Study: U.K.'s BBC Coverage of Arab Spring Could Have Given 'A Fuller Picture'

The public broadcaster's use of user generated content and the repeated usage of the word "regime" were among the things criticized in a review.

U.K. public broadcaster BBC's coverage of the "Arab Spring" was "remarkable" and "generally impartial," but could have given "a fuller picture of events," the BBC Trust said in a review published Monday.

In a potential case study for news networks and other public broadcasters, the use of user generated content and the word "regime" were among the elements of coverage that the Trust criticized.

The review, whose findings became public just after the recent presidential election in Egypt, wasn't a result of viewer complaints. The BBC Trust, the body led by former Hong Kong governor Lord Patten that advises and supervises BBC management,  instead simply cited "the importance and complexities presented by a group of fast-moving stories, which are often extremely dangerous to cover on the ground" as the driver of the review.

One point of criticism was the BBC's repeated use of the word "regime" for governments that faced an uprising of citizens, which the broadcaster acknowledged as an area for improvement. The word "can suggest a value judgment, and [the BBC] has committed to examine ways to develop a policy so that the BBC can achieve consistency in its use," the company said in a statement.

Another criticism was for "a lack of reference to the authentication of user generated content, such as mobile phone footage," according to the report. It said that "caveats about authenticity or representativeness" of such footage would have been important.

"Recognizing the considerable courage of journalists and technicians on the ground to bring stories to air, particularly during a period where other world events created pressure on reporting resources, the review concluded that there were ways in which the BBC could have further improved its programming," the review of the coverage concluded. It was largely based on an independent report from Edward Mortimer, Middle East expert and former UN director of communications. 

The BBC's coverage could have particularly included "more extensive follow-up of stories in some countries, a fuller examination of the different voices which made up the opposition to various incumbent governments, and in some places a broader range of international reactions to news events," according to the report. It also called for "better context" for viewers not familiar worth the Middle East in future coverage.

"We'll ask the director of news to report back to us with an update in the autumn," said Alison Hastings, chair of the Trust's editorial standards committee.

"I was impressed by the standards in its domestic and international news programming, despite the inherent risks of reporting from this region, and particularly the skill and care it applies to checking 'user-generated content' - mainly video footage of events provided by activists or bystanders," Mortimer said. "But there is a tendency to focus resources on one story at a time, leading to a lack of coverage of other countries within the region."

Email: Georg.Szalai@thr.com

Twitter: @georgszalai

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