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Thundering attack

Barney Jones | 12:39 UK time, Wednesday, 26 July 2006

So, I was pilloried by The Thunderer on Monday - that's Stephen Pollard's column in the Times - for having such enthusiasm for Hezbollah that I must in fact be the leader of this organisation.

Sunday AM logoQuite a damning attack on a long-standing and relatively anonymous staffer steeped in the ethos of objectivity and fair play. An ethos perhaps not applicable to columnists who earn a living from being provocative; making waves.

But what to do? The news of this full-frontal attack reached me rather late in the day. After working in Television Centre most of the weekend, I headed off for the wilderness of the Brecon Beacons on Sunday evening, with my teenage son. Come Monday lunchtime, arriving at a hilltop that picked up a faint mobile phone signal, I learned of the damaging denunciation.

Andrew Marr and I agreed that since the piece was wrong in detail, as well as broad implication, a response was essential. He prepared a brief eloquent letter and I offered a more detailed lumbering explanation. An amalgam was eventually submitted to the Times letters page and appeared on Wednesday morning.

marr1_203bbc.jpgThe programme on Sunday 23rd (which you can currently watch here) was not, as stated by Pollard, "mostly... given over to events in the Middle East". It was centred on a long interview with the deputy prime minister, the first live TV interview since his personal and political life imploded three months ago.

Attacks for being too tough or too soft on Prezza I anticipated. Masterminding Hezbollah was a surprise.

The sole interview with any player with a direct tie-in to the Middle East was with a minister in the Lebanese government. A brief interview with a woman who is not aligned with Hezbollah, whose husband was assassinated in a bombing she believes was associated with Syrian factions, and who was questioned by Marr about the culpability of Hezbollah for the mayhem now engulfing her country.

With Israeli troops massing on the border, the interview seemed entirely appropriate and was followed by a live link with the BBC's man in Jerusalem for an overview of the diplomatic manoeuvres and the Israeli government’s stated response to the British minister – just arrived – and the American minister – arriving shortly.

peres1_203bbc.jpgThe previous weeks’s programme was rather more Middle East orientated. It featured a substantial interview with the Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres (watch it here), followed by a briefer interview with the former Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi (watch that here). And earlier in the month, the acting Israeli ambassador to London was interviewed on his own.

Zionist plots on these occasions? Don’t be absurd!

Pollard also lambasted us for the paper review. It started with the Middle East, as many papers did, but covered a host of other topics including domestic politics. The two reviewers were chosen to reflect different facets of UK politics, as they usually are. A former Tory MP and a current Labour MEP. In the minority of the review that was devoted to the Middle East, both indicated that they thought the Israeli response disproportionate. In an ideal world we would have two reviewers with differing views on this contentious subject. However the fact that these two distinguished figures both happen to share a perspective does not, surely, disbar them from comment.

The Beeb doesn’t always get it right and this blog is one forum for those of us charged with producing programmes to put our hands up and say “sorry”. Indeed it’s essential that we all consider carefully what we do, strive to follow the BBC guidelines and admit when we’ve got it wrong. I’m convinced, however, that the Pollard attack was unwarranted.

And I think that a visit to the Sunday AM website, which hosts transcripts of all the interviews - and a record of who appeared each week - will reassure most viewers that our record for fair play remains intact.

Comments

Barney, I totally agree with you. I am a reader of The Times and was shocked and appalled by the comments made by Stephen Pollard. It is quite clear, that over the course of the past few weeks Sunday AM has made an attempt to cover both view points in detailed and lengthy interviews with both key players - it is just a shame that Mr Pollard failed to notice that.

  • 2.
  • At 03:37 PM on 26 Jul 2006,
  • patrick nealon wrote:

Your defence is unconvincing. Your letter to the Times is certainly brief but hardly eloquent. Stephen Pollard quite rightly criticises you for an unbalanced paper review, but I'm afraid you are just a hapless (and easy) target since it is the BBC as a whole which finds it impossible to disguise its anti-Israeli bias. That Hizbollah has terrorised the civilian population of Northern Israel for so long has simply been washed from the BBC's clumsy, short term sense of history. This is obvious from the egregiously embarrassing Ben Brown/Jeremy Bowen double act on the main News; and Jeremy Paxman's discomfort when interviewing a female American political adviser last night was palpable. Your own clubby paper review failed to present a mature appraisal worthy of the BBC - the sloppiness of the presentation, the weakness of the editorial contribution (if they were all anti-Israeli, do you just accept that? is that your job done?), and the smug defence that you interview Israeli politicians to put the Israeli case. Perhaps you'd like to invite on to the next programme Dave Aaronovitch who courageously called for some more balanced reporting on the Israeli military response in a recent Times piece.

Lots o' laughs here.
Sometimes I write letters to the BBC criticising the coverage or slant, but it is on occasions like the one here in question, that I mirthfully remind myself why I generally go across the pond for my news every morning. About once a week, I still check out what's going on in the North American rags, if only for grim curiosity. I'm not saying it's all bad, but seriously, the Times jumped the shark about ten seconds after coverage of the sinking of the Titanic ceased.

  • 4.
  • At 09:29 PM on 26 Jul 2006,
  • Sarbo wrote:

Perhaps the Pollard attack, whatever it was, was unwarranted. But to me there has never been much doubt that the BBC tends to display a fair amount of pro-Arab bias in its coverage of the latest fracas in the loony bin known as the Middle East. It is worth noting that when one clicks on the Middle East section of BBC News International, one gets a plethora of articles voicing the standard UN/European line that Israel's bombing of southern Lebanon is a "disproportionate use of force". Unfortunately, very little effort is made to point out that Israel is trying its damndest to avoid civilian casualties, and that Israel did not start this latest bar brawl.

To me, all news sources display some kind of innate bias. The BBC has always displayed less pro-Palestinian bias than most channels, and for this I applaud it. However, having an editor smugly proclaim that the BBC is "unbiased", given considerable evidence to the contrary, is surely the height of disingenuousness.

  • 5.
  • At 02:16 AM on 27 Jul 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

Mr. Jones, why did it take so many words to write a mea culpa if that's what this is when you were so artful at describing it so accurately in the single word "lumbering?" One advantage of writing a long contorted explanation for something you don't feel comfortable with is that unless readers are already familiar with many of the details or are inclined to research them, when and if they reach the end of it, they don't give a damn one way or the other what you said...if they even understood it. By the way, what exactly did you say?

I'm troubled by how this blog has become a place for BBC staff to either apologise for their mistakes or to defend itself from brickbats thrown by largely anonymous writers operating in other mediums.
The fact is, your job is to report the news impartially. You do that well. Mr Pollard is in the business of selling newspapers. He does not have to worry about showing bias. Indeed, he thrives on it.
The debate about the licence fee will continue but I don't think individual BBC journalists need to get involved in the debate. I don't like the fact that the govenment spends huge amounts of money on the nuclear deterrent, but I still pay my taxes. Would Pollard suggest we all reduce the amount we pay just because we don't agree precisely with what the money is spent on? Getting involved in slanging matches with the "free press" does you a disservice. Please stop.

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