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Complaints about BBC coverage of Israel-Hamas war are not upheld

The complaints were fast-tracked by BBC director-general Tim Davie.

By Charlotte Tobitt

The BBC has not upheld complaints about its coverage of the Israel-Hamas war brought by the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Campaign Against Antisemitism.

Law firm Mishcon de Reya acted on behalf of the groups and the complaints were fast-tracked by director-general Tim Davie after widespread criticism of the broadcaster, including its decision not to refer to Hamas as “terrorists”.

The BBC’s executive complaints unit (ECU) did find that coverage of a hospital blast in Gaza was “not consistent” with its “standards of due accuracy” but this part of the complaint was resolved rather than upheld because the broadcaster had already posted a clarification online.

BBC correspondent Jon Donnison reported live from Jerusalem on 17 October about an explosion that evening at the Al Ahli Hospital. Speaking on The Context on BBC News Channel at 8.09pm, he said the attack was likely to have been perpetrated by Israel but this was in fact contested.

Donnison said: “Now the Israeli Defence Force, the Israeli military, have been contacted for comment and they have said that they are investigating. But, you know, it’s hard to see what else this could be, really, given the size of the explosion, other than an Israeli airstrike or several airstrikes, because, you know, when we’ve seen rockets being fired out of Gaza, we never see explosions of that scale.

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“We might see half a dozen, maybe a few more people being killed in such rocket attacks, but we’ve never seen anything on the scale of the sort of explosion on the video I was watching earlier, which, as you say, is still to be verified.”

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The ECU said from Donnison’s wording, it would have been clear to viewers the IDF had offered no substantive comment and there was still uncertainty over the authenticity of the video material.

“It would also have been clear that, though he suggested a strong probability of Israeli involvement, he was not offering a definitive judgement,” the ruling said.

“It accepted, however, that it was not consistent with the BBC’s standards of due accuracy to offer any view about responsibility for the incident at a point where so little reliable information was available.”

The ECU said a post making a “clear public acknowledgement of fault” on the BBC’s corrections and clarifications page two days after the attack “was sufficient for it to reach a finding that both complaints had been resolved in this respect”.

An apology was added to that post when the latest ruling was published. The post states that Donnison was giving “instant analysis” on a”confusing and difficult story”, going on to say: “We accept that even in this fast-moving situation it was wrong to speculate in this way about the possible causes and we apologise for this, 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.”

BBC’s Jeremy Bowen ‘made clear Israel denied responsibility’

The complaints also referred to a BBC News push alert and a post on the BBC Breaking News X (Twitter) account at around 6.25pm and 6.51pm respectively on the same evening with almost identical wording. The X post said: “Hundreds feared dead or injured in Israeli air strike on hospital in Gaza, Palestinian official says.”

The ECU noted that the BBC “cannot yet establish as fact who was responsible for the blast”, citing BBC Verify reporting. Other sources, including the complainants and the Associated Press, believe the explosion was “likely caused by a rocket launched from within Gaza that misfired”.

It said it therefore had “no grounds for concluding” the posts were inaccurate.

Also cited was a report by BBC News international editor Jeremy Bowen on the News at Ten on the same evening. He said: “The Israeli army’s first response [to questions about the Al Ahli Hospital blast] said ‘hospitals were highly sensitive and not targets of its military’ and urged caution about what it called ‘the unverified claims of a terrorist organisation’. That statement will not be believed by Palestinians and by millions of others in the Middle East who see these images.”

The complaints had pointed out he was speaking over “extremely distressing images of young, injured and crying children without explaining who those children were, but implying, by association with the output, that they were injured by the blast at the hospital”.

Again not upholding that part of the complaint, the ECU said: “While agreeing about the implied association, the ECU noted that the point at issue in the context of Mr Bowen’s report was not the authenticity or otherwise of the images but the impact they and the associated claims by Hamas were having on Palestinian and wider Arab opinion, and judged that the juxtaposition of words and images could not be taken as implying Israeli responsibility for the injuries because Mr Bowen had begun his contribution to the bulletin by making clear Israel denied responsibility and attributed it to Palestinians.”

Should BBC call Hamas ‘terrorists’ to ‘convey full horror’?

The complaints also covered the row over the terminology used to refer to Hamas. The Board of Deputies argued the BBC had shown a “failure to use the correct terminology for a terrorist organisation” and claimed words such as “bomber”, “attacker”, “gunman”, “kidnapper”, “insurgent” and “militant” failed to “convey the full horror” of the Hamas attack on Israel on 7 October.

The ECU accepted that none of these terms on their own conveyed the full horror of the actions but added there was “room for doubt” that even the word “terrorist” did this.

It said it was the reporting of what Hamas had done rather than the specific terminology used to describe them “that was the test of whether justice has been done to the events”.

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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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