Friday, February 06, 2009

British media watchdog group issues report on Gaza

Just Journalism, a UK-based media monitoring group that focuses on British coverage of Israel, just released an impressively comprehensive report detailing what the British media did wrong, and right. Here are the conclusions:

Our primary conclusion relates to impartiality. When it came to the UK’s public service broadcaster, the BBC, there were clear instances when there was a crucial lack of separation between opinion and fact. With its considerable degree of world influence, this is an area the BBC certainly needs to revisit.

With the BBC’s appointment of a Middle East ‘Editor’ a few years ago, it was perhaps inevitable that audiences would experience some form of ‘editorialisation’, or, at the very least, an element of interpretation of the facts to provide a deeper level of analysis.

However, several years on, it is clear that the boundaries between editorial opinion and factual news reporting in the BBC’s output in this area remain extremely blurred. This is particularly the case with the BBC News website, where the Middle East Editor is effectively allowed free reign to air his own opinions about the conflict, with few signs to alert audiences that this is in fact his own opinion, rather than that of the BBC.

Whether through an excessive focus on humanizing the conflict from the Palestinian perspective or through straightforward expressions of a personal opinion, we must conclude that the BBC was certainly not impartial in presenting an opinion of the conflict and that one of its key guidelines on impartiality was breached on several occasions: “Our journalists and presenters, including those in news and current affairs, may provide professional judgments but may not express personal opinions on matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy. Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC programmes or other BBC output the personal views of our journalists and presenters on such matters.” (BBC Editorial Guidelines)

On a more positive note, much of the news reporting from the BBC’s various correspondents was balanced and thoughtful and in stark contrast to the BBC’s coverage of the Israel / Hizbollah war in 2006.

In their own editorials too, the press demonstrated an encouraging even balance of perspectives, with The Observer publishing the highest proportion of neutral pieces. Regarding opinion pieces, our research bears out the fact that the UK media is a free and diverse institution, wherein commentators, columnists and cartoonists are at liberty to express a multiplicity of perspectives. The fact that the opinion pieces in the press were twice as likely to be critical of Israel’s offensive as supportive may reveal a great deal about prevailing attitudes towards Israel in the UK, but it certainly does not constitute a breach of impartiality.

Factual accuracy

Our second conclusion relates to the area of factual accuracy. It is clear that several key facts relating to the conflict were, at best, omitted and, at worst, misrepresented on an extremely large scale. The startling under-representation of the nature of Hamas and the lack of context of the history of violence against Israel, both editorially and visually, raises serious questions about whether the media was being factually accurate in its reporting. Does this constitute a breach of the journalistic guidelines on factual accuracy? Technically not. But it certainly seems to contravene the Press Complaint Commission’s guidelines that “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information, including pictures.” (PCC Code of Practice: Section 1(iii)). Furthermore, it raises doubts over whether the BBC’s Editorial Guideline stating, “We will weigh all relevant facts and information to get at the truth” was upheld to the standard the media consumer would expect.

Was the media’s coverage of the conflict balanced? In certain areas it was: in the amount of time and space allocated to quoting Israeli spokespeople (if anything, the exposure they were given was disproportionate to that given to Hamas officials, although this may largely be due to a number of factors including the media ban in Gaza); in the overall stance taken by the UK’s broadsheets in their editorial pieces and in the BBC’s coverage of both perspectives of the conflict, specifically in its news reports.

However, when it came to arguably some of the more influential and emotive areas of reporting, we detected serious shortcomings in overall balance and a tendency to depict Israel firmly in an aggressive light. Why, for instance, did Hamas only feature in one quarter of all press cartoons and more than 75% depict Israel as the primary aggressor in the conflict? Why was there an almost obsessive focus on Israel’s ‘control’ of the media environment with no similar questioning about Hamas’s role in influencing sources and statistics in Gaza until after the ceasefire? Why did the Guardian and The Independent choose to publish over five times as many opinion pieces critical of Israel than supportive? And why did the media, especially the BBC, not sufficiently differentiate between civilian and Hamas casualties?

These questions raise issues over the thought processes and perspectives of the media in reporting the conflict and whether it can truly be said that the journalistic principles of ‘balance’ were upheld.