BBC “to ditch Reuters”?

October 19, 2004

This is a follow-up to the dispatches:

* The global head of Reuters news responds (September 23, 2004)
* Reuters: A news agency that will not call a terrorist a terrorist (July 13, 2004)
* On bus bombs and bystanders (September 24, 2004)
* Other previous dispatches on Reuters and on the BBC



1. "Cost cutting hits BBC picture desk" (Guardian, Oct. 19, 2004)
2. We failed to be balanced, admits Reuters
3. "S.Africa moves to avert protests over Israeli visit" (Reuters, Oct. 18, 2004)
4. "What Reuters failed to grasp" (Jerusalem Post, Oct. 3, 2004)
5. "Reuters terminology laundry" (Ma'ariv, Sept. 26, 2004)

[Note by Tom Gross]


Since I wrote an article on Reuters in the July issue of the National Review (an article which was reproduced on news websites throughout the world, and to which the global head of Reuters, David Schlesinger, responded at some length) several other journalists have written articles critical of Reuters' Middle East coverage. I attach two of these (from The Jerusalem Post and from Ma'ariv) below.

Last week, despite denying in response to my article that Reuters had any kind of problem with regards to its Israel coverage, David Schlesinger flew to Jerusalem to talk to the Reuters bureau there about their coverage. (I am aware of some of what was said but cannot make this public at this point.)

Last month, Reuters also came to the Middle East to film a gushing promotional video for Reuters shareholders in the U.S. and Europe. The video featured Arab and Jewish staff from the Mideast, emphasizing how the news agency employs Jews and Arabs, working together side by side "in harmony".

One reason why they work in harmony is that Reuters handpicks as staff Jews and Arabs who are both highly sympathetic to "the Palestinian cause".

Among the many anti-Israeli Jews Reuters employs in the Middle East is Matt Spetalnick, who wrote the report on the September 22 Jerusalem suicide bomb in which he suggested that the French Hill bus stop – one of Jerusalem's busiest (civilian) bus stops and the location of that day's attack – is some kind of military target. (See the dispatch of September 24, 2004 titled On bus bombs and bystanders.)

That day, as I pointed out in that dispatch, even though Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurie, Yasser Arafat's spokesman Saeb Erekat, and Arafat's Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades (who proudly claimed responsibility for the bomb) all admitted that the targets were Israeli civilians, Reuters tried to suggest otherwise.

Reuters also ran another story that day in sympathy with the suicide bomber, entitled "Bomber's Stunned Family Has Little Time To Grieve". In a very rare move, Reuters has apologized for that story in a private email, sent to a subscriber on this list. I attach the text of that apology below.

-- Tom Gross



I attach five items on Reuters.

1. A story from today's Media Section of The Guardian (London). The Guardian says "The BBC is running trials to see if it can ditch the internationally renowned news agency, Reuters, in a dramatic, if not desperate, bid to save money... Reuters has one of the biggest newsgathering operations in the world, often with camera crews in areas the BBC cannot reach, and has been a vital source of pictures in Iraq." The BBC may instead rely on AP (Associated Press) TV and Arab TV networks for their pictures.

2. We failed to be balanced, admits Reuters. Reuters Editor in Chief admits that a story connected to the September 22, 2004 suicide murders of Israelis by the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, was "not balanced."

3. "S. Africa moves to avert protests over Israeli visit" (Reuters, October 18, 2004). I attach this story from yesterday (which was also widely distributed by AOL to their customers) as an example of how Reuters slips superfluous anti-Israeli information into their reports. In this case, I am referring to the end of the article, produced by their Johannesburg bureau.

4. "What Reuters failed to grasp" (By Noga Tarnopolsky, Jerusalem Post, October 3, 2004). She writes: "Reuters's story is so far from real journalism" and "I'd be interested in asking Reuters's Jerusalem bureau chief. If a murderer came up to you as you unlocked the door to your car, how would you react?"

5. "Reuters terminology laundry" (By Jonathan Ariel, Ma'ariv, September 26 2004). He writes: "The bottom line is that Reuters' arguments are unacceptable, the antithesis to the truth, the facts and common sense, not to mention elementary human decency. By refusing to differentiate between terrorists and other combatants, Reuters has become partial and partisan, aiding and abetting terrorists by sanitizing and legitimizing them."



Cost cutting hits BBC picture desk
By Chris Tryhorn and Jason Deans
The Guardian
October 19, 2004,7493,1330324,00.html

The BBC is running trials to see if it can ditch the internationally renowned news agency, Reuters, in a dramatic, if not desperate, bid to save money. The corporation is investigating how it would cope without pictures from either Reuters or the smaller, but also internationally respected, APTN agencies, a move that could save it up to £3m.

News services are going without Reuters pictures this week until tomorrow, while from Thursday they are not allowed to use feed from APTN for a week. The "real life exercise", which is designed to see if the BBC really needs access to two separate providers of video footage, also includes a ban on library pictures.

It underlines the BBC's willingness to consider drastic measures in a bid to achieve the kind of cuts in costs desired by the new director general, Mark Thompson.

Adrian van Klaveren, the corporation's head of newsgathering, told executives in an email last week that the review made sense in the face of "financial pressures". "As you know, we are looking at the options we face for next year's news budgets," Mr van Klaveren wrote.

"Historically, we have always had two video news agencies (currently Reuters and APTN) but given the financial pressures we face, it makes sense to review this position. "To that end, we are conducting two short trials to gauge what having only one agency would be like. This is a real life exercise and adherence to it is not optional.

To go without one of the news agencies seems inconceivable for the BBC, which under John Birt built a news and current affairs empire and a worldwide reputation in TV news to go with it.

Reuters has one of the biggest newsgathering operations in the world, often with camera crews in areas the BBC cannot reach, and has been a vital source of pictures in Iraq.

The BBC relies on agency material to cover foreign news, especially in hotspots such as Falluja where the agencies' local cameramen can reach particularly difficult areas. If it went without either Reuters or AP, it might have to rely more on pictures from other channels, such as Arab broadcaster al-Jazeera.

Both agencies are also used by the BBC's principal rivals, ITN and Sky News. Some executives suspect the exercise is being used as a bargaining tool to drive down the price of pictures.

Mr van Klaveren – touted as a potential successor to Mark Damazer as the BBC's deputy director of news – asked staff to let him know of any "nice to have" situations, where "it would have been useful to have the other agency".

In the case of breaking news or exclusive pictures that the "wrong" agency has, staff must ask permission to use it.

One industry insider said it would save the BBC "a seven-figure sum" if it ditched one of the two agencies as a picture supplier. Another suggested a potential saving of between £500,000 and £3m.

Cuts have been on the agenda at the BBC since Mr Thompson took up his post in June. He has described the BBC's overheads as "too much" at £320m a year, and warned a programme of cost cutting would be needed to balance the books. The BBC refused to comment.



[Sent to a subscriber of this email list]

Thank you for your e-mail. I have reviewed the Sept 22 story, titled Bomber's Stunned Family Has Little Time To Grieve, to which your e-mail refers and proper care was not taken in the editing of the copy. Reuters is committed to the highest standards of balanced reporting and I regret that this story did not meet those standards. We are reinforcing our editing safeguards.

Yours sincerely,

Geert Linnebank
Editor in Chief



[Tom Gross writes: I attach this story from yesterday (which was also widely distributed by AOL to their customers) as an example of how Reuters slips superfluous anti-Israeli information into their reports. In this case, I am referring to the end of the article, produced by their Johannesburg bureau.]

S.Africa moves to avert protests over Israeli visit
October 18, 2004

JOHANNESBURG - South Africa's government held talks with pro-Palestinian groups on Monday to try to stave off likely protests against a planned visit this week by Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

South Africa's black-led government has encouraged factions in the Middle East conflict to draw on its own experiences in negotiating the end of apartheid white rule in 1994.

It hosted talks last month with members of Israel's ruling Likud party to try to revive negotiations to end the Middle East conflict.

But its willingness to talk to the Israeli government, and its position as Israel's largest trading partner in Africa, has angered some pro-Palestinian activists, particularly among its economically influential Muslim minority.

Pro-Palestinian activists have written letters of protest to the government and on Saturday staged a demonstration in Cape Town against the visit beginning on Wednesday, during which Olmert will meet South African President Thabo Mbeki.

"We are discussing the situation with a view to finding an amicable resolution that will add impetus to the effort that the government is making to find a long-lasting resolution of the political crisis facing Palestinians and Israelis," said a spokesman for Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad who met the representatives.

The Palestinian Solidarity Group, which helped organise Saturday's Cape Town protest, said it hoped to stage demonstrations during Olmert's visit, but had given the government until Monday evening to respond to its complaints.

"We are hoping for a response – we want to know who invited them (the Israeli delegation) and why," Mercia Andrews, of the Palestinian Solidarity Group in Western Cape province, told Reuters.

"They (the South African government) say their main aim is to support the Palestinian people, but how can you do that if you are Israel's biggest trading partner in Africa," she said.

As well as being a deputy prime minister, Olmert is Israel's minister of communications, industry, trade and labour, and his visit to South Africa will include meetings with Pahad as well as Trade and Industry Minister Mandisi Mphahlwa.

Meanwhile relations with Israel's government are complicated by South Africa's protests over the 375 mile (600 km) West Bank barrier – ruled illegal by the International Court of Justice but which Israel says it needs to keep suicide bombers out – as well as Israel's historic support for apartheid.



What Reuters failed to grasp
By Noga Tarnopolsky
The Jerusalem Post
October 3, 2004

When I was 20 and not yet contemplating a future in journalism, a famous reporter from a very famous newspaper came to the city where I was working to give a talk about his coverage of the Middle East. He probably shouldn't have come. Confronted by members of the audience who knew too much about his field, Famous Reporter quickly retreated into a pitiful defensive posture from which he said that his questioners' standards were too high. "What we write is just the toilet paper of history," he said with a weak smile. (No, not "the first draft of history.") Suffice it to say he was referring to a major East Coast newspaper, and I've never forgotten his performance.

You have to wonder sometimes about who goes into this field.

There was a suicide attack in Jerusalem a few days ago. Given what the city has been through, it was not the most significant of attacks: 18-year-old Zeinab Abu Salem approached a generally crowded bus stop in French Hill and blew herself up using a three- to five-kilogram bomb packed with nails. She could have killed more than 20 people but was detained for questioning by two border policemen. Realizing they were on to her, she quickly detonated the explosives.

The two border policemen who stopped her – Menashe Komemi and Mamoya Tahio – paid with their lives for their vigilance. They were there, on the job, to prevent exactly such attacks. Both died after several minutes of agony witnessed all too closely by people standing at the bus stop, who described what they'd seen to the Israeli media.

Later that evening, I overheard a conversation between two neighbors discussing Komemi, 19, and Tahio, 20. One quietly said they'd been heroic, saving so many lives. The other said they were dumb – they should have shot Abu Salem the minute they realized what she was up to.

Why do I bring this up? Because these two neighbors, neither of them journalists or people with a special connection to major news issues, grasped the fundamental question that Reuters, the international news service, failed to comprehend.

One formulation for that question might be, How do you react when confronted by a murderer? It's a question I'd be interested in asking Reuters's Jerusalem bureau chief. If a murderer came up to you as you unlocked the door to your car, how would you react?

What the Reuters bureau chief did, so far beyond his most basic task – which was immediate coverage of the attack – was to put out two featurish pieces.

The first of these pieces is entitled "Bomber's stunned family has little time to grieve." The other is "After bomb, Jerusalem Palestinians also feel fear." Why was this piece published? Not a single Jerusalem Palestinian was affected by this attack.

But back to Zeinab Abu Salem. Reuters in its "Bombers stunned family" piece, tells us that Zeinab, acting perhaps like an adolescent as she packed to leave – she was, after all, just 18 – did not properly inform her family that she would not be coming home. Upon hearing the news of his daughter's death, the father, who had recently undergone heart surgery, felt faint and had to be taken to hospital, shortly to be followed by his wife; she also felt awful and feared, as a family member is quoted saying, that she not only lost her daughter but might lose her home and her husband as well. Yes, at the hands of the evil Israelis who demolish houses.

I'm actually opposed to the policy of demolishing homes, but Reuters's story is so far from real journalism that I hope you'll forgive my addition of that little word "evil." Zeinab's 12-year-old brother, Tarek (whom she also did not inform of her plans) is quoted as saying, "I don't know what's happening. I don't know where she is. She isn't at home."

The article ends with a quote from one of Zeinab's uncles, Mustafa Shinawi. "Oppression is everywhere," he says. "Every Palestinian finds his own suitable way to protest the Israeli oppression."

The piece does not identify Zeinab clearly as an adult who left her home with the intent to commit murder, and does not explain the four-year policy of suicide bombings undertaken by various Palestinian terrorist groups. In other words, it gives no context.

Aside from its potential use in a Journalism 101 class as an example of how to fail as a reporter, this is a useless bit of writing. Or maybe it has a political point. I have no idea.

But any Reuters reader who might wonder if the mother of Menashe Komemi also fainted when she heard of the death of her son, or whether Mamoya Tahio's younger brother is also pained and confused, is left to ponder these questions without the benefit of Reuters's reporting. And any Reuters reader who wonders what eyewitnesses saw after Zeinab detonated her bomb are left to imagine this scene on their own.

Someone needs to remind Reuters what reporting is meant to do: to convey news, not impressions. To answer the who, what, when, why, where, and how of any event. To tell us, for example, that Yasser Arafat's Aksa Martyrs Brigades accepted responsibility for the murder committed by young Zeinab Abu Salem – with no regard, apparently, for the feelings of her parents.

(The writer is a Jerusalem-based author.)



Reuters terminology laundry
By Jonathan Ariel
September 26, 2004

Reuters claims terrorist is an emotive, not factual term, since "one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter". A rose by any other name...?

Recently, as a result of a spat with the CanWest media group, Reuter's dirty little secret finally came out, they never call use the "T-word" when reporting terror attacks, preferring terms like militants or activists.

This was admitted by two senior Reuters officials. In an interview with the New York Times, they admitted never labeling any action, no matter how reprehensible as terrorism, and never refer to the perpetrators as terrorists. "Terror is an emotive term, and we as impartial journalists cannot use such terminology. One man's terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter".

This statement suffers from two basic defects. The first, and less important has to do with form, it is a tired and well-worn cliché, long bereft of any originality it once had.

The second, and much more important defect is that it is fallacious. A terrorist is someone who perpetrates terrorism, plain and simple, no ifs, ands or buts. Define terrorism and one can define a terrorist.

There is significant and substantial consensus among both security, military and diplomatic professionals as to what constitutes terrorism. The State Department's definition is “politically motivated attacks on non-combatant targets.

Professor Boaz Ganor, head of the ICT (International Policy Institute for Counter Terrorism), one of the world's leading authorities on terrorism takes this basic principle much further.

"Surprisingly, many in the Western world have accepted the mistaken assumption that terrorism and national liberation are two extremes in the scale of legitimate use of violence. The struggle for "national liberation" would appear to be the positive and justified end of this sequence, whereas terrorism is the negative and odious one. It is impossible, according to this approach, for any organization to be both a terrorist group and a movement for national liberation at the same time".

"In failing to understand the difference between these two concepts, many have, in effect, been caught in a semantic trap laid by the terrorist organizations and their allies. They have attempted to contend with the clichés of national liberation by resorting to odd arguments, instead of stating that when a group or organization chooses terrorism as a means, the aim of their struggle cannot be used to justify their actions".

"As the late Senator Jackson put it. "The idea that one person's 'terrorist' is another's 'freedom fighter' cannot be sanctioned. Freedom fighters or revolutionaries don’t blow up buses containing non-combatants; terrorist murderers do. Freedom fighters don't set out to capture and slaughter schoolchildren; terrorist murderers do ... It is a disgrace that democracies would allow the treasured word 'freedom' to be associated with acts of terrorists".

Boaz Ganor proposes universally adopting the following definition. "Terrorism is the intentional and systematic use of, or threat to use violence against civilians or against civilian targets, in order to attain political aims".

The key element in this definition is the means “deliberate and systematic targeting of civilians”. The fact that the aims are political is irrelevant, since many people and organizations have political aims, this does not mean that they seek to achieve them by blowing up busses, schools and restaurants.

History bears this out. The ANC, which waged the most successful war of liberation in recent history, against South Africa's apartheid regime, was not a terrorist organization. Its guerrilla army (MK-Umkhonto se Sizwe) was, primarily, exactly that, a guerrilla army. It waged an unconventional (what is called today low intensity) war against legitimate military and economic targets.

It is true that some attacks did target civilians, but these were the exception, rather than the rule. It is also true that civilians were killed when economic targets were attacked. However attacking an enemy's infrastructure and vital economic targets is considered legitimate warfare, irrespective of whether it is done by an air force or a guerrilla.

Some attacks caused collateral civilian casualties, but what war doesn't. In every war, whether conventional or not, mistakes happen and wrong targets get hit. This does not make those responsible terrorists. The red line separating terrorism from legitimate warfare is the intent and strategy, when one side adopts a deliberate strategy of targeting civilians, then they become terrorists.

Islamic and Middle East terrorism passes every test for being defined as terrorism, and its perpetrators as terrorists. They deliberately and systematically target civilians. We are not talking about civilians working in economically strategic targets. Busses, schools, airplanes and restaurants are not factories or power plants. These targets are not attacked because of their economic or strategic value, but simply because they are places where there are lots of civilians, making them target rich environments, enabling the terrorist the most bangs for his buck.

The bottom line is that Reuters arguments are unacceptable, the antithesis to the truth, the facts and common sense, not to mention elementary human decency. By refusing to differentiate between terrorists and other combatants, Reuters has become partial and partisan, aiding and abetting terrorists by sanitizing and legitimizing them.

All notes and summaries copyright © Tom Gross. All rights reserved.