BBC film on Gaza aid flotilla praised by trust despite breaching guidelines 19Apr11 April 23, 2011

BBC Trust clears Panorama documentary on Mavi Marmara over majority of complaints, but upholds three out of 51 points

by Tara Conlan  – The Guardian – 19 April 2011

The BBC Trust has ruled that a Panorama documentary about the Israeli boarding of the Mavi Marmara was “accurate and impartial” overall, but did breach editorial guidelines.

Alison Hastings, chair of the BBC Trust‘s editorial standards committee, apologised for three breaches of accuracy and impartiality – out of 51 points raised in complaints – but commended the corporation for “an original, insightful and well-researched piece of journalism”.

Panorama: Death in the Med, presented by Jane Corbin and broadcast on BBC1 in August 2010, looked at the controversial boarding by Israeli commandos of the Mavi Marmara, which was part of a flotilla attempting to break Israel‘s naval blockade of Gaza. Nine people travelling with the flotilla died in the ensuing confrontation, and a number of Israelis were also injured.

Death in the Med prompted 2,000 calls to the BBC. Of those who expressed their opinion about the programme, 72% were negative, although a quarter of those were part of a lobby organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign website, according to the BBC.

Subsequently 19 complaints, raising 51 substantive points, were put to the BBC Trust’s editorial standards committee.

Complaints on three of these points were upheld by the trust – two relating to breaches of the BBC’s editorial guidelines regarding accuracy and one on impartiality.

The accuracy breaches related to the failure to include preliminary autopsy reports into how activists died and more details of the exact nature of the aid for Gaza being carried by the flotilla.

Panorama was also found by the BBC Trust to have breached impartiality guidelines by not verifying that the Israelis took proper care of the badly wounded following allegations of mistreatment of some of the casualties.

Hastings said: “Despite the three breaches, for which the trust apologises on behalf of the BBC, this Panorama was an original, insightful and well-researched piece of journalism and we commend the BBC for having tackled this issue. It revealed important new evidence in a much-publicised story and, overall, the programme was both accurate and impartial. However, these breaches are a firm reminder that the BBC must take great care over accuracy and impartiality, particularly when the subject matter is as controversial as this.”

A spokesman for BBC News, which made Panorama: Death in the Med said: “BBC News welcomes the findings of the trust on the Panorama Death in the Med. We are pleased that the trust found that the film achieved ‘due impartiality and due accuracy’ and did not uphold the complaint overall. We also welcome the trust’s conclusion that the film was ‘an original, illuminating and well-researched piece of journalism’ and that ‘Panorama performed a valuable public service’.

“We note that the trust upheld three out of the 51 points of complaint and we will consider seriously any lessons to be learned. We note that the trust also remarked it is unlikely that a current affairs programme such as this, covering such a contentious issue, would be found to be entirely flawless if it were subjected to the level of deconstruction and analysis that Death in the Med has undergone.”

The three key complaints relating to the points that were upheld included, “insufficient detail about the circumstances of the deaths”, “the omission of allegations about Israeli mistreatment of the passengers after the flotilla was taken over” and “the misrepresentation of the humanitarian aims of the flotilla and of the Turkish humanitarian organisation, the IHH”.

Regarding the claim that the manner in which the nine people killed was fundamental to the accuracy of the Panorama documentary, the BBC Trust agreed that because of the lack of clear video footage of anyone being shot, details from the preliminary autopsy reports would have “given a broader picture and added to the programme’s description of how the activists died”.

The ESC decided that “the information about the volume and nature of the gunshot wounds detailed in the preliminary autopsy reports gave a fuller picture of the manner in which the Israelis killed nine people and the level of force deployed by the Israeli commandos.”

It also said that on the matter of the treatment of casualties by the Israelis, “the imagery and the accompanying script line (‘The Israelis evacuated the badly wounded to hospital’) would have left viewers with the impression that the badly wounded were all promptly and appropriately cared for. The committee noted that, although not proven, there are detailed allegations of mistreatment of at least some of the casualties.”

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