The BBC is offering extra support to staff who are facing abuse and attacks over the corporation’s Israel-Hamas coverage.
Some staff have reported being targeted online or verbally attacked for working for the BBC, while also dealing with distressing footage from the conflict.
BBC News chief operating officer Sam Taylor told staff in an email: “I know from my experience working on upsetting, running news stories over the years that you can be doing fine, but sometimes that can change, and you need a bit more help or to talk things through. So, in addition to the staff sessions and resources already available, our safety and mental health specialists are offering more targeted support where needed.”
“Sadly the current situation has meant that some people are experiencing abuse, either online or in person,” said Taylor, along with the “trauma caused by viewing specific images, working closely with distressed individuals, or undertaking assignments on the ground”.
Tensions have been heightened for BBC staff after a number of incidents, initially over the corporation’s editorial policy of not using the word terrorist to describe Hamas, saying instead that it is “proscribed as a terrorist organisation by the UK and other governments”.
Then, last Saturday, the BBC’s central London headquarters was sprayed with red paint by a pro-Palestinian protest group, which accused the broadcaster of having “blood on its hands” over its Israel-Hamas coverage.
One BBC insider said “it is proving really stressful” facing the additional “rage” at the BBC’s coverage, as “it’s stressful enough reporting on the [conflict] because … it’s appalling”.
Last week, the Israeli government accused the BBC of perpetuating a “modern blood libel” over the reporting of the explosion at Gaza’s al-Ahli Arab hospital in Gaza on Tuesday evening.
Immediately after the incident, a BBC reporter said there was a lack of clarity but suggested that Israel might be at fault. The Israeli government claimed that the initial take by the BBC and other media organisations further destabilised the region and led to the cancellation of a summit in Amman between the US president Joe Biden and Egyptian and Palestinian leaders. On the Today programme on Radio 4 on Thursday, security minister Tom Tugendhat said that while the BBC is “incredibly important not just here in the UK but around the world … to see a BBC reporter say that the Israeli military have said they are investigating but it’s hard to see what else this could be other an Israeli air strike … at a time when it was uncertain is really serious”.
The Today presenter and former BBC political editor Nick Robinson responded citing comments from BBC international editor Jeremy Bowen. He said: “Jeremy was on this programme pointing out that viewers of the 10 o’clock news and people across our footage were left in no doubt that there was no clarity about who’d carried it out. I think you’re talking about a broadcast that was in the immediate aftermath of the explosion.”
Robinson, who has faced intimidation himself (in 2014 he was given a bodyguard after 4,000 people marched on BBC Scotland to demand his resignation), discussed the issue on the Today Podcast and told the Observer it was important to understand why some audiences were angry.
“We’ve got to recognise that people are feeling not just hurt … but fear for themselves and the people they love. Of course they feel passionate about anything or anybody they don’t think is entirely on their side. It would be odd if they didn’t and we’ve got to allow for that and allow people to express that, and listen.”
The BBC subsequently said the reporter “was wrong to speculate” and on Thursday night at a Media Society event, the director of journalism and BBC News deputy CEO Jonathan Munro acknowledged that “language is critical” and “that on one report about the hospital … that language wasn’t quite right.
“The impression is left that we were speculating [and] it’s important to correct that, which we’ve done … it’s a lesson for all of us. We’re running live coverage literally around the clock in radio, television and online. We’re covering this in 43 different languages – somewhere along the line human beings are going to make a mistake.”
The National Union of Journalists’ ethics council chair Chris Frost said: “We want to support journalists who are trying to ensure they are reporting fairly and presenting both sides. The BBC is quite rightly trying to avoid taking sides.”