In early October we documented the BBC’s use of an inaccurate headline in its reporting of the dismissal of David Miller from Bristol University:
Earlier this month, we noted that a screenshot of that same inaccurate headline was used in a BBC documentary about antisemitism in the UK:
Mr Stephen Franklin submitted a complaint to the BBC concerning that article’s inaccurate headline and opening sentence, noting that Miller’s employment had been terminated due to antisemitic comments about Jewish students rather than “comments he made about Israel”.
The complaint was rejected on the grounds that “we think it was an accurate summary of the decision published by the university and did not misrepresent the reason it gave for his dismissal.” The BBC’s response noted that “The university’s statement did not in fact describe Professor Miller’s comments as anti-Semitic, whatever others may think of them.”
Pointing out that Bristol University’s statement also did not mention Israel, Mr Franklin submitted a Stage 1b complaint which was likewise rejected with the claim that “we remain satisfied that the headline provides an accurate summary of the situation.”
Mr Franklin then made a Stage 2 complaint to the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU). The reply received includes the following: [emphasis added]
“You complained the article mischaracterised David Miller’s comments as anti-Israel, as opposed to anti-Semitic. You pointed out Bristol University’s statement did not reference Israel but, rather, its duty of care to students. […]
In assessing your complaint, I have read the Bristol University statement, as well as commentary surrounding this controversy. It seems to me the fundamental challenge with the story is the confidentiality surrounding it, not least because Professor Miller is appealing his dismissal. Bristol University said:
…after careful deliberation, a disciplinary hearing found Professor Miller did not meet the standards of behaviour we expect from our staff…
It does not elaborate as to what the behaviour was. The independent report written by a Queen’s Counsel also remains unpublished. It is therefore impossible to be precise as to the reasons for the dismissal. We know the QC “found that Professor Miller’s comments did not constitute unlawful speech”. As you pointed out, this does not necessarily preclude anti-Semitism. However this was denied by Professor Miller, who is of course aware of the contents, when he was interviewed by PoliticsToday.org here in which he said:
…after they appointed a Queen’s Counsel (QC) to investigate me … it was determined that I have not been in any way anti-Semitic, not a single thing I had said was in any way anti-Semitic and the complaint was entirely rejected.”
The ECU’s response continues with presumptions concerning the complainants against Miller:
“The BBC article itself is a factual report which avoids speculation. The headline says he was “sacked over Israel comments”. His hostile comments towards Israel are well documented. While you point out being anti-Israel is not a reason for dismissal, it does seem to me these comments prompted the complaints, with many arguing these crossed the line into anti-Semitism. Being anti-Israel does not mean he was not anti-Semitic, they are far from mutually exclusive. […]
The article is not avoiding the charge of anti-Semitism, it is simply not making the conviction itself. Readers of the piece would be entirely clear he had been accused of anti-Semitism and inciting hatred against Jewish students. […]
In conclusion, I believe the article was duly accurate and I will not be upholding your complaint.”
In other words, while the ECU on the one hand states that “It is…impossible to be precise as to the reasons for the dismissal”, it is apparently quite happy for a report with a headline claiming that Miller was “sacked over Israel comments” and the opening statement “A University of Bristol professor being investigated over comments he made about Israel has been sacked” to remain on its website as “permanent public record”, the existence of which it defines as being “in the public interest”.
Some members of the BBC’s funding public may of course be of the opinion that it is very much in their interest to have the real reason for Miller’s dismissal documented accurately by their national broadcaster.