On April 21, we published a Rapid Response Media Alert: ‘Demonising Iran – BBC Distorts Amnesty International Press Release,’.
Yesterday, we received this response from Steve Herrmann, editor of the BBC News website:
I am writing to confirm that you received the email I sent you on Friday explaining the background to our coverage last week of the Amnesty report on executions.
Assuming you did receive it I find it odd that you have not in any way reflected our explanation on your website, where Friday’s entry on the subject remains the lead item.
As I made clear in my response last week, we covered the Amnesty report in two separate stories last Thursday, and you have selectively mentioned only one of those – a Middle East story which focused on one, regional angle of the story.
Surely you owe it to your readers, many of whom have emailed me for an explanation, to point out that we also published a wider story on the report. The link I sent you last week is here:
‘20,000’ on death row worldwide
This story led with the overall figures worldwide, highlighted the points made in the report specifically about China, which was mentioned prominently, and covered the other main countries cited in the report, including the US. Both our stories carried the principal facts and figures from the Amnesty report about the overall situation, along with quotes and a link to Amnesty’s website.
We highlighted the Middle East in one of the two stories we published on the report because two of the four countries highlighted at the top of the Amnesty report were in the Middle East, and getting well-sourced information on the issue in this region is difficult, so we felt it worth writing a separate story.
Our coverage did not pick out the report’s figure for Iraq (three people executed) because this was not highlighted in the Amnesty press release but we have covered the death penalty in Iraq elsewhere (see links below) and will continue to do so.
First post-Saddam Iraq executions
Iraq hangs 13 for insurgency role
The overview story was on our world and front page on Thursday. The Middle East story was on our Middle East page on the same day. We have subsequently inserted reciprocal links between the two stories to make this as clear to readers as possible.
Your claim that the BBC was seeking to “demonise” Iran by distorting the Amnesty report is demonstrably wrong given our overall coverage of the report as outlined above. The further suggestion on your website that our coverage of the Amnesty report was somehow dictated by MI5 – or MI6 – is simply absurd.
Will you put the record straight by publishing a more informed account of our coverage on this subject based on the facts I have set out to you of what actually happened?
Editor, BBC News website
We sent our response today:
Many thanks for your email. You write:
“I find it odd that you have not in any way reflected our explanation on your website, where Friday’s entry on the subject remains the lead item.”
We find it odd that you are aware of the lead story on our website but not of the fact that we posted your email within 20 minutes of receiving it at 12:51 last Friday. You can still find it on the first page of our message board:
“Response from BBC’s Steve Herrmann
Posted by The Editors on April 21, 2006, 12:51 pm” (http://members5.boardhost.com/Media Lens/msg/1145620294.html)
We note that you take it for granted that your response should appear on our website more or less immediately – would the BBC ever consider publishing one of our Media Alerts on your own site?
“We highlighted the Middle East in one of the two stories we published on the report because two of the four countries highlighted at the top of the Amnesty report were in the Middle East, and getting well-sourced information on the issue in this region is difficult, so we felt it worth writing a separate story.“
But the Amnesty International report reviewed the death penalty situation in detail in China, Saudi Arabia, the US and then Iran, in that order. Why, then, did you choose to alter Amnesty’s focus by devoting the first three sentences of the introduction to your Middle East article to Iran? And why did you emphasise this focus in the accompanying, horrific photograph which shows two youths with nooses being placed around their necks above the words: “Iran is the only country known to have executed juveniles in 2005.”?
Iran was mentioned way down the Amnesty press release in paragraph 11 out of 19, and yet only Iran was singled out for such a graphic photograph.
You say that China was mentioned “prominently” in the second, “overview” article. China is described by Amnesty as responsible for fully 80 per cent of the world’s executions – it was also the first country to be mentioned in detail in the press release. And yet Iran was singled out for special analysis on the Middle East section of your site, whereas executions in China were not even mentioned on the Asia-Pacific section. (We notice that since our alert was published you have added a link from the Asia-Pacific section).
You cite the difficulty of obtaining “well-sourced information” as a further reason for focusing specifically on Iran and Saudi Arabia. However, in its press release Amnesty specifically mentioned the difficulty of obtaining accurate data from China, not Iran or Saudi Arabia:
“Data available to Amnesty International pointed to around 1,770 executions reported as being carried out in China during 2005. However, the real figure is undoubtedly much higher. A Chinese legal expert was recently quoted as stating the true figure for executions at approximately 8,000.” (http://web.amnesty.org/library/Index/ENGACT500092006)
It is interesting to compare your intense focus on Iran this year – on the grounds of a multiple Middle East connection and the difficulty of getting well-sourced information – with earlier BBC reporting.
Last year‘s coverage of Amnesty’s report on executions included detailed analysis of China and the United States. Iran was mentioned once in passing: “Iran came second, with at least 159, followed by Vietnam with at least 64.” (‘Death penalty “at record levels“,’ April 4, 2005; http://news.bbc.co.uk/go/pr/fr/-/1/hi/world/americas/4409857.stm)
The photograph did show a man being flogged above the words: “In Iran, the death penalty sometimes comes after a flogging.”
This was a couple of months after a Financial Times editorial had noted:
“The background noise about Iran is getting ominous – and has an eerie resemblance to the noises off that grew in volume throughout 2002 as the [Bush] administration … prepared to invade Iraq …“ (Leader, ‘To make headway the EU and US must stand together,’ Financial Times, January 28, 2005)
Before the emergence of this ominous “background noise”, the BBC showed little interest in Iran in its coverage of reports on worldwide executions. A November 2002 report, for example, focused heavily on China. Iran was mentioned once in paragraph 16 of a 19-paragraph piece:
“Next to China, Iran had the second-highest tally of executions in 2001, putting to death at least 139 people, Amnesty said.” (’Execution denounced in world protest,’ November 30, 2002; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/2529793.stm)
And yet the figure of 139 deaths was 50 per cent higher than this year’s toll of 94 – a figure subject to intense and graphic coverage by the BBC.
Another report in 2002, ‘World executions double in a year,’ also mentioned Iran in passing: “The figures for China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the US accounted for 90% of all known executions in 2001.”
The final paragraph of the article noted: “Amnesty recorded 139 executions in Iran last year, up from 75 in 2000.” (April 10, 2002; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/asia-pacific/1920266.stm)
The photograph with this report showed Chinese soldiers with a prisoner above the words: “China leads the world in its use of the death penalty.” This seems reasonable, given, as the report noted, “China’s total use of the death penalty in 2,468 cases was more than all the other countries combined.”
In June 2001, a report, ‘Death penalty worldwide,’ focused heavily on the United States, and observed:
“China, Saudi Arabia, the United States and Iran are the chief countries using the death penalty. Together they account for at least 88% of all known executions.” (June 11, 2001; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/1383018.stm)
China, Saudi Arabia, the US and Japan were singled out for special mention, but not Iran. And yet this table was shown:
Saudi Arabia: 123
United States: 85
This is close to the latest figure for Iran, there are two Middle Eastern countries in the list, information was equally hard to access – and yet Iran was mentioned only in passing.
An April 2000 BBC report commented of Amnesty: “The human rights group says the total number [of executions] fell compared with 1998, when it was just over 2,200, but the United States, Iran and Saudi Arabia all recorded big increases.” (‘Executions decline in 1999,’ April 18, 2000; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/717805.stm)
This chart was shown:
The death penalty in 1999
1,800 executions worldwide
China: more than 1,000
Saudi Arabia: 103
There was detailed focus on the United States, China, Saudi Arabia and others – but, again, not on Iran. And yet Iran’s death toll was close to double the latest figure of 94 killed.
Photographs illustrating the piece came with these self-explanatory captions:
“A public execution filmed in Saudi Arabia in 1996.”
“The electric chair as used in Florida in the US.”
“Axel Bartolome clutches a Bible as he is lead to execution in the Philippines in January.”
Again, no special focus on Iran.
A June 1999 article reported Amnesty‘s findings:
“But executions were carried out in at least 12 countries, and several hundred people remained under sentence of death, including in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Yemen.” (’Amnesty urges end to death penalty,’ June 16, 1999; http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/371100.stm)
A large number of countries were mentioned – Iran was mentioned just this once.
The illustrating photograph showed a “Death chamber in the Philippines – one of Amnesty’s targets.” Again, no special focus on Iran.
BBC reporting on Iranian executions from 1999-2004 appears to have been pretty much what we would expect. Iran does have a hideous record on executions, but China’s record is far worse and the United States and Saudi Arabia are major British allies with close business and military ties – factors that clearly justify greater prominence in reporting.
Is it really a coincidence that just as Bush and Blair launched their propaganda campaign against Iran – beginning late 2004 and becoming near-hysterical in recent months – the BBC has, for the first time, put Iran’s record of killing front and centre in its reporting of worldwide executions? Earlier BBC reports, and earlier BBC demonising of Afghanistan and Iraq, suggest otherwise – you are once again toeing the propaganda line.
Finally, it is remarkable that you posted an article in the Middle East section without any links to your “overview“ report in the World section. A spokesperson at Amnesty International searched the BBC website last Friday and, like us and many other people, found the Middle East article but not this “overview” report. Having found it, he commented on your coverage:
“It seems strange – to say the least – that they emphasise Iran and not China.” (Email forwarded to Media Lens, April 22, 2006)
David Edwards and David Cromwell
The goal of Media Lens is to promote rationality, compassion and respect for others. When writing emails to journalists, we strongly urge readers to maintain a polite, non-aggressive and non-abusive tone.
Write to Steve Herrmann, the BBC’s online editor:
Email: [email protected]
Helen Boaden, the BBC’s director of news:
Email: [email protected]