BBC faces Ofcom probe after alleged 'misreporting' of anti-Semitic incident

·5-min read
The BBC has faced mounting criticism over its coverage of an incident last month, in which Jewish teenagers celebrated Chanukah in Oxford Street - Leon Neal /Getty Images Europe
The BBC has faced mounting criticism over its coverage of an incident last month, in which Jewish teenagers celebrated Chanukah in Oxford Street - Leon Neal /Getty Images Europe

The BBC is being investigated by the media watchdog after it admitted falling below its own standards in accuracy and impartiality regarding its reporting on anti-Semitism.

The broadcaster has faced mounting criticism over its coverage - and alleged “misreporting” - of an incident last month in which Jewish teenagers celebrated Chanukah in Oxford Street, London, as well as the fallout following its initial reporting.

An investigation conducted by the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU), which is editorially independent of BBC News, concluded that its reporting of an attack on the Jewish teenagers had lacked “due impartiality” and failed to meet its “standards of due accuracy”.

The teenagers faced anti-Semitic harassment after a group of men performed Nazi salutes and chased their bus. Footage of the incident circulated on social media. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister, described the video as “disturbing” and the Metropolitan Police has since opened a hate crime investigation.

BBC News said in its original report that “racial slurs about Muslims could be heard inside the bus”. However, the Board of Deputies of British Jews recently commissioned and published an independent report which, it claims, disproves the BBC’s allegations.

The ECU investigation was prompted by calls for action from Jewish groups. It was also the subject of scrutiny from the Culture Secretary, as she increased pressure on the BBC to reveal the findings earlier this month.

Ofcom revealed that it would investigate the broadcaster over the allegations, with the regulator claiming - in uncharacteristically strong language - that “the BBC's decision itself raises issues which require further investigation”.

Accuracy is covered by section five of Ofcom’s broadcasting code, which demands that “news, in whatever form, must be reported with due accuracy and presented with due impartiality”.

If a breach of this code was found, it could result in the BBC being told to broadcast Ofcom’s finding, or be issued with a fine, for example. Ofcom has stressed that the investigation has only just begun.

Article lacked 'due impartiality'

The BBC’s ECU has “partly upheld” the complaint against the news piece, denying that there was any victim blaming or false equivalence of the parties involved.

However, it accepted that it did not properly represent the uncertainty about what was said by those on the bus.

As the complaint was partially upheld, there is a plan for further action. The BBC has said the online item will be revised in the light of the finding and will also acknowledge the inaccuracy in the phrase “some racial slurs about Moslems” used in the news item.

The ECU said it accepted the mistaken hearing of this phrase was made “in good faith”.

The ECU concluded: “It follows that the online article as it stands must now be regarded as no longer meeting the BBC’s standards of due accuracy and, to the extent that the anti-Muslim slur claim has itself become controversial, it also lacks due impartiality in failing to reflect alternative views.

“The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the television item, though that could not have been updated as an online item can.”

An Ofcom spokesman said: "We have reviewed the BBC's final response to complaints about this news programme. We consider it raises issues under our due accuracy rules and have launched an investigation."

A BBC spokesman said that it takes complaints about its coverage seriously and that it will “continue to strive to serve the Jewish community, and all communities across the UK”.

It added that the ECU found that “the inclusion in our reports of the existence of an alleged slur, said to have come from within the bus, was included in good faith, following a great deal of editorial scrutiny.

“However, the ECU has also found that more could have been done, subsequent to the original report, to acknowledge the differing views and opinions in relation to what was said; this should have been reflected in our reporting; and the online article amended.

“We accept this and apologise for not doing more to highlight that these details were contested - we should have reflected this and acted sooner.”

'Justice will prevail'

The BBC said that following the ruling, it amended the story posted on the BBC News website on December 2 2021. It also issued a clarification in relation to a news report aired on BBC London on the same day.

Asked about Ofcom’s investigation, the BBC said: “We note that Ofcom has said it will look into the reporting of the incident.”

Marie van der Zyl, Board of Deputies of British Jews president, said: “We note the ECU finding that the BBC did not meet standards of due accuracy and impartiality.

“We are however dismayed that the corporation continues to justify certain erroneous editorial decisions that continue to cloud the issue and will compound the distress faced by the victims.

“The corporation also needs to acknowledge that it has badly misrepresented advice given to them by our colleagues at the CST. We welcome Ofcom's decision to investigate the incident. We trust that justice will prevail.”

Ahead of the publication of the report, the Board of Deputies’ claims regarding “misreporting” prompted Nadine Dorries, Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, to wade into the row, calling on the BBC to disclose “the action it has taken so far” regarding the allegations.

At the same time, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, the Jewish human rights organisation and watchdog based in Los Angeles, issued a scathing criticism of the corporation in a report concluding that it “slanders Jews”.

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