Can the BBC be trusted to handle its own complaints?

Can the BBC be trusted to handle its own complaints?

The BBC’s pro-Zionist bias is well known, especially since Director-General Mark Thompson’s refusal in January 2009 to allow a public charity appeal for the people of Gaza following Israel’s brutal assault during Operation Cast Lead. Mr Thompson had argued that airing the appeal could compromise BBC impartiality.

It is a pity that the staff at Panorama, the BBC’s flagship current affairs programme, did not share their editor-in –chief’s concerns when they produced a documentary entitled “Death in the Med”, which was aired on 16 August this year. The programme, presented by reporter Jane Corbin, claimed to produce new evidence from both sides of Israel’s raid on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla “to piece together the real story for the first time”.

Omission and biased nuance

In order to fit into the short half-hour time slot, the documentary concentrated solely on the attack on the Turkish ship, the Mavi Marmara. Thus, the assaults on the other five vessels were not even mentioned, along with the considerable gratuitous violence against non-violent activists on three of the ships. Nor was the illegal and sometimes sadistic detention of passengers and crew, which included further violence, maltreatment and humiliation. Nor the widespread theft of property and cash, along with looting of aid items and the fraudulent use of activists” credit cards. Nor the disposal of some of the aid in a landfill site in the Negev desert, and the months of delay for at least half of the total cargo in the port of Haifa. (I have still been unable to find confirmation that the 3,500 tons of cement have in fact been safely delivered to Gaza.)

Yet despite the time constraints and the proclaimed emphasis on the raid of the flotilla flagship, Ms Corbin did manage to find time to belittle the aid carried by the flotilla (of which only a small proportion was on the Mavi Marmara) and to question the true motives of the participants. There was also time to allude to terrorism by the Turkish charity and co-organizer of the flotilla,
IHH, and to mention the rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel.

However, time constraints prevented any mention of Zionist terrorism from the Irgun bombs thrown from cars in Arab crowds in the 1930s through decades of international atrocities to the  
killing of Gazan fishermen and  farmers in the present day.

(The programme’s deputy editor, Daniel Pearl, told me it was necessary to mention the rockets to explain why Israel claims the blockade is in place. Apparently, it was not necessary to inform or remind viewers that the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has
publicly stated that the blockade is a collective punishment that is illegal under international law, or to mention the United Nations Development Programme  assessment of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. This situation might help to explain why some Palestinians feel a need to fire rockets at southern Israel. Did the editors of Panorama really expect their viewers to work this out for themselves?)

This then was hardly the “real story” that was claimed, while the “new evidence” consisted of a few seconds of additional footage that the Israelis had released to the compliant documentary team. Everything else has been in the public domain for weeks. Yet the programme conveniently overlooked the fact that these same generous authorities had confiscated huge amounts of photographic evidence from the flotilla and also filmed the whole raid themselves. Hundreds of hours of important evidence from these sources remain suppressed or possibly destroyed, yet no one would have learned this from Ms Corbin’s reportage. The extent of the bias exhibited by the programme can be gauged by the fact that Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) website
provides a link to the entire half-hour programme.  (The rest of the same page includes such gems as a press conference where Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, hardly a model of impartiality, stated that “The armada of hate and violence in support of the Hamas terror organization was a premeditated and outrageous provocation.” Panorama is in good company.)

“Broadcasting complaints in the United Kingdom are normally dealt with by the independent regulator, Ofcom, which assesses them against the Broadcasting Code… [T]the BBC is exempt from oversight on issues of impartiality and inaccuracy which it deals with in-house, claiming to ‘learn from them to improve our programmes and services’.”

It was hardly surprising then that the Panorama programme generated a lot of criticism.

Broadcasting complaints in the United Kingdom are normally dealt with by the independent regulator, Ofcom, which assesses them against the Broadcasting Code. For reasons that are not made clear on the Ofcom website, the BBC is exempt from oversight on issues of impartiality and inaccuracy which it deals with in-house, claiming to “learn from them to improve our programmes and services”.

Seeking just such an improvement on the standards of reporting at Panorama I prepared a fully referenced 14-page critique along with an annotated transcript of the entire programme. Because the BBC’s web page for complaints does not allow for attachments in the text box, I was obliged to send this by post to the complaints unit in Darlington, where it was received on 27 August. Ten weeks later I am still awaiting an adequate response.

”Bereft of integrity and a disgrace to the BBC”

It is true that Daniel Pearl, the deputy editor of “Panoroama”, responded to each individual point in an email on 3 September. However, I consider that response to have been inadequate on a number of points, the chief of which are:

1. Persistent use of the word “terrorist” by Israeli sources against members of the flotilla was never countered, nor was it ever suggested in the programme that under international law it was the Israeli raid that was an act of terrorism, and not the courageous defence which responded to that illegal act.

2. The Panorama claim that the Israeli commandos had never been filmed by the media in action before was blatantly false since the programme makers were using footage by Cultures of Resistance showing the commandos attacking the Mavi Marmara. This footage has previously been publicly screened.

3. The false assertion by a commando that “people” (i.e. commandos) were thrown overboard was never corrected.

4. Major-General Eiland’s claims that the results of the raid were “surprisingly low” and that the force was not excessive were not adequately challenged.

The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines state: “We must rigorously test contributors expressing contentious views during an interview whilst giving them a fair chance to set out their full response to our questions” (BBC, Editorial Guidelines, June 2005, p.27). The nine passengers who were killed had been shot in total 30 times. A further 55 passengers (Israeli figures) were injured, mostly with gunshot wounds. The general was never pressed to justify his claim that the force used was not excessive in the light of these heavy casualties (which amounted to more than 10 per cent of the passengers).

5. Jane Corbin parroted the Israeli excuses for depriving Gaza of reconstruction materials. These claims are unrealistic since cement is an inappropriate material for making rockets (as has been claimed by Israeli Foreign Ministry legal expert Sarah Weiss Maudi on the legal aspects of Gaza aid)and the often cited “bunkers” would merely serve as a target for air strikes. Thus there is no security issue with construction materials which Gaza is deprived of for political reasons alone.

6. Jane Corbin’s allegation that “Western authorities” have accused one of the flotilla organizers, IHH, of links to terrorism was spurious. The “authorities” referred to basically amount to one man, the former head of the French judiciary’s counterterrorism unit, Jean-Louis Bruguière. Even this source was unable to indicate any current terror links to the charity (see Yassin Musharbash, “A closer look at Israel’s terror accusations"). M. Bruguière has been roundly criticized in the French press (Le Monde described him as a voyou judiciaire or judicial lout) for controversial investigations in Rwanda and the bombing of a UTA flight over the Sahara Desert.1 Ms Corbin did not add that the US State Department has not designated the charity a “foreign terrorist organization” nor does it intend to do so.2 Nor did the programme ever refer to more than 70 years of widespread Zionist international terrorism.

7. The programme described Israeli proposals to transfer the cargoes through the port of Ashdod, but never mentioned the counter proposals put forward by the flotilla organizers to undergo inspection by a neutral organization such as the UN or ICRC, before proceeding on to Gaza.

8. The programme featured part of a filmed Israeli interrogation of the ship’s chief engineer without mentioning that it had been secretly filmed or that the original 4.03 minute video has been edited at least five times.

9. The allegation that IHH had taken control of the ship (of which they were the legal owners) is false. There is no evidence to suggest that any passenger was ever denied legitimate access to any part of the ship or that any crew member was ever intimidated or prevented from carrying out his duties.

10. The programme said that commandos in the first helicopter were armed with “non-lethal weapons” when in fact they had opened fire from the helicopters with live ammunition.

11. Passengers’ and journalists’ testimonies describing live fire from the first helicopter before any commando descended were not considered or mentioned.

12. Israeli allegations of live fire from passengers are only supported by a solitary audio recording whose authenticity has been questioned. The BBC has never adequately addressed this issue, which is probably the most important source of contention. There is no solid evidence to back up this oft-repeated Israeli claim yet the BBC has treated the contention as quasi-fact not only in this programme but in a Hardtalk interview with Ken O’Keefe on 25 June 2010.

13. Claims by a commando that they tried to minimize the injuries by firing at the legs were never disputed or questioned by the programme despite the evidence that many of the injuries were to the head and upper body.

14. The programme implied that the Israeli military had acted with compassion by airlifting the injured to hospital but failed to mention the widespread ill-treatment of all detainees, including the injured, many of whom were deliberately laid on deck in the constant spray and downdraft from a helicopter. Nor was there any mention that three passengers died through being denied medical treatment, two by bleeding to death.

“Having begged, borrowed, worked and pleaded for all this aid and cash the volunteers who risked so much to deliver it [to the needy in Gaza] were cheaply written off by Ms Corbin as people primarily interested in a publicity stunt intended to pressurize Israel and the international community.”

15. Ms Corbin’s assessment of the aid cargos mentioned only mobility scooters, beds and drugs, placing great emphasis on out-of-date medicines which were alleged to comprise two-thirds of the total. (No source was given for this information which smacks of Israeli connivance.) Nothing was said of the thousands of tons of construction materials or the impressive array of medical equipment, or the large sums of money carried by volunteers such as Dr Hasan Nowrah for the Gazan medical services. Hundreds of thousands of pounds in cash intended for Gazan charities has been stolen by the Israeli state or its operatives. The money has been callously described as money for terrorism by its larcenous recipients. Panorama viewers were never informed.

16. Having begged, borrowed, worked and pleaded for all this aid and cash the volunteers who risked so much to deliver it were cheaply written off by Ms Corbin as people primarily interested in a publicity stunt intended to pressurize Israel and the international community.

These are not details or nuances picked from a piece of honest reportage. They are the skeleton of a report that is bereft of integrity and a disgrace to the BBC. And what has the response been? Nothing; allowing a generous seven-week period the Editorial Complaints Unit set itself the deadline to respond by 2 November. To date it has failed to do so, and its director, Colin Tregear, has also failed to respond to my email reminding him of this negligence.

Whitewashing by devious means

Not that I am expecting any justice. Responses to other complainants have whitewashed the slate, often by devious means. Here are some examples from Mr Tregear (quotes or paraphrasing of Colin Tregear in blue):

To Complainant 1:

  • On the legality of the blockade:

The United Nations issued a statement following the flotilla in which it referred to the blockade as “counterproductive and unacceptable” but is has never officially declared the blockade to be illegal…

The text of the paragraph actually reads:

He [Oscar Fernandez-Taranco, United Nations Assistant Secretary-General for Political Affairs] pointed out that, in his view, today’s bloodshed would have been avoided if repeated calls on Israel to end the counter-productive and unacceptable blockade of Gaza had been heeded.

  • On the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) audio recording whose authenticity is under dispute:

The programme-makers have assured me that they questioned senior Israeli military spokespeople about the recording and were assured on two separate occasions by different individuals (before and after the edited broadcast was published) that it was genuine and had not been faked or edited. I accept that this assurance has to be judged in the light of who gave it, but I think it is important to note that the programme-makers did not take the Israeli version of events at face value and questioned the IDF directly on the matter.

Aside from the fact that only one individual had been asked before publication, the naivety here is staggering. The IDF had issued the recording so they were certain to swear by its authenticity. (What else did the BBC expect?) The Free Gaza Movement was contesting the authenticity but the BBC had not seen fit to ask them. This is negligent.  Huwaida Arraf, whose voice appears on the audio, had this to say on the authenticity:

…on the Challenger we recorded the communication but of course the Israeli soldiers took all our recording devices from us. So if they have nothing to hide, give us back our recording equipment. We documented all of the communications but we don’t have any of it. The Free Gaza Movement maintains that it definitely was tampered with, and I can tell you that one of the voices on there that they claim was saying “remember 9/11” – this sounds like an American voice with some kind of faked southern accent . None of the captains that we had, no captain was American. We had one British, which was Denis Healy, two Greek captains, two Turkish captains and one Algerian captain and I was there listening to the captains respond to the Israeli questions in a very professional manner. So that’s definitely tampered with.

  • On the IHH:

Firstly, I think it was legitimate for the programme-makers to draw attention to concerns which have been expressed by Western authorities about the charity’s links to organizations such as Hamas and the Union of Good, which have been designated as terrorist organizations.

It is pertinent that no “Western authorities” have been identified in this comment. The more so since, in answer to Professor Miguel Deutch’s question on 11 August 2010 – “Did you view at this stage the IHH as an actual terror organization? As a terror-supporting organization?” – IDF Chief of General Staff Lieutenant-General Gabi Ashkenazi replied “No, no.”3 It should also be recognized that as a major donor charity to the Gaza Strip, IHH inevitably must have links with the government of that territory, which is run by Hamas.

  • On the allegation of live fire from passengers made by Gen Eiland:

I therefore think that the programme presented both the claim by the Israelis and the denial by the activists and so I cannot conclude that the programme gave the misleading impression it was a fact that the activists used live ammunition.

Immediately following the activists’ testimony referred to here (by Ken O”Keefe), Jane Corbin herself said: “The question of who shot first remains disputed and unresolved.” This clearly implies the use of live fire by passengers.

  • On there being no mention of “lethal fire” from the helicopters:

…I do not believe it was the case that the programme did not mention claims that the commandos opened fire from the helicopters. There were two separate contributions from Bulent Yildirim in which he made it clear that he believed the Israelis opened fire from the start of their operation. There was a clip of him which was filmed on deck at the time of the attack:

Jane Corbin: “The IHH claim they were acting in self-defence. They say the Israelis started using live fire right from the start of the operation.”

Bulent Yildirim: “At this moment they’re firing non-stop. And every time one of our friends is being injured. They’re firing at us, they’re throwing bombs.”

He also responded to questions from Ms Corbin by saying: “At this point it had gone beyond passive resistance because the Israelis had been firing from the start. These people are defending themselves while being fired at.”

I therefore cannot conclude that the programme did not refer to the claims made about live fire from the helicopters.

Nowhere in any of these quotes above, nor in any part of the programme, was there a specific reference to live fire from helicopters. The specific claim by several activists that the IDF commenced live fire (several attest to deadly live fire) was accepted by the United Nations Human Rights Council fact-finding mission which said in its  report (para.114, p.26): However, it has concluded that live ammunition was used from the helicopter onto the top deck prior to the descent of the soldiers."

  • On the editing of IDF film of the chief engineer (which was secretly filmed, but not declared as such by the BBC):

    I have watched the version of the interview which is available online and although it does seem as if it has been edited, the questions and answers used in the programme appear to be contemporaneous, and so I don’t believe it is possible to conclude that the editing has been carried out in such a way as to alter the meaning of what the officer said in regard to the IHH activists.

The film in question is 4.03 minutes long, and from the unassisted appearance and disappearance of various objects it is clear that the film has been cut at least five times. Mr Tregear himself is not absolutely certain that the material used is contemporaneous. In the sequence he cites, it is unclear whether the beaker by the engineer contains water throughout the interview (although it is never touched by anyone in this time). The doubts must remain.

The BBC’s Editorial Guidelines state (p.22):

We should only broadcast material from third parties who may have a personal or professional interest in its subject matter if there is a clear editorial justification. The material should be labelled.


We should be very reluctant to use video and audio news releases or other material. We do not normally use any extracts from such releases if we are capable of gathering the material ourselves. If it is editorially justified to use it then we must explain the circumstances and clearly label the material on air.

Panorama is on very thin ice here.

  • On the counter-proposal made by the flotilla:

I am unaware that the flotilla organizers made any counter-proposal.

Huwaida Arraf  told Democracy Now! the following:

We told them also that we would be willing to admit to additional tests by a neutral body whether they be UN or the ICRC. We weren’t hiding anything at all.

This conversation took place on the high sea. This point needs to be reconsidered in the light of this truth of which Mr Tregear was so dismissive.

  • On the conduct of the IDF:

The programme reported serious failings on the part of the Israeli military:

– Poor military intelligence about the nature of the flotilla and those on board.
– A consequent failure to deal appropriately with the resistance faced.
– No attempt to rethink the operation once an initial attempt to board the Mavi Marmara was resisted.
– Continuing with the military operation with fatal consequences.

In contrast, the UNHRC mission, which included a retired international judge and a senior lawyer with experience in international law, was  scathing and uncompromising (para.264, p.53):

The conduct of the Israeli military and other personnel towards the flotilla passengers was not only disproportionate to the occasion but demonstrated levels of totally unnecessary and incredible violence. It betrayed an unacceptable level of brutality. Such conduct cannot be justified or condoned on security or any other grounds. It constituted a grave violation of human rights law and international humanitarian law.

The two assessments are hardly on the same planet.

To Complainant 2:

  • On the failure to challenge General Eiland effectively:

This complaint effectively goes unanswered since Mr Tregear deals only with comments made by the general on Israel’s bad publicity. Later in the programme General Eiland makes the following highly contentious remark:

We have very clear evidence that at least in four cases the other side did use live fire […] but at least in one case they used their weapon, because we found bullets and shells that is not in use in the Israeli forces.

Ms Corbin made no attempt to question this at all.

As mentioned above under point 4, the BBC Editorial Guidelines require contentious views to be rigorously tested in interview. Mr Tregear makes no attempt to uphold these guidelines here.

In a long answer attempting to justify loose accusations of terrorism against activists in various parts of the programme, Mr Tregear winds up with the following:

I also think it is worth pointing out that Ms Corbin questioned one commando’s description of the activists as terrorists:

JC: “They were civilians”

Sergeant Y: “They were not. They may be civilian Turkish people but they were terrorists plain and simple.”

I therefore cannot agree that viewers would have been misled; it was clear that the Israelis were accusing some activists of being terrorists. Ms Corbin challenged one commando on this point. Viewers would have been able to draw their own conclusions as to the veracity of the Israeli claim.

This short sequence here is actually the entire interview with Sergeant Y at this point. It is therefore incorrect to say that Ms Corbin challenged the commando. In fact, the reverse happened: he challenged her and, contrary to BBC guidelines requiring her to rigorously test this contentious view, she lamely let the matter rest. Again, Mr Tregear also fails in his task by not upholding the guidelines.

Panorama has presented a regurgitated version of Israeli propaganda on an international outrage, which it has had the temerity to label “the real story”. In doing so it has defied the BBC’s Editorial Guidelines.

Complaints to the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit have been fobbed of with a variety of excuses and imaginative distortions of the facts. The victims of this travesty are journalistic integrity and the tattered remnants of the BBC’s credibility which survived the editor-in-chief’s bias against the Palestinian victims of aggression nearly two years ago. Clearly, the BBC can no longer be trusted to put its own house in order and to learn from its failures in order to improve its programmes. As such it would be to the great benefit of British broadcasting if this recalcitrant body was treated the same as other broadcasting bodies and brought under the control of Ofcom.


1. François Schlosser, "Rwanda: les oeillères du juge Bruguière", le nouvel Observateur, 1 February 2007. Extract from “Manipulations Africaines” by Pierre Péan, published in Le Monde diplomatique, March 2001.

2. Roger Cohen, “The forgotten American”, New York Times, 26 July 2010.

3. Chief of staff’s testimony protocol, Turkel Committee, 8 August 2010.

Source: Redress Information & Analysis ( Material published on Redress may be republished with full attribution to Redress Information & Analysis (