BBC bias? Reporting on Israel and the Palestinians

When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, both lobbies claim that the Corporation is 'on the other side'. Is there any truth in it?

For an uninformed observer, the most striking aspect of the longstanding debate about BBC coverage of Israel and the Palestinians is that both ‘sides’ – supporters of Israel and supporters of the Palestinians – argue that the broadcaster tends to favour the other side.

Pro-Palestinians cite instances where the BBC has, for example, failed to mention the crippling blockade of Gaza, seen as a vital context for the recent violence in November 2012 which left more than 150 Palestinians and 5 Israelis dead and claim that coverage of the civilian casualties in Gaza and the longer history of the situation is woefully lacking. They discuss the findings of the 2006 Thomas report, which noted the “asymmetry of power between the two sides” and stated that “given this asymmetry, the BBC’s concern with balance gave an impression of equality between the two sides which was fundamentally, if unintentionally, misleading”. Meanwhile, supporters of Israel say, conversely, that the BBC over-emphasises the suffering of Gaza’s population and neglects to highlight the cause of the Israeli civilians in reach of rocket attacks from Gaza. They maintain that the 2004 Balen report - never released publicly by the BBC, would uphold their concerns, but has been suppressed. Both sides can’t be right, surely? 

Many media analyses that emerge from both camps focus on a single online article, radio broadcast, or TV report that is picked apart and held up as an instance of chronic bias. This will always be possible whichever perspective one approaches the news from, because journalists are human beings and journalism is not an exact science. And there is a great deal of truth in the assertion that to some extent one’s critique will depend on how the conflict is viewed, as will the relative credibility one lends to evidence as a case against the BBC is built from either side.

However, the mere fact that supporters of both sides find much to complain about does not mean we can conclude that the coverage is probably therefore fair, accurate, ‘good’ journalism. To suggest this is to take an easy way out of what can seem like an interminable and tedious debate and yet it is one that many commentators who consider themselves ‘sensible centrists’ – and indeed one suspects the BBC itself – have come to. In fact the complaints about coverage emanating from both sides are indicative only of the existence of utterly polarised explanations for the situation. While on a micro-level, technical flaws or semantic connotations in BBC reports seized upon by opposing sides may both be valid, there is no way that the overarching narratives posited by each side can both be right. They are mutually exclusive accounts of history and present day reality that could only co-exist in parallel universes. 

Again, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the truth must lie somewhere in between. If the quality of journalism rests on the extent to which it reflects reality, not whether it keeps one side or the other satisfied, it becomes clear that what is happening is a contestation of ‘the truth’. But there is an objective reality consisting of material facts that can’t be disputed, even though many can and do try to cast doubt on causality, intentions, history and even the authenticity of photographic and video evidence. What vary are judgements about the relative importance of different facts and the emphases placed on them – the framing of the facts. Crucially, both sides realise that the news is, ultimately, a story and that the stories told by the BBC can be influenced by public pressure.

Language

One immediately obvious area in which bias can be exhibited is in the choice of language. The BBC is acutely aware of this and in 2010, on the recommendation of the BBC Governors' independent panel, made public an abbreviated version of its ‘ ‘journalists' guide to facts and terminology’. It was a welcome attempt at transparency, but is not without its definitional flaws, and more worryingly, has broadly not been heeded by the journalists.

It notes, for example, that the phrase "targeted killing" should be attributed to the Israeli sources who use it; a sensible step if a little late given that as early as 2004 the BBC acknowledged that this nomenclature was essentially a euphemism for ‘execution without trial’. However, this is not happening. One, two, three times, in the space of a week during the recent bombing, the BBC used the phrase uncritically even when it was not quoting an Israeli source directly. Similarly, although the BBC’s guide rightly acknowledges that clichés like “cycle of violence” do nothing “to explain any of the underlying causes of the conflict and may indeed obscure them”, BBC journalists still employed this meaningless platitude during ‘Operation Pillar of Cloud’.

From the other side, some advocates of Israel dislike the phrase ‘right of return’, a term included in the BBC guide. For instance, The Israel Project’s 2009 Global Language Dictionary, targeted at an audience seeking to advocate for Israel in the United States, rejects the term completely, saying “we cannot accept this phrase. We cannot allow it enter the opinion leader lexicon. Whenever “right of return” is raised, we must immediately respond with “No, you are talking about the right of confiscation. This is not about returning, it is about taking away and we will not accept it.” Nothing less will do.” Even though the right of return is enshrined in international law, the BBC’s guide seems to give some credence to this Israeli perspective, offering the following definition: “There is a Palestinian demand that Palestinians "who fled or were forced out of their homes" during the 1948 and 1967 Arab-Israeli wars have the right to return to their homes. There is a dispute between the two sides over why they are refugees, so the previous phrase is a useful one that reflects the two different views” [my italics]. Note that as well as a willingness to keep alive two different versions of history, the BBC characterises the wish to return not as a ‘right’ but as a ‘demand’. Of this, The Israel Project’s language dictionary explicitly approves, recommending it as the first of several rules under “effective right of return language”: “Call it a “demand.” Americans don’t like it when either side makes “demands” on the other. It sounds too strident and uncompromising.” (p77) 

Facts and structure 

There have been many claims and counter-claims that the BBC makes factually inaccurate or misleading statements about the Israel-Palestinian conflict. It recently admitted that it had failed to report accurately on the motivations of protestors involved in a pro-Palestinian demonstration, portraying it in the successful complainants’ eyes, as anti-Semitic. From the other side, BBC Watch, a recently established UK sister project of the US-based pro-Israel lobby group CAMERA (Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America) has suggested that the BBC itself is responsible for subtle anti-Semitic messaging by implying that because Israel opposed the Palestinian statehood bid the USA ‘therefore’ inevitably did as well – as assertion BBC Watch says “sails very close to the age-old wind of stereotypical antisemitic motifs of Jewish power and control over governments”.

But there have been undeniable inaccuracies on both sides. CAABU (the Council for the Advancement of Arab British Understanding) complained to the BBC about an account of the conflict on the children’s’ news programme Newsround designed, ironically, to outline the basics but littered with fundamental errors. Meanwhile, pro-Israel group StandWithUs circulated an image on Twitter that demanded the BBC fire its correspondent Jon Donnison after he retweeted an image of child casualties that apparently turned out to be from Syria, not Gaza. Their tagline ‘No excuse for broadcasting lies’ rather misleadingly conflated his broadcast reports with his twitter feed but it was nonetheless a credibility-damaging mistake. Interestingly and importantly he was swiftly reprimanded for this mistake by the Israeli government press office who threatened to revoke his press card.

Evidently, the more systematic a study, the more reliably we can make inferences about general tendencies. An analysis of the frequency with which violence emanating from each side made the ‘BBCBreakingNews’ twitter feed in one week provides a good example of an attempt to gauge a bigger picture rather than honing on in details. But the most scholarly and extensive systematic studies remain those carried out by The Glasgow Media Group's Greg Philo and Mike Berry. As Medialens points out, they found in 2001 that Israelis “were six times as likely to be presented as “retaliating” or in some way responding than were the Palestinians”. The 2009 follow-up book 'More Bad News From Israel' sadly found that the patterns the pair had quantified eight years before had persisted – there is little material to suggest that a new appendix analysing coverage of the 2012 assault would buck the trend. 

‘Middle East experts’ 

Propaganda is most effective when it is unseen. When the BBC interviews Israel’s ambassador to the UN Ron Prosor, Israel’s deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon or Israeli government spokesperson Mark Regev, even if it hardly challenges their on-message sound-bites, and even if it does not give airtime to as many pro-Palestinian voices – all damning but well documented - at least the audience know they are getting an Israeli perspective. But – as the BBC’s own guide notes - the notion of a ’Middle East expert’ is problematic as “some "experts" may have a history of sympathising with one cause or another even if they have no overt affiliation”. Therefore, journalists and editors are advised “where time and space allow, to provide a lengthier indication of the contributor's views on past issues so that the audience might calibrate his or her statements for themselves”.

This is one area in which the BBC failed abysmally in the recent violence and has a poor history throughout its reporting of the conflict and indeed its reporting in general. Two glaring examples of pro-Israel bias emerged during the recent violence alone. Pro-Israel commentators have every right to offer their interpretation but when they are presented as neutral experts by the BBC and no alternative perspective is offered, the BBC appears either incompetent or shamefully one-sided. One such case was Jonathan Sacerdoti of the innocuously named ‘Institute for Middle East Democracy’ who had appeared on the BBC just two years ago as Director of Public Affairs for the Zionist Federation but popped up four times at the start of the recent bombing as if he was an objective expert. Unsurprisingly, his appearance was praised by those who believe Israel can do no wrong, notably Melanie Phillips, who described his unchallenged platform as one of very few “oases of decency” in the “desert of moral bankruptcy” she calls the BBC.

Similarly Raheem Kassam, who BBC News presenter Clive Myrie not only failed to challenge but couldn’t have agreed with more (“you make a good point”…”sure”… “as you say”) was labelled only as being “from the Henry Jackson Society”. No mention of the fact that HJS is a right-wing British think tank that promotes a neoconservative worldview, let alone that when its pro-Israel media monitoring project Just Journalism folded, several of its key staff members were absorbed into the HJS further reinforcing its pro-Israel stance, and certainly no hint that Kassam has an unblemished record of being pro-Israel. Subsequently Kassam crowed in the Times of Israel  and the Jewish Chronicle that he had been allowed “the pleasure of stating, live on air, that I was in Israel’s capital when I was in Jerusalem. Previously, they might have bleeped that out.” His self-satisfaction stems from the knowledge that this was indeed a piece of misinformation that he has been able to slip past the BBC counter to its own policy which states that – in line with international law – “the BBC should say East Jerusalem is "occupied" if it is relevant to the context of the story”. But the BBC has been spineless on this issue already this year, caving to pressure over its listing of Jerusalem as Israel’s ‘capital’ during the Olympics.

The BBC has a history of presenting pro-Israel hawks as neutral, as in the case of Dennis Ross. And uncritical use of not-so-neutral ‘experts’ occurs in other areas of reporting too, as openDemocracy documented in the case of the think tank Reform and Nick Seddon, whose views on the NHS bill were reported uncritically despite his links to Circle, a company seeking to capitalise on NHS privatisation.

Lobbying

It is interesting to note that in defending itself against allegations of bias, the BBC itself points to the existence of lobby groups, for example in its response to an article by former Middle East correspondent Tim Llewellyn. It says: “In a highly charged political atmosphere any impartial and accountable broadcaster will rightly find itself under scrutiny by all shades of opinion. In the Middle East debate there are organised, motivated and effective lobby groups on both sides of the argument. We listen to their concerns and act on them where we think they are justified, but in doing so we bear in mind that our audiences expect us to remain independent of political pressure.” The influence of these lobby groups is hard to measure with certainly but the BBC clearly feels it is under pressure.

The main activity of these groups when it comes to the media is to co-ordinate supporters to engage in that most British activity – complaining. According to a source at the BBC, between 16th November and 21st November, 912 complaints were received about alleged pro-Israeli bias, while 390 people complained about perceived pro-Palestinian bias. Meanwhile there were 316 complaints that the BBC failed to provide sufficient coverage of Palestinian victims of Israeli airstrikes compared to 198 complaints that the BBC's coverage of Israeli airstrikes on Gaza failed to mention recent rocket attacks into Israel (though it’s not known how many separate news items these complaints relate to.) What do these figures tell us? Exasperatingly even figures like these will be interpreted differently. Pro-Palestinians will say they demonstrate that they had a lot more to complain about and that – perhaps for the first time – they have effectively registered a louder voice than pro-Israel complainants. The latter will say it shows the power of the pro-Palestinian lobby and explains what they see as anti-Israel bias.

Whilst media activism by pro-Palestinians does seem to be on the rise, evidence of pressure exerted by pro-Israel groups and individuals is more compelling. Attacks on individual BBC correspondents like the StandWithUs campaign against Jon Donnison, have been orchestrated for years. Complaints about Jeremy Bowen have come from Just Journalism and the Zionist Federation, who were rewarded when the BBC Trust upheld a complaint in 2009. But pro-Palestinians have also pursued individuals in the media, such as Ali Abunimah’s arguably much more successful criticism of the US Guardian’s Joshua Trevino. If these are the ‘stick’ end of the wedge, the ‘carrot’ activities are often more effective. And pro-Israel groups such as BICOM (Britain Israel Communication and Research Centre), funded in large part by billionaire Poju Zabludowicz, appear to have far greater resources at their disposal than the equivalent pro-Palestinian groups. Last year a hint of BICOM’s behind-the-scenes activities emerged when an email intended for donors was sent to the media in error, describing how BICOM staff had been in contact with BBC and Sky personnel ensuring the “most objectively favourable line” was taken. If “objectively favourable” sounds somewhat paradoxical, that’s probably because it is. They also boasted about having “one of BBC News’ key anchors”, Sophie Long, on a bespoke delegation.

Why do groups bother to complain to the BBC?  Arguably, it is not so much about any given mistake made in the past as it is about influencing the slant of future coverage by making journalists and editors aware of being scrutinised. A senior editor from a major BBC news programme revealed to Greg Philo and Mike Berry that they were indeed excruciatingly conscious of their vocal critics. After any report in which Israel could be construed in a negative light the editor said: “we wait in fear for the phone call from the Israelis”, which might have to be handled by a duty editor or could be escalated to the director general - and could come from a pressure group or from the Israeli embassy itself. It is worth remembering that pro-Israel attempts to influence and discipline the media have come from the very top. The Israeli government has been accused of targeting media buildings during the latest assault, and in the 2008-9 bombing it prevented the media from reporting from Gaza at all. As Avi Shlaim notes in ‘rhetoric and reality’, Israel’s establishment, in April 2008, of a National Information Directorate, proved “remarkably successful”, communicating its preferred key messages during ‘Cast Lead’ without journalists having any opportunity to independently verify them. At one stage in 2003 the Israeli government even “boycotted” the BBC (in the company of Zimbabwe) after deciding to “reduce co-operation” because it claimed to feel it had been unfairly treated – the immediate trigger being the screening of a programme called ‘Israel’s Secret Weapon’ which discussed the country’s nuclear capabilities.

So who’s right?

The debate over BBC coverage of the Middle East is almost as steeped in history and bitterness as the conflict itself. Even advocates of the same side sometime can’t agree. Raheem Kassam (perhaps based on his own appearance) claimed that “the BBC has been impressively balanced this week”, whereas only three days before the Rev. Peter Mullen - a patron of the group Anglicans Friends of Israel - likened the BBC to an “ideological pressure group” in the Telegraph. Mullen’s critique exemplifies the more extreme and ridiculous end of the spectrum of complaints, in particular his assertion that the BBC “loves to announce the casualty figures” because they “invariably show that Palestinians have suffered many more deaths and injuries than the Israelis”. It is not clear if he would he prefer the casualty figures to be omitted because they reflect badly on Israel but this seems to be the logical (or illogical) conclusion to his point.

Pro-Israel advocates have highlighted genuinely bizarre continuity issues, such as one BBC report in which an apparently injured man is seen being carried by others and is later seen walking around. They confidently and quickly conclude he must have been acting for the benefit of the camera and label it an example of what they call ‘Pallywood’ - without considering the more likely possibility that footage in the report has been edited non-chronologically. Such claims hark back to even more absurd assertions such as that made, for instance, by the Israeli border police who denied the authenticity of a video featuring a 5-year-old Palestinian boy crying as his father is arrested that went viral globally, which they dismissed, saying the child had been “well instructed and directed”. Most famously, footage of Mohammed al-Durah’s death has for years been labelled a hoax.

The fact that such accusations fly back and forth indicates not only a lack of trust in the media, including the BBC, but also a paranoid and cynical mentality verging on the heartless in which the possibility of the humanity and suffering of the other side simply cannot be countenanced and is rejected outright. Claims of absolutes on either side – caricaturing the BBC as a pro-Palestinian ‘ideological pressure group’ as Mullen does, for example – are almost always more tactical than sincere or accurate. The BBC is neither totally biased for Israel nor completely partial to the Palestinians. Each report varies and there will be differences in the online, radio and TV mediums depending on which journalists and editors hands they pass through. Individual reporters can upset both sides at different times. Jane Corbin for example was behind both ‘Death in the Med’ which sparked outrage for “portraying the activists on board [the Mavi Marmara flotilla] as violent terrorists” as the Palestine Solidarity Campaign put it and also ‘Price Tag Wars’ which highlighted violent extremist Israeli settlers in the West Bank and was criticised by supporters of Israel.

What is clear is that there is an internal power struggle going on. The unprecedented and inexplicable refusal by the BBC to broadcast the Disaster Emergency Committee appeal following the devastation reeked in Gaza in 2008-9 – sparking protests by the public and rank and file BBC staff – will only ever be comprehensible if it one day becomes clear who discussed what with whom behind the scenes. And to my mind, the politicisation of such a humanitarian appeal is perhaps the most damning evidence, along with material suggesting a general trend of pro-Israel bias in overall BBC coverage (see Philo and Berry of Media lens).

As Al-Jazeera’s Sherine Tadros notes, “the imbalance of the situation itself is what makes it so hard for journalists to produce 'balanced' coverage” about Israel and the Palestinians. What usually happens, she writes, is that journalists over-compensate, buying into tropes that suggest the oppressor is the victim, “emphasizing things they would normally not emphasize in the interest of looking balanced.” This desire to appear ‘professional’ on the part of journalists is a powerful motivator. Tadros of course exaggerates when she says that to “show empathy with the Palestinians would be career suicide”, yet there is indeed considerable risk attached. The Thomas Report echoes Tadros’s view when it recommends that the BBC “should make purposive, and not merely reactive, efforts to explain the complexities of the conflict in the round, including the marked disparity between the position of the two sides”. Jon Donnison makes one attempt to do this in a video report here pointing out that “the damage inflicted is not on the same scale”. But such contextualising of the relative harm done by each side, however truthful, is significantly unwelcome from the point of view of Israel’s supporters and could be another reason why Donnison has been targeted by advocacy groups and the government press office.

A battle of ideas

Israel advocacy groups  – and Palestinians ones - increasingly depict the conflict as a battle of ideas. Although Israel has clear military pre-eminence, the BDS movement has sought to mobilise global civil society against Israel’s violations of international law and because it is becoming effective and widespread is perceived as a threat. Israel’s ‘new battlefield’ is ‘delegitimisation’ and the UK is seen as a key site of contestation. The media is of course a key arena for this battle of narratives and the BBC is clearly of great importance globally, not solely in the UK. The BBC should mediate fairly between the different voices but is not doing very well. While it stops short of inverting reality in the vein of Fox News, there is much material to suggest that the BBC obscures and disguises it in subtle ways that protect Israel from much of the harsh criticism it deserves. And it matters a lot. Pressure from below in the West has been a key missing element in the search for a just peace so far. As Chomsky and others, in an important article entitled ‘Nous accusons’ wrote, “the lack of widespread public outrage at [Israel’s] crimes is a direct consequence of the systematic way in which the facts are withheld and/or of the skewed way these crimes are portrayed.”

The BBC wants to regain the public’s trust after the Jimmy Savile scandal and subsequent departure of the Director General. But it should be more concerned also with its responsibility to tell the truth; even if it will find itself in the bad books of those who seek to maintain the status quo; even if it’s long and complicated to explain and will provoke more flak; even if it is something of an uncomfortable truth given the UK’s longstanding alliance with Israel. The BBC is not the only – or even the worst – case of partial reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but it is one of the most influential. Though the pro-Palestinian lobby has become more organised of late - and is currently pushing for an inquiry in to pro-Israel bias - it is fighting an uphill battle. The BBC is inherently conservative and, more to the point, anxiety about being accused of ‘anti-Israeli’ bias seems to have been firmly instilled in at least the higher echelons of command. As the courageous Israeli journalist Amira Hass put it, Israeli "propaganda" scored yet another "victory" during the latest attack on Gaza, with Western leaders agreeing that it was “exercising its right to self defence” and the BBC parroted this line almost without question.

About the author

Hilary Aked is a freelance writer and researcher, qualified journalist and doctoral candidate at the University of Bath. She had worked in the Occupied Territories and is researching the pro-Israel lobby in the UK.