BBC angst resurfaces over Middle East reporting

The BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen was last month hauled over the coals by the corporation’s trustees over an article he wrote on the 1967 Arab-Israeli war and its political consequences. That piece broke the rules on journalistic accuracy and impartiality, said the trust.

The two complaints which led to ruling were made by lawyer and Zionist Federation member Jonathan Turner, and Gilead Ini, a lobbyist for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).

From the start I should explain that I have mixed feelings about these particular complaints against Bowen, and feel that the BBC Trust’s censure of its senior correspondent was disproportionate. Some of Bowen’s reporting has been questionable, though I’ve refrained from commenting until now as I didn’t feel that I had anything constructive to contribute to the debate. But with Jonathan Dimbleby and others launching ill-tempered attacks on the BBC Trust, I have to say something.

Jeremy Bowen is an outstanding journalist. He clearly knows his subject matter, and has a keen awareness of the human consequences of longstanding geopolitical conflict. Like that other much-criticised BBC correspondent Barbara Plett, Bowen mixes reportage and commentary. This may be a risky strategy, but it can be legitimate as long as certain lines are observed. As a consumer of current affairs reporting I’m entirely comfortable with journalists expressing their personal views, even when I disagree with them strongly. What I demand, however, is that all the key facts of a story are laid out, and reports are not biased though omission.

Dimbleby’s intervention is way over the top, and its tone is echoed by other critics of the BBC such as Matthew Taylor. Their arguments rely on ad hominem attacks against Turner and Ini, and, given the tone, woe betide anyone else who dares intervene from a pro-Israel perspective.

Does being a “passionate Zionist” (to use Dimbleby’s words) disqualify one from commenting on Middle East issues and the journalistic reporting of same? Taylor’s targets are “well-known pro-Israeli activist[s]”. I would have thought that well-worn rhetorical devices such as these are beneath such normally sagacious commentators.

If Turner and Ini’s criticisms of Bowen have substance, then they should be considered on merit, and not dismissed as the ranting of lobbyists. Even if the latter are themselves open to criticism for the way in which they go about their work.

As I’ve already said, I agree with Dimbleby that the BBC Trust’s censuring of Bowen was disproportionate, while at the same time regarding its criticisms as justified, at least in part. But that is the nature of the beast – the BBC – and for this you cannot blame Zionism.

So please, let’s leave out the knee-jerkism in reporting (and reporting of reporting) on Middle East affairs. There is enough reactionary politics on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict without journalists stirring it up when addressing bureaucratic excesses in their own institutions.