The BBC has found that a broadcast by veteran presenter, John Humphrys, on Radio 4’s Today programme was in breach of the corporation’s editorial guidelines on accuracy.
On 19th October, Humphrys and BBC Middle East Correspondent, Kevin Connolly, had a two-way conversation about the escalated violence in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Israel.
Palestine Solidarity Campaign noted that Humphrys and Connolly implied, through their phrasing, that all the fatalities during this period were Israeli.
This week, the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit (ECU) issued a ruling upholding this view and said that the broadcast would have misled audiences.
It is the second time in just over six months that the Today programme has been found in breach of BBC editorial guidelines in its reporting on Palestine and Israel.
In May, the ECU ruled that presenter Sarah Montague breached editorial guidelines on impartiality when she failed to challenge Israeli defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, on several controversial statements during an interview.
Humphrys began the item on 19th October:
“Yet another attack on Israelis last night. This time an Arab man with a gun and a knife killed a soldier and wounded ten people. Our Middle East correspondent is Kevin Connolly. The number is mounting, isn’t it Kevin. The number is about 50 now, isn’t it?”
Connolly’s response was:
“We think around 50 dead over the course of the last month or so, John. This sudden sharp uptick of violence; not just that attack at the bus station in Beersheva, inside Israel itself, but also, on Saturday, a wave of stabbing attacks in Hebron and in Jerusalem. So no sign that this wave of rising tension and rising casualties is going to abate. And the Israeli government, frankly, is casting about for a convincing answer, because the nature of the acts of violence still appears to be random (approving noises from John Humphrys) and spontaneous. The decisions of individuals at a given moment to stage an attack are not the work of organised extremist groups and, for that reason, it’s been very tough to formulate a convincing security answer.”
The remainder of the four minute conversation did not mention Palestinian fatalities at all (which, on that date, numbered around 40 since the beginning of October), and focused entirely on attacks on Israelis.
Connolly’s final line, which marked the end of the conversation, gave the first indication that Palestinians (the attackers) are also ‘dying’.He said:“…individuals are taking the decisions to stage these attacks for reasons we’re often left to guess at because, of course, the attackers often die in the course of the attack.”
No more was said about Palestinian fatalities, and Humphrys ended the conversation.
The BBC received several complaints about this broadcast, which it initially dismissed. However, complainants escalated their concerns from the BBC Complaints Unit – which had rejected their complaints – to the ECU.
Fraser Steel, head of editorial complaints, wrote to complainants this week:
“I have no doubt that ‘about fifty’ was intended to refer to the total number of deaths in the ‘sharp uptick of violence’ which lay behind the story. However, in the context of a discussion of attacks carried out by Palestinians, and in the absence of clarification on the point, I think the natural inference for listeners was that it referred to the number of Israeli dead – which, in view of the actual incidence of mortality, would have been misleading. To that extent, the report did not meet the BBC’s editorial standards regarding accuracy and I am proposing to uphold this part of your complaint…I’d like to thank you for giving us the opportunity of investigating your concerns, and I hope you’ll accept my apologies, on behalf of the BBC, for the breach of editorial standards which you identified.
This is a provisional finding which will finalised in due course.
It was welcomed by Sarah Colborne, Director of Palestine Solidarity Campaign, who said: “Yet again, the Today programme has breached the BBC’s own guidelines on how its journalism should be conducted. This time, it is veteran presenter John Humphrys, along with Kevin Connolly, the Middle East correspondent, who have misled audiences over the situation in occupied Palestine.
“Since the beginning of October, more than 100 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli soldiers or settlers across the occupied territories, and thousands more have been injured, many with live fire. It is one thing for Today to ignore this high and rising death toll and choose to put its focus on Israelis who have been stabbed; it is quite another for the programme to completely misrepresent the figures and imply that only Israelis are being killed.”