goes to the British Broadcasting Corporation.
The impact of BBC coverage cannot be understated. A Google study found that for breaking news, internet users around the world were more likely to turn to the BBC than CNN. More than 270 million TV viewers around the world watch BBC World. Even more people listen to BBC World Service, which broadcasts in 42 languages.
Readers provided a full laundry list of complaints and we found the most effective way to condense the biggest offenses was in a simple list form. The examples of bias from the year past indicates a pattern of naivetÃ©, dishonesty, forcing facts conform to a narrow worldview and, arguably, a desire to inappropriately influence events-all paid for by British television viewers through the TV License Fee, which costs the typical household Â£126.50 per year.
Here are the top 10 reasons (listed in chronological order) why the BBC is HonestReporting’s Dishonest Reporter of the Year.
10. In January, Palestinian presidential candidate Dr. Mustafa Barghouti (not to be confused with his better-known distant relative, Marwan) tried to use Israel and the Western media to get some free publicity for his campaign by getting himself arrested at the Temple Mount. The Independent’s Donald Macintyre saw straight through Barghouti’s ploy, but the BBC’s Martin Asser proved more gullible:
A large crowd of journalists has gathered at an East Jerusalem hotel to hear him, and there is some excitement because a rumour is going round he will go to the al-Aqsa mosque later for Friday prayers….
It is meant to be the photo-opportunity highlight of the day – but the Israeli security services have other ideas….
In truth, Mr Barghouti’s programme was not unduly affected by the detention, because his next engagement was not scheduled until 1330.
I could be wrong, but that – rather conveniently – left ample time for his headline-grabbing brush with the Israelis before moving on to meet the voters.
9. Every morning, listeners can tune into BBC for an uplifting “Thought of the Day.” One February morning, Rev. Dr. John Bell used the feature to describe an Arab-Israeli acquaintance only identified as “Adam.” According to Rev. Dr. Bell, this acquaintance was “conscripted” into the Israeli army, where “he was also imprisoned for refusing to shoot unarmed schoolchildren.” See the full transcript here.
After HonestReporting pointed out that Israeli-Arabs aren’t required to serve in the IDF and that the allegations that soldiers have orders to shoot unarmed kids are wholly unfounded, the BBC apologized-but only for not fact-checking Adam’s age and the issue of conscription. We still await a retraction about the non-existent orders to shoot kids.
8. In March, the BBC apologized to Israel for reporter Simon Wilson’s handling of an interview with Mordechai Vanunu. A former technician at the Dimona nuclear plant, Vanunu is prohibited from talking to foreign reporters, but Wilson, in 2004, was caught trying to smuggle tapes of his interview out of the country. Although the apology-which paved the way for Wilson to return to Israel-was supposed to remain confidential, it was inexplicably posted on the BBC’s own web site for several hours. The BBC once intended to rent out a luxury apartment for Vanunu paid for by British television viewers.
7. He retired from the BBC, but former Mideast correspondent Tim Llewellyn (now an executive member of the Council for the Advancement of Arab British Understanding) makes this list for an interview he gave to Electronic Intifada. We are concerned Llewellyn’s views are shared by colleagues within the BBC:
[BBC] are adopting what they see as an even handed attitude. To me this is a cowardly attitude, it is an attitude which confuses occupier with occupied….
6. In May, BBC correspondent Orla Guerin reported that construction linking Maale Adumim to Jerusalem would split the West Bank in two, destroying any possibility of a viable Palestinian state. HonestReporting noted that construction in the area known as E-1 doesn’t take away territorial contiguity. A map produced by our colleagues at CAMERA highlights how the Palestinians would have continuous territory, which, at its narrowest, would be nine miles (or 15 km) wide-which also happens to be the width of Israel’s “waistline” between the Green Line and the Mediterranean.
5. When members of the British Association of University Teachers considered a boycott of Israel’s Bar-Ilan and Haifa universities, BBC radio tried to influence the vote with a report by correspondent John Reynolds from the College of Judea and Samaria. As Melanie Phillips wrote in May:
Not a word about the fact that more than 300 students at this college are Arabs, and that the Arab mayors of local towns have enthusiastically welcomed the opportunities it gives their students….
The BBC might as well have had a block vote at today’s AUT conference. So much for its supposed objectivity, which once again stands exposed as a charade.
4. When terrorists linked to Al-Qaida struck the London transportation system in July, many thought the BBC would finally use the word “terror” to describe the wanton attacks on civilians. To their credit, a small handful of initial reports did. But appearances of the “t-word” in initial coverage were soon removed from the BBC’s web site (but not before Tom Gross documented the inconsistencies). Yet Roger Mosey, the head of BBC’s television news, contradicted BBC policy when he wrote in The Guardian that there was no ban in the first place!
Then there has been a controversy about our use of language – particularly the question of whether the BBC banned the word “terrorist”. There is no ban. It’s true the word is contentious in some contexts on our international services, hence the recommendation that it be employed with care. But we have used and will continue to use the words terror, terrorism and terrorist – as we did in all our flagship bulletins from Thursday.
Not surprisingly, subsequent coverage of the London bombings and their aftermath remained “terror free.” At the end of the year, however, The Guardian reported that BBC journalists received new “guidance” discouraging-but not banning-the “t-word.” Time will tell if this will have a positive impact in 2006.
3. Following the London terror attacks, the BBC admitted loading the studio audience with a disproportionate number of Muslims for Questions of Security: A BBC News Special. (See Biased BBC for links to video of the show.) Among the complaints, one viewer wrote angrily:
I do not pay my license fee to watch an unrepresentative Muslim audience like this.
The BBC’s response?
In order to ensure a range of voices on these issues, the studio audience contained a higher proportion of Muslims in the audience than in the population as a whole – around 15% of the audience as opposed to 2.7% of the country as a whole….
This isn’t the first time the BBC got in hot water for loading the audience. In 2001, anti-American invective from a Question Time audience discussing the 9/11 attacks got so out of hand that news director Greg Dyke had to apologize to US ambassador Philip Lader, who participated in the show.
Can anyone imagine a BBC program on Israel loaded with Israelis and Jews?
2. Within hours after Israel completed its pull-out from the Gaza Strip, Palestinians wasted no time desecrating synagogues and looting greenhouses. BBC’s Orla Guerin was one of several journalists who actually justified the sad, senseless destruction:
Palestinians came streaming to the settlements that caused them so much pain, to sightsee and to loot. Israel stole thirty-eight years from them; today, many were ready to take back anything they could.
1. Whatever happened to Malcolm Balen, who was appointed to help improve the BBC’s Mideast reporting? Back in November, 2003, the BBC hired him as a “senior editorial advisor,” or, as some put it, “a Middle East policeman. ” Some HonestReporting readers were hopeful when Haaretz reported that Balen was supposed to present a “conclusive and comprehensive report” to BBC executives. Balen even told Haaretz:
What I do is a long-term editorial review, and by definition, the review is retrospective, rather than a look at day-to-day output. The truth is, in any editorial job, you are so tied up with your program and deadline, that you simply do not have the time to stand back and look at the coverage as a whole,” says Balen.
“Nobody has the time in a journalistic job to trace the course of a single story in an organization as large as the BBC, which is what I was appointed to do. I can concentrate on a single story and look at all sorts of angles and aspects. I can join the dots together, [determine] what the coverage feels like, what the tone is like – crucially, what the content is like, what the balance is like.”
Yet with all the resources of the BBC at his disposal, Balen, to our knowledge, has not presented any report. In contrast, Trevor Asserson, a British lawyer working on his own initiative, put together several exhaustive critiques. HonestReporting readers, who also chose the BBC as Dishonest Reporter of the Year in 2001, connected the dots.
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By October, the deteriorating coverage reached a point where the Board of Governors requested Sir Quentin Thomas to lead an independent panel to investigate its Mideast reporting. (See here for more details.) The panel is supposed to release its findings in the spring. When the Board of Governors released its Programme Complaints: Appeals to the Governors, the forward by the chairman of the complaints committee noted that the majority of the complaints (20 out of 27 in fact) dealt with Mideast coverage. Only one-against Barbara Plett-was upheld.
Yet even in December, former director-general Greg Dyke, a casualty of the Hutton Report, insists that the network’s Mideast reporting continues to be fair:
We investigated many of the complaints and most of the time found our reporting had been totally fair. Of course the pro-Israeli lobby didn’t accept that but then they had a different agenda.
The stakes are certainly high. News services skewing reports from the Mideast are just as capable of warping other important areas of coverage. For the BBC, that’s most notably Iraq. The BBC’s royal charter expires at the end of 2006 – one year from now — and officials must explain how it spends income from the TV License Fee. In 2003, this TV tax brought the BBC nearly Â£2.4 billion in income. Simply put, the British public is subsidizing lousy news.
As far as we’re concerned, the excuses and apologies have worn thin. The BBC must be held accountable.
We appreciate you, our readers for writing the media, alerting us to questionable reports and sharing your insights with us.
HonestReporting covered a lot of ground in 2005 and we’ll continue monitoring the media in the coming year. We hope 2006 proves to be a better year of honest reporting.
Thank you for your ongoing involvement in the battle against media bias.