BBC BLOGS - The Editors
« Previous | Main | Next »

Graphic images

Post categories:

Adam Curtis | 14:00 UK time, Monday, 24 July 2006

News developments in the Middle East routinely attract the attention of vigorous lobby groups on both sides. The conflict that has erupted so suddenly in Lebanon is no exception.

A graphic of the BBC News websiteWe are accused of all sorts of twists and spins, such as: "Why do we say that Lebanese have 'died', but that Israelis have 'been killed'?" Or: "Why do you focus on the suffering of Israelis when the Lebanese are suffering in greater numbers?" Or: "Why do you paint the Lebanese as victims when it's their failure to disarm Hezbollah that lies at the root of the trouble?" Or: "Why don't you state openly that the Israeli bombing/Hezbollah rocket attacks are war crimes?"

Readers with strong views about the rights and wrongs of the conflict sometimes read into our coverage a bias or prejudice that is not there. The accusations come from both sides.

The truth is that, in maintaining 24-hour a day coverage of a complex, fast-moving story such as this - constantly updating and reshaping our reports - it is a huge challenge to ensure that we are maintaining absolute balance and impartiality. Undoubtedly, there are times when we don't get it quite right. But we do pay attention to feedback, and we do make adjustments when it seems right to do so.

One of the most difficult issues surrounds the pictures that we use to illustrate our news stories. We come under pressure from some quarters to publish photographs that reflect the full horror of the casualties being inflicted. Such images certainly exist and are freely available on a number of websites.

Our job, as we see it, is to make a judgement about what our audience is likely to feel is appropriate. On the one hand, we do not believe in sanitising the news. On the other, we believe we have the ability, through our reporting, to convey the horror of events without shocking and possibly outraging our readers by showing gruesome images of mutilated corpses.

On occasions we are aware that we come close to crossing the line as to what is acceptable. In such circumstances, we may, like our colleagues in television, adopt the policy of warning our readers that the images they are about to see are likely to be distressing.

But what if the available images of casualties on one side are more harrowing than those on the other? And should we publish more pictures of Lebanese casualties because there are more of them?

In practice, we look at the agency pictures available at any one time and publish a selection that we feel reflects reality. We have no agenda other than to give our readers as accurate a sense as we can of what is happening on the ground.

In doing so, we take note of the BBC guideline on impartiality, which says in part: "It requires us to be fair and open minded when examining the evidence and weighing all the material facts, as well as being objective and even handed in our approach to a subject. It does not require the representation of every argument or facet of every argument on every occasion or an equal division of time for each view."

Adam Curtis is world editor of the BBC News website


  • 1.
  • At 03:09 PM on 24 Jul 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

Oh you're good BBC, really good, but not good enough to deceive everyone. Your bias can be blatant or exquisitely subtle. Here's an example of what you are reporting right now about Dr. Rice's visit to the middle east;

"US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice holds crisis talks with Lebanon's PM on an unannounced Beirut trip."

"Her admission that an end to the fighting is "urgently" wanted marks a shift from previous statements in which she said an immediate ceasefire would only offer "false promise", say correspondents."

One could easily conclude putting these two statements together with others you reported that the US administration has changed its position and will now suddenly pressure Israel for an immediate cease fire adding its voice to what many European and Moslem governments want and what the BBC itself advocates, denials notwithstanding. But this could hardly be further from the truth. Other news agencies report that the trip has been scheduled for a long time but was unannounced to the public for security reasons and that the President's position has not changed one millimeter.

BBC, you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

  • 2.
  • At 04:57 PM on 24 Jul 2006,
  • Duncan Hothersall wrote:

Oh come off it Mark (comment 1). You tell us that the Beeb is saying something it isn't saying, and then lambast it for bias on the basis of what it didn't say. By that contorted logic you could read bias into every news story ever published! The BBC piece you mention did not imply what you suggest, and the fact that you inferred it suggests simple paranoia on your part.

  • 3.
  • At 05:03 PM on 24 Jul 2006,
  • Jakester wrote:

Mark - your paranoia is exactly what Mr Curtis is seeking to address, though unsurprisingly without success.

I expect this post to be swamped with more specific accusations of bias. I was struck by something a BBC journalist (name forgotten, sorry) said years ago: "We received complaints from both the Tories and Labour about the same news report. If we're being accused of biased from both sides, WE MUST BE DOING SOMETHING RIGHT."

There have been some BBC reports I've read in relation to the current crisis in the Middle East that I've thought showed a bias towards the UN position, but minutes later I've seen articles showing an uncritical slant to the latest Israeli statements. While it is obviously difficult for individual journalists to be impartial in every piece they write (they are humans, not automatons), the overall output of the BBC is still regarded (by me perhaps alone) as the largest resource of "fair and equitable" news reporting.

As for photos, in this post-Photoshop world, I don't trust them. Also, one could use the same picture of a pile of rubble to illustrate a rocket attack on either side of a frontline, just changing the appropriate caption, but the BBC would never do that, would they?

  • 5.
  • At 09:27 PM on 24 Jul 2006,
  • David Ward wrote:

I don't think your problem is just bias and partiality. It seems that the BBC cannot even report the facts correctly. How many times have I heard/read over the past month that Cpl Gilad Shalit was captured "in Gaza", when in fact he was taken from a base on a kibbutz in sovereign Israel. How can it be possible to make such a cardinal, blatant error, especially in light of the number of correspondents the BBC has in the region?

  • 6.
  • At 11:15 PM on 24 Jul 2006,
  • M wrote:

RE post #1

From your post, people can conclude:

A) You assume that the BBC has an agenda to deceive regardless, without actually articulating in detail what your general centre ground is regarding the Middle East.

B) You speculate on bias and expect people to draw the same conclusions as yourself - please try and be less biased and assuming, and develop a greater perspective.

C) You speculate on what the BBC advocates. Why not describe what you advocate in the Middle East? How does it relate to the description in to answer A.

D) You automatically speculate and assume that other news agencies are closer to the truth and less biased, without any evidence to back it up, which would help form a rational analysis of your post.

Please describe your "truth" in the Middle East, and if no-one posts to disagree with it, it can be held up as an example of universal truth.

  • 7.
  • At 03:36 AM on 25 Jul 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

Duncan and Jakester, I don't know how anyone could misinterpret BBC's meaning in their article. Unannounced implies that the decision to go was made at the last minute presumably in response to a change in policy as suggested by stressing the term "urgently" and stating that this marks a "shift" and although it adds "from previous statements" that would logically suggest a shift in policy as well. Why would a shift from previous statements otherwise even be news? Who ever heard of it and what else could it mean? The assembly of thoughts are full of inuendo without being explicit. That's what makes such an exhibit of covert bias and advocacy so insidious. Most readers would probably miss it and then dismiss it when it is pointed out as I did here.

  • 8.
  • At 07:29 AM on 25 Jul 2006,
  • howard wrote:

On this web site, your reports, headlines photos and news selection are ROUTINELY negative toward Israel.

For example, see comment #18 here:

Regarding story selection, you have recently been carrying UN and HRW condemnations of Israel but not statements that explain what is really going on:

"Consistently, from the Hezbollah heartland, my message was that Hezbollah must stop this cowardly blending ... among women and children," he said. "I heard they were proud because they lost very few fighters and that it was the civilians bearing the brunt of this. I don't think anyone should be proud of having many more children and women dead than armed men." - Jan Egland, UN. Assuming that the man, who was in Lebanon, is telling the truth, your reporters should at least be mentioning this evil Hizballah strategy in their reports on civilian deaths in Lebanon; today, you essentially report on the horror and blame Israel. Report on the horror! These poor people deserve to have someone stand up for them! But tell the truth about why they died, or the real culprits will walk away laughing.

You report on UN representatives' words when they accuse Israel -- but not when an informed representative accuses Hizballah of turning Lebanese into human shields.

HRW recently condemned Hizballah's rockets loaded with ball bearings as "definitely a war crime" (their words).You recently cited HRW as a source in the Gaza beach tragedy, but apparently its condemnations only matter if they are condemnations of Israel.

  • 9.
  • At 11:15 AM on 25 Jul 2006,
  • Eric Dickens wrote:

The BBC is perhaps no worse than other news media with regard to bias. In the main, I tend to subscribe to the WE MUST BE DOING SOMETHING RIGHT thesis.

But both Mark and David Ward bring up things which are food for thought. Accuracy is important. Both Shalit and the hostage from Lebanon were nabbed on Israeli soil. The war was sparked off by these events. So the BBC must get them right.

As for pictures, Adam Curtis says:

"On the other, we believe we have the ability, through our reporting, to convey the horror of events without shocking and possibly outraging our readers by showing gruesome images of mutilated corpses."

Maybe no mutilated corpses, but I do seem to remember a long piece with a small boy with his face burnt, his mum weeping, his father dead. This was a Lebanese. The Israelis keep their wounded and maimed off screen, as we do in Britain. The Arabs appear to use such events for agit-prop purposes - and the BBC takes them over uncritically. The reporter always says s/he couldn't check; but the picture is shown.

And when some UN person starts talking about collective punishment by the Israelis, isn't the random shooting of rockets into populated areas also collective punishment?

The remit of the BBC is to report objectively. As Israel is more or less a Western democracy, reporters can try to ask just about anyone anything. But how can you get objective reportage about, and manage to interview, people who whizz around with rocket launchers while their brave leaders hide in underground bunkers? Terrorists who are not a proper part of the country they are warring from.

Did we hear about the pro-Israel demonstration in Australia? We had a quick glimpse of the pro-Israel one in London, but heard none of the speeches.

Maybe the BBC is doing something right, but my gut feeling says that the BBC tolerates the Israeli point of view while secretly favouring the underdog, in this case a terrorist organisation that wants an Islamic state. I hope the BBC is not slipping into the frame of mind where "fair and open-minded" means siding with a failed state with powerless leaders, which has tolerated a neo-fascist organisation for decades, now that the fascists are getting their just reward.

  • 10.
  • At 03:36 PM on 25 Jul 2006,
  • Mark wrote:

M Post #6

I'm not assuming, I'm stating my opinion from many years of listening to BBC that it has adopted a clear anti American anti Israli bias, it has a point of view consistant with many on the left of politics in continental Europe, and it uses its powerful voice as a soapbox to advocate its views often departing from objective neutral reporting of the facts in ways sometimes overt and sometimes subtle.

There are many examples I could cite. Here are just a couple which come to mind. Interviews with Noam Chomsky and Gore Vidal would leave an audience believing their views are consistant with the mainstream of American politics in truth when most Americans view them as being on the lunatic fringe of the left wing. BBC's series "America Age of Empire" was highly perjorative even in its title and asserted the absurd thesis that America was another Roman Empire. To an American, not only was the thesis badly flawed and offensive, it did not even grasp the uniqueness of "the American experiment" which has no parallel in history among prior civilizations.

BBC's incessant drum beat is unmistakable to those willing to tune in to it. And in the case of the United States of America, it's more than a bias, it has become an obsession.

  • 11.
  • At 06:50 AM on 26 Jul 2006,
  • howard wrote:

If this site is any indication, you avoid as much as possible focusing on Israeli suffering, and you avoid as much as possible focusing on negative comments by human rights groups about Israel's enemies.

For example, you have a headline: "Human shields" about purported Israeli actions in Gaza, but you have never had a headline about Hizballah's utterly reprehensible actions in Lebanon, even when the UN's representative demanded the other day that Hizballah stop its "cowardly hiding behind women and children." In fact, you utterly failed to report Egland's statement. Why? You are certainly quick enough to trumpet charges against Israel by much less well-known figures.

Israel should uphold human rights. So should ALL parties to the conflict. And the BBC should report on the eggregious, ongoing, pervasive war crimes being perpetrated by Hizballah on Lebanese civilians, if it is going to report on this one brief incident in Gaza.

Regarding putting up harrowing images:

I think it's in extremely bad taste to put up pictures of people who a situation where they are grieving, they are hurt,injured, even dead...essentially in a situation where they are totally abandoned, especially in cases where they can not help it. They arent that way to be photographed and displayed across the world.
I don't know, maybe this opinion sounds crazy.

  • 13.
  • At 06:30 PM on 26 Jul 2006,
  • miika wrote:

On the subject of images, I think that they should be shown.

People should be shown the carnage that is wrought by terrorists detonating roadside bombs.

People should be shown the destruction of cluster bombs being used in built up areas by military forces.

People should be shown the gory remains of people who were out shopping when death rained on them from above.

It is the sanitization of the true human cost of warfare, the shielding of the population with the images of death and destruction going on, regardless of who is causing it, who are the victims, that is leading to the whole "ho hum" attitude that allows it to continue.

You tell someone "100 people died today in terrorist bombings in Iraq", that's a number. You show them 100 people's worth of body parts and pictures, it's no longer a number, it's reality.

Saying such things should be hidden away to shield people is basically saying people are ostriches. By doing this sort of thing, the media has turned war into just another video game, and that's an error. These things are happening, and people can't hide from what is happening by not having to see the consequences of human actions around the world.

The blood, the gore, the mayhem, the body parts - all of these might turn your stomachs, make you queasy. You don't get the right to deny what's happening by not having to see such things. That's just a cop out.

People would be a lot more stringent about when war is justifiable if they had a clue to begin with what it's like. They might not want to see the pictures of someone shovelling the remains of a 14 year old girl into a bucket, but having been the one having to do that, I'm all for you having to see it too. Maybe then you'll be more careful about what you condone, regardless of who is doing it.

  • 14.
  • At 07:10 PM on 26 Jul 2006,
  • Ermal wrote:

Re: harrowing images:

It may not be polite and it may not be nice and it may be of bad taste to photograph people who are dead or weeping their dead. They may be very disturbing pictures. But if any of you here is really asking for fair and truthfull reporting, you cannot ask to have these images not shown.War it's not the time to demostrate your artistic taste of photography, it's not time to be polite, is not nice, and it is absolutely disturbing. Seeing a statistic of 400 dead people is not exactly the same as seeing 400 dead ppl... and it is definitely not the same to the families and relatives of those 400 dead people. There has not been a war in the western world since WWII. We seem to have forgoten what it's like. At the end of the day I hope that a "gruessome" picture of a mother crying over her mutilated son on one side and her dead husband on the other, will make someone who has never felt that pain realise that all this killing is absurd, whether the mother is wearing a jewish star or a headscarf.

  • 15.
  • At 09:20 PM on 26 Jul 2006,
  • Greg wrote:

While I am sure that BBC gets a lot of negative responses from both sides it's crucial that BBC's editors use their heads. If their shooting of rockets/shells on both sides, while only the ones that are fired by Israel are covered? Entire Northern Israel's population lives in bunkers, where is BBC's coveraged of that? My advice to BBC's editors is get a checklist of events that are going on both sides of Leb/Isr border and check off the ones that are covered by BBC. I am BBC will see as daylight that they are pro -Hizbullah bias.

  • 16.
  • At 01:12 PM on 27 Jul 2006,
  • Cynosarges wrote:

The BBC's classic method of bias is omission. Avoid mentioning "embarrassing" facts that would contradict the artificial picture the reporter is trying to paint.

Take for example, the current crisis. Assuming that the BBC is a competent organisation, then they should have a fact file for the country, available to all journalists. This should include the "Shebaa farms", recognised by the UN, the US, the EU and Russia as part of the Syrian "Golan Heights" (

So why, therefore, do 80% of the BBC's reports accept, without challenge, Hizbollah's claim that this area is Lebanese? Why does the BBC ignore the UN, the US, the EU and Russia? Why do journalists fail to even state that the UN disagrees with Hizbollah's claim?

The only conclusion is that most of the journalists are trying to offer justifications for Hizbollah's actions against Israel.

The only excuse other than bias appears to be incompetence. I don't know which frightens me more - an incompetent news organisation proclaiming itself as knowledgeable, or a biased news organisation proclaiming itself as neutral and balanced.

Mr Curtis, you may like to give the pretence that the BBC "reflects reality" but this is just a piece of doublespeak. If reality is to be reflected *accurately* then you have to show the true nature of war, to do anything else by censorship is a deliberate misrepresentation of "reality". Why do we pay you and others to decide for us what you feel is "is likely to feel is appropriate"? Who made journalists the moral judges of what we can and can't see?

Are you frightened as an adult that I might choke on my cornflakes or spit out my glass of wine on an evening? Or is it the case that the effects of our foreign policy and wars in general are hidden from view because to 'reflect reality' and show the dead bodies of those we killed would cause, 'shock and possibly outraging amongst our readers' to the point where they reject war for what it is? No, better that the masses are kept doped up to the eye-balls with trashy home make-over programmes and that most unrealistic of tv programming the 'reality tv' show. Whilst we are blind to the horrors of war, war will continue to be backed by those who do not get to see its barbarity.

The double standards however are most interesting. For instance the BBC found it perfectly acceptable to show images of the dead face of Zarqawi on its news bulletins and website, yet how often have you used a similar image of an Iraqi civilian? Indeed of the 100,000 or so dead Iraqis how many images of them have been shown on your news bulletins and website articles?

  • 18.
  • At 08:08 PM on 09 Aug 2006,
  • M wrote:

Is it ok if I ignore the theme of the post and just lobby on behalf of Israelis?

#16 To Cynosarges:
The blogger's classic method of bias is by omission. You should be more frightened by your own entrenched perspective.

  • 19.
  • At 08:30 AM on 27 Aug 2006,
  • Jacob-USA wrote:

If you were an unbiased media then you would show the same news in the USA that you do around the world, instead of filling most of your time slots in the USA with a bunch of crappy comedy shows. I like the BBC, but I only watch it outside the USA, abroad it has a lot more to offer.


This post is closed to new comments.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.