Thursday, April 16, 2009

The BBC just released a lengthy report that addresses complaints about the accuracy and impartiality of Jeremy Bowen, its Middle East editor.

While the report did find that Bowen did breach its impartiality standards in one case and its accuracy standards in a very small number of cases brought by a complainant, for the majority of the complaints the BBC found that he reported fairly and accurately. (Briefly, the BBC found that Bowen's description of the Six Day War as "“The myth of the 1967 Middle East war was that the Israeli David slew the Arab Goliath. It is more accurate to say that there were two Goliaths in the Middle East in 1967" was not an impartial statement.)

One of the complaints, and the BBC's response, caught my eye.

Bowen, in a different report about the Israeli presence on Har Homa, referred to “the considerable number of Israelis who say that their country’s colonisation of the West Bank has been a national disaster.” The complaint mentioned that a majority of Israelis support settlements in some way and that the phrase "considerable number" was misleading and false.

The BBC's findings show its own bias:
The Committee considered that a “considerable number of Israelis”, did not suggest a majority or imply a figure close to 50%. The Committee then considered the evidence provided to it regarding this comment. The Committee noted that poll findings would suggest that more than 10% of Israelis disagree with the settlements, and the figure could be much higher depending on the precise questions asked. The Committee accepted that it was reasonable to summarise their objections in this way.

The Committee discussed how far it was meaningful to link the extension of Har Homa to Israelis’ opinions of colonisation in the West Bank, given that the Israeli public may distinguish between Har Homa and the West Bank. The Committee concluded that this fact does not alter the meaning of the sentence, namely that announcement that Har Homa would be extended led to consternation among those Israelis who consider the colonisation of the West Bank to have been a national disaster. The Committee considered that this sentence is logical and that there is no evidence that it is inaccurate.

The Committee did not feel that Jeremy Bowen was obliged to mention that the majority of Israelis were in favour of settlements, and concurred with the ECU in this regard.

In conclusion, this element of the complaint was not upheld as a breach of the guidelines on either accuracy or impartiality.
In other words, if 10% of a group believes something, that is considered a "considerable number." Of course, anyone who looks at polls can spin any poll using that criteria to demonize any group of people, because rarely does any poll show that over 90% of people agree with something.

To give a more concrete example, a poll of Muslims worldwide found that 6.5% thought that 9/11 was "completely" justified and another 7% found it "mostly" justified. (This is not counting the 23% who found them justified "in some way.") Would the BBC countenance a report saying that "a considerable number of Muslims justify the 9/11 attacks"?

And in terms of pure numbers, the 13.5% that find 9/11 fully or mostly justified represent over 150 million Muslims, which - by any definition - is a "considerable number," an order of magnitude more than there are Jews worldwide. Yet I cannot imagine that the BBC would ever use such terminology to describe Muslims, which would be far more accurate than the report referenced above.

The reason is obvious: the terminology "a considerable number" implies a number that is large enough to have political clout, at least 30%, and certainly not the 10% that the BBC has decided it implies.

So when the BBC cannot accurately note an obvious breach of impartiality, the entire process is a joke.

(Other posts about Bowen and his obvious bias here and here.)
(h/t Oyavagoy)

UPDATE: See Melanie Phillips.

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