An official assessment of BBC impartiality on Palestine

In 2006, an independent panel, chaired by Quentin Thomas, produced a report assessing the impartiality of BBC coverage of the Palestine/Israel situation.

The panel had been commissioned by BBC governors. Its task was to assess the impartiality of the BBC’s news and current affairs coverage of the occupation ‘with particular regard to accuracy, fairness, context, balance and bias, actual or perceived’ and to examine whether the BBC’s coverage gave ‘a full and fair account of the conflict’.

The result was The Thomas Report. While being generally supportive of the BBC’s coverage, the report found ‘identifiable shortcomings, particularly in respect of gaps in coverage, analysis, context and perspective and in the consistent maintenance of the BBC’s own editorial standards’.

It adds: ‘In short, we found that BBC output does not consistently give a full and fair account of the conflict. In some ways the picture is incomplete and, in that sense, misleading’.

The Thomas Report can be viewed in full here:  http://www.scribd.com/doc/95712525/Report-of-the-Independent-Panel-for-the-BBC-Governors-on-Impartiality-of-BBC-Coverage-of-the-Israeli-Palestinian-Conflict

Making use of the Thomas Report

Although the report was published a few years ago, the recommendations it makes for improving BBC coverage are still valid and relevant. The report can be used as a reference point when making a complaint to the BBC if you feel a particular programme or news item has failed to incorporate one or more of its recommendations. If you feel that any of the key points made in the report, eg more talk time being given to Israeli spokespeople than to Palestinians, have not been remedied, ask the BBC why.

Main recommendations:

  • The BBC ‘should provide more consistently a full and fair account’ allowing viewers or listeners to ‘come to an informed and independent judgement of the issues’.
  • It should do this by providing:
    a)     ‘more comprehensive coverage which remedies omissions of significant events and topics
    b)     more historical and other background and context
    c)      a fuller account of situations and issues’
  • The BBC ‘should make purposive, and not merely reactive, efforts to explain the complexities of the conflict in the round, including the marked disparity between the positions of the two sides’.

Impartiality in the Thomas Report:

  • The report notes that, given the need for ‘as full and fair account of matters as possible…the opposite of impartiality is partial coverage, that is, coverage which fails to mention relevant events or issues’.
  • An assessment of impartiality needs to take into account the quality of the programmes – ‘the extent to which they were comprehensive, penetrating and illuminating’.
  • Therefore, ‘it follows that accuracy, clarity and precision of the language used is crucial: both in avoiding bias, but also in providing comprehension’.
  • The report makes several mentions of the ‘asymmetry of power between the two sides’ and notes that, given this asymmetry, ‘the BBC’s concern with balance [as part of the impartiality doctrine] gave an impression of equality between the two sides which was fundamentally, if unintentionally, misleading’.
  • The report adds: ‘‘While fairness and impartiality are legal requirements, balance is a concept adopted by the BBC in seeking to give effect to them. These objectives, especially balance, work most naturally where the parties to a dispute are on an equal footing. Indeed, without care, a formulaic application of these doctrines, and in particular that of balance, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could produce coverage which misleads from the outset’.

Findings:

  • The BBC gave more talk time to Israeli spokespeople than to Palestinians.
  • Some important themes were ‘relatively overlooked’ in the coverage of the situation, including (in 2006) the annexation of land in around East Jerusalem.
  • BBC broadcast news reported Israeli and Palestinian fatalities differently ‘in that Israeli fatalities generally receive greater coverage than Palestinian fatalities’.
  • Using data provided by the Israeli government and human rights group, B’Tselem, the report found that ‘the death of an Israeli killed by the Palestinian side was more likely to be reported by the BBC than the death of a Palestinian killed by the Israeli side’.

Final points:

  • The report justifies what it calls its ‘demanding approach’ by saying ‘it is what the public deserves given the BBC’s ambitions to be a premier broadcaster, the public service requirements imposed on it and the public resources it commands’.
  • Describing ‘much of the BBC’s coverage’ as good, the report adds: ‘It is just that some of the deficiencies are serious and that it could be a great deal better: more distinctive, challenging and informative. The risk is that, without firm editorial grip, the BBC will produce, on a massive scale, and through its many outlets, flat coverage following the agenda set by conventional wisdom’.
  • The BBC, says the report, ‘must continue to take the complaints it receives seriously and to handle them with care and sensitivity. It is clearly not enough to say that, as there are complaints from both sides, the BBC is presumably getting its coverage about right. This kind of complacency would not be acceptable and the Panel has not found it among BBC journalists or management. However, complaints do sometimes seem to be treated as a necessary nuisance and dealt with defensively’.