What Went Wrong at the BBC: A Public Monopoly Abusing Its Charter Through Bias Against Israel

, January 15, 2004

No. 511    January 2004

Trevor Asserson, a leading British litigation lawyer, has undertaken three well-documented studies detailing the BBC’s systematic bias against Israel.

The BBC is increasingly developing from an organization that reports news into an organization that manufactures it.

Where Israel is concerned, the BBC is in breach of all or most of the guidelines set forth in its Agreement with the Government to which its material must conform. These guidelines include, inter alia, issues such as fairness, respect for truth, due accuracy, attachment to fundamental democratic principles, not broadcasting their own opinions on current affairs or matters of public policy, ensuring that opposing views are not misrepresented, and ensuring that the audience would not be able to gauge reporters’ personal views.

BBC news reports about Israel are distorted by omission, by inclusion, by only giving partial facts, by who is interviewed, and by the background information or lack of it that is provided. Distorted media reporting creates an atmosphere in which anti-Semitism can thrive.

It is no longer appropriate for the BBC to exist in its present form in a free market. The British government should not renew the BBC Charter when it comes due in 2005.

Widespread Antipathy Toward Israel

“The BBC’s coverage of the Middle East is infected by an apparent, widespread antipathy toward Israel,” says Trevor Asserson, a leading British litigation lawyer. In the past two years, Asserson has undertaken three well-documented studies detailing the BBC’s systematic bias against Israel, that may be found at www.bbcwatch.com. Asserson’s methodology can also be used to analyze other media.

For his most recent report that appeared in June 2003, “The BBC: The War on Iraq – an Analysis,” Asserson and Lee Kern recorded BBC coverage during 3-18 April 2003, from when the war was a few days old until after the war had effectively ended. When comparing BBC news treatment of the coalition forces in Iraq with its coverage of Israeli army operations, the authors concluded that their findings “suggest that the partiality of the BBC’s reporting quite possibly infects its coverage of all politically sensitive issues.”

This is not the first time that Asserson has taken on the BBC. As a young lawyer, he was involved in a suit against the BBC brought by the UK’s Social Democratic Party (SDP). At the time, the party had the support of about 35 percent of the electorate, but the BBC rarely gave the SDP coverage to express its opinions. The case was ultimately settled confidentially out of court. “During the negotiations I saw how worried the BBC was by the evidence we brought. They were the accused, and I think they should be so again today.”

 The BBC’s Breach of Contract

Asserson says: “It has been clear to me and many others for a long time that the BBC has been biased in its approach to Israel. News reports are distorted by omission, by inclusion, by only giving partial facts, by who is interviewed, and by the background information provided or lack of it. I thought that the only way to establish this factually was to do a proper forensic analysis, the way I would do it to prepare bringing either a defamation or a breach of contract case before a court.”

“I thought the BBC should be analyzed because its significant influence on public opinion is combined with a unique obligation to produce ‘impartial’ news. The BBC has a contract with the government to which it must keep. I wanted to see to what extent it was breaking its terms. I prepared my reports in the way in which a judge would expect the evidence to be put in a court of law.”

Under its legally binding Agreement with the Government, the BBC has established guidelines to which its material must conform. Asserson has identified fifteen independent obligations from this discursive document. They include, inter alia, issues such as fairness, respect for truth, due accuracy, attachment to fundamental democratic principles, not broadcasting their own opinions on current affairs or matters of public policy, ensuring that opposing views are not misrepresented, and ensuring that the audience would not be able to gauge reporters’ personal views. In his reports, Asserson explains in great detail why all or most of these guidelines are frequently breached where Israel is concerned.

Systematic Abuse of Language

In order to proceed with his inquiry, Asserson hired an assistant at his own expense to physically record the broadcasted material. He also assembled a number of lawyers and historians to comprise a BBC Watch Committee with whom he consults in the preparation of his reports. “We had to work out an objective and reasonable method to analyze the material, which is the most difficult challenge. We decided which news reports to record, and thereafter transcribed them so that we had a full written text of what was broadcast.”

Asserson then defined the different types of distortions. These definitions appear in his first report, published in March 2002, entitled “The BBC and the Middle East: A Critical Study,” which he wrote together with research assistant Elisheva Mironi. They recorded the bulk of BBC news output on TV, radio, and website for a seven-week period (12 November 2001 to 30 December 2001). For comparison, they simultaneously recorded reports from a variety of other sources. All programs were recorded consistently to avoid any allegation that material had been analyzed on a selective or partial basis.

They concluded that the BBC was in frequent breach of the obligations of its charter and broadcasting license. For instance, it often showed partiality in its choice of language. “The BBC refused to label Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups as ‘terrorists,’ terming them ‘militants,’ ‘hard liners,’ or ‘radicals’ instead. When suicide bombers killed twenty-six Israeli civilians in attacks in Jerusalem and Haifa, the word ‘terror’ was used by the BBC only when describing Israel’s retaliatory attacks on Palestinian targets.

“This was a breach of the BBC’s own guidelines, which should govern all the BBC’s material, including material posted on the Internet. By refusing to attribute the word ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’ appropriately, the BBC breaches its own guidelines on five points, i.e., ‘fairness, attachment to fundamental democratic principles, the audience should not be able to gauge reporters’ personal views, fair us