BBC appoints Middle East tsar

From the archive (legacy material)

Ciar Byrne | The Guardian | 11 November 2003

The BBC has created a new senior editorial post to advise on its Middle East coverage, as the corporation continues to come under fire for alleged anti-Israeli bias.
Malcolm Balen, a former editor of the BBC’s Nine O’Clock News, has been appointed “senior editorial adviser” based in London but working closely with the corporation’s Middle East bureau in Jerusalem.
It is the first time the BBC has made such an appointment and comes at a time when Middle Eastern issues are among the most sensitive news organisations have to deal with.
The decision to create the post was taken by the BBC head of news, Richard Sambrook, and World Service chief Mark Byford, who is in charge of the corporation’s Arabic service.
The BBC’s Middle East coverage proved controversial earlier this year when the Israeli leader, Ariel Sharon, barred the corporation from a press conference during a visit to London, amid accusations that the corporation made false allegations against Israel in a documentary about weapons of mass destruction.
That situation has been resolved but it has been a difficult year for the BBC’s coverage of the region, with Downing Street accusing the corporation of siding too closely with Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi regime during the Gulf war – an allegation the BBC denied.
A BBC spokeswoman denied Balen’s appointment was in recognition of accusations of bias, but admitted the post had been created because of the “sensitive” nature of Middle Eastern affairs.
“We aim that his appointment will help us to build relationships with all parties in the region. It’s obviously a difficult, sensitive area for all broadcasters to work from,” the spokeswoman said.
“Having the dedicated attention of a senior editorial figure will benefit BBC News in reporting the complexities of the situation there. It’s a mark of our continued commitment to reporting from that region,” she added.
Mr Sharon’s office decided this summer to “withdraw co-operation” from the BBC in protest at a documentary, Israel’s Secret Weapon, which examined the lack of international scrutiny of Israel’s weapons programmes compared with that of Iraq.
Danny Seaman, the director of the Israeli government’s press office, who has made similar accusations of anti-Israeli coverage against the Guardian, accused the BBC of equating Israel with Saddam’s Iraq.
The Daily Telegraph also levelled accusations of bias against the corporation in its recent Beebwatch column, in which former editor Charles Moore wrote: “The BBC’s mental assumptions are those of the fairly soft left. That American power is a bad thing, whereas the UN is good, that the Palestinians are in the right and Israel isn’t, that the war in Iraq was wrong, that the European Union is a good thing and that people who criticise it are xenophobic.”
The BBC spokeswoman said Balen was someone with a “huge amount of experience in editing and working in BBC News”.
Balen left the corporation three years ago and joined the London News Network as head of news.
However, he announced he was stepping down from LNN over the summer, ahead of the takeover of the network by ITN.
The BBC was one of a number of news organisations and newspapers that became embroiled in a dispute over press accreditation with Mr Seaman.
In an interview with a Hebrew magazine, the Israeli government head of press claimed that reporters for the BBC, CNN, Reuters, Associated Press, ABC and CBS were all under the direct control of Yasser Arafat’s Palestinian Authority.
The organisations dismissed the charges as false and ridiculous.
Mr Seaman also claimed reporters for the Guardian, the Washington Post and the Toronto Star who had recently transferred from Israel to new postings had been moved at the behest of the Israeli government.
All three papers said there was no truth in his claim.