Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The BBC Is Shaken, Rattled, And Rolled

By Michael Glackin
This commentary was published in the Daily Star on 1/12/2010 

As everyone in Lebanon is now aware, BBC Television abruptly cancelled the broadcast this month of “Murder in Beirut,” a documentary about the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, only days before it was due to be aired.

The BBC initially said the program, made by ORTV, a United Kingdom-Saudi Arabian production company, had been pulled because it had not yet complied with the corporation’s editorial guidelines. I contacted the BBC for details about which editorial guidelines the program had not met. A BBC spokesperson informed me that the program had not in fact fallen short any of the BBC’s editorial guidelines, but was still in the process of being verified, because the film was “a work in progress.” The BBC failed to provide anything on which material required verification.

The program maker, Christopher Mitchell, was unavailable for comment and ORTV declined to comment. However, sources close to the BBC dismiss the corporation’s official, rather opaque explanation and insist that compliance with BBC guidelines or verification of its facts was not an issue in the decision to pull the program. Indeed, the program was originally completed more than a year ago, and no fewer than four senior BBC Middle East specialists vetted it, and recommended content changes that were then incorporated. As an insider put it: “‘Murder in Beirut’ has been very much through the BBC’s editorial mill.”

The vetting team is understood to have included Malcolm Balen, the BBC’s Middle East “watchdog.” Balen is the author of a report the BBC commissioned on its own Middle East coverage in 2004. The report was prepared in response to accusations of bias from both Israel and the Arab world, but was mostly prompted by a perceived anti-Israeli predisposition at the BBC. No one outside of the BBC’s top brass has ever seen Balen’s 20,000 word report and the BBC has fought a long and expensive legal battle to prevent its publication – spending somewhere in the region of $400,000 in British courts to keep it secret.

BBC insiders have said that “Murder in Beirut” went through an extensive vetting process and the first episode was expected to be broadcast on November 20. So, bearing in mind the program had been scrutinized and amended by the BBC’s own Middle East specialists, why was it so abruptly pulled from the schedule?

It appears that once the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, which is close to Hizbullah, revealed much of the contents of “Murder in Beirut” and attacked the program for accusing Hizbullah of having participated in the Hariri assassination, senior people in the BBC’s Middle East team took fright at the impact the program might have and recommended that it be pulled. An insider told me: “Basically they were worried about exacerbating tension in Beirut, how Hizbullah would react.”

Last week the BBC correspondent in Beirut, Jim Muir, wrote that the recent Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s documentary on the Hariri assassination, which reported that Hizbullah would be implicated, had a “bombshell effect in Lebanon.” Although, curiously, he added that the film might also “have the effect of reducing the impact of the eventual [Special Tribunal for Lebanon] indictments,” because by the time the indictments are handed down “they might be seen as old hat.”

Confused? Muir’s point was actually made earlier by UN prosecutor Daniel Bellemare but was, oddly enough, reiterated at the weekend by Hizbullah MP Nawwar al-Sahili, who warned that the CBC was fueling religious tensions. Well, he would say that wouldn’t he?

Among the laughable aspects of the BBC’s actions in this affair is that the publicity surrounding the decision to pull the program prompted CBC to bring forward the transmission of its own documentary, enabling it to scoop the BBC. But it doesn’t stop there. A version of ORTV’s program was shown last week by German broadcaster WDR. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde: To be scooped once might be regarded as a misfortune, but to be scooped twice looks like carelessness. Or spinelessness.

Of course, the fact that two films covering the same ground have now been aired gives the BBC an excuse not to show “Murder in Beirut.” The story has been told; there’s no point in doing anything else on it.

It is worth pointing out that the BBC is no stranger to running away from the conclusions drawn by its programs. In 1985, it caved into pressure from the British government and pulled a documentary about Northern Ireland that focused on Sinn Fein leader Martin McGuinness, then relatively unknown outside Northern Ireland, as well as the hardline Unionist politician Gregory Campbell. That decision led to a strike by BBC staff. The film was eventually shown later in a revised form, a fate I suspect “Murder in Beirut” will share, probably after indictments are handed down by the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

But by pulling “Murder in Beirut” in the manner that it did, the BBC once again raised the issue of how it reports on the Middle East amid a continuing onslaught of accusations that its coverage is biased and inaccurate. Last year the BBC Trust upheld a complaint from Israeli supporters that a report by its Middle East editor, Jeremy Bowen, was inaccurate and not impartial. There have also been accusations from the Arab world, most recently when the BBC was criticized for refusing to broadcast a television appeal by aid agencies for Gaza in the aftermath of the Israeli attack. Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a Nobel prize winner, refused to accept interview requests from the BBC in protest.

Many in the BBC say the decision not to broadcast the Gaza appeal was a clumsy attempt to over compensate for the fact that the Balen Report was understood to have concluded the BBC’s coverage was biased against Israel. Against that backdrop it may be that the BBC once again over compensated – this time for the Gaza decision – when Al-Akhbar attacked “Murder in Beirut.”

All journalists put up with criticism. It comes with the territory, whether you are reporting on flower shows or global events. But to borrow a phrase from American war reporter Martha Gelhorn, reporters should at least record truly, because “it is something no one else will do.” Not only has the BBC failed to follow even that simple maxim, it appears to have allowed a fear of how Hizbullah or Syria will respond to dictate whether Gelhorn’s truth should be told at all.

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