A Formal Complaint to the BBC – Part 3

This is a guest post by Mitnaged
There follows my letter of formal complaint to the BBC about Michael White:
” I write to make formal complaint about BBC London 94.9’s Breakfast programme interview with Michael White which was aired on 14 December 2009.   The grounds of my complaint are that the interview, and in particular the conduct of presenters and the producer in the face of what I deem to be a libellous and incitatory statement by Mr White, namely:

“In Israel they murder each other a great deal. The Israeli Defence Forces murder people because they don’t like their political style and what they’ve got to say and it only means that people more extreme come in and take their place.”

were in contravention of your Editorial Guidelines as follows:
“1)  In terms of compromising impartiality: Your Guidelines state unequivocally:

” our journalists and presenters, including those in news and current affairs, may provide professional judgments but may not express personal opinions on matters of public policy or political or industrial controversy. Our audiences should not be able to tell from BBC programmes or other BBC output the personal views of our journalists and presenters on such matters.

“Not only did the presenters fail to prevent Mr White from libelling the IDF and the Israeli government but they indicated on air that they agreed with it.
“Again dealing with the compromise to impartiality, your Guidelines state:

“we will sometimes need to report on or interview people whose views may cause serious offence to many in our audiences. We must be convinced, after appropriate referral, that a clear public interest outweighs the possible offence.”

“Perhaps you would care to make clear to me how allowing Mr White’s offensive libel of the IDF and the Israeli government was in the public interest?
“Again under the heading of compromise to impartiality, your Guidelines state:

“we should not automatically assume that academics and journalists from other organisations are impartial and make it clear to our audience when contributors are associated with a particular viewpoint.”

“Michael White is the Political Editor to The Guardian, whose animus towards Israel is well-known and well-documented.  In spite of that, Mr White’s association with a newspaper which held such views was not made clear to the audience when he made his libellous remark.  Given that the presenters of the programme did not appear to realise how offensive Mr White’s statement was, Mr David Robey’s reply to me, where he tries to suggest that listeners to the programme would not confuse Michael White’s statement with those of the BBC, is disingenuous to say the least.
“Yet again under the same heading of compromise to impartiality, the Guidelines state the following, which shows the presenters’ conduct to constitute arguably the most blatant breach:

“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.”

“Perhaps you would be so kind as to explain to me how the conduct of the presenters in this case constituted a “rigorous testing” of Mr White’s contentious views?   It is my belief that the presenters were themselves ignorant of the offence caused by Mr White’s statement and perhaps may even have become so inured to such a view of the IDF as murderers that they were not even aware that the view was deeply offensive and libellous and should be contested.
“Further breaches of the Guidelines are:
“2) In terms of fact checking.  Whereas this was a live programme and I accept that Mr White’s “forthright and colourful” (to quote Mr Robey) misrepresentation of facts could not be checked at the time, there was a strong rationale either for the intervention of the presenters when he said what he said, or for a subsequent on air retraction.   Since it is too late for the presenters to withdraw their endorsement of his ill-thought-out and inflammatory statement, then a retraction and an admission that Mr White’s statement misrepresented the IDF and the Israeli government would be in order.
“3)  The programme also contravened your Editorial Guidelines in terms of accuracy.  To quote the Guidelines:

“Misleading audiences

We should not distort known facts, present invented material as fact, or knowingly do anything to mislead our audiences. We may need to label material to avoid doing so.”

“By their failure to challenge or correct Mr White’s statement, and indeed by making noises which endorsed it, the presenters of the programme assisted him in misleading the audience.  Once again, I accept that this was a live programme but this does not absolve the presenters or the producer from their duty towards conveying balance and honesty to their listeners.  As I have already said, an on air apology would serve to vitiate the offence caused.
“Finally, I would like to address a point in Mr Robey’s reply to me in his email dated 7th January 2010, in which he appears to be trying to excuse Michael White’s behaviour because he has “strong views which he expresses in a forthright and colourful manner.” Mr Robey goes on to say that the BBC believes that these were in keeping with his style and clearly identifiable as his own personal views.
“Earlier on in his email, Mr Robey tries to excuse the non-intervention of the presenters and the producer by saying that Mr White also made controversial remarks about Silvio Berlusconi, and that Mr White “did not break stride” in making a series of comments.    In other words, Mr Robey argues that Mr White went far too quickly for the presenters to challenge him and for them to do so would have diverted from the main subject of the interview.
“I trust you will permit me to remind you that Mr White’s libel of the IDF (and therefore of the Israeli government) itself diverted from the main subject of the interview (which was about Silvio Berlusconi) and he was allowed to do that because your presenters did not have either the background knowledge or the sensitivity to the offence he might be causing to prevent him.
“Please permit me also to suggest that “strong views” expressed in however “colourful” a manner should not be allowed to perpetrate libel.
“I shall await to hear from you.”

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