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|[Balen Report] The secret report at heart of BBC’s Gaza paranoia, Keith Dovkants|
[*] Voir aussi : Paul Revoir, "BBC spends £200,000 of licence fees on legal fight to suppress report on anti-Israeli ’bias" (Daily Mail, 12.02.09).
Texte paru sur le site du Evening Standard, le 27 janvier 2009
Somewhere deep in the bowels of the BBC is a top secret document that could explain a great deal about the corporation’s decision to boycott the aid appeal for Gaza. It is called the Balen Report and has been seen only by a small number of individuals at the very top of the BBC. They commissioned Malcolm Balen, a senior editorial adviser, to investigate allegations that the BBC’s coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was biased.
Balen examined hundreds of hours of broadcast material, television and radio, and analysed the content in minute detail, often scrutinising journalists’ individual phrases and choice of words. He then put his conclusions in a 20,000-word report. If BBC executives had hoped for a clean bill of health they were to be disappointed. Balen’s findings, given highly restricted circulation at the end of 2004, were frightening.
The enormity of this can hardly be overstated. Apart from the corporation’s legal obligation to be impartial, it had struggled for years to counter allegations that its reporting favoured the Palestinians. The claims meshed with attacks on the BBC for being Left-leaning and undermining its own legitimacy by harbouring a secret liberal agenda. Bosses at the corporation ordered Balen’s report to be locked away. When an effort was made to make its findings public through Freedom of Information laws, the BBC spent £200,000 on a legal fight to keep it secret.
The timing of it could hardly have been worse. Balen’s findings arrived as the BBC was trying to put the turmoil of the Hutton inquiry behind it. The corporation’s chairman and director-general Greg Dyke had been forced to resign over what Lord Hutton decided was an issue of flawed reporting, although most journalists, at least, believe Lord Hutton was the one who got it wrong.
In the bleak days of 2004 that seemed almost incidental to those at the top of the BBC. What really mattered was that apparently impregnable positions had been demolished by allegations of faulty journalism. The new people running the corporation, including director-general Mark Thompson, had just had a sharp lesson. They were not going to suffer the same fate as Greg Dyke.
In 2005 Thompson flew to Jerusalem and met the then Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon and the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. He assured them the BBC’s coverage would be totally impartial. On his return to London, the corporation instituted the Middle East reporting regime that exists today and which, many believe, influenced the decision to refuse to show the charity aid appeal for Gaza.
According to sources inside the corporation tensions over Israeli-Palestinian coverage have induced a state of near psychosis among BBC executives and policy-makers. One insider told the Standard: "They are in a complete white funk. To describe them as like headless chickens running all over the place would be to convey an impression of too much order and cohesion. They are cowering in corners. The fear is palpable."
How did it come to this? A view held by a number of BBC veterans suggests pressure applied by Israel and its supporters has created nervousness and led executives and editorial managers to over-compensate in the face of allegations of pro-Palestinian bias. A former senior editor said: "Whatever we did was contentious. There was a formidable lobby backing Israel and the letters would stream in. The pressure was immense."
A sense that BBC journalists favoured the Palestinian side was reinforced by a number of famous incidents with which the corporation had to grapple. In 2004, just as Balen was becoming the orthodoxy among editorial managers, Barbara Plett, an experienced journalist who worked as a BBC correspondent in Jerusalem, took part in a From Our Own Correspondent broadcast.
Plett, who had covered the siege of Yasser Arafat’s compound on the West Bank, talked about seeing Arafat being taken to hospital by helicopter towards the end of his life. She said: "When the helicopter carrying the frail old man rose above his ruined compound I started to cry ..."
Her remarks prompted outrage in some quarters, especially among Israelis and Jews who remembered Arafat as an enemy, unworthy of sympathy. Complaints poured in, but the BBC rejected them - at first. The pressure grew and almost a year after the broadcast the governors’ complaints committee decided Plett’s words had breached "the requirements of due impartiality".
Helen Boaden, director of news, described the episode as "an editorial misjudgment". Ms Boaden was one of the people who advised director-general Thompson on the Gaza aid appeal decision.
The Plett affair came just after the Israeli government complained to the BBC that its Middle East correspondent, Orla Guerin, was guilty of "verging on anti-Semitism" in a report about a would-be suicide bomber. Guerin had long been an irritant for the Israelis. The Irish correspondent turned to journalism after failing to win an election for Labour in Dublin in 1994 and she joined the BBC after a promising career with RTE, the Irish broadcaster.
In 2002, Guerin claimed she had been targeted by Israeli soldiers who, she said, deliberately shot at her during a demonstration in Bethlehem. A year later Israel boycotted the BBC after accusing her of "deep-seated bias" in her reports. Then, in 2006, during the war in Lebanon she was accused of misreporting when she claimed a town near the Israel border had been "wiped out" by Israeli forces. "I haven’t seen a single building that isn’t damaged in some way," she said.
But Alex Thomson, filing for Channel 4 from the same town, Bint Jbeil, on the same day, presented a different perspective. He reported that the suburbs of the town "are pretty much untouched by the Israeli attack".
To the disinterested, the differences between these two versions may seem minor. But in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the passions it arouses a minor discrepancy almost always prompts an accusation of siding with one faction or the other.
The BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen is considered one of the corporation’s treasures, a highly-talented reporter and presenter who has covered stories in 70 countries. His reports on the Gaza incursion, and the terrible loss of civilian lives, have been models of fairness while never losing the humanity for which he is known.
Yet Bowen, too, has felt the pressure of Israel’s supporters. In 2000 he covered the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. As usual, he was well ahead of the rest of us following the story and on 23 May, as the Israelis covered their exit with armour and fighter-bombers, Bowen and his team stopped to film near the Israeli border. He was with his driver and fixer Abed Takkoush, a well-known and popular figure with journalists in Beirut. Abed had worked for the BBC since the Lebanese civil war started in 1975 and he and Bowen knew each other well.
Near the border, Bowen and his cameraman got out of Abed’s Mercedes to film. When they were about 50 yards away from the car an Israeli tank fired at it, turning the vehicle into a fireball. Abed managed to crawl out of the window, but he was dead within minutes.
Bowen campaigned long and hard for justice for the dead man and his family. He believed the Israelis had deliberately targeted civilians, a war crime under international conventions.
The Israelis said it was all a tragic mistake. To this day, no one has been punished for it. Except, perhaps, Bowen. Despite his acknowledged perfectionism in the area of objectivity, Zionist Federation chairman Andrew Balcombe wrote to the BBC Trust demanding that a new Middle East editor be appointed. Bowen could not be impartial, he said, because the Abed Takkoush incident "may have coloured (his) views about Israel ..."
To its credit, the BBC resisted the pressure and Bowen remains one of its greatest assets as Middle East editor. But to what pressures has it yielded?
Leon Barkho, an academic based in Sweden, is shortly to publish a book in Britain, The BBC and the Middle East. The book derives from years of research into how the big media organisations conduct their reporting policies. Barkho is convinced the BBC’s coverage has become slanted towards avoiding upsetting Israel.
"I have investigated this and I am convinced the policy is dictated from the top because of the enormous sensitivity," he said. "The BBC treats the Israel-Palestinian conflict like no other story. The message is: don’t antagonise the Israelis." He seeks to prove his point with revelations about the BBC’s internal teaching module for journalists covering the Middle East. Reporters are instructed to abide by a series of rules based on what Barkho called a "glossary", a collection of words and phrases reporters should use - or avoid.
"Only 24 of these terms have been made public," he said. "The rest are confidential." He says he has seen the glossary in its entirety and claims it supports his view that BBC policy is aimed at not provoking Israel.
"The instructions to journalists are clear," he said. "They are: don’t tell it like it is, tell it the way we tell you to tell it. That is not a policy that fosters impartiality, it is biased from the very start."
The 24 words and phrases from the reporting rules the BBC has agreed to make public appear innocuous enough, but even here some might discern a sense of paranoia. Journalists are instructed to avoid using "assassination" in favour of "killing" and in discussing Gaza, the word "occupation" is to be avoided in favour of "permanent military presence".
Mark Thompson and his colleagues may be relieved that the presence of protesters who staged a sit-in at broadcasting House last night was only temporary and could hardly be described as an "occupation".
Yet their removal does nothing to dispel a sense of a corporation under siege.
© The Evening Standard
Mis en ligne le 12 février 2009, par