Mary Dejevsky

Can the BBC World Service really go on like this?

Impartially is a difficult thing to monitor

The BBC has launched what it is calling an ‘urgent investigation’ into six journalists and a freelancer working for its Arabic-language service over accusations they had shown anti-Israel bias in their coverage and expressed support on social media for Hamas. They were said to have called the attacks that killed more than 1,400 Israelis ‘a morning of hope’ and liked posts that included approvingly captioned video footage of dead and captured Israelis. 

I worked for the BBC World Service as a writer for the Russian and South-East European Service, as it then was, in the latter stages of the Cold War

I will leave it for the BBC investigation to reach its conclusions and take whatever action it deems necessary. The Corporation has already said that it has dispensed with the services of one of those concerned. It should also be noted, that it is not always straightforward for Arabic-speaking journalists, including those working for BBC Arabic, to report from Israel, especially at times of high regional tension.  

Last week, a BBC team, later clarified as being from BBC Arabic, was stopped and searched by police in Tel Aviv. According to a BBC spokesperson, they were in a car clearly marked as ‘media’. One of the journalists said he was hit and his phone thrown to the ground when he tried to film what was happening. Israeli police later issued a statement saying they had stopped a ‘suspicious’ vehicle for inspection, searched it for weapons, then let everyone proceed. 

But this is not about specific issues that may arise with BBC Arabic journalists reporting from Israel in the aftermath of atrocities committed by Hamas. It is the presumption that this is a set of circumstances unique to BBC Arabic or to coverage of the Arab-Israel conflict. It is not. It is the latest example of a long-standing conundrum that recurs in relation to the BBC’s foreign – i.e. non-English – language services. 

These services, by their very nature, may employ journalists, including recent emigres, with strong allegiances. Working for the BBC, they will doubtless know how important it is that the BBC is seen, and heard, not to take sides in even the most fraught of conflicts; for many, this will be a reason why they were attracted to the BBC in the first place. They wanted to do ‘proper’ reporting, not propaganda. But, as ever, there are shades of grey. 

While the BBC ethos of impartiality, especially in domestic politics, is pretty clear – not always crystal clear, but pretty clear – complexities arise. These have recently led to the formulation of new guidelines, that apply to all broadcasters, including stars such as Gary Lineker, putting out social media posts that may be considered political. But those complexities only multiply in the reporting about foreign parts and particularly the coverage of foreign conflicts. 

I worked for the BBC World Service as a writer for the Russian and South-East European Service, as it then was, in the latter stages of the Cold War. At that time, the BBC World Service was funded by a grant from the Foreign Office, which gave the government a say in what languages the BBC broadcast in and to what countries, although not, it was said, the actual content. The source of its funding periodically exposed the World Service to criticism – from the then-Soviet Union among others – that it was effectively an arm of government, although this was always strenuously denied. 

Ten years ago, the funding for the World Service switched predominantly to being the responsibility the BBC, as part of a new licence fee settlement. This made it harder for foreign governments to accuse it of being in the pocket of the UK government, although there are discretionary exceptions. Last year, the BBC received what was called ‘emergency funding’ for additional Ukrainian and Russian services to address ‘disinformation’ following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The BBC ceased radio broadcasts in several languages, including Arabic and Persian, earlier this year, as part of cost-cutting measures, but it retains digital and television services in these languages. 

But funding is not the be-all and end-all of editorial policy at the BBC, as it might be in some broadcasting organisationsIt is not a simple matter of ‘he who pays the piper calls the tune’. What actually happens is far more complicated (and messy in a characteristically British way). 

The way it worked, and still works, is that the BBC World Service news bulletins are compiled in the central newsroom. The content that goes out in English is broadly the same. The content for the foreign language services may be re-ordered to reflect regional priorities, with items included and dropped. But the content originates in the World Service newsroom, it carries the BBC imprimatur, and is translated for broadcasting in the respective language. Something similar applied to talks, which were written in English, selected by the particular language service and translated. To that extent, there was a common core of news content. 

But the individual language services also created programmes and features of their own. The head of each language service was editorially responsible for what was broadcast by that service and for ensuring that BBC standards were upheld. But this was far easier said than done. 

Members of language services were often emigres or individuals with an oppositionist cause to push. Short of 24/7 monitoring by bilingual staff steeped in the BBC ethos, it was impossible for the BBC to track what actually went out on some programmes, especially if they were broadcast live in the dead of a London night. It could also be argued that a degree of partiality was part of editorial policy in those days. During the Cold War, there was certainly a ‘we’ (on the side of democracy and pluralism) and a ‘they’. 

The BBC was never as strident as, say, the US-funded Radio Liberty (for Russia) and Radio Free Europe, which was a source of frustration to some staff who wanted the BBC to take a harder line. Some left to work for these more overtly ideological broadcasters. The BBC view was that impartiality, or the BBC’s version of it, was as effective a weapon, if not more so, against Soviet propaganda than the approach taken by these competitors. 

But there were often tensions between the English-language World Service and the language services and within language services between broadcasters and editors on the one hand and staff holding different views, representing different generations, or coming from different ethnic backgrounds, on the other. It was a tall order then for the BBC to exert central editorial control and it is an even taller order now, given the opportunities afforded by social media and instant communications. 

The accusations of bias against BBC Arabic journalists are, to an extent, a continuation of a very old argument. Is the purpose of the BBC, when it broadcasts to foreign parts, to convey information, represent a world view or pursue an argument? Are these even alternatives? And are there times when impartiality a la the BBC smacks of ethical compromise or could be judged immoral? Were the Hamas killings of Israeli civilians a case in point? Or Israel’s decision to cut off all power and water to Gaza? Can a BBC journalist express moral outrage only if it is applied to both sides?

There were often tensions between the English-language World Service and the language services

All of which makes me wonder whether the BBC should be broadcasting in foreign languages at all, at least as the BBC. Might it not make sense for the BBC World Service to broadcast only in English – a world language, after all – where it can be reasonably sure of exerting editorial oversight over what goes out in its name, even if that oversight is not perfect? Should foreign language services perhaps be spun off as independent enterprises, given government or charitable grants, but with the freedom to broadcast in their own right? 

There would be an outcry, of course, about how this would be financially unsustainable for the services concerned and a betrayal of the BBC’s ‘mission’. But might not the greater risk for the BBC be a weakening of its editorial policies and a dilution of its impartial brand?   

Several independent Russian media outlets that found themselves facing closure or unable to operate under the constraints imposed by the Kremlin after the invasion of Ukraine decamped abroad – some to the Baltic States, some elsewhere in Europe. In an age when digital communication and online subscription is becoming more the norm than the exception, perhaps it is in this space that the future of today’s BBC foreign language services ultimately lies.