BBC’s soundbite journalism conflicts with its public purposes

Two recent BBC reports – one written and one audio – concerning the opening of a new museum in the Area A town of Birzeit provide a good illustration of the way in which soundbite journalism sabotages the aims of the BBC’s public purposes.  

A written report which appeared on the BBC News website’s Middle East page on May 18th under the headline “New Palestinian museum opens without exhibits” opens as follows:Birzeit mueum story

“Palestinian leaders have formally opened a new national museum in the occupied West Bank, even though it does not yet have any exhibits.” [emphasis added]

In her introduction to an item (from 48:10 here) about the same story broadcast on the BBC World Service radio programme ‘Newsday’ on the same day,  presenter Razia Iqbal told listeners that:

“The museum itself is in Birzeit in the occupied…occupied West Bank….” [emphasis added]

Does the (increasingly seen) use of that soundbite contribute anything to audience understanding of the historical background to the situation it purportedly describes? Does it allow audiences to understand that there are additional and alternative ways of viewing the situation? Does it support the BBC’s claim that it is an impartial provider of news? Not according to the BBC Academy’s ‘style guide’:

“The phrase ‘Occupied Territories’ refers to East Jerusalem, the West Bank and strictly speaking the Golan Heights. However, it is common usage for this phrase to refer to the West Bank as a whole and not the Golan Heights (unless it is in a story specifically on the 1967 War or Syrian/Israeli relations).  

This is our preferred description. It is advisable to avoid trying to find another formula, although the phrase ‘occupied West Bank’ can also be used. It is, however, also advisable not to overuse the phrase within a single report in case it is seen as expressing support for one side’s view.” [emphasis added]

In other words, the BBC is perfectly aware of the fact that the soundbite “occupied West Bank” is not neutral terminology.

In the written report readers are told that:

“When it is up and running, the Palestinian Museum will chronicle the story of the Palestinian people and their displacement by the conflict which followed the establishment of the state of Israel at the end of the 1940s.” [emphasis added]

In the audio report Razia Iqbal interrupted her interviewee Omar al Qattan with the following remarks:

“Sorry to interrupt you Omar; you mention the Naqba. This month marks the 68th anniversary of the Naqba which – in translation it means the catastrophe – which was the…the monumental displacement of Palestinians…ahm…in the immediate aftermath of the creation of the State of Israel.”[emphasis added]

Clearly that editorialized soundbite conceals from BBC audiences the fact that the departure of Arab residents began before the State of Israel came into being (for example in Haifa and Tiberias) and that in many cases they were told to leave their homes by the Arab leaders waging war on the nascent Jewish state: a war which is completely erased from this context-free BBC soundbite.

The public purposes laid out in the BBC’s current charter include the remit of “Build[ing] a global understanding of international issues”. However, through its frequent use of soundbites including (but by no means limited to) those above, the corporation is instead actively limiting audience understanding by prioritising editorialized slogans which re-frame the story over essential background and context. 

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