Channel 4's Thomson supports BBC's Guerin over bias claim

Channel Four's Alex Thomson has defended BBC reporter Orla Guerin after a comparison of their news reports on the bombing of a Lebanese town led her to be accused of bias.

A member of this year's independent panel on impartiality at the BBC has told Press Gazette that he believes the BBC has improved its coverage of the Middle East as a result of the panel's report.

Guerin was accused of giving an inaccurate account of the destruction of Bint Jbail initially by bloggers, and later by the Israeli embassy in London, which said it looked as though "the BBC's report contains selectivity".

In a report broadcast on 14 August, Guerin said: "I haven't seen a single building that isn't damaged in some way."

But Thomson's report stated: "It has to be said that on the outskirts, the suburbs — pretty much untouched by the Israeli attack and invasion."

Thomson told Press Gazette: "Poor old BBC. As soon as they say anything about Israel they get a lot of flak.

"There is an incredibly organised Zionist lobby out to see bias in the BBC wherever they perceive it"

Speaking to Press Gazette from the Lebanon/Syria border, Thomson said that when analysing the reports, it was important to be aware of the geography of the town.

He said: "I was very careful to say that there is no doubt that the centre of the town itself, which many people refer to as Bint Jbail, has been comprehensively wiped.

"What Orla said about the town centre is absolutely 100 per cent true. Orla is an extremely experienced and professional correspondent."

However Thomson said that "because a lot of journalists are lazy" much of the British public hold the inaccurate perception that Lebanon had been completely destroyed.

He said that from the parts of Southern Lebanon he had seen, 25 to 30 per cent of the buildings had been destroyed or damaged.

He said that journalists had to genuinely say what they were seeing, which often did not fit with the cliché of "nasty, bullyboy Israel/United States smashing the downtrodden Arabs and Muslims".

Thomson added: "That cliché is true in some ways, but what you have to do is use only those examples where it is true, like Qana, such as bombing the Lebanese Red Cross and Israel's refusal to let aid in. You have to point that out."

In May, an independent panel investigating the BBC's coverage of the Palestinian/Israeli conflict suggested that a "guiding hand" should be appointed in newsrooms to reduce the potential for bias.

Former editor and chief executive of ITN Stuart Purvis, who sat on the panel, told Press Gazette this week: "From what I see, and I have read a lot of the websites that specialise in anti-BBC stuff, I don't recognise the depth of criticism.

"That's not to say that somebody may not have a point about a particular programme that I didn't see."

Purvis, now a professor at City University, said that many people had noticed attempts by the BBC in its current coverage of the conflict in the Middle East to provide extra context and background — as suggested by the panel.

He said: "Directing people who want to know more to their website has been a definite bonus. To be truthful, I don't think any other British broadcaster can say that they offer anything like that; they simply don't have the depth.

"Competitively ITV News, Channel 4 News and Sky News have all had success on screen.

"But if you take the broader attempts that our panel was concerned with, to try and explain what the hell it is all about, then the ITV and Channel 4 websites don't offer that depth that the BBC does."

He added that another positive development to come out of the report was that the "elusiveness of control within the organisation" had been resolved by the BBC's decision to give a more proactive role to Jeremy Bowen as Middle East editor.

Purvis said: "When we looked at coverage a year ago we weren't entirely clear exactly what Jeremy Bowen's role was, other than appearing on the news occasionally.

"Obviously he still has to report to somebody, but I do think they have beefed up the role of Middle East editor, and I think you saw that on screen night after night."

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