On 10 July, the BBC‘s Panorama broadcast an hour-long show called Is Labour Antisemitic? The BBC claimed it used “exclusive interviews from key insiders and access to confidential communications” in order to reveal “evasions and contradictions at the heart” of the Labour Party. Yet, a new report documents a “catalogue of reporting failures” against the BBC‘s own editorial guidelines.
As The Canary reported, this episode received a total of 1,593 complaints in the fortnight after the programme aired. However, the BBC itself refused to give this information freely. The Labour Party also stated that it “was not a fair or balanced investigation”. Now, a new report from the Media Reform Coalition (MRC) has analysed the documentary using the BBC‘s own Editorial Guidelines. It “identified a series of failings”. MRC said it would welcome:
further dialogue with the BBC about how they intend to deal with content that undermines their own editorial guidelines.
BBC guidelines note that looking at “a series of programmes” on a topic can establish impartiality. As MRC said, “Panorama has broadcast three editions focused on the Labour Party, all of which have taken an overwhelmingly critical view of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership”. Presenter John Ware’s first show ‘Labour’s Earthquake’, prompted Corbyn’s office to issue a formal complaint calling it a “hatchet job”. Ware is openly critical and has “long declared his opposition” to Corbyn. Neil Grant – who’s also been behind a series of anti-Corbyn programmes – was the executive producer on two Panorama shows. MRC noted:
Handing two editions to the same presenter with known (and hostile) political views on Corbyn without seeking to offer a counterposing perspective is hardly a ringing endorsement of the BBC’s commitment to due impartiality.
Panorama failed to document “the overwhelming support” for Corbyn from members. Nor did it show that in 2017, he “led the party in a general election that saw the biggest increase in Labour’s share of the popular vote since 1945”.
As MRC’s chair Natalie Fenton told The Canary:
How can it be right that two recent editions of Panorama on the Labour Party have been presented by a journalist who has publicly declared his hostility to Jeremy Corbyn?
“Opinion should be clearly distinguished from fact”
The BBC‘s editorial guidelines clearly state:
When dealing with ‘controversial subjects’, we must ensure a wide range of significant views and perspectives are given due weight and prominence, particularly when the controversy is active. Opinion should be clearly distinguished from fact.
As MRC noted, Panorama’s “eight key witnesses” all reported “ubiquitous anti-Jewish racism within” Labour. But it failed to present the voice of “hundreds of active Jewish members of the party” who hold a different position.
Indeed, as The Canary reported, Jewish Voice For Labour (JVL) said there are “hundreds of statements from Jewish members entirely comfortable within the Party” that Panorama failed to interview. “The complete exclusion of their voices on such an active controversial subject” MRC stated, “amounts to a gross breach of the BBC’s impartiality requirements”.
How can it be right that the BBC gives airtime to unbalanced attacks on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party without offering an equivalent opportunity for countervailing views?
The MRC report also noted that BBC editorial guidelines are very clear:
that the credentials of sources and significant contributors should be made clear to audiences, especially… when covering matters of political controversy.
Yet Panorama featured a series of unnamed talking heads. Many of these people, MRC stated have “past or present affiliations with the Jewish Labour Movement” (JLM). According to MRC, JLM is “known to be on the political right of Labour and opposed to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership”.
A further BBC guideline states: “We must not knowingly and materially mislead our audiences with our content“.
But in order to present the “programme’s central allegation,” it primarily relied on “on two sources of evidence”.
the eye-witness testimony of former staff working within Labour’s compliance unit, and selective emails leaked by those staff.
After careful examination of the material evidence Panorama used, MRC concluded that:
the reality of what happened was the exact inverse of what was reported…
Where the programme did feature leaked emails they were selectively quoted out of context in a manner that was clearly and grossly misleading.
After the authored polemic by #Panorama, BBC News at Ten has repeated the clear misrepresentation of this email.
This is despite being told earlier this evening that the email had been selectively quoted by Panorama to change the meaning.
— Labour Press Team (@labourpress) July 10, 2019
The MRC meticulously detailed several examples of misrepresentation of evidence used by Panorama. It also noted an investigation by The Canary based on new evidence from Liverpool Riverside Constituency Labour Party sources that challenges the account of one of Panorama’s whistle-blowers, Ben Westerman.
How can it be right that basic guidelines concerning impartiality and accuracy have not been followed in relation to a topic of such enormous significance?
“Unbalanced attacks on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership”
As MRC concluded:
The BBC has declined to respond to criticisms beyond stating that it “stands by its journalism” and completely rejects “any accusations of bias or dishonesty”.
But as MRC also said:
This is, in many ways, the most serious failure: the failure to account for what appear to be, at best, serious errors of judgement on the part of the journalists and editors who produced the programme.
Fenton told The Canary:
The Media Reform Coalition asks these questions not with any instinctive wish to criticise the BBC but precisely because a public service broadcaster funded by the public deserves to be scrutinised and held accountable for its actions.
The Canary contacted the BBC for comment but had not received a reply at the time of publication.
Antisemitism must always be investigated and challenged wherever it exists. Yet, it’s most common among far-right groups. Accusations of antisemitism in the Labour Party, meanwhile, reportedly relate to 0.06% of the party’s 540,000-strong membership. And under Corbyn’s leadership, Labour has been taking action to fight against this, and all forms of racism.
But establishment media outlets reporting on these issues have faced accusations of “misleading”, ‘distorted’, and “inaccurate” coverage. The MRC report offers another compelling and important insight into this. Because it bases criticism of Panorama against the same high standards that the BBC claims to uphold.
Antisemitism is a serious and worrying issue and it’s right the BBC is broadcasting programmes on it. But this episode presented a distorted view and failed to follow its own editorial standards. Quite simply, that’s just not good enough.
Featured images via Fréa Lockley and screengrab/BBCPanorama
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