A BBC Trust Report On The Impartiality And Accuracy Of The BBC’s Coverage Of The Events Known As The Arab Spring
Framing of the conflict/conflicts
A number of commentators have suggested that the very phrase “Arab Spring” is misleading, and that the media in general have, from the start, reported these events within the framework of a preconceived narrative, which gives the public a wrong impression of what is actually happening…. The word “spring”, for its part, is held to convey an implicit expectation that these revolts and protests all betoken a change for the better, and therefore should be welcomed and encouraged, if not actively supported, by the rest of the world.
There has been a similar argument about the use of the word “revolution” to describe the upheavals, particularly those in Tunisia and Egypt which appeared to achieve
extraordinary success, forcing the abdication of the long-entrenched rulers of those countries, after only a few weeks of largely peaceful protest. Indeed, “revolution” appears as the sixth-most frequently used key word in the BBC news items sampled by our Content Analysis – just behind “democracy” and well ahead of “Arab uprisings or
uprising”. This has been criticized on the grounds that the changes, particularly in Egypt, turned out to be less sweeping than at first appeared, with the high command of the armed forces keeping power firmly in its own hands. But this seems a somewhat pedantic objection, relying on a more precise and restrictive definition of “revolution” than is reflected in its use in everyday speech. When many thousands of citizens are mobilised in the streets of the capital for weeks on end, and succeed in forcing the departure of a man who has ruled the country for several decades, to most of us that looks and smells like a revolution – and that was certainly how very large numbers of those taking part described it. But did the BBC, by using this term, imply a positive judgement about the outcome? That depends on what view one takes of revolutions in general – a point on which opinions are surely divided.
Perhaps the BBC is more vulnerable on its use of the word “regime” – a word that does have clearly pejorative connotations, implying a degree of authoritarianism and perhaps even illegitimacy. The BBC would not, for instance, refer to the British government as “the Cameron regime”. The word does appear frequently in broadcasts referring to Arab governments, as is shown by our Content Analysis, and may well come in the category of fair comment, since most of these governments are or were, as a matter of fact, authoritarian. But there does not seem to be clear or consistent guidance on this point. Thus one senior BBC executive told us she thought the word would not be used on the World Service, but might be “OK in a UK context”, while another said:
We had a long conversation about Syria – at what point was it legitimate to call the government a regime? For a long time we thought it was not appropriate but as time went on and international support was withdrawn it became more legitimate to call it a regime – there was no single tipping point, though. The Gaddafi government was not elected and there were no institutions. It doesn’t function like a nation state – if we had said “government” we would have created the wrong image. In Syria or Iraq we may not like the institutions but they are there, and there is a process by which elections happen etc. Where there is a process however flawed … it is not legitimate to use “regime” – it is a loaded word.
But the more important point to make is that journalism is not an exercise in simply relaying raw and untreated “facts” to the audience. On the contrary, and perhaps especially when dealing with international news, the role of the journalist is precisely to select and present the facts in a way that enables the audienc e to follow and understand. them. This cannot be done without some sort of framework – if you will, a “narrative” – and therefore the construction of such a narrative by journalists should not be treated as if it were a sin in itself. The right questions to ask are (a) whether the narrative offered is on the whole plausible and compatible with the facts, and (b) whether the audience is enabled at least to glimpse the possibility of alternative ways of framing the story.
When one of the leading academic experts on the region exp esses himself in these terms, it would surely be strange if the BBC did not adopt some such narrative framework as a way of conveying to its audience the significance of what was happening. But perhaps more airtime should have been given to other experts who took a more cautious view than Dr Rogan – insisting more on the diversity of the Arab world, and stressing that behind a few common slogans the protesters in different Arab countries had different agendas, while the regimes, even if none of them could be described as liberal or democratic, were also different in nature. The narrative was indeed a powerful one, especially in those early days – all the more so for being espoused at the time by many highly articulate Arabs, as well as Western academics. With hindsight, perhaps it should have been questioned more closely.
Helen Boaden says: “in Liibya too where we were essentially embedded [sc. with the rebels] at the start we might have sounded over-excited – you have to be careful if you can’t get to the other side of the story.” Indeed Jon Leyne, one of the correspondents so “embedded” – reporting the early days of the revolt from the rebel headquarters in Benghazi – has himself referred to “moments of crazy exhilaration, from which it has been impossible to be immune”. Interviewed for this review, Leyne added: “in Benghazi there was only one point of view. It wasn’t spin – everybody was thinking the same thing.” He speaks with the authority of someone who crossed the Egyptian border within a week of the revolt breaking out, to film and report “delirious scenes of joy in eastern Libya, where the opposition is in control”. Leyne went on to say: “So this is Libya – free Libya, as these people have. It is completely free of Colonel Gaddafi’s forces. There are no soldiers here, no representatives of the hated government anywhere near here… Anyone associated with Colonel Gaddafi has fled.” Free perhaps, but also chaotic, and frightening at least for some: on the Egyptian side of the border Leyne filmed “thousands of migrant workers escaping from the mayhem that is Libya today” – one of whom tells him “it’s a massacre”, though without making clear who was massacring whom.
On the other side of the country Ian Pannell filed a vivid report for Newsnight51 from an unnamed small town in the Sahara, close to the Tunisian border and also in rebel hands. “Welcome to the Western Front,” he declared. “The revolt against repressive rule in the Arab World is infectious, and even the wilderness of the Sahara Desert is alive with the sound of rebellion… That night, people took to the streets again.” (Shots of chanting crowds in darkened streets.) “This is what freedom looks like in Libya – people expressing their views for the first time Gaddafi to leave.” No longer watched, listened to and controlled, they call for such reports are not exactly “impartial”, but how could they be?
No doubt these reports, along with similar and in some cases more directly partisan ones in other media, helped stimulate empathy for the rebel cause among the British public, and thereby to facilitate, if not actually bring about, the NATO intervention – as similar reports had done in northern Iraq as long ago as 1991.
A more specific accusation levelled against the Western media is that, while devoting a great deal of energy to reporting and documenting atrocities committed by Gaddafi’s regime, both in the 41 years of its absolute power and during the conflict which led to its downfall, they did not show the same zeal in investigating and reporting human rights violations by his opponents.
The allegation that “African mercenaries” were fighting on Gaddafi’s side, and using especially barbarous methods, was a leitmotiv of statements by his opponents from very early on….Were there, in fact, African mercenaries? According to the MRG submission, “most of the allegations about Colonel Gaddafi’s use of mercenaries were not proven at the time and continue to be unestablished”, but served as a pretext for the mistreatment of migrant workers, particularly those from sub-Saharan Africa….
MRG alleges that “by March many BBC reports directly referred to mercenaries operating in Libya and BBC reporters, including senior security and defence correspondents, themselves speculated about the recruitment and employment of mercenaries”. Our own researches have not turned up any clear examples of this – and in any case it can be argued that, in the absence of hard facts, “speculation” is part of such correspondents’ job. But Justin Webb, a presenter on the Today programme, went rather further on 19 March while interviewing the Libyan deputy foreign minister. “It’s true, isn’t it,” he asked, “that [the forces supporting Gaddafi] are not really made up of Libyans – they’re actually mostly mercenaries from abroad?” When this question elicited a denial, Webb went on to assert that “countless foreign reporters have come across people that are very obviously foreign. I mean, that’s well known, isn’t it?” This was probably intended as a particular line of questioning, aimed at provoking the interlocutor into a clear statement – presumably a denial. But the questions took the form of somewhat vigorous and categorical assertions, which certainly could have given the listener the impression that the questioner was stating facts for which he has solid evidence – an impression which in this case appears to have been misleading.
Much of what is now known about the “African mercenaries” could probably have been discovered at the time, if BBC reporters had made a greater effort to find out who these alleged mercenaries were, how many of them were fighting, or what might be their motive for doing so. Reporters might not have been able to do this in February or March, but perhaps it could have been done during the succeeding months, when the front between Gaddafi and his opponents was fairly stable and there was much talk of “stalemate”.It appears that they were not under any great pressure from the newsroom in London to follow up this story, and did not themselves see it as a priority.
The fact that the majority of refugees were sub-Saharan Africans and black Libyans was not emphasized. Nor, except in Michael Buchanan’’s report quoted above, were the reasons for their flight explored, beyond using general terms such as “fleeing from the terror and the turmoil that is Colonel Gaddafi’s Libya”.
But it was only when the rebels began to gain the upper hand, and particularly after the fall of Tripoli in August, that the BBC’s main domestic bulletins began to turn their attention to human rights violations committed by that side. Even then, migrant workers were implicitly grouped, if not equated, with “mercenaries”.
We have seen that reporters did not always conceal their distaste or contempt for Colonel Gaddafi and his regime,75 or their sympathy for those trying to overthrow him.
Footnote #75: 75 A particularly nice example is the comment of Middle East correspondent Kevin Connolly on the Today Programme, 28 February 2011, when he reported visiting a building in Benghazi built as “a temple to Gaddafi’s Green Book, which contained the full spectrum of his thought, from the banal to the barking”.
The BBC broadcast this “user-generated content” (UGC), generally taking care to specify that these were “images we can’t verify”,118 or “unverified pictures posted on the internet by opposition activists”,119 although the sheer volume of this material gave it credibility and in many cases, as Beirut correspondent Jim Muir remarked,120 “this footage is impossible to verify, but it would be hard to fake”. Often, too, the footage included shots either of bodies returned to their families or of detainees who had been released, bearing clear marks of torture.
Indeed, visas and accreditation for visiting journalists were impossible to obtain for most of the period under review, although Lyse Doucet (regular presenter and foreign correspondent for BBC World Service Radio and BBC World ) was allowed in September, and in January 2012, benefiting from a brief change in pollicy, Jeremy Bowen was given a five-day visa, then extended for a further five days, and was able to move around Damascus with a camera crew considerably more freely than he had inTripoli the previous year.
As with other Arab “revolutions”, the master narrative of the Syrian uprising as perceived from the outside world, especially in its early months, was straightforward: a “people” had suddenly lost its fear of a dictatorial regime and had poured out into the streets, peacefully and unarmed, to demand change. The fact that Syria was unquestionably a police state, and that it did react to the protest movement with extreme violence, made this narrative even more potent and hard to question than in other countries.
It was therefore not surprising that in the early weeks many commentators – impressed by the unexpected volume of the protest movement and its tendency to snowball as each new demonstration of brutality by the regime led to a new wave of popular anger, as well as Assad’s inability or unwillingness to woo the opposition with any meaningful change – concluded that he could not hold out for long but would soon be swept away by the torrent. But this has proved to be quite wrong.
Once this perspective is adopted, the accusation that the Western media have been complicit in “framing” the conflict to bring about such an alignment follows almost inevitably. They stand accused of uncritically espousing the cause of the opposition in
Syria, and accepting its narrative of events, without inquiring into its credentials or acknowledging, let alone explaining, the fact that, for all its brutality, the Assad regime enjoys significant popular support.
Perhaps the high point of this critique was an article by Jonathan Steele in the Guardian on 17 January 2012, “Most Syrians back President Assad, but you’d never know from western media”. Steele took the media to task for ignoring a poll conducted by YouGovSiraj for the Doha Debates (financed by a foundation in Qatar but chaired by former BBC journalist Tim Sebastian and broadcast by BBC World). The poll’s main finding was that “some 55% of Syrians want Assad to stay, motivated by fear off civil war”. Steele accused the Western media of ignoring this because “when coverage of an unfolding drama ceases to be fair and turns into a propaganda weapon, inconvenient facts get suppressed”. He did not mention the BBC by name, but his criticism implicitly embraces it, since the BBC had not reported the poll.
Did the BBC tell us enough about the components of the opposition, or what sort of alternative or successor regime might be expected if they succeeded in displacing Assad? Here there does seem to be room for concern. Although BBC journalists spent a great deal of time with opposition activists, outside and later inside Syria, their reports focused overwhelmingly on what was happening on the ground – demonstrations, slogans, violent repression – but had relatively little to say about who the opposition leaders were or the ideologies likely to come to the fore if they were successful. The BBC website has carried many more reports about the Syrian National Council since its formation in October 2011 than any broadcast outlet. There have been some broadcast interviews with the Council’s spokeswoman, Dr Bassma Kodmani,136 but generally focusing on the immediate situation rather than long-term aims or perspectives.
There has been little or no coverage, in the material we have seen and listened to, of specific ideological strands within the opposition, such as the Muslim Brotherhood – we have found no interview, for instance, with its secretary-general Mohammed Riad Al- Shaqfa.138 Nor has the BBC informed its audience of the existence of exiled Syrian religious leaders such as the Sunni preacher Shaikh Adnan al-Aroor. Although presented by Saudi-owned al-Arabiya television as a man of peace, he has interviews circulating on YouTube saying such things as:
“If victory is achieved, the punishment will be severe and hard and especially I mention the Alawite sect, we will not touch any of them who stood neutral – those who rebelled, they will be treated like us as citizens but those who have aggressed against our sacred, By the great God they will be confronted, their punishment will be severe and harsh and we will mince them with mincing machines and feed their flesh to the dogs.”
Clearly the representativity and influence of such figures is not easy to establish. But there is no indication that the BBC, at least in its domestic outlets, is even aware of them
– let alone that it has made any attempt to investigate their status.141
Did the BBC initially underplay the involvement of armed elements and use of violence on the side of the opposition?
This is very difficult to answer because the facts are still in dispute. As already noted, the impression given in BBC reports up until the autumn of 2011 was one of an almost entirely non-violent protest movement being met by gratuitous force on the side of the regime. Only in the late summer or early autumn, with the formation of the FSA (composed of defectors from the regular army) did this begin to change. As Paul Wood put it in his Panorama programme of 12 March 2012, “almost from the beginning, it’s been Syrian government propaganda that armed groups, or armed gangs as they’re described, have been supporting the opposition. Now, after months of protesters being shot down in the streets, this myth has become reality.”
This narrative has been disputed not only by the regime itself and people apparently sympathetic to it (such as Alastair Crooke, quoted above) but also by some sources that appear more sympathetic to the opposition.
So there is no dispute that, by February 2012 there were very much two sides involved in a desperate and violent, if unequal, conflict. But the chronology remains in doubt. It may be that in the early months the BBC missed the fact that the uprising already included an element of “armed struggle”, as Nir Rosen’s narrative suggests. If so, given the difficulty and danger of getting reporters to the places where the events were actually happening, it is hard to blame them.
All that said, there is no escaping the fact that most of the people concerned are not neutral bystanders or aspiring journalists, but citizens with a strong interest in the outcome. They are not necessarily representative of the population – nor can one assume that all social and political groups are equally media-savvy. These pictures do not become available on YouTube and other social media by accident, but because those who film and post them desperately need and want “the world” to see and hear their story, which means of course their side of the story. While it may be good that they have become more sophisticated in the sense of understanding the need to prove their authenticity, the same sophistication can be used to “improve” the image.
Like all wars, the wars of the Arab Spring are being fought on the information and propaganda front; and just as advances in military technology give advantage now to offence, now to defence, so there is a premium for the side which is ahead in understanding and applying the latest developments in information technology.
The sheer volume of the material, and in many cases its nature, often give it overall credibility even when individual items are not fully verifiable. Perhaps the BBC, along with other media, did not immediately grasp the selective and therefore potentially misleading character of much of this material.
Our Content Analysis found that “only in a minority of cases” was the BBC’s use of UGC accompanied by a caveat “either about authenticity or representativeness or both”… members of the sample group felt that “seeing is believing”. Therefore they wanted to see “as many images of impacts on the ground as possible”, and also felt that images should have “minimal editing” and be “as close to ‘primary evidence’ as possible”. The research team adds that “potentially influenced by the contribution of social media, respondents often referred to the perceived rawness of footage as being indicative of accuracy.” In other words, the audience may not yet have fully grasped that “raw footage” can in itself be deceptive, and may need editing in order to ensure that it is accurately understood in its context.
There is perhaps a particular danger when UGC footage is not only shown, so to speak, “in its own right”, but used “as wallpaper”, while the announcer is introducing a news item, or during a telephone interview, or while the reporter, speaking to camera, is making a general point about the situation. One understands why this is done – the footage is the most vivid way to signal to the audience what the “talking head” in front of it is talking about. But using it to frame the story in this way is a kind of implicit authentication, which may tend to counteract whatever caveat is provided, conveying to the audience almost subliminally that the BBC accepts and vouches for the images on screen.
To sum up: by its nature UGC tends to come overwhelmingly from opposition activists, and thus to reinforce the perception that they are on the side of the angels, their opponents on the other. Yet it often tells a very important story, and cannot be ignored. The BBC is well aware of this dilemma, and is making great efforts – perhaps greater than any other news organization – to handle it responsibly. But there is no obvious solution – other than to make sure that concerns about source material are fully shared with the audience.
See full report here