BBC boss admits mistakes over Middle East conflict coverage

BBC boss admits mistakes over coverage of Middle East conflict at synagogue talk, as he concedes there are ‘dangers and risks’ to Jewish community from its inaccuracies

BBC bosses have admitted that the corporation has made mistakes over its coverage of the Middle-East conflict, but denied that the corporation was guilty of systematic anti-Semitism.

Senior corporation executive, Rhodri Talfan Davies and director of editorial policy David Jordan, appeared at the South Hampstead Synagogue, for an event aimed at building ‘trust’ between the broadcaster and the Jewish community.

Mr Davies, who is the corporation’s director of nations, when asked about the political consequences for Jewish people when the BBC made mistakes, admitted ‘there are clearly dangers and risks when we enter highly contested, highly polarised areas’.

He pointed out the BBC had put its ‘hands up’ when it got things wrong, also acknowledging the ‘fear factor’ for the Jewish community was ‘significant’.

But he added the ‘instant polarisation’ of ‘public debate’ meant that for journalists currently working in the Middle-East ‘every single word you utter is monitored around the clock by all sorts of organisations’. He added: ‘You cannot afford to put a foot wrong.’

Senior corporation executive, Rhodri Talfan Davies (file image)

He said news teams were acting under ‘incredible scrutiny and stress’.

The meeting came as the corporation has faced huge criticism from Jewish organisations over its coverage of the Gaza war.

Its refusal to use the word terrorists to describe the Hamas fighters that slaughtered Israeli civilians has sparked huge controversy, including criticism from Israeli president Isaac Herzog.

Speculation by one of its TV reporters that a hospital explosion was caused by Israel also sparked huge anger.

In tense scenes, in front of a frustrated and critical audience, at the synagogue, Mr Davies said it was ‘important’ to ‘hear directly’ from the Jewish community about its concerns. He said that ‘there are things that we can do better’.

He and Mr Jordan were in conversation with the Campaign against Antisemitism’s Gideon Falter.

BBC director of editorial policy David Jordan (file image)

During the discussion, there was anger directed at the BBC over the reporting of its international editor Jeremy Bowen, who was faced claims he was anti-Israeli. Others singled out the corporation’s coverage of the hospital explosion and claims it always seemed to blame Israel.

One member of the Jewish community said the BBC bosses were trying to ‘whitewash’ the fact that the broadcaster was ‘institutionally anti-Semitic’.

Both of the broadcasting executives strenuously denied this allegation.

BBC boss, Mr Jordan, said: ‘If I thought the BBC was institutionally anti-Semitic or institutionally racist I wouldn’t be working there.’

The BBC bosses also addressed the anger about the way it covered the hospital explosion in Gaza.

A report by correspondent Jon Donnison which aired in the immediate aftermath of blast in October, had said it was ‘hard to see’ what else it could be other than an ‘Israeli air strike’.

Despite this claim, evidence has emerged that the explosion at the Al-Ahli Arab hospital explosion in Gaza City was more likely caused by Islamic Jihad.

Mr Davies admitted:’ It was a mistake to speculate…We held our hands up and said it was a mistake’.

He also admitted the corporation was guilty of a mistake in the controversial way it had covered an anti-Semitic attack on a bus, that predated the current Gaza crisis.

The BBC original reporting in 2021, had suggested there had also been an anti-Muslim comment from someone in the bus. But this was contested by Jewish groups.

A report by correspondent Jon Donnison which aired in the immediate aftermath of blast in October, had said it was ‘hard to see’ what else it could be other than an ‘Israeli air strike’

Mr Davies admitted: ‘My biggest regret is that we failed to reflect the genuinely different interpretations….and I think that added significantly to the resentment and anguish.’

When asked about the dangers of making mistakes, Mr Davies said: ‘Our job as independent journalists is to gather the evidence and to tell the story as we see it.

‘There are clearly dangers and risks when we enter highly contested, highly polarised areas.’

The meeting also revealed the scale of disillusionment felt by significant numbers in the Jewish community about the BBC’s reporting.

Only a small number of people in the audience when asked for a show of hands believed the corporation was ‘fair’ in reporting on Jewish issues, such as anti-Semitism. Added to this about half of the people at the meeting had complained about the BBC in the last year or so.

A spokesperson for Campaign Against Antisemitism: ‘British Jews have strong feelings about the BBC and its coverage of matters of Jewish interest, antisemitism and Israel, and the BBC’s representatives were left in no doubt about the strength of that feeling, which was on show in the audience questions and reaction.

‘It is a credit to these senior BBC figures that they came before the community in an effort to listen to the hurt and fear that British Jews feel.

‘We hope that they will report these sentiments back to the newsroom, and we look forward to continuing this relationship with the BBC in the knowledge that building trust on behalf of the Jewish community will be a long but essential process.’

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