Inaccuracies in BBC ‘Prisoner X’ reports remain uncorrected

The BBC’s treatment of the ‘Prisoner X’ story once again raises the issue of the obligation of a media organization committed to accuracy to update or clarify reports as new information comes to light. 

On February 12th, the BBC ran its first article on the subject which was entitled “Israel’s mystery Prisoner X ‘was Australian Ben Zygier’ ” and placed in the Middle East section of its website. In that article, the majority of which was no more than a rehash of the ABC broadcast’s claims, it was stated that:

“Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr said he was troubled by the investigation’s findings.

Mr Carr told the programme Australian diplomats in Israel only knew of Mr Zygier’s detention after his death. “

That claim by Mr Carr was shown to be unfounded the next day, as was reported in the BBC’s second article on the subject, which appeared in the Asia section of the BBC website. 

“However, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFAT) admitted on Wednesday that some officials had known earlier than previously thought.

“DFAT has now advised that some officers of the department were made aware of Mr Allen’s detention at the time in 2010 by another Australian agency,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.”

No footnote or clarification to that effect has been added to the first article. 

Also in the second article from February 13th, the BBC repeated quotes from a researcher for ‘Human Rights Watch’ who made speculative allegations regarding the case.

“Bill van Esveld, a Jerusalem-based researcher for Human Rights Watch, said the case raised serious questions about prisoners’ rights in Israel.

“If the facts are what we’re told they might be, we could be facing an issue of disappearance of a prisoner,” he told the Associated Press. “Or there could be an issue of incommunicado detention – taking someone into jail and not letting anyone else see them.”

“At the very least, there could be severe due process violations – not allowing someone to see their family, their lawyer, presenting them before a court.” “

With one of the former prisoner’s lawyers later having been interviewed on television in Israel and information regarding both the official investigation into the suicide and the fact that the Israeli Supreme Court had approved the gag order on the story having come to light – as reported in the BBC’s third article on the subject (this time placed on the ‘Asia-Pacific’ page) – it is clear that a correction to van Esveld’s politically motivated allegations should be added to the second article. 

With very few actual facts known about the story, all three BBC articles devoted significant coverage to the subject of the restrictions placed on its publication, including ‘analysis’ on the subject from the BBC Jerusalem Bureau’s Yolande Knell in two of them. 

Knell analysis

Knell’s colleague Jon Donnison saw fit to put out no fewer than ten Tweets on the subject on February 13th, making no effort to conceal his obvious disdain for the restrictions. 

Of course restrictions on media reporting are by no means limited to Israel and are used by other democratic countries, including the United Kingdom, in situations with far fewer national security implications – as was the case five years ago when the BBC joined many other members of the media in collaborating with the Ministry of Defence on a news blackout on the subject of Prince Harry’s deployment to Afghanistan. 

With the real details behind this story likely to remain unknown, media speculation has become its dominant feature. That fact makes it all the more necessary for the BBC to ensure that it adheres to its obligation to accuracy by returning to articles already published on the subject – especially when they appear in a number of different sections on its website – and correcting unfounded speculative claims and inaccuracies when actual facts come to light. 

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