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Sunday, December 20 2009

The Beeb Shrugs

The BBC responded to listeners outraged by Michael White's recent comments on BBC Radio London's Breakfast Show. While discussing the attack on Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, White, who is The Guardian's associate editor, said:

In Israel they murder each other a great deal. The Israeli Defense Forces murder people because they don't like their political style and what they've got to say and it only means that people more extreme come in and take their place.

The Beeb's complaints dept. wrote back:

Having investigated your complaint, BBC London would like to apologise for any offence you might have felt on hearing Mr White's comments. However, we would point out that Mr White is not a BBC journalist, and he was clearly introduced to listeners as a commentator from the Guardian newspaper.

He was putting forward his own views with his own choice of words, and, as with other commentators, the listener is free to make up their own mind on the validity of his arguments. The BBC's advice to its own journalists would be to use plain and simple language, rather than make value judgements, but we cannot apply the same guidance to interviewees.

Mr White's comments about Israel were a brief aside, along with other remarks about Northern Ireland, during the interview about Signor Berlusconi. In these circumstances, the presenter had to judge whether to divert the interview into a discussion about what Israel calls 'targeted killing' or his comments about Northern Ireland rather than concentrate on the matter in hand.

Given this background and the incidental nature of Mr White's comments, we believe the presenters were right to concentrate on the substance of the interview.

Even if White was referring to targeted killings, that's not what came out in the interview. A sharp interviewer with a little chutzpah could've stopped White in his tracks and followed up on his silly accusation. But it didn't occur for the Breakfast Show hosts to do that because White's language is mainstream in the UK media.

Despite the BBC's reply, it's valuable that people complained. If the Beeb can't see past its own institutional bias, it's up to listeners to speak up.

The BBC is correct on one point: White was clearly introduced as a commentator from The Guardian, and we are waiting for the paper's readers' editor, Siobhain Butterworth, to respond to our concerns. HonestReporting was Cced on literally hundreds of emails to Butterworth, so she is surely aware of the problem.



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