An investigation into the BBC’s reporting of an incident in which antisemitic threats made to a group of Jewish passengers on a bus in Oxford Street as they celebrated Chanukah has concluded that “standards of due accuracy” were not met and has “partially upheld” complaints about the coverage.
In findings published by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit on Wednesday it was also concluded that reports of the November 29th incident should not have concluded that the phrase “dirty Muslims” was the only interpretation of what was allegedly said by a Jewish passenger on the bus.
The report said: “While the majority finding gives support to the view that ‘Dirty Muslims’ is a sustainable interpretation, the more significant point for the ECU is that the sole exception indicates that it was not the only possible interpretation.
“In the ECU’s judgement this, taken together with the evidence put forward by the Board of Deputies, should have led the BBC to recognise at an earlier stage that there was genuine doubt about the accuracy of what it had reported.”
Reports by the BBC of the November 29 incident – which involved threats made to the group as they celebrated the Jewish festival on a hired bus – sparked widespread anger within the community.
They included unsubstantiated claims that anti-Muslim slurs could be heard coming from the bus on widely circulated video footage of the confrontation that was shared on social media.
Police are continuing to investigate the attack, which is being treated as a hate incident, but have appealed for assistance with their probe into the actions of three men of Middle Eastern appearance who made Nazi salutes and shouted antisemitic slogans at the group of around 20 Jews on the bus.
An investigation conducted by the BBC’s Editorial Complaints Unit, and published on Tuesday, concluded: “With hindsight, and in the light of subsequent evidence that the recording was open to another interpretation, it might be argued that even further verification should have been sought, but the situation at the time was that no alternative interpretation had been proposed, and in our view the elements of internal scrutiny taken together with the CST’s response amounted to an editorial process which we would regard as more than sufficient in any but the most extraordinary circumstances.
“We therefore do not believe we can fairly find that the decision to broadcast the claim in question constituted a breach of editorial standards, even if it were accepted in the light of later evidence that the claim itself was questionable.
“And, in view of allegations of latent or even active anti-Semitism which have been made, the ECU considers it important to say it was manifest from the evidence we have seen that the decision, whether or not mistaken, was made entirely in good faith.”
The Board of Deputies were amongst the communal organisations to take up the matter with the BBC – with President Marie van der Zyl meeting with Director General Tim Davie only last week to discuss the matter.
Lord John Mann, the government’s independent adviser on antisemitism, also met with Davie in a further effort to press the BBC on the issue.
Jewish News understands the broadcaster received several hundred complaints about the Chanukah bus reports.
Responding to the decision a BBC spokesperson said: “We take complaints about our coverage seriously and today (Wednesday 26 January), following an expedited process, we have published the findings of the Executive Complaints Unit (ECU) in relation to a complaint by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and others, over the reporting of an alleged anti-Semitic attack in Oxford Street in November last year.
“The ECU – which is editorially independent of BBC News – has acknowledged that there was an “overriding focus” on those who directed abuse at the passengers on the bus and there was no evidence to support any claims of victim-blaming in our reporting.
“Further, the ECU also ruled that the inclusion in our reports of the existence of an alleged slur, said to have come from within the bus, was included in good faith, following a great deal of editorial scrutiny.
“However, the ECU has also found that more could have been done, subsequent to the original report, to acknowledge the differing views and opinions in relation to what was said; this should have been reflected in our reporting; and the online article amended.
“We accept this and apologise for not doing more to highlight that these details were contested – we should have reflected this and acted sooner.
“Following the ECU’s ruling, we have amended the story posted on the BBC News website on 2 December 2021 and issued a clarification in relation to a news report aired on BBC London on the same day.
“We will always welcome feedback on – and constructive scrutiny of – our reporting. We set ourselves high standards, based on fair, accurate and impartial reporting and we are held accountable to audiences through our robust complaints processes. We will continue to strive to serve the Jewish community, and all communities across the UK.”
The broadcaster aired a report on BBC London News and a separate website report on the incident, which they broadcast on December 2nd.
Both noted the antisemitic threats made to a group of Jewish revellers on the hired London bus – but in an apparent attempt to provide balance both reports also made the claim about anti-Muslim slurs. It’s understood that mention of an anti-Muslim slur was added after the online reporter had filed his original report, and for that reason his byline has now been removed.
Video footage of the incident showed three men of Middle Eastern appearance filmed approaching the privately hired bus and then proceeding to make Nazi salutes and shout antisemitic threats to the group of around 20 passengers.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson later condemned those responsible for carrying out the threats to the group on the bus as did Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
But clear focus in the reports was given also to allegations that those on the bus could be heard making anti-Muslim slurs.
Amongst some sections of the community it confirmed suspicions of bias at the BBC.
In the BBC London News report the presenter told viewers of the incident: “Well, the Metropolitan Police are treating this as an alleged hate crime.
“We should say though that we at BBC London did watch this footage and you can hear some racial slurs about Muslim people which does come from the bus.
“It’s not clear at the moment, or the person that said that, what role that may have played in this incident.”
The BBC website’s report initially stated that racial slurs about Muslims could be heard inside the bus.
The report sparked fury amongst some in the community who claimed it was an attempt to downplay the antisemitic nature of the incident by the BBC.
The BBC later said it had “amended” the report ” to make clear that ‘a slur about Muslims “could be heard.”
Board President Marie van der Zyl described the BBC’s “misreporting” as “a colossal error”, which “has added insult to injury in accusing victims of antisemitism of being guilty of bigotry themselves.”
She continued: “What takes this from an egregious failure to something far more sinister is the BBC’s behaviour when confronted with its mistake. Instead of admitting it was wrong, it has doubled and tripled down.”
The Campaign Against Antisemitism called a protest outside the BBC’s Broadcasting House building in central London, attended by around 100 supporters who held banners and chanting “BBC News where’s the proof!” and “BBC News tell the truth!”
A digital expert hired by the Board said the alleged “dirty Muslim” slur that the reports said passengers on the bus were responsible for had actually been the Hebrewphrase, “Tikrah lemishu,ze dachuf” – or “Call someone, it is urgent.”
In a statement the Board said their evidence showed “theBBC’s claim that Jewish people targeted by an antisemitic attack onOxford Streetwere themselves guilty of an ‘anti-Muslim slur’ has been proved beyond any doubt to be inaccurate.”
But the BBC subsequently insisted they had also spoken with Hebrew speakers who had confirmed they could hear the slur “Dirty Muslims” coming from the bus.
As anger mounted at the length of time the BBC were taking in answering complaints about their coverage Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries wrote to the broadcaster asking how it would resolve the row earlier this month.
The PM also called for the broadcaster to resolve the complaint issue swiftly.
Director General Tim Davie confirmed the complaints had been “accelerated” to the independent Editorial Complaints Unit who would be returning soon with the results of their probe.
At the end of last month, the BBC stood by its reports of the incident, when a spokesman said: “Antisemitism is abhorrent. We strive to serve the Jewish community, and all communities across our country, fairly.
“Our story was a factual report that overwhelmingly focused on the individuals the police want to identify; those who directed abuse at the bus.”
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