A clearer reading of BBC Trust’s analysis of their coverage on Bahrain

The BBC Trust has recently released its review of its coverage of the Arab Spring with a focus on impartiality. You can read that here http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/assets/files/pdf/our_work/arabspring_impartiality/arab_spring.pdf

Some within the pro-government section in Bahrain have attempted to use this report to discredit the opposition, most notably this article in Al Watan http://www.alwatannews.net/(S(ez5aytasepgsiceg0n5ylzqz))/PrintedNewsViewer.aspx?ID=PKqLIuHJvMCDuJxsIkcgSA==&AspxAutoDetectCookieSupport=1

The article leads with the headline “BBC confesses to being unbalanced in Bahrain coverage”. It also contains a number of claims about the report that are not wholly inaccurate but slightly misleading.

One thing needs to be made clear at the outset. This report is not political and does not set out to make political judgement. It exists for BBC (publicly funded body) to hold itself accountable for it’s coverage. Therefore a) this report needs to happen and b) addressing some criticisms does not necessarily mean endorsing those criticisms. Anyone can accept the right of another to criticise him or her, without agreeing with those criticisms.

Furthermore the very purpose of such a review is taking into consideration the criticisms that existed. By no means was this review definitive, indeed it publishes some conflicting statements from their staff about the coverage on Bahrain, showing the attempt to look at all views and not necessarily come to a comprehensive conclusion.

The idea that the BBC has suddenly decided it was in favour of the opposition and this was wrong and therefore they apologise is wrong and misleading.

To go through Al Watans claims:

BBC admits it was unbalanced.

Actually no that’s not true. At no point does the report say their coverage was unbalanced. They make the point that the Bahraini authorities accused the BBC of this but they certainly don’t confirm this view.

The real meat of the review argues that the coverage at the beginning was too simplistic and did not fully understand the issues in Bahrain. Al Watan claim that this implies that this means the BBC were guilty of seeing the uprising as the same as other countries in the Arab Spring and ignoring the sectarian element in Bahrain.

The review addresses this concern, but they do not wholly confirm it is true.

They certainly do admit that in the beginning of the uprising it was mistake not to mention the sectarian division in Bahrain, as it did not provide the viewer with the necessary background information of the country. The report argues that this was due to reporters coming into Bahrain straight from Tahrir Square with little knowledge of the country.

It says,

“If this had been the sum total of the BBC’s reporting, the unease expressed by some executives, and some of the complaints made by the Bahraini authorities and their supporters, would be justified. Here was an incomplete account, which showed no awareness of Bahrain’s specific history and context, but saw the conflict there through the prism of revolts elsewhere in the region. But it was not the sum total.”

So the authorities claim could be true if the lack of context characterised the whole coverage, but it didn’t. This is no ringing endorsement of the authorities criticisms.

The review then goes onto question whether the existence of more detailed information on Bahrain then contributed to a different playing out of the events. This is what Al Watan seems to be hinting at, that the lack of understanding led to the wrong coverage.

But the report seems quite clear that even after adding more knowledgeable reports, such as Frank Gardner, who understood the complexities, the overall coverage remained the same. Therefore looking at the sectarian dimension to Bahrain didn’t really change the story or how it was told.

It says,

“Gardner also noted that the opposition had “hesitated” when the Crown Prince offered them dialogue, thereby hinting that they at least shared responsibility for the current state of affairs. But his conclusion was hardly flattering or reassuring to the government:

This peaceful scene is deceptive. The regime’s hardliners have got their security clampdown, the reformers have been sidelined and there’s a pretence that things are going back to normal. For now the lid has been put back on the boiling pot. But the brutal way it’s been done is like stoking fire beneath it.

In other words, while Gardner added important nuance, he did not reverse the line taken in earlier reports.”

On the one hand it is fair to say that the BBC admitted not understanding the full reality of Bahrain at the beginning. But it is not fair to suggest that this means they got it all wrong, were completely unbalanced and biased in favour of the opposition. This is not said in the review.

An important section of the review reads,

“Although there were variations, a fairly consistent narrative was conveyed to the public: the Shia, a numerical majority with a deep sense of grievance justified by decades of discrimination and oppression, were now demanding their rights and being met with brutal and lethal violence. This was true as far as it went, and not seriously contested by any of the government’s Western friends or apologists. To a large extent it was substantiated later in the year by a commission of inquiry appointed by the king himself and composed of eminent international human rights lawyers.”

BBC ignores Government

Al Watan also claims that the BBC admits to not giving enough airtime to the Government. The review shows countless examples of the BBC doing exactly this and even says that where they couldn’t interview the Government it was because their journalists were not being accredited. This lays the blame on the step of the Government more than anything else.

They say,

“Also, official accreditation for foreign journalists was not easy to obtain, and most if not all of the BBC reporters was working without it, which made it harder for them to cover the government side of the story.”

It’s interesting to note that a similar thing is said by the Producer of the Al Jazeera Documentary ‘Shouting in the Dark’ in response to claims that she didn’t interview the Government enough.

Government behaves with restraint

Another claim by Al Watan focuses on a section in the review that says that the Government did not behave as brutally as Gaddafi or Assad and between 19th February and 14th March they behaved in a decent manner.

Yes the report says this. However it should again be noted that this review was not trying to analyse the events in Bahrain and should not be taken as the truth of what actually happened. However they are clear in describing the escalation of the crackdown after this period and actually criticise themselves for not reporting on it enough.

Expats criticise BBC

Al Watan rightly claims that a number of expats and people from the Sunni community criticised the BBC’s coverage. The report confirms this. But we already knew this and it is nothing new. Yes they criticised the coverage, but in no way do the BBC admit this is justified criticism.

In fact one of the main points of the review was conveniently skipped over by Al Watan. This was the constant questioning of whether the real mistake of the BBC was not to give enough coverage to the situation in Bahrain as a whole – something many in the opposition have been saying for a long time.

The review justifies this by saying that Libya was a bigger story and therefore took up more space but admits they should have given Bahrain more.

“To expect that Bahrain would receive as much coverage as Libya would be unrealistic and disproportionate. But the contrast was perhaps a little too sharp.”

So in all the attempts by those supporting the regime to use this review in their favour are wrong, misguided and misleading. The claim that the BBC admitted there was biased is simply not true. The Government have repeatedly condemned foreign media for their coverage of Bahrain and they are trying to use this review to support those criticisms.

With a real reading of the review it’s clear they cannot and should not do this. The real conclusion of the review is that the BBC needed to understand Bahrain better but in reality the Government was brutal and the BBC were right to show this.

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