The BBC Trust has published a report on ‘the impartiality and accuracy’ of the BBC’s coverage of the Arab Spring. The report states that the Trust chose to look at this particular topic “because of its importance and because the complexity of deciding how to organise impartial coverage in a fast-moving story across a range of conflicting voices eager to command world attention.” The review examined coverage on “BBC national TV and radio, online content and the BBC World News…beginning with events in Tunisia in December 2010 and, following on from that, most notably in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Syria and Yemen”.
The report includes an independent assessment by Edward Mortimer, a former UN Director of Communications; content analysis carried out by Loughborough University, covering 44 days of output between December 2010-January 2012, as well as qualitative audience research, incorporating ten focus groups.
Some of the key findings of the report include the following:
• The BBC’s coverage of the Arab Spring was remarkable given the challenges involved and was generally impartial.
• The Trust recognises the considerable courage of the journalists and technicians on the ground who reported on these events, some of whom risked their lives to bring stories to the air.
• The qualitative audience research “revealed that accuracy and impartiality are amongst respondents’ top priorities”. Respondents perceive this as a balance of perspectives as well as neutral tone and language.
Mortimer’s independent assessment, notes the following:
• There were points “where coverage could have been fuller in various geographical areas at different times. Some countries had little coverage, others could have been followed up more fully and there could have been fuller examination of the different voices which made up the opposition to various incumbent governments.” Mortimer’s report raises concern over the drop in coverage after the fall of Mubarak in Egypt; the delay in covering human rights abuses by rebel forces in Libya; the lack of context in early coverage of Bahrain and the “later sporadic coverage of the country”; the lack of context in coverage of Syria; the fall in coverage of Yemen, Algeria, Morocco and Jordan, and the lack of coverage of Saudi Arabia.
• There was a lack of coverage of reactions to the Arab Spring outside of the MENA region apart from Britain, the US and France. Mortimer mentions that “the attitudes of “emerging” powers such as Brazil, India, South Africa or Indonesia were hardly covered at all.”
• On context and background, he states that “the BBC’s domestic output, like most other UK and international media, paid too little attention to the internal affairs of Arab countries, and the detail of their governments’ relations with the West, in the years before 2011”, however that once the uprisings began, “considerable effort was made to explore their causes and origins, particularly on the BBC website.” He notes that presenters are now doing more to draw attention to such information, but that there is further scope to explore “the potential of these links”.
• Mortimer writes that the use of User Generated Content (UGC), as often the only first hand source, and the extent to which it was used, “is what the Arab Spring will be remembered for in media history”. He adds that the BBC coped well with the challenges of UGC, but that in future, the BBC needs even more systematically and rigorously to “warn the public of the unverifiable nature of much of this material”.
• On the issue of diversity of output, Mortimer notes that the BBC has a “wide range of outlets” to “supplement the brief accounts of the day’s events given on the main televised news bulletins”, however that “those responsible for TV news bulletins fully accept that the existence of these other outlets does not absolve them from their duty of impartiality”.
• Commenting on strategic direction, Mortimer states that “since there seems at least to be a widespread feeling, if not agreement, (a) that there should have been more intensive coverage of Arab countries before the Arab Spring, and (b) that Saudi Arabia, in particular, is still not getting the level of attention that its enormous importance demands, I was led to ask whether these omissions were the result of strategic decisions, and if so, at what level such decisions were taken. I conclude by asking whether the structure and agenda of News Board meetings, and the inputs to them, might need modifying in any way- a matter for the BBC to consider.”
Responding to Mortimer’s findings and the other research findings, the Trust concludes the following:
• The Trust expects that the well evidenced points made by Edward Mortimer on the coverage of individual countries and areas will be considered by the News Division and will shape future coverage in this and other parts of the world.
• In order to safeguard audiences’ trust, the BBC should consider how it might better share more effectively with the audiences the rigorous vetting process to which all the User Generated Content (UGC) is subjected.
• The Trust welcomes the Executive’s proposal to include a stand back item at the News Editorial Board and the intention to look at the strategic guidance the Middle East Editor can offer. The question as to how much coverage BBC One bulletins (with their unique audience reach) should provide to give context and cover stories which are not necessarily high profile is one which the News Editorial Board will wish to explore.
• The Trust welcomes the Executive’s recognition that the BBC could have made better use of references to the website within broadcast items for those interested in more information or background, and encourages its use in particular on those outlets which attract younger audiences.
In the wider context of this report, it is important to note that although the BBC is regulated by Ofcom, it self- regulates in the areas of accuracy and impartiality. A report published by the Lord Select Committee on Communications last year recommended that “The BBC Trust and Ofcom working together to resolve issues of impartiality and accuracy so that the BBC is no longer its own judge and jury.”
The full BBC report is available to download here.