Simon Wilson

New style guide

It may not immediately look like it, but the style guide on Israeli/Palestinian coverage which we're publishing on the website for the first time today is the fruit of hours and hours of hard work by some of the BBC's most experienced Middle East specialists.

styleguide1.jpgThe aim is not to be prescriptive, but to give colleagues who can't reasonably be expected to follow every twist and turn of the conflict some suggestions to deal with the more contentious topics.

In many cases, it’s about being careful not to adopt, even inadvertently, the language of one side or the other, which may give an impression of bias.

So, for example, we recommend using the term "West Bank Barrier" for the system of fences, walls, ditches and barbed wire which Israel is currently building. The official Israeli term is "Security Fence", the Palestinians call it an "Apartheid Wall". Each has their point - but we believe this is the clearest generic term for our audiences. Individual reporters standing in front of a particular section can, of course, still refer to a "fence" or "wall" behind them.

Sometimes good journalism requires that we take a position on an issue - even when the facts themselves are under dispute. The civilian settlements which Israel has built on land it occupied in the 1967 Arab/Israeli war are illegal under international law. That is the position of the UN Security Council, the British government and the Geneva Convention. So it is right that we make that clear in this guide. Israel disputes this and has argued the case legally - and vociferously - on numerous occasions. That's also important and we recommend that where space allows our language should reflect the Israeli objection as well.

Palestinians and their supporters sometimes take us to task for using the term "suicide bombing" to describe what they view as a "martyrdom attack". Again, we feel it's right to take a position and that clear, simple, accurate language is best. In America, some news organisations describe them as "homicide attacks", a phrase we have discussed and rejected.

Although initially a little sceptical, the more I think about it, the happier I am that we are publishing this guide to the public. BBC journalists, whether they are in Israel, the Palestinian Territories or London, put an enormous amount of thought and effort into trying to get these things right. And if this shows just a glimpse of that to the people we are reporting to, it may prove a very useful exercise.

Simon Wilson is the BBC's Washington Bureau Editor

Peter Barron

'600,000 killed': Is that a story?

Here's a relatively new phenomenon, you might call it "e-mails before broadcast".

Newsnight logoWhen the story broke of the Lancet report into civilian deaths in Iraq it was accompanied by a rash of e-mails from anti-war groups urging us to run the story. Did that influence us?

Well, yes in the sense that I learned of the story from an anti-war campaigner who e-mails me regularly. But also no. When I took the report into our morning meeting where none of the producers had yet seen it, there was instant and unanimous agreement that - while the claim was in some people's view not credible - it was easily the most significant development of the day.

Then there was a second wave of e-mails. Not really suggesting we don't do the story, but urging that, if we do, to note that even the authors claim that it is of "limited precision". Don't be bullied by the anti-war lobby, they said. Thanks, we won't.

Then, as other news outlets started to report the story, there was a third wave of e-mails, this time saying sophisticated things like: please don't interview so and so, he doesn't know what he's talking about, if you're looking for a critic of the report please try to find an epidemiologist and not just a pundit, and even: please don't make the same schoolboy statistical error as your colleagues on xy news.

Are these unsolicited interventions helpful or unhelpful? The former, I think, as long as we read them with eyes wide open. You might argue that it would be purer to ignore the pressure from all quarters, but I think lobbying can actually improve our journalism, as long as it's not corrupt, that access to the editors of programmes is equally available to everyone (via e-mail it is) and that we question everything we're told.

Do I have any proof of this? Here's some unscientific evidence. We got fewer e-mails on this subject after broadcast than we did before.

Peter Barron is editor of Newsnight


BBC in the news, Friday

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  • 13 Oct 06, 10:28 AM

Times, Guardian: Appointment of members of BBC Trust (Link, link)

Daily Telegraph:
Change in licence fee administration linked to decline of post offices. (Link)

Daily Mail:
Richard Littlejohn asks why the BBC should launch an Arabic and Farsi TV service? "Those of us who live in the London area might just as well be watching the Baghdad Broadcasting Corporation." (Link)

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