The BBC and “peacekeeping” in Iraq


Below is an illuminating email exchange I had with the editor of the local BBC news programme a few years ago.

From: Ian Sinclair
Sent: 23 December 2004 12:18
To: Dave Betts
Subject: Possible breach of BBC guidelines in last night’s Look East.

Dear Mr Betts,

I wish to make a complaint about a news item that appeared on the BBC Look East evening news last night (21/12/04), which appeared to break the BBC guidelines on impartiality. During the story of the two British soldiers accused of murdering a woman in Tanzania, your female reporter referred to the soldiers being in Tanzania, on leave from "peacekeeping duties" in Iraq.

"Peacekeeping duties" seems a very odd way to describe an occupation of another nation, after an illegal (as explained by the UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan) war of aggression. Were Russian forces on "peacekeeping duties" in Afghanistan in the 1980s? Were German troops on "peacekeeping duties" in France, between 1940 and 1944?

I would be grateful for a full explanation as to why this term was used – especially as it is clearly biased towards British forces, suggesting their actions in Iraq are benign.

I look forward to your reply.

Ian Sinclair

From : Dave Betts
Sent : 23 December 2004 15:14:59
To : "Ian Sinclair"
CC : "Dave Betts"
Subject : RE: Possible breach of BBC guidelines in last night’s Look East.

Mr Sinclair,

I can assure you that our item did not break the BBC’s guidelines.

Whatever the moral rights or wrongs of the situation – the British forces in Iraq are routinely refered to as peacekeeping forces by the British government. If you have been monitoring the BBC closely, I am sure you will have seen the indepth coverage of the whole issue on our various tv and radio channels. We remain committed to providing
impartial coverage.

Dave

DAVE BETTS
Editor, BBC Look East

From: Ian Sinclair
Sent: 23 December 2004 15:54
To: Dave Betts
Cc: Tim Bishop
Subject: RE: Possible breach of BBC guidelines in last night’s Look East.

Dear Mr Betts,

Thank you for your prompt reply.

You correctly state "the British forces in Iraq are routinely referred to as peacekeeping forces by the British government." However, the last time I checked the BBC was supposed to be an independent news organisation. You seem to suggest it is natural to blindly parrot the government’s line. By openly admitting to using the Government’s definition of the British role in Iraq, you certainly are in breach of the BBC Guidelines, which clearly state "The BBC is independent of both state and partisan interest".(http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/policies/producer_guides/text/secti
on3.shtml)

The Guidelines continue, "We aim for the highest possible levels of accuracy and precision of language…. It will rely on fact rather than opinion". By referring to the British "peacekeeping duties" in Iraq you have also clearly breached this BBC guideline. A far more precise and factual term would, for example, refer to the soldiers being "on active duty in Iraq".

You also failed to answer the question I originally asked. As a publicly funded organisation I believe you have a duty to respond to viewers questions. Indeed, the Guidelines clearly state "Our first loyalty is to the BBC’s audiences to whom we are accountable". I asked: "I would be grateful for a full explanation as to why this term was used – especially as it is clearly biased towards British forces, suggesting their actions in Iraq are benign." So could you please explain why you used this term, and not something more neutral like "the soldiers had been on active duty in Iraq"?

I look forward to your reply.

Ian Sinclair

From : Dave Betts
Sent : 23 December 2004 16:01:19
To : "Ian Sinclair"
Subject : RE: Possible breach of BBC guidelines in last night’s Look East.

Mr Sinclair,

Thank you for your reply.

We called the forces ‘peacekeeping forces’ because that is their official title, bestowed on them by our elected government. You and I may not like that fact – but I am afraid it IS a fact. I am confident that our viewers are able to reach their own conclusions as to the rights and wrongs of the situation in Iraq.

Dave

From: Ian Sinclair
Sent: 23 December 2004 16:32
To: Dave Betts
Cc: Tim Bishop
Subject: RE: Possible breach of BBC guidelines in last night’s Look East.

Mr Betts,

Thank you for your second reply.

I find it astonishing that you are happy to unquestionably use the Government’s ‘official’ definition on a supposedly independent news programme. The veteran US journalist David E Hendrix notes "Reporting a spokesman’s comments is not reporting; it’s becoming the spokesman’s spokesman." (‘Coal Mine Canaries’, Hendrix, in ‘Into The Buzzsaw’, edited by Kristina Borjesson, Prometheus Books, 2002, p.172)

My question refers to your use of terminology and therefore you statement that "viewers are able to reach their own conclusions as to the rights and wrongs of the situation in Iraq" is completely irrelevant. As is your statement "You and I may not like that fact". The term "peacekeeping duties" is a value judgement (made by the Government and the BBC), however my example of the soldiers being "on active duty in Iraq" is far more impartial, precise and factual.

Could you please direct me to a higher authority (your line manager), as your reply is wholly inadequate.

Ian Sinclair

From : Dave Betts
Sent : 24 December 2004 17:20:07
To : "Ian Sinclair"
CC : "Dave Betts"
Subject : RE: Possible breach of BBC guidelines in last night’s Look East.

Mr Sinclair,

Sorry for the delay – for some reason your email has only just arrived in my inbox.

Hendrix’s quote is a favourite of mine. But I struggle to understand its relevance to what we are talking about. He refers to ‘a spokesman’s comments.’ We are not discussing a ‘spokesman,’ or indeed a ‘value judgement.’ We are talking about an official title used by the elected government.

Of course the BBC has – and will no doubt continue to do – questioned the use of the pharase ‘peacekeeping forces’ in our numerous programmes about Iraq. We have spoken to many different people with many different opinions. In a short news item on a regional news programme it is simply impossible to go over all this ground again. But I seriously doubt whether there is a single member of the public that is not aware of the debate.

If you want to take this matter further, here’s the website link for the BBC’s Programme Complaint Unit: http://www.bbc.co.uk/info/contactus/serious.shtml

I am back in the office on Jan 4 if you would like to talk more. In the meantime, feel free to publish this email on your website.

Dave

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