Arab Spring coverage was 'generally impartial' says trust

montage of Arab Spring images

The BBC's coverage of the 'Arab Spring' was 'generally impartial' despite testing circumstances, the BBC Trust has concluded.

In a report published on Monday, the trust commended the bravery of BBC journalists and technicians who had, in some cases, risked their lives to bring both sides of the stories from the region to air.

But it also highlighted a tendency to focus on events in Egypt leading up to President Mubarak's fall, Libya and Syria at the expense of significant stories elsewhere.

And it expressed concern over inconsistent labelling of user generated content, such as mobile phone footage.

The review - which follows impartiality studies by the trust of business, the devolved nations and science - looked at the BBC's coverage of unrest in a number of Arab countries between December 2010 and January 2012.

At its heart is a report by Edward Mortimer, the former UN director of communications and Middle East expert, who examined output and spoke to more than 40 BBC journalists and executives alongside other experts.

He praised 'the range of voices' included in coverage of Egypt, the fact that the BBC had people on the ground on both sides of the civil war in Libya and 'some very brave' reporting from Syria, especially Paul Wood's repeated visits to Homs.

But Mortimer told journalists at a press briefing that there was 'a bit of a tendency' for the BBC to throw all its resources at 'the big story' to the detriment of 'a fuller picture' of events across the region.

After Mubarak's fall, BBC heads were turned by Libya, he pointed out, while countries like Algeria, Morocco and Jordan were also neglected after initial 'excitement'.

Saudi Arabia

Coverage of Yemen fell off despite the country's 'strategic significance'. And he thought 'a bigger effort to get to grips' with the situation in Saudi Arabia should have been made, despite acknowledged difficulties of access and openness.

Bahrain, too, was 'a very complicated story that was not quite told in a three dimensional way, at least at the beginning', felt Mortimer, who also believed the BBC was slow to report human rights abuses by rebel forces in Libya.

'Perhaps there is room to tighten up the process of how, when and where the big decisions are made,' he reported. While he recognised that individual programme and strand editors should retain editorial autonomy, he highlighted the danger that 'sometimes they all get excited by the same story'.

'There were an awful lot of journalists in Tahrir Square during those 18 days… there was a rush to be in Tripoli in the third week of August in 2011.'

Bowen's expertise

'Stronger direction' from the top was needed, argued Mortimer, who suggested that greater use should be made of the 'excellent' Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen. As well as 'leading from the front and being on the spot' editorially, he felt Bowen's expertise should be tapped when deciding where resources should be deployed.

Mortimer accepted that the structure of the main bulletins prohibited in-depth reporting and greater context in some instances, but he wanted more cross-referencing to relevant background material on the BBC website. Research showed that 97% of Arab Spring news items between November 11 and January 2012 did not direct audiences to BBC online. 'This should happen more often and more systematically,' Mortimer considered.

He also asked for more systematic labelling of UGC - the use of which was 'inevitable' when covering events where access was restricted. Despite being impressed by the vetting of UGC by the UGC hub, Mortimer felt it wasn't made clear enough on air whether a clip had been verified or not.

This was borne out by research which showed that in 74% of 131 UGC clips used by the BBC between November 2011 and January 2012, it was not apparent who the authors were and there were no caveats about authenticity or representativeness. 'There should be a bigger effort to let the audience know where it stands,' judged Mortimer.

Revolution and regime

In terms of language, he was content with the use of the often criticised terms 'Arab', 'Spring' and 'revolution' ('on balance I felt that was a bum rap'), but had some concerns about the use of the word 'regime' with its 'clear pejorative charge'. He sought greater consistency in its use.

'News judgements are for the director-general and his staff to make,' concluded the trust. '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 learnings will help shape future coverage in this and other parts of the world.'

'Broad support'

The BBC said it was 'pleased to see the broad support' for its coverage and has responded to some of the report's suggestions. The executive has suggested a 'stand back' item at the News Editorial Board to help provide greater direction of big, unfolding events. It will review the Middle East editor role and look at UGC labelling and website referencing and report back to the trust.

'This was a complex and fast moving story,' said the BBC. 'Events were dramatic, and in some countries long running, so inevitably we focused on certain episodes. Edward Mortimer studied the coverage of the so called 'Arab Spring' in isolation from other events but in reality we also had to make sure we were covering major stories happening simultaneously elsewhere.

'However we would expect to be judged by the highest standards and there are helpful recommendations in the report which we will take on board.'


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