BBC's Arab Spring coverage was 'sporadic'

The BBC’s coverage of the Arab Spring ignored events in some countries that were forgotten in the rush to concentrate on “big” stories, according to a new report.

Edward Mortimer, a journalist and former director of communications for United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan, reviewed the corporation’s coverage across television, radio and online.

His criticisms come as the BBC’s embarks on a Delivering Quality First cost-saving review which it has said will see it focus on “doing fewer things better”.

He said the BBC “covered a challenging, complex and geographically disparate set of stories in an engaging way” and added that he was “impressed” by its standards.

But he said countries including Algeria, Morocco and Jordan, where regimes survived a challenge to their authority, were “largely forgotten”.

Speaking at a briefing for journalists yesterday, he said: “That’s a pity because it’s always interesting why dogs don’t bark and why certain rulers were able to avoid the kind of turmoil and bloodshed of neighbouring countries”.

Mortimer also said the BBC made some mistakes in its reporting of other countries including Bahrain, where he said coverage was “rather sporadic, and perhaps insufficient”.

He said the BBC’s coverage of the response to the Arab Spring in countries including Russia and China was “very thin” and “a serious omission”.

Mortimer said: “My main concern is I have a feeling that with all these resources there is a tendency to throw them all at the really big story that is running at any particular moment”.

He also said “more could be done” to push people towards in-depth coverage on line.

Mortimer said the BBC did “a good job in vetting” footage sent in by the public but research found it did not always issue it with a caveat explaining its origin.

He said: “The BBC owes it to its audience to make it absolutely clear how confident they are or not about what’s being shown on screen or played on radio”.

Research carried out for the review found user-generated content, often mobile phone footage, was only used in “a small minority of reports” but that almost three quarters (74 per cent) of it was broadcast without any caveats.

All the footage went through a BBC unit that monitored user-generated content and which on at least one occasion stopped footage being used incorrectly.

Mortimer said: “Somebody sent in footage of people in Damascus apparently being herded into a bus by military police. It looked quite sinister like they were going to be taken away and tortured or shot or something but there was an Arabic speaker, a Syrian, on the staff at Caversham, the monitoring service, who looked at it and said ‘No that’s the Damascus rush hour, that’s how it works'”.

The use of social media, including Twitter and YouTube, was seen as central to events in the Arab Spring with information spreading at great speed on line.

Alison Hastings, chair of the trust’s editorial standards committee, said: “Within the limits placed by news resources, programme lengths and formats, and recognising the range and impartiality of the coverage overall, we’re keen to see if improvements can be made.

“These would be both in the scope of coverage to provide a fuller picture of events, and in providing better context for audiences. We’ll ask the director of news to report back to us with an update in the autumn.”

The report praised the BBC’s Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen who was described as “an outstanding reporter and analyst” and noted he had travelled throughout the region.

ButMortimer said: “Perhaps BBC executives should encourage him to travel a little less, so that he would have more time to share his insight and provide them with overall strategic guidance.”

The BBC executive response to the report said it would “review the balance” of Bowen’s work.

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