Complaint about BBC coverage of David Ward partially upheld

A complaint about the BBC News website’s coverage of David Ward’s comments on the Holocaust was turned down by the website itself and then by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit, but has finally been partially upheld by the BBC Trust.  You can read the full report here, and some coverage of the outcome here.  

In case you need one – here’s a reminder of Ward’s original words, posted on 25/1/13.

“Having visited Auschwitz twice – once with my family and once with local schools – I am saddened that the Jews, who suffered unbelievable levels of persecution during the Holocaust, could within a few years of liberation from the death camps be inflicting atrocities on Palestinians in the new State of Israel and continue to do so on a daily basis in the West Bank and Gaza.”

One of the focuses of the complaint was the seriously misleading BBC headlines:

David Ward MP ‘sorry’ over Israel criticism

Ward most certainly was not castigated ‘over Israel criticism’ – and he made it quite clear that his apology would not prevent him from criticizing Israel in the future.

Another focus of the complaint was the way in which the article framed Ward’s reference to ‘the Jews’. It began:

A Liberal Democrat MP who accused “the Jews” in Israel of “inflicting atrocities on Palestinians… on a daily basis” has apologised for the “unintended offence”.

The complainant maintained that the article implied that Ward’s criticism ‘was limited to “‘Jews in Israel’ and not … general ‘Jews’ (p.32).  This is a somewhat complex point.  It is possible to make a case – as was done at the first two stages of the complaint procedure – that it was clear that Ward was referring to ‘Jews in Israel’ – by the end of his sentence.  But it is not always enough to work out what must logically be signified by words, and leave it at that. One problem with the sentence is that ‘the Jews’ are being treated as some kind of undifferentiated mass, mythically mutating from victim to persecutor.  ‘The Jews’ in the first part of the sentence refers either to ‘all Jews’, or at least ‘all Jews directly affected by the Holocaust’, but then, with no change in the subject of the sentence being signalled, these seem to become ‘(some) Jews in Israel’ many of whom will have been born after the Holocaust, and/or have immediate roots only in the Middle East. 

Now the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit described as a ‘stretch of the imagination’ the complainant’s claim that Ward could not clearly be said simply to be referring to Jews in Israel committing atrocities. 

However the BBC Trust disagreed, upholding objections both to the headline and the article’s opening formula, although it did conclude that the article (eventually) succeeded in offering an appropriately impartial range of perspectives on the story. Here’s an extract from the ruling:

The Committee noted also the European Union’s working definition of anti-Semitism, which states that “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel” was a manifestation of anti-Semitism. The Committee agreed with the ECU and BBC News that David Ward’s words might not necessarily be interpreted to mean what the complainant said they meant, i.e. that it was a collective criticism of Jews worldwide. The Committee concluded, however, that this was not a relevant consideration in this context. It noted the purpose of the article was to report the ongoing row over David Ward’s comments and the fact that they had been interpreted in some quarters as criticism of Jews as a whole rather than confined to Jews living in Israel. The Committee therefore agreed with the complainant that an accurate conveyance of what the MP actually said, and the nature of the row his comments had provoked, was required in order for the article to achieve due accuracy, as required by the Editorial Guidelines. In the Committee’s view the formulation in the headline and opening sentence of the article did not do this.

It’s good to see an instance of complaints relating to the misreporting of antisemitic discourse being engaged with seriously. The problem with the headline was immediately apparent, as I noted here, although it was a repetition of the error in the Huffington Post which happened to first catch my eye. 

What was particularly concerning was the way in which the headline contrived to mislead in a way which damagingly reinforced the familiar claim that those complaining about antisemitism are actually trying to shut down criticism of Israel.  And, even though the article itself provided a more accurate picture, many don’t go beyond a headline, or continue to read/interpret a story through the headline’s lens.

The point about ‘the Jews’ is more complicated. Was Ward suggesting that Jews outside Israel were persecuting Palestinians?  In one sense the answer is ‘no’.  But the strong suggestion of collective guilt, of a seamless continuum between ‘the Jews’ of the Holocaust and ‘the Jews’ of Israel (and of course not all Israelis, or even all IDF soldiers, are Jewish) was still present.   It’s the same continuum which contributes to making Seven Jewish Children such an objectionable play.  In fact I was reminded, by Ward’s comment, of the implied symmetry between the Holocaust and Operation Cast Lead in some publicity material for Churchill’s play which I quote here:

“Seven Jewish Children: A Play for Gaza by acclaimed playwright Caryl Churchill. What do you tell a child when her government is trying to kill her? What do you tell a child when her government is killing other children?”

And one further trope invoked by Ward’s original comment is the false and gratuitous drawing of an equivalence between the Holocaust and events in Israel/Palestine. 

David Ward has recently made it clear what his view is of those he has angered and offended, and what his apologies are worth.

These recent tweets have led to renewed criticism of Ward, from across the political spectrum, including a sustained attempt to explain the problems with his comments about ‘the Jews’ by an increasingly irritated Owen Jones.

Finally – congratulations to the tenacious complainant! 

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