THE BLOG

What the BBC Got Wrong on Syria Last Week

07/12/2015 09:41 GMT | Updated 05/12/2016 10:12 GMT

The BBC has faced criticism for the way its news programmes covered the run-up to the House of Commons debate last Wednesday night, which led to a vote in favour of the UK joining the bombing campaign against Isis positions in Syria. This weekend's edition of Newswatch, on which I was interviewed, aired complaints from a number of viewers. Disappointingly, no-one from BBC News was available to appear to answer us directly.

The main charge against the BBC is that its coverage focused primarily on party political splits, rather than the issue itself. There was little explanation of the government's proposals, or analysis of the arguments for and against bombing.

Newsnight, the place where in-depth analysis should be most likely to take place, was perhaps the main offender. Introducing Monday's edition, presenter Emily Maitlis announced that political splits had overshadowed the build-up to war. Overshadowed, really? According to whom? In that edition, three figures from the opposition were interviewed about the 'split'. Nobody from the government was interviewed about the war itself.

As interesting as internal party tussles can sometimes be, I don't think many people outside a small number of political obsessives would consider that news outlets should give them higher prominence than a government proposal to send British service personnel into conflict within a matter of days.

One of the key problems with the coverage was that it tended to be led by political correspondents, rather than those specialising in foreign affairs. For Newsnight, this meant Allegra Stratton (Political Editor), who would be quite naturally inclined to focus on what's happening inside political parties, took precedence over Mark Urban (Diplomatic and Defence Editor), who would probably have analysed the military and diplomatic situation more rigorously.

The BBC's approach meant that key aspects of the debate were barely mentioned, if at all. Britain has already been bombing Isis in Iraq - that has been the impact so far? What are the views of our allies on potential British involvement in Syria? Supportive, presumably, but it would have been interesting to see a French or American government representative interviewed to find out precisely what they think. More importantly, what are the implications of bombing Syria for the refugee crisis, which had blanket coverage on the news a few weeks ago but has now disappeared from view almost completely?

There was a change in focus from the BBC immediately before the parliamentary vote. Tuesday's Newsnight and Wednesday's Six O'Clock News both featured debate about the pros and cons of Britain going to war in Syria. This was probably too late. One of the intentions of the BBC's coverage should have been to inform the public, in order that they might become engaged in the democratic process, perhaps by contacting their MP ahead of the debate. By the time the BBC started taking this issue seriously, there was no time left for people to do this.