The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has developed a distinctive Editorial Guideline that compel its journalists and correspondents to follow strict rules aimed at transmitting events independently, professionally, and in a disciplined and impartial manner.
Through these guidelines (which are available online), its successive developers address many problematic issues in media coverage of major events, such as wars, regional conflicts and terrorism.
The corporation (along with several international media outlets) believe that the term “terrorism” has not been defined by different states, countries, or cultures. Even the United Nations itself has not agreed on a single inclusive definition that can be invoked and relied upon to classify what is a terrorist and what is not a terrorist in armed clashes taking place across the planet.
Thus, the corporation does not classify a group or individuals as terrorists, leaving the task of classification to the reader, referring to them as “insurgents”, “hijackers” and “bombing attacks” without explicitly naming any of them as “terrorists.”
It is dialectic, despite its many questions, but in its lengthy commentary in the BBC’s Guidebook, it remains undeniable, especially with regard to a major institution that covers almost all the events of the planet, with different concepts, nature of conflicts overseas, borders and continents.
Here the question arises: did the BBC comply with its editorial guide when it covered the oasis terrorist incident?
In the first version of its report on the incident, the BBC Arabic website, the Arab radio and television stations, cited an unnamed source that the number of “killed” among Egyptian police reached more than 50.
Such a report still needs to be held accountable in the light of two bases that the corporation assumes its journalists are committed to.
The first, of which you can find in articles 11.4.1 and 11.4.18 of the guidelines, suggests the necessity of going for the source which carries the greatest authority and attributing the estimated casualty figures accordingly, in cases of acts of terror, disasters, hijacking, kidnapping, and hostage taking.
According to the guidelines, the first estimate of casualty figures often turns out to be inaccurate. Thus the resort to official sources, or in cases of conflicting claims, give the source of information and material from third parties. And if different sources give different estimates the outlet should either report the range or go for the source which carries the greatest authority and attribute the estimate accordingly.
The BBC didn’t comply with this when it rushed to adopt the number of 55 victims among the Egyptian police, attributing it to an “unknown source”, which it did not name, in light of the delay of the Egyptian Interior Ministry in announcing the official number of victims of officers and conscripts.
This makes its news and its first report on the incident a violation of its news procedures on citing a single unnamed source. And this was before the reference in the following reports becomes “sources” rather than a “source”, thereby reducing the impact of the clear editorial violation of its internal bylaw.
It’s doubtless that issuing an accurate count on the numbers of killed and injured during the armed clashes in al-Wahat area remains confined to the “capacity” and “responsibility” of the Egyptian authorities alone, and there is no room for speculation, guessing, or resorting to sources that can not account for the consequences of what it says. This is also true in other cases of a loose nature, whether political or economic, where the scope of speculation and expansion widens for parallel narratives on the causes, motives and expected outcomes.
But the BBC reported the figure — with all its consequences — without hesitation, opening the door to questions about the standards of the internal broadcasting of the institution in such situations. And whether such claims attributed to unnamed sources reviewed by the Director of Editorial Policy and Standards and the Director of Program Legal Advice, as stipulated by the rules governing the internal work of the corporation.
This is a question for the corporations itself to answer. As the one asking, I do not need go beyond an official statement from the BBC that explains the mechanisms for publishing such a figure, even if it relies on an “unnamed” source. As a journalist with connections I can say that there was a violation of their own editorial guidelines.
As a professional, I admire the discipline and rules and have learnt from generations of veteran journalists over the decades. I will abide by the BBC’s own standards as much as I can, and as much as I can acquire skills and capacity to learn.
Of course, we can not turn a blind eye to the terrible delay in the performance of the Egyptian Interior Ministry until it issued its final statement on the number of police martyrs facing the terrorist cell in Wahat.
It was shameful neglect — a delay of 24 hours before issuing an official statement.
Here, with the apparent disorder of the Interior Ministry (and the whole country apparently behind it) we will be considering one of two approaches:
Should Egyptian listeners, viewers, readers should be tolerant of the BBC, especially those who are convinced of the policies of the current stage and believe in the credibility of the official state institutions and expand in making excuses in face of terrorism, blaming the media confusion, with its backgrounds and its deep political roots, thinking that the regime is the reason of this confusion?
Or should this audience believe that the coverage from the BBC and Reuters? Does their weight surpass Egyptian local media all together? Should they rush rapidly to trust and pass information with such amount of grief, without following strict investigating tools that such institutions comply with themselves?
Publishing these figures might have given credibility retroactively to some Egyptian newspapers and media had they published the same figures before the BBC.
The issue is complex and can be measured in more than one way, from several angles, and on several considerations. And this has enlarged the area of debate between what is “media” and what is “political” and what is “imaginary” weighed against what is “questionable” and even “suspicious.”
The BBC itself respected comments from the French authorities’ on the Paris attacks in November 2015 when Paris Prosecutor Francois Mullen spoke hours after the incident. According to the corporation’s coverage said in a report on the attacks on 18 November 2015:
‘”I can not say how many people died during the raid, but at least two people were killed,” Mullen said’.
The corporation did not exceed the official’s statements to speculate or estimate themselves or attribute something unnamed sources. Even in the Paris attack, “hours elapsed” between the incident and the official statement.
Yes, there is a huge difference between the “hours” that Mullen took to make statements in which the announcement of the number of dead and the 24 hours taken by the Egyptian Interior Ministry. But the BBC adhered to the principle at the time. Maybe because it’s France?
Then, when the BBC redressed the issue in a new report entitled “Dead in clashes between Egyptian security forces and gunmen in al-Wahat,” it again reported its initially hasty inaccurate number of more than 50 victims. The debate around it should have ended with the statement from the Egyptian Interior Ministry. The BBC also pointed out that sources in the Interior Ministry said that the number of victims among the police forces may exceed 50.
This is not easy because of the situation and should always be questioned.
The editorial guidelines warn against the use of the term “terrorist” and instead suggest it be called an “attack” or “act” or “attacks” or “bombings.” It places a distance between the act of the group and the individuals as well as the belief that the group and individuals that may commit acts can be classified as a terrorist but not necessarily and continuously and permanently terrorists.
This editorial guideline reminds the journalists of the institution to say same phrase as if it were issued by “others”, in reference to statements from officials or the opinions of ordinary people.
Nevertheless, the April 9 BBC report, “The Egyptian Prime Minister: The attack has a terrorist nature,” changed the words of the Egyptian Prime Minister, who described the attack as “terrorism” to say it was “terrorist nature” with interference that can be described as a negation of professional honesty, and obliges the Prime Minister of Egypt to the BBC’s editorial guidelines and not the policy of his country!
Despite the video, which is no more than one minute and included in the report, with the direct statements by Egyptian PM Sharif Ismail without linguistic ambiguity, BBC editors dared to change the words of the man.
While the BBC did the opposite with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in a December 20, 2016 report entitled “Merkel: The Berlin Attack is a Terrorist Act.” And in the text:
“German Chancellor Angela Merkel has vowed to punish those responsible for the accident of a truck driving in a market in the capital Berlin, saying authorities suspect it was a terrorist attack by a political asylum seeker.”
You can see the amazing distance between the German Chancellor’s “weighting” of the nature of the attack that took place in her country and the resolution of the BBC, which violated its own standards by explicitly describing the attack as “terrorism” and contrary to Merkel’s own words.
In BBC Arabic’s reports on the Wahat incident you can notice more than one example of the corporation violating their own editorial guidelines.
The report entitled “Timeline of the most prominent attacks on security forces and army in Egypt” was modified by deleting the first line of it, which was:
“One of the main reasons for the uprising of Egyptians in 2011 was the negative feelings towards the practices of the police institution under the former President Hosni Mubarak.”
Apart from the lack of connection between the introduction and the rest of the topic, which deals with confrontations between the police and the army on the one hand and the armed terrorist groups on the other — which may mean acquiescence of Egyptians in a fury due to the killing of police officers and soldiers — the corporation has made another mistake under its internal bylaw, which governs the work of its members.
In Article 3.4.26 of the BBC’s editorial guidelines, the authors point to the need to refer to any correction to the original story, which is not mentioned in the new version of the report and which has removed the two faulty lines.
All of the above and the examples formulate an unscrupulous “spirit” that stamps the BBC Arabic’s coverage of Egyptian affairs.
The corporation does not create things that did not happen in reality, but the bias is shaped – as even first year students in colleges and institutes of mass communication around the world know- in the form of selected stories about a particular country and how to make them.
The BBC Arabic website chose to make a headline with a topic:
“Egypt: How well can the security services deal with ‘terrorist attacks’?”
The website published a report on the following day (23 October) entitled:
“Calls in Arab newspapers to confront ‘terrorism’ and reconciliation in Egypt.”
The matter calls upon the reader to think a lot. As the first question can’t be accepted, even grudgingly, as it suggests skepticism in the capacities of regular government forces to confront terrorist groups, which may weaken their morale, and in turn may give preference (even on the level of morals) to the terrorist groups.
Especially that the technical and scientific discussion of the question took place in a biased way by opening the way for a lengthy answer by retired Brigadier General Safwat al-Zayat, a man who is almost an employee of Al-Jazeera channel, and his bias is known to all.
Even if the report sought to balance the opinion of a pro-government Egyptian military expert (Nasr Salem), without meeting the essence of objectivity, even if its appearance is met by asking two sources from two different directions.
And it is a well-known corrupt game that is known in all the media stations that play neutrality when hosting representatives of two different opinions, provided that one of them is cleverer than the other!
On the second topic, “escalation” and “highlight” to the “reconciliation” approach attributed to the opinion writers in various Arab newspapers (all known its fancy). Reconciliation with who please my colleague BBC editor?
With the terrorist? What logic or sense is that? It lacks reasoning itself and proves that on the other hand there is a whole spectrum of thought and interest — even if some of those are writing articles and some of them are carrying weapons.
However, the above examples – some tips of numerous others that should capture you – are not enough to convey this heavy spirit that covers Egypt’s news that is loaded with biases or let us say (suggestions) against the Egyptian “state” (which is in crisis to be fair). On the other hand, the language is mild and toned down against the rival terrorists.
And who, fortunately, are protected from course of obtaining the “terrorist” nickname, according to the BBC’s editorial guidelines.
In addition to this, most of the reports of terrorist acts taking place in Egypt are constantly pointing out that these events have thrived in Sinai since former President Mohamed Morsi was deposed from power in a sign that suggests all this terrorism comes as a reaction to the overthrow of the man. It is complete negligence of the fact that terrorist acts in the Sinai took form since Morsi rose to power, starting with the first Rafah incident.
And such reports are ignoring the fact that terrorist incidents in the Sinai Peninsula, such as the Taba and Sharm el-Sheikh bombings, took place during the era Hosni Mubarak himself!
But the biggest anger is likely to engulf an Egyptian citizen when he reads a news story in the BBC (October 21) equating the police and terrorist cell member in this article: “Dead in clashes between Egyptian security forces and gunmen in al-Wahat.” Of course the BBC doesn’t compel itself to using the vocabulary of a moral character such as “martyrs” but it discussed in its editorial guidelines under ‘Precise but Effective Language’ this intuitive dialectic.
Then how it can you convey to the audience what has been done with precise words and phrases, without having to use the description of a “terrorist”, so that your report is compatible with your audience’s emotion at the same time?
The editorial guidelines of the corporation give an example with a news report of the BBC’s Northern Ireland correspondent Denis Murray when it appeared on the BBC One on August 16, 1998, reporting the news of the Omagh bombing that was carried out by the Irish Free Army.
Murray said in his coverage: “It was supposed to be a carnival here, but there was a massacre. Shoppers gathered here as a safe place from the terror of explosions, without realizing that the bomb was exactly in their midst.”
14 women and three girls were killed. 5 men and four boys were killed, Three of them came from Donegal County (Ireland) and the fourth boy from Madrid. The boys were friends in the exchange program.
The bombing killed three generations of a single family: a 65-year-old grandmother, her 30-year-old pregnant daughter and her 18-month-old daughter. A series of dead people killed innocent people.”
This is one of the editorial guidelines that the organization’s journalists should take into account in a case such as what happened in Egypt, when there is such national grief at the martyring of Egyptians in the homeland in a difficult confrontation with criminal terrorism.
If the BBC followed its editorial guidelines exactly and without violations, it would be still “lumpish” for the Egyptian taste of grieved with the martyrdom of its sons on the open fighting fronts in the vast deserts.
Our position inflamed feelings that want fire-y descriptions that say that our victims are martyrs and that the terrorists would be the dogs of hell, and so on. Such could not be provided by an institution with British standards covering the conflicts of the whole world with cold nerves and words that are no least involved in suggesting bias of values that supports that or detracts from that.
But the little thing an Egyptian citizen seeks from a media outlet, with accumulating memory and an archive with vast experience in covering the planet’s conflicts for almost a century, is to stop her voluntary harm and not to budge. Its editors should stick to editorial guidelines as a more professional solution and something more comfortable for all parties.
On the other hand, “terrorism” is unequivocal however conservative the phrases used to describing it are.
There is no virtue at all in the equality of two parties, between two approaches, even if neither one is absolute right, since the other is, of course, absolute evil.
Perhaps the Egyptian government that attacked the BBC via the State Information Service (SIS) should ask the corporations to explain (what we may see as clear editorial irregularities) based on their internal standards. The government will certainly receive an appropriate response from a longstanding corporation, clarifying and refuting the Egyptian conclusions (in a respectful dialogue), or apologizing for any editorial irregularities, taking into account its strict internal procedures to preserve its repetition.
Simply like this!