Samira Ahmed's Newswatch discussed the BBC's coverage of the unmasking of Mohammed Emwazi.
Three specific aspects of the BBC's reporting have prompted complaints: (1) the continued use of the nickname 'Jihadi John' days after Enwazi's real name was made known, (2) the BBC's habit of claiming 'exclusive' developments on such a harrowing story, and (3) the BBC's reliance on testimony and information from dubious sources, including Islamic State defectors and CAGE.
The main complaint, however, was that that the weight of coverage serves to help Islamic State in getting its propaganda across:
Nigel Jackson, calling from Norfolk. I am absolutely staggered at the amount of time you are wasting on the alleged 'Jihadi John'...and I find that name just repulsive...I'm surprised you haven't told us his inside leg measurement. I mean, all this coverage, you're just giving those people even more credence. I'm sorry. I just find it grossly offensive.
There then followed a discussion between another BBC viewer, Deborah Smith, and Paul Royall, editor of the BBC's News at Six and News at Ten:
Samira Ahmed: Deborah then. What were you concerns about this coverage?
Deborah Smith: My comments were very similar to what the other viewer had said: That there was just too much of it. We didn't need to know that he was a good child at school, that his parents live in Kuwait, that his whole life his whole life was different and that the CAGE had said that they believed he had joined up because of being bombarded by MI5. It's unnecessary. He's a horrible man and we don't need to need to know what he was like before then. That was in the past and we should be dealing on, OK, if he's committed something now that's news. What he was like at school isn't to me. It's a complete waste of time and shouldn't have been in telly.
Samira Ahmed: Paul, this was a concern for a lot of viewers.
Paul Royall: Yeah, well I think the rise of so-called Islamic State is a globally significant story and the naming of Mohammed Emwazi is an important part of that. I recognise that those sort of points ...there is going to be a lot of coverage, and I think you're right to flag up that there was a lot of coverage because it's important to understand the background to Mohammed Enwazi, to understand how he became radicalised and the story behind him. But it is a difficult story and it's one of the hardest stories we have to work with. And so all I would want to do is to reassure you that the whole time there is proper editorial thought and process that goes behind this.
Deborah Smith: Yes, OK, you needed to put the whole story across, but did it really need to be told every night thereafter?
Samira Ahmed: And I think the idea is a lot of it is very personal, it's very speculative and that what people felt was this is essentially propaganda for Islamists who want to say, oh look, they've all got a cause and they've got some kind of justification.
Paul Royall: Yeah. I would obviously challenge the idea that this is somehow glamourising. I think what was happening over the past week is finding out the background and the details and the causes behind Mohammed Enwazi. And I actually think what happened in terms of naming Mohammed Enwazi is actually a demystifying of the story and actually helps us and the audience understand why people end up doing these horrific things and helps our understanding of so-called Islamic State, and what is actually a really difficult, hard story and thing that is going on around the whole at the moment.
Deborah Smith: Yes, I appreciate that but I mean I just think that we are just glamourising it. We're just making him a role model for those that are going to go down...that are thinking about going down that path. They're going to think, oh look, he's on telly. We'll get more...You know, if we join up we'll get more publicity.
Samira Ahmed: And with it the whole fact that the BBC was still calling him 'Jihadi John' three days after his real name was known. Isn't it just time to drop that? Even "he's also known as"?
Paul Royall: Throughout the whole of this story, from last summer when he first emerged, we've been sparing and judicious in our use of that name, and...
Samira Ahmed: It was a strap three days after he'd been named across the bottom of the News Channel.
Paul Royall: Since he's been named. And actually what the naming allowed is for this person to be known by his real name, Mohammed Emwazi. And so that is how he is now referred to the first time he's referred to. There are still times when to make sense of the story and, sort of, to aid the understanding of what we're doing, it has still been used. But there was a decision made as soon as he was named to start being more sparing, more judicious about the use of 'Jihadi John'.
Samira Ahmed: OK, can I ask about the whole claim of 'exclusive' stuff that the BBC was saying? Some of it, like audio tapes, seems to be just tapes that CAGE, this advocacy group, was giving the BBC. At lot of concern that they were getting their propaganda message across and the BBC was just enabling them to.
Paul Royall: In terms of the use of the term 'exclusive', it's to demonstrate the rarity or the singular nature of the story that BBC News has. Whenever we use that terms and the material and the story that is around it is editorially justified I would argue, I think it is properly processed and challenged where necessary and put in its appropriate context.
Samira Ahmed: Sometimes we did see CAGE just being interviewed on the News Channel. We had them being interviewed on the 'Today' programme. And them saying things like "All Muslims believe". And there was the IS...ex-IS person...Paul Wood interviewed. We didn't know how they knew he was ex-IS, what the source he was on that, but he's speaking at length about, you know, what 'Jihadi John' was like, supposedly.
Paul Royall: Well, I'd go back to the original point that the rise of so-called Islamic State and the naming of Mohammed Emwazi, they're globally significant stories. Everything we do is editorially thorough and rigorous in terms of why we're talking to those people and why we're putting them on the air. And in both those cases you're alluding to that is the case. CAGE were part of the story last week and we featured them as part of the story but I fully believe we were robust, we were editorially challenging and we justified how we used them with the context of the story. The same with Paul Wood's interview with a former IS fighter who knew Mohammed Emwazi. This is a difficult story and you have to make hard choices in terms of what you need to hear and see to try and aid understanding and build up a picture of how so-called Islamic State operate and exactly what they're doing.
Samira Ahmed: Deborah, if the BBC just maybe said, look, we assure you we have checked very carefully before we put these people and know who they are, would that make the difference? What's your view?
Deborah Smith: The difference for me is the amount of coverage. That's the thing that I object to. You know, they had three girls last week went to Syria, you know, because...we don't know why. They just decided that they believed enough to go and join ISIS. It's...We don't know. You don't know what's compelled them to go, but maybe it was the coverage that they get on the telly, that they've seen it on the telly and though, OK, we'll go. You know, we're only 15. We can do what we like, cos teenagers do believe they're invincible and will do what they want and that's...you're also having to bear in mind that that is...that your audience consists of teenagers who are very impressionable and, you know, it's not just adults who watch the programme, it's people of all ages and those that are young don't necessarily understand everything that they're seeing on the telly.
Paul Royall: I mean...
Samira Ahmed: Sorry, we're going to have to leave it there, but thank you so much...
Paul Royall, with his politician-like manner and management speak, essentially made the usual point that BBC editors invariably make on 'Newswatch' - that the BBC got it spot-on.
Concerns about the saturation coverage of Emwazi were brushed aside, as was the point about far too much of it being over-personalised and speculative. He sidestepped the specific example of the 'Jihadi John' strapline on the News Channel three days after Emwazi's name became public. He also tried to avoid tackling the point about enabling CAGE forcing Samira to ask him again. Even then, he still sidestepped the point that some of the BBC's 'exclusives' were simply audio tapes handed to them by CAGE.
All in all, an unsatisfactory performance from Mr Royall, despite his smoothness.