The BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) has responded to complaints by Campaign Against Antisemitism and other Jewish communal groups over its coverage of the antisemitic Oxford Street incident late last year.
On the first night of the Jewish festival of Chanukah, Jewish teenagers who were celebrating on Oxford Street were attacked by a group of men who hurled antisemitic abuse at them, forcing them to retreat to their bus. The men, who appeared to be of Middle Eastern heritage, proceeded to hit the vehicle with their hands and then their shoes, spitting on it, trying to break windows and performing Hitler salutes. The victims filmed part of the attack.
In its coverage of the incident, the BBC reported that the explicit expressions of antisemitism evident in the footage were merely “allegations”, and simultaneously claimed — alone among all media outlets — that “some racial slurs about Muslims can also be heard from inside the bus,” an assertion made with no evidence to support it and which was even contradicted in the article by a witness from the bus who said that she heard no such slurs. It was also subsequently contradicted by independent audio analysis.
On its BBC London Evening News, the BBC even suggested that “it’s not clear what role [the supposed slurs] may have had in the incident.” After public fury, the BBC amended the article to refer to an “anti-Muslim slur” in the singular, but failed to show any evidence why a supposed slur that nobody could hear with certainty was described as “clearly heard” and reported as fact — and even implied to have been a cause of the antisemitic harassment — while the harassment itself remained mere “allegation”.
Campaign Against Antisemitism and others submitted complaints to the BBC, and we held a rally outside Broadcasting House in London, attended by hundreds of protestors, to deliver the message: “BBC News: Stop Blaming Jews!” Lord Grade, a former Chairman of the BBC, told Podcast Against Antisemitism that the BBC’s reportage was “shoddy journalism” and called for answers in a video supporting the rally, which was endorsed also by Dame Maureen Lipman.
In its report, the ECU, which is a unit within the BBC but independent of its editors, considered whether the BBC’s coverage lacked impartiality, whether it was reasonable to include an unqualified reference to a supposed anti-Muslim slur (while describing the evident antisemitism as merely “alleged”), and whether the BBC was right to continue to defend its coverage in the face of universal outrage from the Jewish community.
In its four-page report, the ECU expressed satisfaction with the BBC’s correction of the website article’s description of “slurs” to “slur”, but upheld the complaint in respect of the television report, where there was no like correction for the misleading reportage. More significantly, the BBC defended the inclusion of the slur and its portrayal as fact, as well as the minimisation of the antisemitism as merely alleged. Finally, the ECU issued a mild rebuke over the BBC’s slowness in accepting that there was doubt over its coverage, but ultimately stood by the broadcaster’s reporting as a whole.
Over the course of rationalising its conclusions, the ECU effectively and disgracefully threw the CST under the bus. It also explained the fact that BBC staffers heard Jews spouting an anti-Muslim slur as an example of the “Apollonian tendency” whereby people hear what they imagine they are likely to be hearing. In so doing, however, the ECU thereby betrayed the very prejudices at the BBC that the ECU insists were not at play.
The full report by the ECU is reproduced below.
A spokesperson for Campaign Against Antisemitism said: “It took the BBC two months and four pages to deliver a whitewash non-apology that stands by its spurious reporting of an anti-Muslim slur and dismisses the monumental offence generated by its coverage.
“It is a travesty that the BBC thinks that it can toss the Jewish community a bone by upholding minor elements of our complaint while defending almost the entirety of its reportage and conduct over the course of this abominable saga. Sadly, this sort of stonewalling is exactly what British Jews have come to expect from our public broadcaster.
“Ironically, the ECU’s claim that its staffers hearing Jews spout an anti-Muslim slur is an example of the ‘Apollonian tendency’ betrays the very prejudices that the ECU insists were not at play.
“The BBC’s insistence that ‘we will always welcome feedback on – and constructive scrutiny of – our reporting’ has always been laughable. Today, it is nothing short of insulting. If the BBC thinks that it has settled this matter and appeased the Jewish community, it is deeply mistaken.
“We welcome Ofcom’s reaction to the ECU’s pitiful report by announcing its own investigation, which will hopefully deliver the justice to the Jewish community that the BBC has once more denied.”
Polling that we conducted last year for our Antisemitism Barometer revealed that two thirds of British Jews are deeply concerned by the BBC’s coverage of matters of Jewish concern, and 55% by its handling of antisemitism complaints. These figures reflect years of eroding confidence in the BBC on the part of the Jewish community.
Campaign Against Antisemitism monitors traditional media and regularly holds outlets to account. If members of the public are concerned about reportage in the media, they should contact us at [email protected].
Oxford Street: Men filmed spitting at Jewish people on bus, BBC News Online (England) & BBC London News, BBC One (London), 2 December 2021
Finding by the BBC Executive Complaints Unit
On 2 December 2021 the BBC published an article, headlined as above, about an incident in which abuse was directed at a group of Jewish students on a bus in London’s Oxford Street. That evening BBC One (London) broadcast a report on the same story in its main news bulletin at 6.30pm. Subsequent to both, the BBC received representations from a significant number of groups and individuals, including the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Chief Rabbi critical of the accuracy and impartiality of the BBC’s coverage of the events described, particularly in relation to the claim that an anti-Muslim slur had been heard from inside the bus. In the light of the deeply-felt concerns expressed by senior leaders in the Jewish community and others, the Director-General in his role as Editor-in Chief instructed the BBC’s Executive Complaints Unit to investigate the complaints as a matter of urgency.
The ECU, though part of the BBC, is independent of programme-makers, and is tasked with judging complaints about BBC output against the requirements of the BBC’s editorial standards, as expressed in the Editorial Guidelines. If we conclude that a complaint has identified a breach of those standards, we will uphold it in that respect – or, if it seems to us that the breach had already been recognised and appropriate action taken to remedy it, our finding will be that the complaint has been resolved. In reaching our finding we have watched and read the relevant output, watched and listened to an enhanced audio version of the disputed recording, examined the editorial processes which led to the inclusion of the claim about an anti-Muslim slur in both the online and broadcast items, and considered the BBC’s subsequent decision to stand by its reporting. We have also considered the two reports commissioned by the Board of Deputies, along with the result of a separate check carried out on behalf of the BBC.
Three main questions, which emerged from the complaints, provide a focus for our finding. First, did the overall coverage lack impartiality, both in its choice of language and its focus – in effect, as some have suggested, “victim-shaming” the Jewish passengers on the bus, implying they bore a share of responsibility for the incident, or otherwise creating a false equivalence? Second, was the BBC justified, on the basis of the evidence available to it at the time, to include a line saying an insult of some kind had been heard coming from the bus (in addition to those already reported as having come from the pavement)? And finally, in the light of new analysis of the recording, was the BBC right to continue to defend all the statements included in its reports as accurate and not requiring amendment?
Taking these in turn, the first BBC report on this story was published on the afternoon of 2 December. The BBC became aware of the story via social media the previous day but considerable effort had gone in to verifying the footage and establishing the facts. The headline Oxford Street: Men filmed spitting at Jewish people on bus was placed above the following introduction which gave a flavour of the article’s tone and content:
An alleged antisemitic incident involving passengers on a bus in central London is being treated as a hate crime, the Met Police has said. It happened on Monday night in Oxford Street during the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the force said. Footage appears to show men spitting at and abusing people on the bus. Boris Johnson said the clip was “disturbing”.
A number of complainants have cited the use of the word “alleged” and phrases like “appears to show” as evidence of a lack of impartiality, in contrast with the lack of qualification in the phrase “some racial slurs about Muslims can also be heard from inside the bus” (a form of words to which the finding will return, in a different context). Others also highlighted the reporter’s reference in the television item to any role the words from the bus might have played. As to “alleged” and the like, the terminology was used on the basis of legal advice taken by the programme-makers, and was by no means unusual in reporting matters under police investigation which may fall to be decided by the courts, and where not all the facts have been established. We saw no evidence to suggest it was intended to contrast with the treatment of the anti-Muslim slur claim – which was contextualised in the online item in a way the statements about the behaviour of those outside the bus were not, by the inclusion of a quote from one of the students on the bus, in which she denied hearing any such insults from her fellow-passengers. In relation to the second point, the reporter in the television item said (in connection with the words supposedly spoken from the bus) “It’s not clear at the moment for the person which said that what role this may have played in the incident” . As is sometimes the case in unscripted broadcasting, it is apparent that the reporter’s intended meaning was not expressed with complete clarity, but what can be said is that he did not assert that the slur had played a role, and that, at that point in time, there were elements of uncertainty about what had happened which it was appropriate for the report to reflect. In any event, the reference came towards the end of a piece in which the overriding focus had been on the behaviour of those outside the bus, which was hardly conducive to the view that the passengers shared responsibility for the incident.
For these reasons, and judged against the evidence available at the time, the ECU did not accept that either item lacked impartiality in the senses complained of, or that the charges of victim-blaming or false equivalence are warranted. In two significant respects however both items were inaccurate. The original online copy spoke of “some racial slurs about Muslims” whilst the TV reportexplained “you can hear some racial slurs about Muslim people”.In later versions the online copy was changed to “a slur about Muslims” reflecting thatthe original iterations had mischaracterised the nature of the insult and there was insufficient evidence that it had happened on more than one occasion. In the ECU’s judgement the original versions did not meet the BBC’s standards of due accuracy but, on the basis set out above, the ECU regarded the correction of the online item as resolving the complaint in that respect. As there was no equivalent correction in the case of the TV report, and as the inaccuracies in it were no less significant than those in the online item, the ECU upheld this aspect of the complaint.
In connection with the second of the questions set out above – about whether reporting that an insult of some kind had been heard coming from the bus was justified on the basis of the evidence available at the time – it is important to note that, at the time the BBC ran the story, the principal primary source material consisted of a mobile phone recording lasting 58”[Other material has since emerged but has no direct relevance to our finding.], which we understand had been provided to the Community Security Trust (CST) when the incident was reported to them and subsequently began to circulate on social media. The CST became a point of contact about the incident for the media, and it was to the CST that BBC London applied on the morning of 2 December for clearance to use the recording. In the somewhat unusual circumstances which obtained here, it was inevitable that reporting of the incident would reflect such information as could be gleaned from the recording; and, in the light of the CST’s leading role in relation to antisemitic incidents as well as their involvement in the incident in question, it was natural and appropriate that the BBC should turn primarily to the CST for verification (as many other media outlets did). The ECU has been shown a detailed timeline of events from the moment the BBC became aware of the story on 1 December, and it shows an unusually high level of consultation among colleagues about the content of the recording. It was on the afternoon of 1 December that it was first identified as containing an anti-Muslim slur (in the form of “Dirty Muslims”), and the recording was subsequently assessed by at least seven members of BBC London news staff and a senior editor in network news, all of whom agreed that the phrase “Dirty Muslims” could be heard, before a decision to include a statement to that effect in BBC output was made. Properly, however, the BBC did not rely on its own assessment alone. The claim was put by the reporter in the television item to the representative of the CST with whom he had been dealing, who replied (in a WhatsApp exchange which the ECU has seen) in terms which the BBC took as confirmation that the phrase in question had been spoken and, in the ECU’s judgement, it was entirely reasonable to take them in that sense. We should make clear, however, that we do not say the CST’s response determined the BBC’s decision to include the claim in its output – it was only one part of the decision-making process, but it does have some significance for the ECU’s view on the outcome of that process. With hindsight, and in the light of subsequent evidence that the recording was open to another interpretation, it might be argued that even further verification should have been sought, but the situation at the time was that no alternative interpretation had been proposed, and in our view the elements of internal scrutiny taken together with the CST’s response amounted to an editorial process which we would regard as more than sufficient in any but the most extraordinary circumstances. We therefore do not believe we can fairly find that the decision to broadcast the claim in question constituted a breach of editorial standards, even if it were accepted in the light of later evidence that the claim itself was questionable. And, in view of allegations of latent or even active antisemitism which have been made, the ECU considers it important to say it was manifest from the evidence we have seen that the decision, whether or not mistaken, was made entirely in good faith.
We now turn to the third question, about whether the BBC has been right to continue to defend the statements in its reports about an anti-Muslim slur as accurate and not requiring amendment. Since 2 December the matter has been the subject of (to our knowledge) three outside assessments, two commissioned by the Board of Deputies from a Professor of Linguistics and a team of digital forensic and data security specialists, and one commissioned by the BBC from a firm of translators; and in the course of assessing the evidence offered by the Board of Deputies and preparing a response to complaints, the mobile phone recording has been listened to by a number of senior members of BBC News management (and a member of staff with a working knowledge of Hebrew), and discussed with the BBC’s Jerusalem Bureau with input from native Hebrew-speakers there (though with inconclusive results, which led to the commissioning of the firm of translators). In response to the Director-General’s instruction to the ECU we have viewed and listened to a version of the material with enhanced audio (as set out above), and the Head of the ECU has listened to the material in studio conditions with the help of a BBC sound engineer who was able to apply a number of further enhancements.
In this connection, the ECU notes the suggestion, in a report commissioned by the Board of Deputies from a Professor of Linguistics that BBC staff may have misheard the phrase as a result of the “Apollonian tendency”, which he describes as the mind’s inclination to create order or meaningfulness, especially when encountering unfamiliar information. Although it might be observed that such a tendency might apply as much to those undertaking investigations on behalf of others as to BBC staff, it corresponded with the experience of members of the ECU, both as investigators of complaints and in their previous roles as programme-makers, in which they had encountered cases where the same audio material can genuinely be construed in entirely different senses by different listeners. The interpretation arrived at may well depend on cues which the listener is unaware of having received and, once arrived at, may be very difficult to controvert. In the ECU’s view, the contesting interpretations of the material under consideration were a case in point, and it might not be possible to determine with certainty which of them is correct on the basis of the recording alone. The question we therefore addressed was whether the BBC’s response should have acknowledged an element of doubt about the anti-Muslim slur claim. In this connection, we noted that the report commissioned by the BBC did not result in unanimity, with three of the four translators involved construing the phrase as “Dirty Muslims” and one as the Hebrew for “Call someone, it’s urgent”. While the majority finding gives support to the view that “Dirty Muslims” is a sustainable interpretation, the more significant point for the ECU is that the sole exception indicates that it was not the only possible interpretation. In the ECU’s judgement this, taken together with the evidence put forward by the Board of Deputies, should have led the BBC to recognise at an earlier stage that there was genuine doubt about the accuracy of what it had reported.
It follows that the online article as it stands must now be regarded as no longer meeting the BBC’s standards of due accuracy and, to the extent that the anti-Muslim slur claim has itself become controversial, it also lacks due impartiality in failing to reflect alternative views. The same applies, mutatis mutandis, to the television item, though that could not have been updated as an online item can.
The complaints were therefore partly upheld in relation to accuracy and impartiality.
The online item will be revised in the light of the finding and a posting will be made on the Corrections and Clarifications page about the television item (which will also acknowledge the original element of inaccuracy in the phrase “some racial slurs about Moslems”).
Image credit: Nathan Lilienfeld