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Holding the BBC to its obligations

This is a guest post by BBC Watch

Earlier this year, when a British headmaster came under criticism for the publishing of a highly partisan ‘history’ of the Arab-Israeli conflict published in his high-school’s magazine, one of the points he raised in the school’s defence was that the pupil who wrote the article had based it upon information provided by what he described as the “internationally recognized and respected”  BBC in a timeline of the conflict on its website.

This incident highlights a very real problem. The BBC is viewed by many – not just in the UK – as more than a mere source of news; it is also considered to be an authority.

That authority is anchored in the BBC’s reputation for independent and accurate reporting and that reputation in turn depends upon the BBC’s adherence to its own editorial guidelines and its legal obligation to “ensure that the BBC gives information about, and increases understanding of, the world through accurate and impartial news, other information, and analysis of current events and ideas” as defined in the agreement between the BBC and the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
In recent years increasing criticism of the BBC’s lack of impartiality when dealing with subjects related to the Arab-Israeli conflict has led to its commissioning of the unpublished Balen Report, the Thomas Report and the implementation of a series of internal ’safety measures’ such as the appointment of Jeremy Bowen to the post of Middle East Editor.

None of those measures, however, has stemmed the tide of criticism and some observers attribute that to the fact that the BBC is largely self-regulated, with self-commissioned reports into its accuracy and impartiality usually being compiled by figures from within the media industry (often former and/or current BBC employees) and an existing institutional culture within the BBC hampering its meeting of legally-defined obligations.

This matters because the BBC is in a virtually unique position as an opinion-shaper due to a near unprecedented outreach. It is the most influential broadcaster in the world today, with 97% of the UK population and some 225 million people in the rest of the world watching and listening to its broadcasts every week. The BBC’s website is read by 57% of British internet users and ranks in the top 50 for overall global traffic. Some 13.5 million people a week watch BBC Arabic alone.

It is also important because – as its representatives often say – the BBC has a reputation for being both independent and trustworthy – traits to which many other media outlets in the world cannot lay claim. That is a trust which cannot be allowed to be neglected or abused and, as we see in the example of the Manchester school above, minds are being made up on the basis of information put out by the BBC.

So when the BBC decides that Israel has no capital city, promotes the Al Dura libel and claims of ‘war crimes’ in Jenin , or refuses steadfastly to refer to terrorists as anything other than ‘militants’, it matters not only because of the effect this has on public opinion in the UK and worldwide, but also because the BBC is in fact neglecting its duty to increase the understanding of the people who fund it.

Currently, the BBC is undergoing significant changes. By 2014 the BBC World Service will cease to be the recipient of UK government grants and, like the domestic services, will be funded by British license fee-payers. BBC Monitoring will undergo similar changes by 2013.

This is an opportunity for the people who are obliged by law to fund the BBC to remind it of what they – the consumers – are legally entitled to receive in return: accurate and impartial news, information and analysis.

The closure in 2011 of ‘Just Journalism’, which monitored the BBC on a regular basis, and the external commitments which restricted Mr Trevor Asserson’s ability to continue producing his in-depth reports on the BBC, have exacerbated the need for monitoring of the world’s most influential broadcaster.

It has therefore been decided to launch BBC Watch as a sister project of CiF Watch (established in 2009 to monitor the Guardian’s ‘Comment is Free’ website) and with the independent support of CAMERA – the Committee for Accuracy In Middle East Reporting in America.

BBC Watch will monitor BBC output on the subject of the Arab-Israeli conflict and examine the broadcaster’s adherence to its legal obligation to produce accurate and impartial reporting as a service to its funding public.

To find out more, please visit www.bbcwatch.org .