Thursday, 8 October 2009

BBC try to suppress their mistakes, evasions and responses

Is the BBC running scared of having its responses to critical emails publicly aired? And just how professional are BBC journalists and editors when it comes to sourcing material, checking facts and substantiating their own stories?

These and other questions concerning the BBC's motives and practices have taken an interesting turn following a set of exchanges posted by a contributor to the Media Lens message board. The correspondence was published by the blogger who had just exposed a key misinterpretation in one of the BBC's online articles about Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The original BBC text had given the misleading impression that Ahmadinejad had criticised President Obama for revealing the alleged nuclear plant at Qom. The piece had stated:

"The IAEA chief arrived as Iran's president accused Mr Obama of making a "historic mistake" revealing the plant."

Yet, after closely scrutinising Ahmadinejad's actual speech, the blogger was able to inform the BBC:

"It is clear that Ahmedinejad is not accusing President Obama of 'making a "historic mistake" revealing the plant, he is accusing Obama of making a mistake when accusing Iran of secrecy."

The BBC wrote back:

Dear [surname]

Thank you for your comments regarding

The line you refer to appeared in an early version of the report published on Saturday afternoon. It is taken from an Associated Press report of Iranian television broadcast. We do appear to have misinterpreted MrAhmadinejad’s words. He does seem to be was referring to the question of secrecy, not the revelation of the plant’s existence.

This is the relevant section of the AP report:

ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has also said Tehran was "on the wrong side of the law" over the new plant and should have revealed its plans as soon as it decided to build the facility.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad challenged that view in a speech Saturday, saying that Iran voluntarily revealed the facility to the IAEA in a letter on Sept. 21. He said that was one year earlier than necessary under the agency's rules.

"The U.S. president made a big and historic mistake," Iranian state TV quoted Ahmadinejad as saying. "Later it became clear that (his) information was wrong and that we had no secrecy."

We apologise for the mistake. Later versions of the report do not include the line about a “historic mistake”.

Best regards,

Tarik Kafala
Middle East editor
BBC News website

The blogger's further response included this set of concerns:

"I find it astonishing that the BBC is happy to rely on reports from the AP, and does not even bother to check sections of those reports which are ambiguous - as this one clearly was. Is it not the job of your journalists to verify reports coming from other journalists against the original source of information? In this case it was not only remarkably easy to do, it was also highly important, given the prominence of the story, and the high risk game being played out at the moment over the issue of Iran's nuclear programme."

In the following letter, reiterating their mistake, apology and correction of the article, the unsigned BBC News person added:

"'We do not wish this correspondence to appear on the Medialens website."

The blogger replied:

"May I ask why you do not want this correspondence to appear on the Medialens website? Might not other licence payers be interested to know your response to a complaint about false reporting? And are they not also entitled to know your response, since you are a public service, funded out of taxpayer's money?"

There has been no answer, to date, from Tarik Kafala.

This specific request by the BBC not to have such information published on the Media Lens website appears to be unprecedented. Which may signify a concern over revelations of their ineptitude in this particular case, or, perhaps, a gathering worry about increased exposure of such errors and biased output.

Is it appropriate to post such exchanges on public forums? I strongly believe it is.

As noted in my own response at the Media Lens message board:

"There's two issues at play here. The first concerns the original bias which is evident in the article itself. That and the exchanges arising from it deserve to be cited in public, including here at the [Media Lens] message board. The second, related, issue concerns the BBC's response regarding the actual publication of their words, which can also be deemed a matter of public interest. That too should be in the public domain serving to show how the BBC are trying to suppress information. There's nothing private in these emails. The motives and reasons for posting them reflect straightforward concerns about public openness and accountability."

More credible evidence of selective BBC output

The above coincides with a similar exchange I've been having with the BBC over the omission of a key statement by IAEA chief weapons inspector Mohamed El Baradei in one of their online articles.

As explained in my original letter - also posted at Media Lens - to BBC Online Editor Steve Herrmann and correspondent Paul Reynolds:

Dear Steve,

In the BBC online piece 'Key Iran nuclear talks underway', the box-highlight has IAEA chief weapons inspector Mohamed El Baradei stating:

“Iran was supposed to inform us on the day it was decided to construct the facility. They have not done that.”

You will, of course, also know that El Baradei has just unequivocally stated that he sees "no credible evidence" that Iran is developing nuclear weapons – contrary to British intelligence allegations of an ongoing weapons programme.

Surely, this crucial conclusion, amid the current Geneva negotiations, merits headline/box-highlight attention? If not, could you explain why?

Please could you include El Baradei's vital comment in the article and also at your Q&A section “What does the IAEA say about Iran?”

Best wishes

John Hilley

There followed this set of exchanges with Paul Reynolds, again posted at the Media Lens message board:

John I have passed your comments to the desk. In fact I was planning to include Baradei's remarks in the Q&A but have been out (MacChrystal speaking in London) but have done so now.


Dear Paul,

Thanks for passing on my message and making the alteration at the Q&A. However, the new insertion at the main article merely notes:

"But Mr ElBaradei also stressed that the IAEA did not have credible evidence that Iran had an operational nuclear weapons programme."

I still find this a rather token revision, passing over the key point. Indeed, El Baradei's actual words "no credible evidence" are not specifically stated. Surely his key statement merits closer scrutiny and proper highlighting.

On which note, please take a close look at the current Media Lens alert 'Iran - the War Dance'

Best wishes


John, suggest you take this up with the Middle east editor
I do write background on Iran etc but do not write the main news stories.


Thanks Paul. I'll do that.

Please note that some of the wording still needs correcting at the Q&A insertion. It reads:

"In September 2009, the IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei said in an interview that there was no "credible evidence" about an Iranian weapons attempt. He said: "I not think based on what we see that Iran has an ongoing nuclear weapons programme." "

Please can you amend to: "no credible evidence" and "I do not think..."

I have a thing about detail when it comes to such vital issues.



Have cleaned those up! PS I do not object to my e-mails appearing in public - I am paid by the public and work for it and put my e-mail address at the bottom of my bylined articles. However, just remind me next time that you intend to post stuff. Thanks

Thanks Paul. Pleased to see you're following these things at ML. I, of course, always and only cite correspondence relating to such public issues - particularly those of such gravity as the potential bombing of/sanctions against Iran - never to anything that could be deemed private.

Best wishes


I do think however that you should flag what you are doing. I work in public. So should you. I have many e-mails and cannot always remember who is a Medialens contributor. Thank you.

It shouldn't really matter whether I'm a ML contributor or not, it's still part of a public discussion between you as a paid BBC journalist and me challenging some of the things that you write - or omit to write.


I am not challenging the principle, just the practice. I see no reason not to be open! But that is your view, fine.

Hi Paul,

The practice logically follows from the principle. On the subject of such correspondence, you might find this of interest:

'Exchange on publishing emails without permission'


I also sent the following to Middle East Editor Tarik Kafala:

Dear Tarik Kafala,

Paul Reynolds suggested I contact you following our useful exchange over the BBC online article 'US and Iran meet at nuclear talks' (updated title line):

In the box-highlight, IAEA chief weapons inspector Mohamed El Baradei is featured as saying:

“Iran was supposed to inform us on the day it was decided to construct the facility. They have not done that."

Yet, much more importantly, El Baradei has clearly stated that he sees "no credible evidence" that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

I see that, following my email, mention of this key statement is now included in the updated article. However, as noted to Paul Reynolds, the new insertion merely notes:

"But Mr ElBaradei also stressed that the IAEA did not have credible evidence that Iran had an operational nuclear weapons programme."

Don't you consider this a rather token revision? El Baradei's actual words "no credible evidence" are not even specifically stated.

The mainstream media is currently awash with alarmist and loaded commentary on the 'Iranian threat'. Don't you think the BBC should give proper headline coverage of ElBaradei's key statement and the facts behind it?

I look forward to your reply.

Best wishes

John Hilley

I have received no reply, as yet, from Tarik Kafala.

While Paul Reynolds is to be commended for amending the Q&A section and for his commitment to open inspection of his words, the BBC's failure to explain why such key information was originally omitted remains rather less than satisfactory. The publishing of that exchange at Media Lens was, thus, intended to highlight my remaining concerns over the article and the inadequate ways in which BBC figures deal with such issues.
Tarik Kafala's own non-response speaks for itself.

It's astonishing to think that the BBC is feeding the public a constant stream of alarming stories about Iran's 'nuclear arms proliferation' while El Baradei is openly saying that there's "no credible evidence" of such. Why did the BBC need prompting to have this vital information included in the article? And why was such a prestigious news-gathering organisation apparently unable to obtain and, indeed, highlight, such a statement in the first place?

All this strongly suggests a rather embarrassing inability to source, interpret and display crucial news. Hence, the growing nervousness at their responses and mistakes being made public on open forums like Media Lens.

But it also, more particularly, demonstrates the BBC's continuous service to power - as we see here, often by omission - when it comes to reporting the West's official enemies. One need only recall the loaded BBC reportage coming out of Tehran during the recent election to recognise the selective language and inferences being used. Likewise, in the minuscule attention given to El Bareidi's statement in the featured article - it didn't even cite his words "no credible evidence" in the amended version. This comment should have led the article, not been relegated as some token insert.

It's all part of the wider media narrative to demonise and rationalise the use of force against Iran; the same drip-drip language of fear and suspicion employed by the media to justify the invasion and catastrophe of Iraq.

Which is why it's vital to challenge and record the BBC's every misinterpretation, omission and evasion, including this latest attempt to stifle publication of their responses on public sites.


1 comment:

Bob said...


I presume you are the same person as johnwhilley who posted a while ago on Media Lens on Nuku Hiva. I want to know if there is any protest in Nuku Hiva or Paeete about the incursion of large batches of tourists organused from cruise ships. Can you suggest any links?