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The BBC faces complaints, criticism over Israel-Hamas war coverage
The Jewish community’s concerns about the broadcaster have been elevated to the U.K.’s official media regulator
In the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre in Israel, the venerable British Broadcasting Corporation refused to refer to the group as terrorists, despite the government’s designation.
During the bombing of the Al Ahli Arab Hospital 10 days later, the BBC, like other news outlets, was quick to blame the IDF for the blast.
Earlier this month, a BBC newsreader misquoted a Reuters report, this time about the IDF’s operation at the al-Shifa hospital.
All of the recent missteps are casting a harsh light on Britain’s official and well-respected broadcaster, especially as it concerns its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The complaints are coming from inside and outside of the Jewish community, and taken together they raise fresh questions about bias in the BBC when it comes to Israel.
The BBC prides itself on its impartiality, but its refusal to refer to Hamas as terrorists, despite the fact that the group has been proscribed as such by the British government, has angered many.
The move was justified in a lengthy piece by John Simpson, the BBC’s world affairs editor, who described the term terrorism as a “loaded word.”
“It’s simply not the BBC’s job to tell people who to support and who to condemn —- who are the good guys and who are the bad guys,” Simpson wrote.
The refusal was described by Grant Shapps, the country’s defense secretary, as “verging on disgraceful,” while he called on the BBC to “locate its moral compass.”
Israeli President Isaac Herzog raised the coverage with British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Sunak’s visit to Israel following the attacks last month. “We feel that the way the BBC characterizes Hamas is a distortion of the facts,” he told Sunak.
Following a forceful written complaint, the Board of Deputies of British Jews (BoD) met with the BBC’s director general, Tim Davey, and some of his senior team. In a statement issued by the BoD following that meeting on Oct. 20, the BoD said: “The BBC was left in no doubt as to the strength of feeling in the Jewish community.”
The matter has since been escalated to Ofcom, the official media regulator, but the BoD is still awaiting a response.
Marie van der Zyl, president of the BoD, told JI it was an “outrage” that the broadcaster refused to recognize the Oct. 7 attacks as a terrorist attack. “We cannot give moral equivalence to people who murdered, raped and kidnapped and who committed heinous crimes,” she added.
Criticism of the BBC’s coverage of the conflict did not stop there. Along with other media outlets, the BBC came under fire over its early reporting of a blast at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza on Oct. 17, which it blamed, citing reports from the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, on the Israel Defense Forces.
Reporting the attack on BBC News, its correspondent, Jon Donnison, said, “It’s hard to see what else this could be really, given the size of the explosion, other than an Israeli airstrike or several airstrikes.”
Immigration Minister Robert Jenrick compared the BBC’s reporting to a “21st-century blood libel.” Home Secretary James Cleverly, who was then serving as the U.K.’s foreign secretary, urged broadcasters to “focus on accuracy rather than pace.”
In a post on its corrections and clarifications page, the BBC later admitted that “it was wrong to speculate in this way” about the hospital blast.
The BoD’s concerns hit a fever pitch earlier this month, after a BBC journalist misquoted a Reuters report, this time about the IDF’s operation at the Al-Shifa hospital.
Reuters said that the IDF was taking “medical teams and Arabic speakers” into the hospital to help patients, but the newsreader announced that the IDF was “targeting” medical teams and Arabic speakers. The BBC soon issued a statement acknowledging the error as well as an on-air apology.
The BoD issued a strongly worded statement in which it said it was “absolutely appalled” by the error, adding: “At best, this shows a staggering lack of care when reporting on a highly volatile situation, which can have a knock-on effect all over the world, including in Britain, where antisemitic attacks have risen by more than 500 per cent since October 7th.”
Fresh headlines were made in recent days as Jewish staff accused the corporation of double standards, saying that the BBC had told them they could not attend a large march against antisemitism in London. According to reports in the British press, staff in current affairs and journalism who asked for permission to join the demonstration were denied due to BBC rules on impartiality.
In a statement, the BBC denied that any official guidance had been given but added “this does not mean discussions which consider the guidance have not taken place between colleagues.”
Jewish journalist Danny Shaw spent more than 30 years working for the BBC, 22 of which were spent covering domestic issues, including terrorism.
“There’s nothing new about it,” Shaw said of the debate around the use of the “terrorist.”
He told JI that the idea behind the policy is that “‘terrorist’ is a subjective description which has different meanings for different people.”
“This isn’t a new thing and it’s particularly sensitive when you are covering international conflicts, where there may be a dispute about who is defining them as a terrorist,” he said.
While he “understands the sense” around it, Shaw admitted that the policy would also “infuriate him.”
Shaw said that the “BBC has made some mistakes” in its coverage of the Israel-Hamas war, in particular in its coverage of the blast at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital. “There was far too much speculation on that bulletin,” he said.
Posts on social media have also fallen short of expectations of impartiality, he said. Nevertheless, Shaw believes that context is all important when discussing the BBC.
The BBC’s approach to balance and impartiality must be regarded as part of a broader strategy, he said. “You can’t take a snapshot of a conversation in half an hour and expect to hear every single item and interview balanced and impartial — that isn’t the way it works.”
“But over time it has to be, especially in the run-up to an election and particularly on the most politically sensitive issues.”
He added: “It’s very easy for someone to jump and say the BBC is biased one way or another. You are talking about a huge organization with a vast amount of output on the biggest story of this year. Plus there’s the extreme difficulty of reporting a fast-moving story with a lack of verified information, which makes it really hard.”
“I know how difficult it is when you’re dealing with fast-moving events, information flowing at you from all different sources. You are under pressure to hit deadlines, you have got 24 hours news and you are going live on a program — what reporter hasn’t made a mistake on-air? I certainly have.”
“All of those factors do not excuse mistakes but they explain some of it,” he added.
Nevertheless, the ongoing issues have proved too much for some.
Writing in The Telegraph last week, Danny Cohen, the BBC’s former head of TV, called for an independent review into the broadcaster’s coverage of the war, saying Britain’s Jewish community is “being harmed through its unbalanced reporting.”
In particular, Cohen singled out Caroline Hawley, the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, whom the Telegraph said had made numerous social media posts about the “shocking” and “terrifying” situation in Gaza — with little evidence of such expressions of sympathy for Israel.
“The BBC’s credibility with the Jewish community is reaching a point of no return,” said Cohen, adding that Hawley’s “biased, unbalanced” social media feed “reads like a series of press releases from Hamas central command.”
While other media outlets have also fallen afoul of the Jewish community’s expectations over their coverage of the current conflict, the onus on the BBC is greater, according to van der Zyl.
“They are the national broadcaster with worldwide impact,” she told JI. “From a U.K. perspective we fund it and it has to be held to account. In the fog of war it’s even more important that there’s accurate reporting.”
She added: “People believe what they read and even if they later apologize people still believe it.”
While they regard themselves as “independent of everybody,” there is another way of looking at the BBC, she said. “There’s a long-standing bias against Israel in the newsroom,” she said. She gave as an example a report from November 2021 of a group of Jewish students who were subjected to an antisemitic attack while traveling through the center of London on a privately hired bus during Hanukkah.
The BBC’s coverage reported that an anti-Muslim slur had been heard from inside the bus. The issue was later escalated to a complaint to Ofcom which eventually ruled that the BBC had made “significant editorial failings.”
Meanwhile, there have also been calls for the BBC to publish a long-buried report into claims of bias over its coverage of Israel.
Cohen wrote in The Telegraph: “In 2004, the Balen Report addressed the question of anti-Israel bias in the BBC. But the public has never had the chance to read it. Indeed, the BBC has spent hundreds of thousands of pounds of license-fee payers’ money to keep its contents secret.”
While van der Zyl admitted that the corporation has been quicker to respond to complaints about its coverage since Oct. 7, it is far from perfect.
“The BBC is not alone but this is our national broadcaster and it’s the most important to deal with, and it’s got to be held accountable when it makes serious errors of judgment.”