UKLFI: Supporting Israel with legal skills

Princess Diana, Coverage of Israel and the Balen Report

Lord Dyson’s report on Martin Bashir’s famous interview with Princess Diana has prompted calls to overhaul the handling of complaints about the BBC and for the publication of the Balen Report.

Lord Dyson’s recent report on the methods used by BBC journalist, Martin Bashir, to secure his 1995 interview of Princess Diana found that a previous investigation by Lord Hall was “woefully ineffective” and that the BBC covered up the facts.

This will sound eerily familiar to many people who have made complaints regarding the BBC’s coverage of Israel.

In the House of Lords, Lord Hayward called on the BBC to “commit for the future that it will publish the likes of the Balen report and make absolutely clear, when it has people commenting on news items, what their well-known political positions are”.

Baroness Deech said “The problem of trust in the BBC today is not, at core, one of governance; it is one of inbreeding. Ofcom is not the solution, for it too has many former BBC employees on its committees. The chances of a complaint succeeding are about nil. The answer is oversight by a completely independent ombudsman with no links to the BBC.”

Baroness Neville-Rolfe stated: “I dealt with BBC News for many years and I regret to say that, despite being known – I hope – for straight dealing, I found it almost impossible to get an error corrected or the semblance of an apology from it.”

UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI) has now written to Tim Davie, Director-General of the BBC, backing Baroness Deech’s call for an independent ombudsman and requesting disclosure of the Balen Report from 2004, which examined the BBC’s coverage of Israel but has never been made public.

UKLFI’s letter observes that the treatment of concerns raised regarding coverage of Israel has seemed to bear some of the same hallmarks that characterised the handling of concerns regarding the interview of Princess Diana.

It notes that for a long time many Jewish people and others have considered that the BBC’s coverage of Israel has been biased against Israel. In a 2010 survey of British Jews by the Institute for Jewish Policy Research, 36% of respondents considered that the BBC’s news coverage of Israel over the previous 12 months was “heavily biased against Israel” and an additional 43% thought that it was “somewhat biased against Israel”: see pages 9-10 of their 2013 report.

Data calibration showed that the sample was likely to be more “dovish” on the peace process and policy issues and more critical of the Israeli government than the overall Jewish population in Britain: see the original report at §§11.3 – 11.4. It is therefore likely that an even higher proportion of Britain’s Jews considered that the BBC’s news coverage was biased against Israel than the 79% of respondents to the survey. This represents an astonishingly high degree of consensus for a community, or set of communities, with divergent views on most other matters.

UKLFI’s letter adds that there is also a widespread belief that biased and misleading coverage of Israel by the BBC and other media has contributed substantially to the rising tide of antisemitism in Britain that has made many Jewish citizens wonder whether they have a future in this country.

UKLFI then points out that the BBC’s longstanding refusal to release the 2004 Balen Report remains a source of great suspicion in the Jewish community. Although the Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that the BBC was entitled to withhold disclosure, it was not obliged to do so.

Furthermore, even though the Balen Report was once exempt from the obligation of disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act on the ground that it was held partly for the purposes of journalism, it seems unlikely that this remains the position today.

Several members of the Supreme Court acknowledged that documents once held for journalistic purposes might cease to be held for these purposes: see [2012] UKSC 4 at paras 66-67 (Lord Wilson), 83-84 (Lord Walker), 106 (Lord Brown) and 112 (Lord Mance), as well as Lord Neuberger in the Court of Appeal, cited by Lord Wilson.

On this basis, UKLFI has now made a formal Freedom of Information request for the disclosure of the Balen Report.