“Asymmetric” Nature Of Israel-Hamas War Makes Impartial Coverage Difficult, Says Senior BBC News Exec

The “asymmetric” nature of the Israel-Hamas War has made it a difficult story to cover impartially, one of the most senior BBC News execs has said.

Jonathan Munro said “striking a balance” can be difficult for the BBC’s news teams when they are not allowed on the ground in Gaza.

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The BBC’s coverage of the conflict has been intensely scrutinized since Hamas’ October 7 attack and news items are regularly flagged in its regular complaints assessments – the most recent being coverage of the death of a child in Gaza, which said viewers felt she should have been described as “murdered” not “found dead.”

“It is a very asymmetric conflict,” Munro told the Communications & Digital Committee’s inquiry into the future of news. “We are not on the ground in Gaza – we can’t be – and so it is a difficult story to strike a balance. Balance is not necessarily achieved in one program, it’s about balancing across our coverage.”

Munro, who is Senior Controller, News Content, and BBC News CEO Deborah Turness, had to field plenty of questions around impartiality especially regarding coverage of the tragic war, which is about to enter its sixth month.

Munro said the team examines all complaints, which are “equally weighted from both sides of the conflict,” but it is getting harder to separate those that are “genuinely held beliefs” with those that are “lobbying.”

He added: “I’ve had a range of complaints from, ‘You are aiding and abetting genocide’ to, ‘It’s an outrage you are not showing more about destruction in Gaza,’ while others are saying we are in the hands of the Israeli government. None of the above is true – some are genuinely held and others are lobbying and it’s difficult sometimes to pull one motive aside from the others.”

Where “mistakes have been made,” Munro said the BBC has “put our hands up.”

Turness, who spent 10 years in the U.S. with NBC News, said she would “like to raise awareness of the amount of care and attention that is given to impartiality through all our journalism.” “We can be a life raft in a sea of chaos and disinformation,” she added.

The pair were speaking a few weeks after incoming BBC Chair Samir Shah, a former news exec, said he would have reviewed coverage of the war and in particular whether the BBC should be referring to Hamas as “terrorists.”

Working class audiences

Jonathan Munro and Deborah Turness. Image: Dominic Lipinski/PA Images / Leon Neal/Getty Images
Jonathan Munro and Deborah Turness. Image: Dominic Lipinski/PA Images / Leon Neal/Getty Images

Shah’s tenure started yesterday and he used his first all-staff email to urge a greater diversity of “class and thought” in the corporation’s news coverage.

Speaking to Shah’s point, Munro said “the mainstream media collectively has a problem” with working class audiences who voted to leave the European Union, and the BBC is “certainly among them.”

“We work really hard to try and ensure we are addressing those audiences,” added Munro, who flagged recent news shows that covered issues in northern English towns and cities such as Doncaster, Carlisle and Rochdale. Nearly half of topical morning show BBC Breakfast‘s audience is working class, he added, saying the show is “doing a lot of heavy lifting in that department.”

Having recently conducted in-depth audience surveys, Turness said BBC viewers are saying they want “clarity in a world of chaos, uncovering the truth and seeking out wrongdoing, and fairness and respect.”

“We must consider the broadest aperture of opinion,” she added.

The execs were facing the committee on the same day that Rupert Murdoch’s UK news channel TalkTV announced it would be going online-only amidst poor linear ratings.

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