BBC fights to suppress internal report into allegations of bias against Israel

Andy McSmith

The BBC was in court yesterday fighting over the public’s right to know. But the Corporation was not battling to bring information into the open. Instead it has paid an estimated £200,000 in legal fees to keep the report secret.

The Corporation is trying to persuade the High Court to overrule a decision by the Information Tribunal that an internal report into the BBC’s Middle East coverage should be made public.

It puts the Corporation in the awkward position of arguing that the Freedom of Information Act should not apply in this case, although their journalists have previously made free use of the Act to prise information from the Government.

The dispute is over a 20,000-page report commissioned four years ago, at a time when the Israeli government had announced that it was withdrawing all co-operation with the BBC staff stationed in the Middle East, including all the help BBC journalists could normally expect with issues such as passports and visas.

The Israelis were angered by a BBC documentary about Mordecai Vananu, who spent many years in solitary confinement for revealing to The Sunday Times that Israel was developing a nuclear weapon. It’s government called the programme “Nazi propaganda”. Danny Seaman, the director of the government’s press office, claimed: “The innuendoes, the insinuation on the programme were to depict Israel as a police state.”

The ban lasted for about three months. They were mollified when the BBC announced that it was bringing in an outside consultant, Malcolm Balen, to watch over their Middle East coverage. Mr Balen, an experienced television executive known to BBC staff as the “Middle East policeman”, worked from an office 10 minutes walk away from the BBC’s White City headquarters.

He ruled on tricky questions such as the word BBC correspondents should use to describe the long chain of fences and walls that the Israelis were erecting along the West Bank, to keep out suicide bombers. Palestinians call it the “apartheid wall”. To the Israelis it is simply a ” fence “. On Mr Balen’s advice, the BBC settled on the word ” barrier ” .

In October 2004, as his one-year contract drew to a close, Mr Balen presented the BBC with a 20,000-page report. Those who accuse the BBC of anti-Israeli bias suspect that it supported their case but no one outside the BBC has been allowed to see it.

Mr Balen has gone on the record to say that he does not believe there is anti-Semitism in the BBC, but did imply that the Corporation had made ” mistakes”, which should not be seen as evidence of malice.

Steven Sugar, a commercial solicitor from Putney, west London, put in a request to the BBC to see the whole report, citing the Freedom of Information Act.

“A very large proportion of the Jewish community felt rightly or wrongly that the BBC’s reporting of the second Palestinian intifada or uprising that broke out in 2000 was seriously distorted,” he said. ” I myself, as a member of the Jewish community, felt that and was very distressed by it.Now I don’t know whether it is important to see this report or not. Instinct says that if they don’t want to give it to me it may be important.”

The BBC’s website invites members of the public to send in requests for information, but there is also a warning that they are not necessarily going to tell you everything you might want to know. They claim that the Act does not apply to “information held for the purposes of creating the BBC’s output, or information that supports and is closely associated with these activities”.

The BBC argues that if its journalists are collecting information, they should not have to give it out to people who put in Freedom of Information requests until they are ready to broadcast. The Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas, hadruled in favour of the BBC. He was overruled by the Information Tribunal.

Orla Guerin, the BBC’s Middle East correspondent, was the next correspondent to draw the anger of the Israeli government, in March 2004, for her coverage of the arrest of Hussam Abdu, 16, a Palestinian caught with explosives strapped to his chest.

Guerin, in the eyes of the government, already had form because it had given her a document it said was found on the bomber praising the September 11 attacks. She had questioned whether it was genuine. She accused the Israelis of using the teenager for propaganda purposes, of parading the child in front of the international media” and then denying journalists the chance to ask questions. Natan Sharansky, minister for diaspora affairs, a man highly respected in Israel and the West for enduring years of persecution in communist Russia, claimed that her report showed “such a gross double standard” that “it is difficult to see Ms Guerin’s report anything but anti-semitic”.

Barbara Plett also drew hundreds of complaints after her report of the terminally ill Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat leaving the West Bank in October 2004. She said in From Our Own Correspondent on Radio 4, that until then it had been a “real grind” reporting on his long illness. ” Yet when the helicopter carrying the frail old man rose above his ruined compound… I started to cry… without warning.” In November the BBC’s governors ruled that the reference to crying “unintentionally gave the impression of over-identifying with Yasser Arafat and his cause”.

A BBC spokeswoman said yesterday that the Corporation was fighting the case because it needed clarity over how the Freedom of Information Act applied to it, not because of the content of the Balen report. The report was always meant to be “an internal review of programme content, to inform future output” and never intended for publication, she added. The case continues today.

So, is the BBC fair in its reports on Israel?

Lord Janner of Braunstone Former president of Board of Deputies of British Jews

“The BBC’s reporting of Israel is sometimes fair and sometimes biased. On the whole, the BBC could never be accused of being pro-Israel.”

Rod Liddle former editor, Today

“There is bias at the BBC… against the powerful and in favour of the powerless. In the Middle East context, this is naively characterised as Israelis vs Palestinians being the powerful against the powerless. That is why the BBC seems to be sympathetic towards the Palestinians but that the Israeli settlers, for instance, do not get a fair hearing.”

George Galloway Respect MP

“To accuse the BBC of anti-Israel bias is akin to accusing Jeremy Clarkson of being a health and safety obsessive. The word incongruous does not begin to capture this.”

Lorna Fitzsimons Head of Britain Israel Centre

“Over 81 per cent of the public trusts the BBC. It is imperative the BBC gets it right. Historically, there has been huge concern as to coverage but the BBC is now adhering to its policy of impartiality.”

Louise Ellman Labour MP

“There has been a bias and lack of context with the BBC reporting of Israel. Problems are related to citing individual acts of Israeli aggression by failing to put them into context or explaining the reasons. It makes them look like unprovoked acts, when in fact they were reaction to a terrorist act. I would certainly like to see what’s in the report.”

Greg Philo Glasgow Media Group. Author of Bad News from Israel

“In March 2002, when the BBC noted Palestinians had suffered the highest number of casualties in a week since the start of the intifada, there was more coverage of Israeli deaths.”