Ros Atkins and BBC Verify jump the shark

On the morning of April 13th a filmed report titled “Ros Atkins on… UK arms exports to Israel” appeared on the BBC News website’s ‘Middle East’ and ‘UK’ pages.

The synopsis to that report – which appears with the BBC Verify logo throughout – tells BBC audiences that:

“This week, Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron said the UK would not block arms sales to Israel, after reviewing the latest legal advice on the issue.

But as the death toll in Gaza grows, pressure on the government continues to mount, with critics saying UK weapons exports to Israel could make Britain complicit in alleged breaches of international humanitarian law.

Our analysis editor Ros Atkins explains.”

Ros Atkins, who goes under the title of “analysis editor”, begins by telling viewers that:

Atkins: “This week the UK Foreign Secretary, Lord Cameron, gave an update on arms sales to Israel.”

Viewers then see a clip of David Cameron at a press conference on April 9th.

Cameron: “Our position is in line with our international partners.  So far, no likeminded countries have taken the decision to suspend existing arms export licenses to Israel.”

Audiences are not told that the press conference was at the US State Department or that the question to which Cameron was responding came from the BBC’s Tom Bateman who, since leaving the Jerusalem bureau, has been acting as the corporation’s State Department correspondent and who on April 9th had an article published on the BBC News website under the headline “David Cameron says UK won’t suspend arms exports to Israel”.

Atkins then tells viewers that: [emphasis in italics in the original, emphasis in bold added]

Atkins: “The government’s position is based on legal advice which, as is standard, hasn’t been published. But the shadow foreign secretary, David Lammy, says that in this case it should be; that the government is avoiding scrutiny. Arms sales are a focus because of Israel’s actions in Gaza. It denies targeting civilians but it’s killed thousands of them. And it’s done so, in part, with weapons from the West.”

Either Atkins and his colleagues at BBC Verify are not sufficiently versed in the laws of armed combat to understand the difference between civilians being killed and civilians being targeted or they simply chose not to explain that obviously relevant issue.

Atkins tells viewers that in 2022 just 0.02% of military imports to Israel came from the UK before going on:

Atkins: “But although the UK isn’t a major arms supplier to Israel, it is a long-time ally and if arms sales stopped, that would be a significant diplomatic blow to Israel.”

Avoiding the topic of what such a move would mean in terms of a “diplomatic blow” for the UK – including in the eyes of its other allies – Atkins continues:

Atkins: “And whether that may change depends on the UK’s own rules. They say that the government should not grant a licence if it determines there is a clear risk that the items might be used to commit or facilitate a serious violation of international humanitarian law. To judge this, the government received legal advice.”

Viewers then see a BBC diplomatic correspondent stating that the legal advice given is an “almost quasi-judicial process” and another short clip from David Cameron’s Washington DC press conference.

Cameron: “The latest assessment leaves our position on export licenses unchanged.  This is consistent with the advice that I and other ministers have received.  And as ever, we will keep the position under review.”

At 01:49 Atkins tells viewers that:

Atkins: “Days before though, a different legal analysis was shared.”

The rest of Atkins’ 3:36 minute report – i.e. over half of it – relates to an open letter to the British prime minister which was put out on April 3rd and is described by Atkins as having been signed by “750 lawyers and academics”. Viewers see one of the signatories use the phrase “indiscriminately slaughter innocent civilians and children” without any comment from Atkins.

Another of the commentators brought in by the BBC tells viewers that he thinks that “the Israelis have got to learn some very hard lessons because it is clear from the very outset of this conflict they have not been giving priority to the protection of civilians, the special protection of humanitarian workers, medical workers, that international humanitarian law requires.”

Again, Atkins has nothing to tell BBC audiences in his own words about the steps taken by Israel in order to protect the civilian population of the Gaza Strip, including prior warnings and provision of evacuation routes, which some experts say are unprecedented. In fact, all he has to say is:

Atkins: “Israel denies this.”

Significantly, Atkins also fails to inform BBC audiences about a different letter sent on April 5th – which to date has been signed by well over 1,300 British lawyers and former judges – explaining that there is no legal obligation for the UK government to take actions against Israel as demanded in the earlier letter and explaining some of its inaccuracies.

The fact that Atkins and his team chose to totally ignore that second letter and to erase it from audience view is ample indication that his report was not intended to meet the public purposes set out in its charter.

“The BBC should provide duly accurate and impartial news, current affairs and factual programming to build people’s understanding of all parts of the United Kingdom and of the wider world. Its content should be provided to the highest editorial standards. It should offer a range and depth of analysis and content not widely available from other United Kingdom news providers, using the highest calibre presenters and journalists, and championing freedom of expression, so that all audiences can engage fully with major local, regional, national, United Kingdom and global issues and participate in the democratic process, at all levels, as active and informed citizens.”

Indeed, the essence of this report is made very clear by Atkins’ editorialising in his closing sentences:

Atkins: “…this isn’t only about the law. Israel’s actions in Gaza are led by a military the UK is helping to arm. Whether legal or not, that’s a political choice as well.”

In other words, contrary to the claim in this report’s synopsis, Ros Atkins had no intention of ‘explaining’ the issue in order to enable viewers to become “informed citizens”. The fact that over half of the item was given over to promotion of views that contradict the legal advice provided to the UK government, and that a letter signed by other members of the British legal community (together with subsequent debate) was completely erased from audience view, indicates that the aim of Atkins’ report is purely to influence public opinion.

The BBC’s funding public may well be wondering how such content aligns with BBC Verify’s declared purpose: “to address the growing threat of disinformation and build trust with audiences”.

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  1. says: Geary

    Atkins also omits to mention that Israel *supplies* arms to the UK. And one fay we may be begging Israel fro its Iron Dome technology.

  2. says: Geary

    Atkins also omits to mention that the UK buys arms from Israel. One day we may be begging for Israel’s missile defence systems …

  3. says: Neil C

    The usual one sided, half a story from the BBC, more reporting by omission to steer the audience into thinking Israel are the pariahs, a practice which should be banned under journalism regulations, when in reality the murderous butchers called Hamas are the problems for both Jews and ordinary Palestinian citizens. Yet Muslims still claim that the Jews control the media, such ignorance.

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