BBC appoints man to monitor 'pro-Arab bias'
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Tom Leonard | Daily Telegraph | 11 November 2003
The BBC has appointed a “Middle East policeman” to oversee its coverage of the region amid mounting allegations of anti-Israeli bias.
Malcolm Balen, a former editor of the Nine O’Clock News, has been recruited in an attempt to improve the corporation’s reporting of the Middle East and its relationship with the main political players.
Mr Balen, who left the BBC three years ago, will work full-time with the official title of “senior editorial adviser”.
It is the first time the corporation has made such an appointment. Insiders say it is a signal that senior executives feel that the Middle East is an area over which the BBC needs to take particular care.
Relations between the corporation and the Israeli government hit a low point this summer when the latter “withdrew co-operation” in protest at a BBC documentary about the country’s weapons of mass destruction.
Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, later barred the BBC from his meeting with the British press during a visit to London.
The BBC has also been the target of Downing Street accusations that it toed a pro-Baghdad line over the Iraq war and that it influenced the Today programme’s handling of the dossier story that is the subject of the Hutton Inquiry.
A BBC spokesman said: “Malcolm is a hugely experienced senior programme editor whose appointment will help us on our relations with all parties in the region.”
The decision to appoint Mr Balen was taken jointly by Richard Sambrook, the director of BBC News, and Mark Byford, the head of the World Service. The latter’s Arabic Service has been singled out by some critics as the most anti-Israeli source of the corporation’s Middle East output.
The BBC denied that the appointment amounted to an admission that it had “got its coverage wrong” but conceded the corporation was sensitive to criticism. He said it was “no longer the case” that the Israelis were refusing to co-operate with BBC journalists.
An accusation frequently levelled against the corporation is that it reports the Arab-Israeli conflict too much from a Palestinian point of view.
Its reluctance to describe suicide bombers as “terrorists” has proved particularly controversial, recently prompting the Simon Wiesenthal Centre to pull out of a BBC series about Nazi genocide.
The corporation faces increasing scrutiny of all areas of its activities during the run-up to the renewal of its royal charter in 2006.