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Monday, 4 March 2013

Jeremy Bowen's choice of Rosh Hashonah for a Twitter Q&A

Here is the full letter that I received from the BBC Trust re my complaint re Jeremy Bowen's choice of Rosh Hashonah, one of the two holiest days in the Jewish calendar, for a Twitter Q&A on the Middle East. My reply which I have just sent will follow very shortly.


notasheepmaybeagoat@gmail.com

Our Ref: 1888392

19 February 2013

Dear Sir/Madam

twitter Q&A with Jeremy Bowen

Thank you for writing to the BBC Trust about the choice of date for a Q&A on twitter
with the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen. I am very sorry that you were
unhappy about the scheduling of this event.

I think you already have a good idea of how the complaints system works, but if you
want to find out more – and in particular about how the BBC Trust fits in – this is the
web link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/bbctrust/governance/complaints_framework/

The Trust is the last stage of the complaints process and everyone who works within
the Trust Unit is outside the day-to-day operations of the BBC. We review the
complaints that come to us to assess whether they should be put before the BBC’s
Trustees for them to reach a final decision. I and an Independent Editorial Adviser
have seen the digest on the BBC News website, the twitter exchange between you and
Jeremy Bowen and have read the correspondence that has already passed between
you and the BBC.

I should explain that the Trust does not take every appeal that comes to it. In
deciding which ones should be considered by the Trustees, we look at the merits of the
complaint and only those which stand a reasonable chance of success are passed to
Trustees. The Trust acts in the interests of all licence fee payers and it would not be
proportionate to spend a good deal of time and money on cases do not stand a
realistic prospect of success. The link that I have given above gives more information
about this.

I am sorry to send a disappointing response, but I do not believe your appeal should
be put in front of Trustees. The BBC’s journalists and programme-makers are
expected to work to a high standard; those standards are set out in the BBC’s Editorial
Guidelines1 which underpin all BBC output. I have looked at your appeal in relation to
those Guidelines. This means I have assessed if the points you have raised can be
judged against the standards set down in the Guidelines. I have attached a summary
of your appeal as well as the reasons behind my decision with this letter.

If you disagree with my decision and would like the Trustees to review it, please reply
with your reasons by 5 March 2013 to the Complaints Advisor, at the above address

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http://www.bbc.co.uk/guidelines/editorialguidelines/guidelines/

or trust.editorial@bbc.co.uk. Please send your reasons by this deadline in one
document if possible.

Correspondence that is received after this date may not be considered as part of your
request for a review of the decision. If, exceptionally, you need more time please write
giving your reasons as soon as possible.

If you do ask the Trustees to review this decision, I will place that letter as well as your
original letter of appeal and this letter before Trustees. Your previous correspondence
will also be available to them. They will look at that request in their April meeting.
Their decision is likely to be finalised at their following meeting and will be given to you
shortly afterwards.

If the Trustees agree that your case has no reasonable prospect of success then it will
close. If the Trustees disagree with my decision, then your case will be given to an
Independent Editorial Adviser to investigate and we will contact you with an updated
time line.

Yours sincerely

Leanne Buckle
Senior Editorial Strategy Adviser

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Twitter Q&A with Jeremy Bowen

The Trust’s Editorial Appeals procedure states that:

The Trust will only consider an appeal if it raises “a matter of
substance”.2 This will ordinarily mean that in the opinion of the Trust there is
a reasonable prospect that the appeal will be upheld as amounting to a breach
of the Editorial Guidelines. In deciding whether an appeal raises a matter of
substance, the Trust may consider (in fairness to the interests of all licence fee
payers in general) whether it is appropriate, proportionate and cost-effective to
consider the appeal.3

Appeal

The complainant appealed to the Trust on 8 January 2013 regarding the BBC’s decision
to hold an online Q&A with the BBC’s Middle East Editor Jeremy Bowen on Monday 17
September 2012.

“This day was the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashonah [sic], one of the ‘high holy
days’ when all religious, and most even only slightly religious, Jews spend the
day in prayer at synagogue and thus are not available to participate in such
social media exercises. How could your BBC Middle East Editor hold a Q&A on a
day when a very interested set of British licence fee payers, Jews in Britain,
would be unable to participate?

I queried Jeremy Bowen about this and found his response quite offensive - 'yes
I did know it was Jewish New Year. And I also know it doesn't stop quite a few
Jews using social media!' I presume that was aimed at me, since I am Jewish
but not at all observant. That comment I found unacceptable, the vast majority
of Jews could not participate on a Q&A held on RoshHashonah [sic] and Jeremy
Bowen admitted that he knew it was RoshHashonah [sic]. This was
discrimination, plain and simple.

Surely an unbiased BBC Middle East Editor would take care to ensure that no
interested parties would be unable to take part in the Q&A. Would Jeremy
Bowen have held such a Q&A on a Friday during Ramadan thus disenfranchising
British Muslims?”

The complainant escalated his complaint to the BBC Trust, saying that the complainant
was unhappy with the response received at Stage 2 when the Head of Accountability
for BBC News replied on 6 December 2012:

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Under the Charter and Agreement, the Trust has a role as final arbiter in appropriate cases, and must
provide a right of appeal in cases that raise a matter of substance.
3
For example, if an appeal raises a relatively minor issue that would be complicated, time-consuming or
expensive to resolve, the Trust may decide that the appeal does not raise a matter of substance, and
decline to consider it.

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“Jeremy Bowen was in the middle of a reporting trip to Libya, Egypt and Lebanon
and September 17 was the only time available in his busy diary for this particular
Q&A. You acknowledge that he said in his tweet to you that the timing could have
been better, and I agree that it was unfortunate that the session fell on the
Jewish New Year holiday, but there is absolutely no evidence to support your
suggestion of bias and of some sort of conspiracy deliberately to exclude Jews
from participating. The timing was simply due to Jeremy Bowen’s availability and
he and the online editorial team clearly felt it was better to run the session then
than not run it at all.

After all, as has also been explained, this will not be the only Q&A of its kind. I’m
sorry that you find it offensive to have been informed that there will be other
opportunities to take part for those who may consider they were excluded on
September 17th. It is not a question of Jews “being allowed” to take part in the
future, as you suggest, but pragmatism. No single date will ever be suitable for
everyone, which is why we strive to give viewers, listeners and readers a range of
programmes, platforms, dates and times to accommodate them and reflect their
range of perspectives within an appropriately proportionate timeframe.
Additionally, you are also able at any time to follow his @BowenBBC twitter
account and ask him questions, as you have done. Access is not generally an
issue for those who use social media, as you do.

To sum up, I am unable to uphold your complaint about bias because I do not
believe the evidence is there to support your suggestion.”

Decision of the Senior Editorial Strategy Adviser

The relevant correspondence was reviewed by the Trust Unit and an independent
editorial adviser read the Q&A in question.

The Senior Editorial Strategy Adviser decided that the complainant’s appeal did not
have a reasonable prospect of success.

The Senior Editorial Strategy Adviser determined that the appeal engaged the BBC’s
Editorial Guidelines on Impartiality, relevant extracts stated:

Impartiality

4.1 Introduction
Impartiality lies at the heart of public service and is the core of the BBC’s commitment
to its audiences… We must be inclusive, considering the broad perspective and
ensuring the existence of a range of views is appropriately reflected.

4.1 [On due impartiality] The term ‘due’ means that the impartiality must be
adequate and appropriate to the output, taking account of the subject and nature of
the content, the likely audience expectation and any signposting that may influence
that expectation.

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Due impartiality is often more than a simple matter of ‘balance’ between opposing
viewpoints. Equally, it does not require absolute neutrality on every issue or
detachment from fundamental democratic principles.

4.2.3 We seek to provide a broad range of subject matter and perspectives over an
appropriate timeframe across our output as a whole.

4.2.4 We are committed to reflecting a wide range of opinion across our output as a
whole and over an appropriate timeframe so that no significant strand of thought is
knowingly unreflected or under-represented.

The Senior Editorial Adviser considered the first element of the complaint, that holding
the Q&A on a Jewish High Holy Day denied Jews the opportunity to participate.

The Senior Editorial Adviser noted that this was indeed a High Holy Day when many
Jews spend time in the synagogue4 and when many observant Jews would not
consider it appropriate to engage in online debates.

On 16 September 2012 at 6.06am Jeremy Bowen tweeted:

“Tomorrow (Monday) I’m answering your questions on the Mideast on twitter.
Details are all here bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-19601920”

The Senior Editorial Adviser noted that people who wished to submit questions were
able to do so in advance via email and via Twitter and Facebook. Given that Rosh
Hashanah did not commence until sundown that day, the Senior Editorial Strategy
Adviser considered that observant Jews who wished to submit questions would have
had the opportunity to do so before Jewish New Year began.

The Senior Editorial Adviser went on to consider the subject and content of the Q&A,
which was broad (“the Mideast”). Many questions related to the topical issue of
protests against the film “Innocence of Muslims”. Other questions related to the
aftermath of the Arab Spring, the role of Turkey in Middle Eastern politics, the situation
in Syria, the role of social media in the region, the prevalence of arms in Libya, the
likelihood of a war between Israel and Iran, the vulnerability of Lebanon given current
tensions, the foreign policy of the US & UK, the potential for a future independent
state of Kurdistan, the future for Palestinians and the stability of kingdoms such as
Morocco and Jordan.

There were many questions about Jeremy Bowen’s role as BBC Middle East Editor: had
he ever been pressured or censored, what was his most dangerous assignment, how
had technology changed his job, and what career advice would he offer aspiring
journalists?

http://www.bbc.co.uk/schools/religion/judaism/rosh_hashanah.shtml

4

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The Senior Editorial Adviser noted that the BBC was not setting out to debate one
specific issue such as settlements on the West Bank instead the audience set a wide-
ranging agenda.

The Senior Editorial Adviser noted that the Q&A was not a one-off. A subsequent
twitter event was held on 14 December 2012 and received a similarly broad range of
questions, although in this case the audience was more preoccupied with the situation
in Syria.

The Senior Editorial Adviser noted the comments of BBC News, that those who wished
to contact Jeremy Bowen could do so at any time via his Twitter address @BowenBBC,
where he regularly responds to questions and comments about events in the Middle
East (and the BBC’s coverage of them).

The Senior Editorial Adviser concluded that there were multiple opportunities for the
BBC’s Middle East Editors to answer questions from observant Jews and therefore that
this element of the appeal had no reasonable prospect of success.

The Senior Editorial Strategy Adviser went on to consider the second element of the
complaint, that Jeremy Bowen’s response to the complainant had been “quite
offensive”. The exchange between Jeremy Bowen and the complainant is attached at
Annex 2. The complainant tweeted:

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-

-
-

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“Culturally insensitive to hold q&a session on Rosh Hashanah. Didn’t you
know or are you trying to avoid Qs from Jews?”
Jeremy Bowen replied “not trying to avoid Qs from religious Jews. agree
timing could be better. will be doing this again.”
The complainant: “So you did know today was Rosh Hashanah?”
Jeremy Bowen: “yes I did know it was Jewish New Year. And I also know it
doesn’t stop quite a few Jews using social media!”
Complainant: “not most. So you knew it was Rosh Hashanah but went
ahead anyway. What will BBC Trust think? Would you hold one during
Ramadan?”

The Senior Editorial Adviser noted that twitter is a medium in which the maximum
length of a message is 140 characters. The nature of interaction via this medium is
necessarily brief. The Senior Editorial Adviser noted that Jeremy Bowen had
responded quickly to the complainant’s comments, and his replies were frank (“agree
timing could be better”), promising a future opportunity for live Q&A (“will be doing
this again”). The Senior Editorial Adviser could find no evidence that Jeremy Bowen
was offensive. His observation that Jewish New Year “doesn’t stop quite a few Jews
using social media!” was prefaced by “And I also know…” which suggested he knew
this from experience. Whether this was an observation about friends or colleagues, or
simply an observation about contact he’d received himself during Rosh Hashanah was
unknown, but there was no evidence that this was either an offensive comment or a
personal attack on the complainant.

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In this case, the Senior Editorial Adviser did not consider there was evidence that the
Guidelines had been breached therefore she concluded there was insufficient evidence
to suggest that the appeal had a reasonable prospect of success.

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