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After Report, British Jewish Leader Hoping Bbc Changes Mideast Coverage

May 10, 2006
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A British Jewish leader is pleased with a report critical of the BBC’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but is withholding final judgment until he sees whether the changes recommended are implemented. Jon Benjamin, chief executive of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, made the comments after the report concluded that the BBC does not give a “full and fair account” of the conflict, leading to “incomplete” and “misleading” coverage, the report found. The report, commissioned by the BBC Governors and carried out by an independent panel, was released last week.

Though it absolves the BBC of “deliberate or systematic bias,” the report highlights several areas where coverage could be improved. Recommendations include providing more historical context and tightening editorial control. The BBC also should focus on issues and events beside dramatic flare-ups, the report found.

A content analysis found that more on-air time is given to Israelis than Palestinians — though that includes Israelis highly critical of Israeli policy. It also found that Israeli fatalities are reported more frequently than are Palestinian deaths, perhaps owing to the dramatic footage that accompanies terrorist attacks against Israelis.

In addition, the BBC was urged not to shy away from the word “terrorist,” but to ensure that it’s fairly and evenly applied.

This last point earned some praise from Benjamin, who told JTA that he appreciates “the report’s common-sense approach to the use of the word terrorism — which, as it says, best describes violent acts targeting civilians with the intention to cause terror for political purposes.”

The Council for Arab-British Understanding said in a statement that the BBC avoids using the word “occupation” in its coverage of the conflict. In an e-mail to JTA, Benjamin disagreed.

“Almost without exception, Palestinians are shown as suffering from ‘the occupation,’ ” he wrote.

According to the panel, the biggest shortcoming in the BBC’s reporting is its “failure to convey adequately the disparity in the Israeli and Palestinian experience, reflecting the fact that one side is in control and the other lives under occupation.”

The report suggests presenting dual narratives of the conflict: By setting out parallel narratives, it’s hoped that both sides would be presented “fully and fairly.”

Both the Board of Deputies and the Arab council submitted reports to the panel. Benjamin and the council’s director, Chris Doyle, said they look forward to seeing greater historical context in BBC reporting, though they cautioned that the report’s true value will be known only when they see how the BBC reacts and improves.

Benjamin highlighted what he called shortcomings in the report.

BBC reports don’t show “the way that the lives of Israelis are every day affected by the stringent security measures that have to be taken in response to terror,” he told JTA. “Sadly, also overlooked are the wonderful stories of cooperation and collaboration between ordinary Israelis and Palestinians to improve the lives of both communities.”

Controversy is nothing new to the BBC’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Board of Governors censured BBC Online in April for an article on the 1967 Six-Day War. The article stated that the United Nations called for Israel’s withdrawal from all territory seized during the war, when in fact the United Nations had called for a “land for peace” agreement to be negotiated. The text of the resolution was adopted after Arab diplomats failed in their attempt to demand an Israeli retreat from all the territory.

In 2003, the Israeli government effectively barred official contact with the BBC after it broadcast a documentary on Israel’s supposed nuclear weapons program that Israeli officials felt was biased and lacked context.

The following year, the Board of Governors upheld a complaint of bias against a correspondent who reported having cried as she watched a dying Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, being helicoptered out of the West Bank.

In a statement released May 3, BBC News management “welcomed the report’s central finding” of impartiality and promised to “study the detailed recommendations of the report” and “draw up a plan for implementing appropriate recommendations, for approval by the Board of Governors.”

The news division already had implemented one of the panel’s suggestions with the appointment in April of Jeremy Bowen in the new position of Middle East editor.

While BBC coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict generates a lot of complaints, viewers don’t perceive a bias in the coverage, according to public opinion research carried out at the panel’s request.

But only 29 percent of the BBC’s audience feels they know “a reasonable amount” or “a lot” about the conflict.

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