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BBC Trust upholds complaint over Nakba Day radio report that downplayed expulsion of Palestinians

The governing body of the BBC today upheld complaints [PDF] about a radio report on Nakba Day, agreeing that there had been “a lack of clarity as to what Nakba Day commemorates,” and that the language used did not accurately “convey the reality of the departures [of the refugees].”

The breach of the BBC’s Accuracy Guidelines was confirmed by the Editorial Standards Committee (ESC), which “act[s] as the final arbiter on editorial appeals” from within the BBC Trust and is the destination for complainants who are not “satisfied with the responses they have received from the BBC’s Management.”

The focus of the complaints – the BBC grouped together my complaint plus that of another person – was an introduction to a Radio 4 news report in May 2012 covering Nakba Day rallies in the West Bank. The announcer described Nakba Day as “the anniversary of Israel’s declaration of statehood, which resulted in thousands of Palestinians leaving their homes.”

My original complaint pointed out that not only was “thousands” seriously downplaying the scale of the displacement, but that by concealing the coerced nature of the Palestinian exodus – and the fact they were all physically prevented from returning – the wording was “deeply offensive to those who lost everything as a result of ethnic cleansing.”

Responding to the consolidated appeal, the ESC noted that “a significant proportion of Palestinians left or were compelled to go prior to Israel’s declaration of statehood” and that “the general consensus today – including within Zionist circles – is that the departure of the majority of Palestinians was not a spontaneous exodus: that for the most part there is little evidence to support the contention that they left of their own free will or at the behest of their Arab leaders.”

Thus the “failure of accuracy,” in the words of the BBC’s governing body, was the result of “understating the number of Palestinians who left; failing to note there was a degree of force or coercion in the manner of their departure; and the lack of clarity as to what Nakba Day commemorates.”

Earlier finding overruled

Importantly, the ESC overruled an earlier decision by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU), who had only partly upheld the complaint, saying that to describe Palestinian refugees as simply “leaving” was not appropriate and “failed adequately to convey the reality of the departures.” What Nakba Day commemorates, the BBC Trust’s Committee wrote, is “the fact that hundreds of thousands of people had been forced, or felt obliged, to leave their homes over a long period leading up to, and following, the establishment of the new State.”

While the successful appeal is encouraging, responses from BBC management at earlier stages shed light on the problematic approach of the organization to reporting on Palestine (and other issues).

My initial complaint, which did not change in substance to the one upheld by the ESC, was summarily dismissed without explanation in the first instance. On receiving my dissatisfied follow up, BBC Complaints said that editorial staff conceded that “with hindsight they do agree that the use of the word ‘leaving,’ while accurate in one sense, does not properly reflect the nature of events.” But there was no official acknowledgement of inaccuracy.

I then continued to the ECU, who upheld the complaint regarding the “misleading impression of [the Nakba’s] scale” given by the word “thousands” – but rejected the accusation that the verb “to leave” was inaccurate. The justification for this was tortuous.

The ECU admitted that the original wording could have been “better phrased,” that “a more appropriate choice of words” would have helped listeners’ understanding, and that the verb “displaced” gives “a clearer account of what happened.” They also cited historical research by Benny Morris and referred to “displacement” several times. Yet the ECU still concluded there had been no breach of accuracy guidelines since “leaving their homes” is a “neutral phrase” that “does not, in fact, offer any comment on the reasons for the displacement, but only notes that it happened.” Well, indeed.

The decision by the BBC Trust, however, is a welcome correction to the record, and will hopefully influence newsrooms to not shy away from describing Israel’s record of ethnic cleansing and other crimes.

Comments

Well done, Ben. It is high time that the BBC be reminded of its obligation to report the news accurately and impartially.

This query should take it further to ask what or who are influencing BBC reporting to skew it in this way?

Dear Ben,
Well done on your complaint to the BBC and publishing the result.
In 2008, we'd just had Ilan Pappe speaking in Bristol on the Nakba.
I then heard Radio four state that "scores of Palestinian villages were destroyed".
It took me a year of fighting through their complaints procedure before they admitted defeat.
I've been a Palestine campaigner ever since!
Keep up the good work................Ed

Well done Ben, a small victory! The media's insidious and continuous downplay of Israel's actions (crimes) needs to be challenged if it is to be stopped. Challenges such as yours are laborious and I'm sure, quite tedious to pursue- you have done us a great service. Thanks.

I have had limited experience of the BBC's complaints procedure but this would appear to be a major breakthrough. Very many congratulations, Ben.