Has the internet made journalists more accountable to the public? Only if media professionals are actually willing to engage with those who consume their output. In the case of the publicly-funded BBC, the onus on editors and journalists is surely all the greater.
Last year, I wrote to Jon Williams, a senior BBC news editor:
Dear Jon Williams,
I hope you’re well. As the BBC’s World News Editor, presumably you will have a view of ‘More Bad News From Israel’, an updated study by Greg Philo and Mike Berry of the Glasgow University Media Group (Pluto Press, 2011).
For instance, in a new chapter they present a careful analysis of BBC and ITV news coverage of the Israeli attack on Gaza in 2008-2009. The researchers recorded, transcribed and analysed over 4000 lines of broadcast news text from the BBC and ITV.
‘The most striking feature of the news texts’, note Philo and Berry, ‘ is the dominance of the Israeli perspective, in relation to the causes of the conflict.’
Specifically, they note of BBC news during Operation Cast Lead:
‘the [Israeli] themes of “ending the rockets”, the “need for security” and to "stop the smuggling of weapons" received a total of 316.5 lines of text. Others such as the need to “hit Hamas” and that “Hamas and terrorists are to blame” received 62 lines. The total for Israeli explanatory statements on the BBC is 421.25. This compares with a much lower total for Hamas/Palestinian explanations of just 126.25.’
But even these 126.25 BBC lines of ‘explanations’ lack substance: ‘the bulk of the Palestinian accounts do not explain their case beyond saying that they will resist.’ What is almost non-existent are crucial facts about ‘how the continuing existence of the blockade affects the rationale for Palestinian action and how they see their struggle against Israel and its continuing military occupation.’
‘There are just 14.25 lines referring to the occupation and only 10.5 on the ending of the siege/blockade.’
Instead, BBC news tended to reflect the Israeli framework of events:
‘The dominant explanation for the attack was that it was to stop the firing of rockets by Hamas. The offer that Hamas was said to have made, to halt this in exchange for lifting the blockade (which Israel had rejected), was almost completely absent from the coverage.’
So BBC news coverage was skewed by the Israeli perspective, perpetuating ‘a one-sided view of the causes of the conflict by highlighting the issue of the rockets without reporting the Hamas offer’ and by burying rational views on the purpose of the attack: namely the Israeli desire to inflict collective punishment on the Palestinian people.
In classic academic understatement, Philo and Berry conclude:
‘It is difficult in the face of this to see how the BBC can sustain a claim to be offering balanced reporting.’
These are serious and well-substantiated charges. I’d be interested in hearing your response, please.
David Cromwell (Email, May 16, 2011)
Williams didn’t email back. But that doesn’t mean he didn’t respond to the challenge: shortly afterwards, Media Lens found that we were blocked from following him on Twitter.
He’s not the only journalist to have done so. In the wake of a similar Media Lens challenge to Paul Danahar, the BBC’s Middle East Bureau Chief, we were also blocked from following him.
At the end of last week, Danahar tweeted glowing words for the outcome of the West’s attack on Libya:
Media activist David Traynier responded cogently:
‘Hope they don't make the Palestinian mistake & get punished for electing a govt the US doesn't like.
Traynier was referring to the consequences of the surprising victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election of January 2006. As Noam Chomsky notes, the election had been carefully monitored and 'pronounced to be free and fair by international observers, despite US-Israeli efforts to swing the election towards their favourite, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party.'
'The punishment of Palestinians for the crime of voting the wrong way was severe. With US backing, Israel stepped up its violence in Gaza, withheld funds it was legally obligated to transmit to the Palestinian Authority, tightened its siege and even cut off the flow of water to the arid Gaza Strip.
'The United States and Israel made sure that Hamas would not have a chance to govern. They rejected Hamas’s call for a long-term cease-fire to allow for negotiations on a two-state settlement, along the lines of an international consensus that Israel and United States have opposed, in virtual isolation, for more than 30 years, with rare and temporary departures.
'Meanwhile, Israel stepped up its programmes of annexation, dismemberment and imprisonment of the shrinking Palestinian cantons in the West Bank, always with US backing despite occasional minor complaints, accompanied by the wink of an eye and munificent funding.'
Following Traynier's tweet referring to all of this, writer and broadcaster Charles Shoebridge then cautioned:
Shoebridge explained that the BBC's Danahar had sent this tweet at 9.47 am on July 5, 2012:
'It's because most #Libyans have never had the chance to vote in their lives that they need a poster like this one.'
Shoebridge had then replied to Danahar:
'It's a nice line, but actually electoral education posters like this are seen in many developing countries, including democracies.'
and was promptly blocked by the BBC Middle East Bureau Chief. Shoebridge noted in response to Danahar’s blocking of him and Media Lens:
‘It seems a policy of hiding what you say from those who would challenge it. Hardly in keeping with open ethos of BBC.’
Shoebridge told Media Lens that:
'in the past I've on occasion defended, retweeted and recommended Danahar's tweets to others. In each case he would have known this, because of course each time his name @pdanahar is mentioned he is informed by twitter, in the same way he's informed when people reply to his tweets.' (Email, July 9, 2012)
He emphasised that his Twitter comments, and those by Media Lens, had been 'polite and reasonable'.
When Danahar was challenged about his blocking, he replied:
‘this is my personnel [sic] twitter account you don't have to follow it, so why do you bother’ (Twitter, July 8, 2012; again, no direct link possible because his account is ‘protected’)
This poor excuse neglects the prominence given in his Twitter bio to his BBC credentials and the fact he frequently tweets about BBC News reports.
‘Paul, you see the irony of you defending censorship from a place [Libya] you're celebrating as newly free?
‘It's particularly wrong to hide your much valued reports from those paying for them to be provided.’
‘Paul, pls step back, restore access, and learn to either accept or ignore polite dissent.’
In a subsequent email to Media Lens, Shoebridge made the following vital points:
'To clarify, I deliberately used the word "reports" to refer not to traditional reports as carried by the BBC website, but to emphasise the fact that when journalists such as Paul Danahar tweet, particularly when they tweet live events, their tweets actually are reports. Those reports are as much paid for by licence fee payers as are the product of more traditional reporting, and as such it's clearly wrong that licence fee payers should be denied access to them in anything but the most extreme of circumstances (ie abuse). From a journalistic censorship perspective, they of course shouldn't be denied to anyone, irrespective of whether they pay for a license.' (Email, July 9, 2012)
Invisible Irony At The BBC
As we saw above, the BBC’s World News Editor Jon Williams, too, seems thin-skinned. More evidence for this popped up recently. Last Thursday, the BBC Radio 4 Today programme had an interview with a former correspondent from a Syrian government-affiliated TV channel who had just defected to join the opposition activists. It was a dramatic exposé of how Syrian journalists at the channel were allegedly told to broadcast stories painting the Syrian government in a favourable light.
The BBC’s James Reynolds asked the Syrian journalist:
‘The channel portrays a reasonably straightforward world: a brave Syrian government leads the fight against foreign-led terrorists. [...] Do you think the Syrian people believe what they see on the channel?’
This was a key moment of raw propaganda gold. Has a BBC journalist ever thought to ask whether the BBC ‘portrays a reasonably straightforward world: a brave British government leads the fight against foreign-led terrorists’? Do we ever hear the BBC asking whether the British people believe what they see on the channel?
The irony that this interview was taking place on the BBC, which has been almost wholly uncritical of the UK government’s foreign ‘interventions’, was glaring. But of course the irony was invisible to BBC journalists themselves. Indeed, Richard Coleborne, BBC News Middle East producer, felt compelled to plug Reynolds’ piece via the Twittersphere:
#Syria govt TV journalist now in Turkey tells BBC how the message is managed. "We tell those we interview what to say."'
Coleborne’s message was then retweeted higher up the BBC chain of command by Jon Williams.
Charles Shoebridge noted all this and expressed a modicum of deserved scepticism:
That was enough for Jon Williams to block Shoebridge who responded, with good reason:
And it’s not just the BBC. Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger no longer responds to us or Media Lens readers following our critical account of the paper’s attempt to smear Noam Chomsky in 2005. So much for Rusbridger's declared commitment to 'open journalism' which is based on 'a distributive model of journalism that has a richness and diversity of content'. Genuine 'open journalism' should be open to public challenge, as Rusbridger himself acknowledged in his 2011 Orwell lecture:
'we should have some confidence that good things will flow from holding the press up to scrutiny, however difficult it may be at times.'
Fine words. But in practice it has become so difficult for the Guardian editor that he has resorted to blocking dissenting voices on Twitter.
Understandably, not everyone is a fan of Twitter which seems almost designed for time-wasting, endless blathering and ego inflation. But it can offer the occasional insight into the inner workings of journalistic minds, revealing disdain for public challenge, ugly group-think and cowardly bullying; as we saw in the pathetic ‘jokes’ and abuse directed recently at Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks.
Blocking of the public by senior journalists is yet another example of the fragile ‘tolerance’ permitted by our famously ‘free press’.