BBC's "Arab Spring" coverage remarkable and generally impartial, but could have benefited from more breadth and context, Trust review concludes

Date: 25.06.2012     Last updated: 23.09.2014 at 09.50

The BBC's coverage of the "Arab Spring" was remarkable, given the challenges involved, and was generally impartial, according to the conclusions of a review published today by the BBC Trust.

Recognising the considerable courage of journalists and technicians on the ground to bring stories to air, particularly during a period where other world events created pressure on reporting resources, the review concluded that there were ways in which the BBC could have further improved its programming in order to give a fuller picture of events in the region. 

The Trust reached these conclusions having considered an independent report from Edward Mortimer, Middle East expert and former UN Director of Communications, which formed the centrepiece of the review.  

This was supported by analysis of programmes over the period, which showed that BBC audiences enjoy a greater range of coverage of countries across the region than those watching any other domestic broadcaster. Audience research revealed that the BBC was generally highly regarded for its coverage of the events of the "Arab Spring". 

While generally impartial, the Trust concluded that the BBC's coverage could have included more extensive follow-up of stories in some countries, a fuller examination of the different voices which made up the opposition to various incumbent governments, and in some places a broader range of international reactions to news events. 

The review also concluded that the BBC could aim to provide more context and background to complex stories, particularly in the main TV bulletins. 

In response, the BBC Executive has committed to re-evaluate how it tracks and allocates resources to major ongoing stories, to ensure that they are covered as effectively as possible across the BBC's news output, whilst maintaining the editorial structure which gives editors of individual programmes autonomy over the stories they cover. 

In seeking to improve this strategic direction in BBC News, the Executive will make particular reference to the role of Middle East Editor and the emphasis placed on his strategic guidance in covering events in the region.

The Trust chose to look at the Arab Spring not because it felt the BBC's coverage was in any way deficient, but because of the importance and complexities presented by a group of fast-moving stories which are often extremely dangerous to cover on the ground. 

In its conclusions, the Trust recognised that these challenges, combined with the fact that the events covered occurred in a part of the world which is unfamiliar to most of  the UK audience and many overseas, made testing conditions for the BBC's news operations, which achieved remarkable coverage. 

Alison Hastings, Chair of the Trust's Editorial Standards Committee, said: 

"Achieving impartiality across a range of conflicting voices, all eager to command world attention, and where propaganda and fact are sometimes hard to distinguish, continues to present a unique set of challenges. It is remarkable and a credit to BBC News's commitment and bravery that the Arab Spring was covered in a way the audience found engaging, especially alongside a number of other major world news events like the Japanese tsunami.  

"Within the limits placed by news resources, programme lengths and formats, and recognising the range and impartiality of the coverage overall, we're keen to see if improvements can be made. These would be both in the scope of coverage to provide a fuller picture of events, and in providing better context for audiences. We'll ask the Director of News to report back to us with an update in the autumn."

Edward Mortimer said: 

"Throughout the period I examined, the BBC covered a challenging, complex and geographically disparate set of stories in an engaging way. I was impressed by the standards in its domestic and international news programming, despite the inherent risks of reporting from this region, and particularly the skill and care it applies to checking 'user-generated content' - mainly video footage of events provided by activists or bystanders.

"I was particularly struck by the openness and willingness of BBC News journalists at all levels to look critically at their approach to covering stories and to identify ways in which it might be improved. But there is a tendency to focus resources on one story at a time, leading to a lack of coverage of other countries within the region."

The review was launched in October 2011, and – like other Trust-commissioned impartiality reviews of nations and science – examined coverage on BBC national TV, radio and online content. For the first time, this review also included output on BBC World News (the BBC's commercial international news service). It did not include the World Service. Edward Mortimer's report was informed by audience research from Jigsaw Research and content analysis from Loughborough University.

Other recommendations made by Edward Mortimer and approved by the BBC Trust include better use of references to the website within broadcast items to provide context, and to look at giving greater prominence to the vetting processes to which images, film, audio and other content provided by the public are subjected. 

The Executive recognises that use of the word 'regime' can suggest a value judgment, and has committed to examine ways to develop a policy so that the BBC can achieve consistency in its use.  

Notes to editors

The period defined as the 'Arab Spring' for the purposes of Edward Mortimer's report began with events in Tunisia in December 2010 and followed on with those in many different Arab countries through to the spring of 2012. 

The review also included content analysis and audience research, which was used by Edward Mortimer in writing his report. The content analysis was undertaken by Loughborough University. It covered 44 days of output between December 2010 and January 2012, including an analysis of 16 days across a range of broadcasters (Nov-Jan 2011/12).  

The qualitative audience research was carried out by Jigsaw Research.  It took place across the UK in January 2012 and incorporated 10 focus groups who were asked about how impartiality and accuracy are judged by the audience, what factors affect their views on coverage and whether the BBC's coverage was perceived to be accessible, accurate and impartial.  

Edward Mortimer biography

Edward Mortimer is an experienced journalist who wrote extensively about the Middle East in the Times and Financial Times between 1973 and 1998. From 2001 to 2006 he was UN Director of Communications and from 2007 to 2011 Senior Vice President of the Salzburg Global Seminar.