Sunday 1 November 2015

Blood on the floor

That ferocious bulldog on behalf of the licence fee paying public, Roger 'the Beeb-slayer' Bolton, viciously sunk his teeth into a BBC Middle East correspondent on this week's Feedback.

The BBC's Kevin Connolly was left bleeding on the studio floor...

...or maybe not. 

Make that 'very much not' in fact. Typically for Feedback (unlike Samira Ahmed on Newswatch), Uncle Roger chose to vigorously lick the BBC man's face and tickle his tummy instead. 

If I may paraphrase:
Oh Kevin, are things becoming tougher for you because of all those nasty complaints about bias? Kevin, here's a listener who said you did a great report on FOOC. And Kevin, let me slavishly defend you over the issue of context too. But, let me be tough now and have yet another of my digs at John Humphrys, and cite an anti-Israeli complaint to you. (I won't cite a pro-Israeli complaint though). Finally, let me bowl you something nice and soft. My thanks to Kevin.
[Roger Bolton's repeated focus on 'wrongdoing' by John Humphrys is something I've commented on several times before. It's an odd, ongoing Feedback feature. This focus only seemed to arise after JH slammed the BBC for being biased on certain issues, like immigration and the EU, in the past, and RB seemed to take considerable exception to him doing so. It's all very strange, and oddly vendetta-like for Radio 4.]

Anyhow, here's a transcription of their discussion. Unlike Roger Bolton, Kevin Connolly puts in a creditable performance here (whether you believe him or not):

Roger Bolton: Kevin Connolly has been a BBC Middle East correspondent for five years. I asked Kevin if the job of reporting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is getting even more difficult.

Kevin Connolly: I don't think so. The pressure comes and goes according to the pressure of the news. The higher the profile the story has in our news bulletins the more we will hear from people who have very strong views on the conflict themselves about how our coverage measures up against their own feelings. And they will scrutinise every aspect of our language, the words we choose to use, the amount of historical context we manage to add to pieces, the precise manner in which we report disputed factual circumstances. We absolutely accept that, you know, we are accountable to the British public and that they are entitled to express what are often very, very strong opinions and a very strong sense of disappointment where they feel that our narrative is not close enough to the narrative of one side or the other. 

Roger Bolton: Now, it's interesting when we look at the people who've written to us. David Chadwick talks about a "very fair and balanced account" given by you on Our Own Correspondent. When you're doing longer pieces it's possible to put context or at least some context, even though that context is contested. When you're doing a news report you can't, can you? 

Kevin Connolly: Well, some of our news reports are 35 seconds long where we have something on our online service called a 'text box' which is maybe 140 words, so the longer you serve in this kind of job the more you come to understand that news is an imperfect and incomplete medium but it's still the best way we have of, you know, reporting the factual circumstances of the news to each other.

Roger Bolton: So when you've got a short news item...from the letters we get, people care very much which side you mention first. I mean, for example, William Parry has been particularly critical of a Today interview that John Humphrys did with you. I think John's first question was, "Yet another attack on Israelis", talking about the knifing (sic) and so on. And that listener felt the very way that framed, mentioning Israelis first, concentrating on what was happening to them, in a relatively short interview inevitably skewed the coverage. What do you think of that criticism?

Kevin Connolly: Well, I think I would use the argument that, philosophically, news is an imperfect medium. John, in that introduction, is responding to the latest development in the story which is something, obviously, that news journalists are naturally attracted to. And I think in the context of that discussion between me and John Humphrys actually we made the point that very often events are bubbling away below the surface that break through as a global headline news story. So we're accepting that there are background factual circumstances which help the create the situation in which suddenly you are hearing the news being reported. But that is not implying, of course, cause and effect. And very often listeners are analysing the way we're reporting the news using a template that we don't use when we're compiling it. I mean, the fact that John Humphrys is beginning that discussion of the factual circumstances by talking about something that has happened to Israelis - and I'm sure John would be the first to say this - does not imply that that is the BBC's analysis of the cause and effect in the circumstances. 

Roger Bolton: But do you sometimes go and re-listen to something you've done and think, "Hmm, actually they've got a point. Next time I better do it rather differently"? 

Kevin Connolly: Honestly, I think the older you get the more you approach this job with humility. You know, before I write something for From Our Own Correspondent I will circulate it among my colleagues. I've got colleagues who are Israeli Jews. I've got colleagues who are Palestinians from Gaza. We have colleagues who live in Bethlehem and in Ramallah and in Jerusalem. So we take as collegial approach as we can because, you know, that brings in feelings that they are coming across in their own communities and the stories that they are hearing reported by their own local media. There used to be this principle in news, which always struck me as being very complacent and rather arrogant, which was that if you're being complained about by both sides then you must be doing something right. But, of course, that's just not really the case. You can be being complained about by both sides and still be wrong. So you always go back, listen to what you've said and read what you've written and think about how it be better.


UPDATE 2/11Sue has been doing some digging... 

It turns out that the William Parry whose complaint about 'pro-Israeli BBC bias' was used by Roger Bolton in this Feedback interview with Kevin Connolly isn't quite the 'ordinary, offended Radio 4 listener' listeners might have taken him to be. 

His Twitter feed shows him to be active in opposition to Israel, and he occasionally writes for magazines on the subject of BDS against Israel

He's also the author of Against the Wall: The Art of Resistance in Palestine(The BBC interviewed him about it, of course.)

1 comment:

  1. My thoughts exactly.
    The argument on the 'pro-Israel' side is usually about 'how' the story is reported; the argument on the 'anti-Israel' side comes down to 'it shouldn't have been reported at all as Israel is always in the wrong'. Hardly 'balance'.


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