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October 20, 2023

BBC News deputy CEO says broadcaster ‘doubling down’ on getting language right in Israel-Hamas coverage

Jonathan Munro said humans make mistakes and this can get "magnified".

By Press Gazette

A senior member of staff at BBC News has admitted the corporation made a “mistake” while covering the immediate aftermath of the bombing of a hospital in Gaza City.

Hamas has blamed an Israeli air strike for the attack on Tuesday, while the Israeli military said al Ahli hospital was instead hit by a rocket misfired by Palestinian militants.

At the Media Society’s Reporting The Israel Hamas Conflict event on Thursday, deputy chief executive of BBC News Jonathan Munro said the broadcaster’s “language wasn’t quite right” during live reporting.

Munro, also director of journalism at the corporation, said: “The correspondent [Jon Donnison] was wrong to speculate about the cause of the explosion of the hospital.

“At no stage did he actually say it was caused by the Israelis… but nonetheless, when the impression is left that we’ve speculated, [it] is important to correct that which we’ve done.”

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During the immediate aftermath of the bombing, Donnison, reporting from Jerusalem, said on the BBC News Channel: “It’s hard to see what else this could be really given the size of the explosion other than an Israeli air strike or several air strikes.”

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BBC: Gaza hospital report ‘doesn’t represent the entirety of our output’

In a statement on Thursday the BBC said Donnison had been “giving instant analysis on the ground from Jerusalem in what was a confusing and difficult story”.

The statement read: “We accept that even in this fast-moving situation it was wrong to speculate in this way, although he did not at any point report that it was an Israeli strike.

“This doesn’t represent the entirety of the BBC’s output and anyone watching, listening to or reading our coverage can see we have set out both sides’ competing claims about the explosion, clearly showing who is saying them, and what we do or don’t know.”

Munro added: “Somewhere along the line, human beings are going to make a mistake on a bit of output and when it gets magnified and is used as an example of getting things wrong, it’s a very uncomfortable place to be.

“And of course, it shouldn’t have happened and we need to make sure that we’re doubling down on… [keeping] our language absolutely accurate.”

This follows Israel’s president Isaac Herzog telling the UK Prime Minister on Thursday there should be a “correction” issued over the BBC’s coverage of the conflict in the Middle East.

Herzog told Rishi Sunak: “We feel that… the way the BBC characterises Hamas is a distortion of the facts.”

The Foreign Secretary has called on broadcasters to go for “accuracy rather than pace because their words have impact here in the UK and around the world”.

James Cleverly told Wednesday’s Parliament: “It is incredibly important the BBC and other broadcasters are very careful in their reporting of this issue because of the sensitivity and because of the implications, not just in the region itself but here in the UK.”

And UK Government insiders told the i they feared the BBC’s reporting was hampering diplomatic efforts.

A No 10 spokesperson told the newspaper: “The BBC has a duty to provide accurate and impartial news and information, it is particularly important when it comes to the coverage of these sensitive events. The BBC and other outlets should reflect on their coverage and learn lessons for the future. It is incumbent on the BBC and others, particularly those using social media, to be responsible given the real-world impact that these comments can have.”

Munro on BBC decision not to use word ‘terrorist’ for Hamas

Munro also said the BBC’s use of language has been “allowed or encouraged to become the primary story” in media reports that have focused on the BBC’s policy not to use the word “terrorist” in regards to Hamas.

The broadcaster has made clear that the group is proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the UK Government.

However, several cabinet ministers – including Defence Secretary Grant Shapps – have criticised the editorial guidelines.

Munro said: “There’s absolutely no way that we are trying to equalise what’s going on between Hamas and Israel in any way, shape, or form.

“We’ve used very strong language; atrocity, mass murder, abduction and kidnapping.”

Munro also spoke about a pro-Palestinian group claiming responsibility for vandalising the BBC’s Broadcasting House headquarters with red paint and a peaceful protest by Jewish groups.

He said: “Groups representing both communities decided that they would protest at the BBC because they believe the coverage that we put on air or online was biased against their perspective.

“That goes some way to explaining that we are in a very difficult situation here of impartiality, this is a very, very difficult story, to tread a line without one community or other feeling that we are less sympathetic to them than we are to the opposite perspective.”

He added that he is “pushing back” on people saying that the BBC Today programme interviews are leaning towards one viewpoint or another.

By Monday, the 1,500 complaints made to the BBC about its coverage of the conflict were split about 50/50 with accusations of bias either way, according to The Guardian.

Munro also said: “If you think about the perspective of those people who protest the opposite, it might give you an idea of how tricky it is to satisfy everybody who are members of our audiences.

“Some of whom have views about the rights and wrongs of whichever aspect of this war we’re covering. That is the balance we’re trying to strike.

“And when you get your building door [painted], by the way, to come to a layman’s point, the stress of mental health on people going about their normal daily business is really profound.”

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Select and enter your email address Weekly insight into the big strategic issues affecting the future of the news industry. Essential reading for media leaders every Thursday. Your morning brew of news about the world of news from Press Gazette and elsewhere in the media. Sent at around 10am UK time. Our weekly does of strategic insight about the future of news media aimed at US readers. A fortnightly update from the front-line of news and advertising. Aimed at marketers and those involved in the advertising industry.
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